In The Time of Trouble: Safety in the Sanctuary? A gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville this past Sunday, killing two people and wounding others. The Rev. Bill Sinkford and the Rev. Richard Nugent, both Unitarian leaders, discuss keeping the doors of the church open in the face of tragedy.
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In The Time of Trouble: Safety in the Sanctuary?

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In The Time of Trouble: Safety in the Sanctuary?

In The Time of Trouble: Safety in the Sanctuary?

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I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we open our mail bag to learn what you've been saying about what you're hearing on our broadcast plus the Barbershop guys, as usual. But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation where we explore issues of faith that have been in the news. The shooting of innocent people in a public place is traumatic under any circumstances. But what about when it happens in a place we call sanctuary. This past Sunday a gunman opened fire in a Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Two people were killed and six wounded in an attack that the police say was politically motivated.

Police say the suspect, Jim Adkisson, was motivated by a hatred for liberals and gays which he detailed in a letter. Previously on this program, we've talked about the whole question of security for houses of worship. But today, we want to talk about the impact that something like this has on a congregation. A denomination and other people of faith. Here to talk about this the Reverend Bill Sinkford, he's president of the Unitarian Universalist association of Congregations. And Reverend Richard Nugent, he's in term senior leader at the Washington ethical society. I welcome you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Reverend RICHARD NUGENT (Unitarian Washington Ethical Society): Thank you.

Reverend BILL SINKFORD (President, Unitarian Universalist Association): Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Reverend Sinkford, you are just back from Knoxville after visiting with members of the congregation in a community. Walking into the church where people were killed and wounded just days earlier, did it feel changed? Did it still feel like a sanctuary?

Rev. SINKFORD: It absolutely did. The members of the Tennessee Valley Congregate, there're actually two of our congregations who had members either killed or hurt in the incident. But the members of the Tennessee Valley Congregation, which is where the shootings took place, had really come together and made commitments to each other that they were going to continue on and indeed that they were not going to change anything about who they were or the way they did business. It was truly inspiring.

MARTIN: Reverend, did you - it does seem though that this kind of thing, this is not the first time this has happened, there have been other terrible incidents where people have walked into churches for various reasons and harmed people. But it does present, I think a dilemma because on the one place, a church is supposed to be a place where all are welcome, but in the wake of something like this, do you find your members wondering whether there is something that they should change or is there something that they - is there in fact sort of a dilemma between protecting your congregation and remaining a place of openness?

Rev. NUGENT: In the short time that we've had conversations since last Sunday when it became much more, well, you're right that there have been 18 or so shootings in the last 10 years in churches but it certainly hit home to us this past Sunday. The conversations I've been having is that it just reinforces our commitment to be who we are. To be proud of our liberal progressive values, to continue voicing those is the community. But also, it's a reminder that we need to step back and assess how we address the safety of all of our members. And there are many, many ways of doing that. But certainly going for metal detectors and armed guards, that's not something that's Unitarian Universalist values. And what is most important in our response is to be who are, to be true to who we are. And which are values of inclusiveness of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. And take harsh measures which may ensure our safety more while losing our liberties, is not going to be the path we go.

MARTIN: Reverend Sinkford, tell me more about who you are. Who are the Unitarian Universalists? Could you tell me little bit more about the church, what it stands for politically and theologically?

Rev. SINKFORD: Of course. Unitarian Universalism has some roots that go back to the reformation in Europe. But here in the United States, we have evolved into a faith community which is not grounded in a particular creed of belief. So when you join a Unitarian Universalist church, there is nothing that you have to sign on the dotted line in terms of your belief system. Instead, we ground our religious life in a series of principles which we take very seriously. The first of which is the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person. And that has led us to be quite active on a wide range of social issues. This goes back to working in favor of abolition right through the women's empowerment and women's suffrage and civil rights movement and now in support of the bisexual gay, lesbian and trans-gender community. And we take quite distinct and believe faith grounded stands on those issues.

MARTIN: What about that, Reverend Sinkford to find out that - and obviously one can't discount the possibility of mental illness in this case. But the fact that the shooter in Knoxville says he specifically targeted because of those values. How does that strike you? How does that strike members of this congregation?

Rev. SINKFORD: Two responses. First the - this individual actually had a history with the congregation. Some 10 to 12 years ago, he was married, that marriage broke up, but he was married to a woman who was a member of the congregation and occasionally during that period, he attended church. So this is not just a random selection of a congregation to target. And therefore, there are clearly a complex of demons that he was dealing with and he obviously lost the battle. But to go directly to your question, how do we respond when we are targeted for who we are? What's happening in Knoxville and as I said, it was really very inspiring. And it builds on what Richard said was that the congregation, the congregants, were coming together to say, we're not going to change who we are. The fact that we take stands on controversial issues means that there are going to be people who disagree with us. But we are not going to back down from those religiously grounded stands.

MARTIN: I think that one of the things that makes this particularly - I mean all - anything like this is awful. What I think, one of things that makes this particularly awful is the fact that this was a children's service going on, the children-led service, and no children were harmed. But the idea that your children would be put in harm's way must be very difficult for everybody to contemplate. And I know it's probably too soon, but I just - how do you, Reverend, explain that theologically?

Rev. SINKFORD: You know, I was asked by several reporters in Knoxville whether I thought the shooter would be going to hell. And my response was that he has already been living in hell here. He didn't mean - didn't need to make a journey to get there. Let me just tell you a little story from Knoxville. The kids were performing "Annie" in the worship service when the shooting took place. And there was a vigil, let's see, that was Monday night where the community was invited to come into the church next door which was much larger. And about 15 minutes before the vigil started, the kids came to the organizers of the service and said, we need to get some closure here. We would like to sing in the service. And so at the close of the vigil, there was a candle lighting process and I spoke and so on. The kids came forward in the chancel and sang the sun will come out tomorrow. And the congregation of a couple of thousand just exploded with applause, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. So at least in this case, those children and their parents found a way to respond in a religiously grounded way.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Reverend Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Reverend Richard Nugent with the Washington Ethical Society. We like to take a moment to ask you, does the recent shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universals church in Knoxville change how you feel at your worship center? Is your faith being challenged by the church's open-door policy? To tell us more about what you think and to read what other listeners are saying, go to our blog at You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again, 202-842-3522. Reverend Nugent, I wanted to ask you the same question. It seems like it's a difficult one, and parents have an ethical obligation to protect their children to the degree that they can from harm. Does it present sort of a faith challenge to want to stand for something as an adult? Because as an adult, it's your choice to stand for something that may be controversial, difficult, polarizing, or whatever to make a stand on faith. But you know, you're bringing your children along with you on that journey.

Rev. NUGENT: No, I don't. I mean, we're all - I'm a parent of an eight-year-old who's lived through 2001. My wife works with the state department, he was in the preschool at the state department on that day. We lived through the shootings here, the sniper shootings when he was a small child. So, part of our job as a community of faith is to provide our parents with the skills to be with their children in difficult times. We encourage conversation of paying attention, of listening, of dialog throughout their child's life not just in moments but particularly now to ask them what's going on. What they may have heard. We know children hear a lot more than we think they do. I think it's important and not coincidental, but coincidental that on Friday of last weekend, Randy Pausch died, the author of "The Last Lecture" and the video. And Randy was a Unitarian Universalist. And he lived his life with a message to live your life fully. And in preparing for today, I went back and took a look and one of the things he said that no matter how bad things are, you can always make them worse, and at the same time, it is often within your power to make them better. It's how you live your life. It's how you live your faith. And that's what we attempt to do every week within our congregations in our Sunday schools and in our sanctuaries.

MARTIN: I noticed that you had a vigil, community vigil, led by the congregation to acknowledge this terrible situation in Knoxville. Do you think that you will preach on this, this weekend and what do you think you'll say?

Rev. NUGENT: I'm not going to be preaching because we have a guest preacher coming in. But I am going to be leading the service and we do have plans to light two candles for the two individuals who died from the two congregations in Knoxville, a moment of silence, and we're going to arise out of that moment of silence, a couple of minutes of silence, with "Tomorrow" being played.

MARTIN: Reverend Sinkford?

Rev. SINKFORD: In fact, hundreds, at this point, of our congregations have already held their own vigil services, and I think that this will be a part of the services of virtually all of our churches and many, many others this Sunday. What they're doing in Knoxville is actually, at the Tennessee Valley Church, is planning a rededication service where they will rededicate themselves to their principles and it's a very courageous thing for them to do. I will be preaching on this indeed.

MARTIN: And Reverend Sinkford, tell us what you think you might say. Give us a preview.

Rev. SINKFORD: Well, you know, preachers are always instructed to leave the congregation with good news. And in this case, I'll be telling stories, of course, from Knoxville. And the most powerful piece of good news that I found there, beyond the courage and dedication of the members of our congregation, was at the vigil that took place Monday night when hundreds and hundreds of members of the Knoxville community, not Unitarian Universalists, not members of the church where the vigil took place, just people who needed a place to go to deal with their emotions came together across the lines of denomination, faith tradition. There were Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, all present in the sanctuary. The good news here is that I think it is possible, it is possible that we can start overcoming some of these lines of division that we have been told have to keep us apart. And if we can come together as a large community, we can, in fact, change the world.

MARTIN: Reverend Bill Sinkford is the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Reverend Richard Nugent is the Interim Senior Leader at the Washington Ethical Society. He joined us in our Washington studio. I thank you both for speaking with us.

Rev. SINKFORD: Thank you, Michel.

Rev. NUGENT: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I also want to say I'm very sorry for this loss.

Rev. SINKFORD: Thank you.

Rev. NUGENT: Thank you.

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