By Rev. Chris Buice
Unitarian Universalist minister
According to tradition Saint Francis prayed, “Make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred may I sow love.” In the aftermath of a horrible act of violence in my church in Knoxville, Tenn., last year, people of all faiths and beliefs offered this same prayer, not only in words but in action.
One year ago on July 27 a man walked into the sanctuary of my congregation, pulled a shotgun from a guitar case and opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children. Two people, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, were killed. Six more were injured. Countless more were traumatized. According to a manifesto in his own handwriting he was motivated by a hatred of liberals. He encouraged others to imitate his actions.
The evening after the incident, my congregation gathered to regroup in the Presbyterian Church next door because our own sanctuary was still a crime scene. We thought there would only be members of our congregation there but instead we found ourselves surrounded by love. The worship hall was filled with our neighbors from various churches, the synagogue, the temple, the mosque and other civic organizations. People were crowded in the aisle, sitting around the altar on the floor and standing outside in the rain.
There was a feeling in the air that night, the presence of a love that is greater than all our differences. I carry that same feeling with me today.
The man who attacked us tried to strike a blow for intolerance but the people who rushed to our aid came from all walks of life, conservative, liberal, independent, green and more. At one rally in a public park someone held up a sign that said, “Not in our town.” These few words spoke volumes for so many. The assailant described his own actions as a “hate crime” calculated to be divisive in our city. Instead his actions led to an unprecedented sense of unity, making us more willing to listen to each other, care for each other, respect each other, support each other, and — to be honest — feed each other. Many a casserole came our way and was quickly consumed.
Six months later the man pleaded guilty. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. I tell my congregation, “He is in prison, but we do not have to be.”
We do not have to give in to bitterness or resentment. We do not have to be imprisoned by our own darker emotions. We can move forward with the hope that one day we will be, in the words of the old African American spiritual, free at last.
School counselors describe a phenomena they call “the bystander effect” as it relates to bullying. When bystanders do nothing, aggressive personalities feel that they can commit their actions with impunity. Bullies come in many forms. Sometimes they are found on the school playground. At other times they have their own radio shows. Sometimes they run for office. At other times they infiltrate the workplace, the civic group and even the congregation. When we are intimidated by these bullies then they win.
For this reason I believe it is important for us all to stand on the side of love. It is our challenge to do everything in our power to create a positive bystander effect, so that an act of hatred is followed quickly by an act of love. What happened in Knoxville can happen anywhere in the world. This July 27, on the one-year anniversary, our church is hosting a concert to say, ‘Thank You’ to our neighbors for everything they have done to be supportive during this most difficult year. We will be featuring guitar music. This year, the guitar cases will contain instruments of peace.
Rev. Chris Buice is the Minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.