This has been a hectic week in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) community. Since the horrendous shooting that marred our church last week, we have been blessed with the support of so many people from around the world.
Prayers and statements of support have come from congregations across East Tennessee, with some other churches holding services in support of us. Nearby synagogues, Temple Beth El and Heska Amuna provided food for our vigil last Monday at Second Presbyterian Church. From churches across the theological spectrum, from the conservative Church of Christ and Southern Baptist Church to the more liberal congregations in the area, the support has been universal. As Reverend Buice reminded us today, "We are all Presbyterians, and Baptists, and Jews, and Muslims, and pagans, and Buddhists, and liberals and conservatives, gay and straight, black and white." The Knoxville community has responded as one.
Today, after a rededication service at TVUUC in the morning, the new Maryville UU congregation where I normally attend (Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; we are about 20 miles south of Knoxville), held an evening service at which ministers from various Blount County churches came with blessings. Ministers from three different Presbyterian churches in the county, the Lutheran Church, First United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian chaplain at Maryville College all came to our church this evening to show support for us and to let us know that they and their congregations - some of which are among the largest in Blount County - have been thinking of us and praying for us.
And then there are the thousands upon thousands of messages and financial contributions from UUs and others around the world. Several UU ministers from Boston and New York have come down to help us, as have trauma teams from Virginia.
This matters. A lot.
When your community is attacked because of your beliefs, you feel very much alone. You wonder if others secretly agree with the assailant. You wonder if anywhere is safe. You wonder if maybe something is wrong with you.
I have always been a religious minority, so this feeling is not entirely new to me. I am Jewish (many of us Jewish UUs retain our Jewish identity even as we attend the UU church), and have never lived in a majority-Jewish area. I have been exposed to casual anti-Semitic remarks and have witnessed anti-Semitic vandalism and, on occasion, small-scale violence. It's deeply embarrassing to know that you are part of a group that has been singled out for one reason or another. It can be very lonely.
And that's why the support and prayers from around the Knoxville and Maryville communities, and around the world, have been so important to us. We are not alone.
Perhaps just as important is that we are not ashamed. We believe in the inherent dignity and worth of EVERY human being. Yes, that means the shooter too. That means the people who denigrate us for our "liberal religion." We cannot respond to them with hatred, for if we did that, we would have lost something vital to our identity.
We respond to hate with love.
We respond to terrorism with courage.
We respond to bigotry with tolerance.
We respond to isolation with community.
We respond to violence with peace.
We respond to despair with hope.
We respond to alienation with faith.
This morning, we rededicated TVUUC. Our church had been desecrated by an act of terrorism. To make it a house of peace and worship again, we gathered by the hundreds to re-consecrate our sanctuary. We saluted the heroes of last Sunday - the people who bravely tackled the shooter and saved dozens of lives. It was they who make our church a sanctuary - a place of safety.
It was also a day of hope. Not only did we sing what has become a sort of anthem - "The Sun Will Come Out, Tomorrow" (the shooting happened during the performance of Annie) - but we learned through our fellow members that all of the injured are healing. Three of the victims have been released from the hospital. And one of the two remaining - a friend of mine named Tammy Sommers who has been my son's Sunday school teacher and whose children sometimes play with mine - is now walking and talking. She was shot in the head and was in critical condition on Sunday. That she is able to recognize her own children now and, as her husband put it, "show her personality again," is a blessing like no other. Her husband Steve was in such good spirits; I just couldn't imagine how difficult it must be for them. They know that others are praying for them, and they been strengthened in body and spirit.
I wanted to post this so that everybody knows how much we appreciate the love and kindness from people near and far. The healing and rebirth of our church will take time. But knowing that we are not alone makes all the difference.