This is the essay I wrote for Karen Krogh’s excellent photographic portrayal of the year following the shooting (ten years ago today). Her photos, along with this and two other essays, all very different but each powerful and compelling in their own right, comprise the book “Love is the Spirit.”
I suppose it’s fitting, given the format of this book, that one of the ways I think about the shooting is how it has altered the lens through which I view the world.
Everyone has markers in their lives; some are planned, anticipated, celebrated, preserved in photographs and videos: births, weddings, graduations, retirements, and so on. Some are unanticipated and may be more indelibly etched into memory as a result.
For me, July 27, 2008 falls into the second category. Because of those few minutes I have a clearer understanding of the word chaos and a different sense of the word sanctuary than I did on July 26th. The memories seldom arise unbidden and overwhelming any more, but they’re still there. The woman sitting right in front of me, her white blouse spotted with red after the second blast. The gunman and someone, I’m not sure who, wrestling for control of the shotgun. Brian at the center of a circle of people out on the lawn. A man with his arm in a sling being hustled along the sidewalk to a police car, officers on both sides of him. The crowded fellowship hall, the detective’s voice nothing but a burst of static, Jenny’s eyes meeting mine for just a moment as she walked by. There are more, but you get the point.
There are also other memories, from the days and weeks immediately following. The church so full the next Sunday that I couldn’t get into the sanctuary, or even into the fellowship hall. The outpouring of love, both from those who knew us and those who had never heard of TVUUC until that Sunday morning. The creation of a web of support and healing that came, it seemed, from everywhere and lifted us up and held us together, erasing those artificial lines that separate one faith tradition from another. The group I joined that allowed those of us gathered in the room to experience a glimpse into the depth and richness of one another’s experience. The fact that what drew us together was an attack on the church and all it stood for did nothing to lessen the beauty of that sharing, though that beauty is clearer in retrospect.
I see the world now through the lens of someone who has, as they say, been there. Those in power and on the media make statements about this issue and I find myself shaking my head, thinking, you really have no idea, do you? The Sandy Hook parents or the Parkland students speak, and I’m nodding. These days, fewer things are worth commenting on and more things bring tears to my eyes. I put in my hearing aids every morning and they remind me of how many ways that day damaged me, and how the easiest damage to repair is taken care of by a couple of little computers resting behind my ears.
My professional life was spent largely in adolescent treatment centers, working in what most would consider difficult environments. I believe the most important thing I did in those tense and sometimes dangerous situations that frequently arose was to say as clearly as I could, in whatever way fit the moment best, “This is where I stand. This is what is important. Tomorrow I will be standing right here, in the same place. You can count on that, and on me.”
Which is how I feel about TVUUC, why I formally joined this community not long after that horrible day, and why I keep coming back through these same doors. It’s the “Love is the Spirit of This Church” banner that went up immediately after the shooting, the recitation accompanying the chalice lighting every Sunday that expands on that theme, the Share the Plate program, and the FISH food distribution program. It’s Small Group Ministry, Family Promise, the RE program, the practice of connecting with other faith groups in the local community and beyond, and all the other things that go on in this church (certainly more than I’m aware of or could easily list). It’s the knowledge that what this church does is say very clearly, in so many different and meaningful ways, “This is where we stand. This is what is important. Tomorrow we will be standing right here, in the same place. You can count on that, and on us.”
This is where we stand.
If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of Karen’s book, check with Union Avenue Books in Knoxville. You’ll probably have to get on a list.