By Annette S. Marquis, District Executive, Thomas Jefferson District, Unitarian Universalist Association
As Unitarian Universalists (UUs), we often struggle with articulating our faith. When people ask us what Unitarian Universalism is, we have been known to prattle on so much that a glazed look comes over our questioner’s face as they move on to other topics as quickly as they can. But since July 27, 2008, being clear about who we are as UUs has never been easier for me. That’s the day when our faith was put to a test in unimaginable ways. That’s the day when two 21st century UUs were martyred for this faith.
On the first anniversary of the tragic shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, I am reminded of how fragile life is and, at the same time, how resilient we are. This resilience doesn’t come to most UUs from a belief in a supernatural deity but instead through a set of shared values that transcend our own individual lives. Some of these transcendent values, expressed in words such as justice, equity, compassion, peace, love, and hope, are etched in stone at the top of TVUUC’s building, and they greet every guest who comes to experience the TVUUC community first-hand. These shared values live in our hearts and guide us in our daily lives. A chaplain at the hospital where the shooting victims were taken was astounded that the waiting room was not in chaos as would be typical in other similar events he had witnessed over the years. This chaplain couldn’t get over how peaceful and loving all the people were who were patiently waiting for information about the victims.
The Knoxville Fire Department captain who responded to the shooting said in a article in the Knoxville News Sentinel (“Heroes and Humanity,” Sunday, July 27, 2009) that “What shocked him wasn’t the carnage or the cries of the wounded—was what he didn’t see or hear that lingers in his mind. ‘I didn’t hear anyone say anything bad about the gunman,’” recalled Captain Mike Pickett. “That was kind of surprising to me, even in a church.” Pickett also said he was “surprised at how orderly and controlled the congregation was as they cared for the wounded.” The News-Sentinel article goes on to note, “Pickett says he believe the Unitarian’s church’s spiritual commitments made a big difference in how the congregation responded. ‘Sometimes in this job you get burned out because people don’t care, and for me it made a big difference to see people who did care,’” Pickett said.
Although we might not always be able to talk about our Unitarian Universalist faith in clear and coherent ways, these stories show that we live our faith through our responses to life’s most difficult challenges.
When guests arrive at TVUUC for Sunday services on any Sunday, they are first greeted in the parking lot by members of the congregation. These greeters welcome the visitors to TVUUC and offer assistance if they need help entering the building. But these greeters, members of TVUUC’s security team, have another purpose too: each one is trained to be vigilant, to watch for anyone or anything suspicious that might pose a threat to the congregation. They serve as the first line of defense in a congregation that remains committed to welcoming all who come with a peaceful purpose in mind.
Upon entering the building, guests are greeted again at the door and encouraged to stop at the rainbow-decorated Welcome table. At this table, they can learn about TVUUC, pick up various information pamphlets, find out about upcoming events, sign a guest register, and get a name tag. Guests are then directed down the hallway, where they pass the rotating community art display, and into the sanctuary. The sanctuary has changed in a couple noticeable ways since the shooting. The center pews, including those damaged in the shooting, have been replaced with attractive chairs (pews still line the risers on both sides of the sanctuary) and the grand piano can now be moved around the sanctuary rather than being confined to the back. These changes create a warmer and more comfortable feel and allow for more flexible use of the sanctuary space.
On the Saturday before the July 26th 1st anniversary service, for example, the chairs were removed and a sanctuary-sized labyrinth was placed on the floor. TVUUC members and friends had a chance to walk the labyrinth as yet another way to reclaim the sanctuary as a place of peace.
Other security changes at TVUUC include an enhanced alarm system and doors that lock and unlock automatically on a schedule. After the shooting, some members feared that the building would become a place with armed security and rigid, cold security procedures. But all in all, the changes are subtle and unobtrusive. Members I talked with reported feeling safe in the building and were pleased that the security improvements did not change the open and welcoming feel of the congregation they love so much.
Although the shooting happened at TVUUC, the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Faragut, TN, was also seriously impacted, as one of those killed, Linda Lee Kraeger, and four of those injured, Joe and Betty Barnhart, their daughter Linda Chavez, and Joe’s brother, Jack Barnhart, were members of the Westside congregation. As a significantly smaller congregation, Westside has been primarily devoted to providing care and assistance to the affected families. According to their minister, Rev. Mitra Jafarzadeh, they have demonstrated what it means to care for those in their own congregations and, at the same time, they have welcomed the growing number of people who have wanted to become a part of such a caring community.
I am convinced that this history will not be limited to a memory of the shooting but will be filled with stories of how the congregations responded to it. The stories of survival, recovery, resilience, caring, and gratitude are woven into the DNA of these congregations as much as this tragedy is now an indelible part of these congregations’ history. The banner outside of TVUUC today is a clear indicator of their enormous spirit. Quoting Meister Eckhart it says, “If the only prayer you ever utter is thank you, that will be sufficient.”
As I reflect on these impressions of UUs from people outside the faith and from members and friends of TVUUC and Westside, I offer one answer to the question of what Unitarian Universalism is for me. Unitarian Universalism is a hopeful faith focused on the here and now that fills us with unconditional compassion and love to accept all people as they are and encourages us to seek peace and justice in all things. This answer might not work for you, but I’m confident that, by reflecting on the Knoxville experience, you will find an answer that describes your Unitarian Universalist faith.