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Are Christians being targeted for violence?

Mass killing in Knoxville, TN in 2008

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The shooting:

On 2008-JUL-27, an unemployed truck driver shot nine people at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, TN. A man and a woman died.

A lone gunman entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUS) in Knoxville, TN, and pulled a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun out of his guitar case. About 10:18 AM, he fired three shots at some of the 200 attendees. One adult, Greg McKendry, 60, stood up and shielded other members of the congregation with his body. He died immediately.

Each summer, the church has a theater camp for children. Participants at the theatre workshop were performing the musical "Annie Jr." when the gunman attacked.

A total of nine parishioners were shot. Many more could have died, because the gunman had carried 79 rounds of ammunition into the church. However, he was wrestled to the floor by members of the church while he was inserting another load of three cartridges. A member of the congregation kicked the shotgun away. The gunman was then tied up with belts. The police responded within minutes.

The gunshot victims and one woman who had injured her knee were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. Another twelve were treated for minor injuries.

Linda Kraeger, 61, died later that day in hospital. Six others were seriously wounded, but are expected to recover.

The accused, Jim Adkisson, 58, was not a member of the congregation, but his ex-wife had been a long-term member. He has been charged with murder and is in jail on a $1 million bond.

Police found a note that indicated he targeted the Unitarian Universalist congregation out of hatred for its liberal policies, including its acceptance of lesbians, gays and bisexuals. 1,2

Police chief Sterling Owen IV told reporters at a press conference: "It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred of the liberal movement." 3 The church had recently posted a new sign welcoming gays and lesbians; it might possibly have drawn the the gunman's attention.

The congregation is no stranger to violence. In the 1950s, they sponsored the first interracial day camp in Knoxville. It had to be relocated several times because of danger of attack by the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1970s, shortly after they started to host the Metropolitan Community Church -- a gay-positive church -- somebody shot out all the front windows of their building. A few weeks later, someone threw formaldehyde into the building. 

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Healing the community:

Rev. Dr. John Buehrens was a former minister of the TVUUC, and served the President of the denomination, -- the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) -- from 1993 through 2001. He commented:

"In the 1970s when the violence took place, the best thing I knew was to be quiet. We would not have gotten sympathy for hosting a gay congregation."

He said he was gratified to know that the citizens of Knoxville and city officials have been so supportive of the congregation during their most recent experience with violence. He said:

" ... for nearly sixty years, one distinguishing characteristic of this congregation is that they have retained an integrity of mission regardless of the occasional outbursts of violence in the area. They are distinguished by having a very strong sense of why they exist, coming out of their history and their own sense of self."  8

A candle light service was conducted on the evening of JUL-28 in the adjacent Second Presbyterian Church. More than 150 people were present at noon on JUL-29 at the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. About 50 people attended St. John's Lutheran Church during the evening of JUL-29. St. John's Senior Pastor J. Stephen Misenheimer and Pastor Amy C. Figg led a "Litany for Hope and Healing" that drew about 50 worshipers. KNOX News reported that they prayed:

" 'We confess our sin, the violence that lurks in us all. We call it anger, hatred, revenge; whatever its name, it is a compelling power within us. Lord, pull the root of bitterness, the whirlwind of anger, the deadened heart of hatred out of us and create in us clean hearts and renew in us right spirits'."
"Misenheimer said 'our sisters and brothers' at TVUUC 'can feel our presence through these prayers' and talked about how violence had claimed the life of Jesus Christ and countless others in history. 'God knows firsthand about struggle and suffering, violence and painful loss,' he said, referring to the crucifixion [of Jesus]."
" 'These experiences never have the last word' in a community that believes in 'a God of Love,' he said." 7

On AUG-01, two religiously liberal leaders, Rev. Bill Sinkford of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and the Rev. Richard Nugent of the Unitarian Washington Ethical Society were interviewed on the NPR program Faith Matters. 9

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Police investigation:

Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV suggested that the gunman's intent was to keep killing people until the police arrived. At that point, he had expected to be killed by the police.

Police discovered a four-page handwritten note in Adkisson's car that was parked at the church. KNOX News reported:

"Owen said Adkisson wrote that he was angered by 'his lack of being able to obtain a job,' a reduction in his food stamp allotment, and 'the liberal movement.' Owen explained the liberal movement, as defined by Adkisson, included liberal philosophies and issues pertaining to gays. ..."
"Owen said it appeared Adkisson targeted the TVUUC because the 'church had received some publicity regarding its liberal stance.' The TVUUC regularly announces in the Knoxville News Sentinel its meetings for gays and their support groups."
"In March, TVUUC minister the Rev. Chris Buice wrote an article in the News Sentinel regarding tolerance of gay couples."

Knoxville Police Department Investigator Steve Still wrote in the search warrant for Adkisson's house that Adkisson went attacked the church:

"... because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. ... because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement he would then target those that had voted them in office."

Still seized three books from Adkisson's home, including

  • "The O'Reilly Factor," by television commentator Bill O'Reilly;
  • "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder," by radio personality Michael Savage; and
  • "Let Freedom Ring," by political pundit Sean Hannity. 6

On 2008-AUG-06, Adkisson waived a preliminary hearing in an apparent move to prepare for an insanity plea. Tennessee law requires that a case goes to the criminal court level before the defense team can receive state funds to pay for a mental evaluation of the accused. 11

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Reconsecration of the sanctuary:

Rev. Dr. John Buehrens returned to Knoxville, on AUG-03, to speak at the rededication of the congregation that he had served as a new minister more than 25 years ago (1973 to 1981). He said:
"I view my role as focused on helping the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) reclaim the sanctuary after its desecration from violence. I helped to dedicate that sanctuary, and now, it is time to reconsecrate it." 8

The UUA-L Digest reported:

Rev. Chris Buice, who serves as the congregation's minister, led the overflow crowd in resanctifying the space where TVUUC board member and usher Greg McKendry and a visitor from the Westside Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (WUUF), Linda Kraeger, died. Six other people were injured in the attack. Also participating in the service were Rev. Bruce Southworth, Minister of Community Church of New York City, who grew up in TVUUC; former UUA president Rev. Dr. John Buehrens, who was minister at TVUUC in the late 1970's; Thomas Jefferson District Executive Annette Marquis, who remarked on the resilience of the congregation and reminded the congregation that they "are not alone"; and former minister Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss; as well as Director of Religious Education Brian Griffin and former DRE Meghan Henry.
In his homily, Buice offered this prayer: "God of many names, known in the spoken word and most profoundly in unspoken silence, we say with you and in you and through these simple words, 'We reclaim our sanctuary,' " Buice said. "This sanctuary, which has been defiled by violence, we rededicate to peace. This holy place, which has been desecrated by an act of hatred, we reconsecrate for love. This sacred space, which has seen death, we recommit to life. The holy spiritual home, which has known fear, we rededicate to faith and freedom." 10
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Religious violence discussed on Bill Moyers Journal:

The UUA-L Digest reported:
"Rev. Buice has been speaking out against the politics of division pedaled in some segments of the 'info-tainment' media market, and this Friday Buice joins Bill Moyers Journal for a tough look at the hostile industry of right-wing 'shock jock' broadcasting.

'A lot of people are hurling insults from the safety of television studios, the safety of radio studios, the safety of cyberspace,' Buice said. 'So that's a void in our community -- the chance to be in the same room and to have these exchanges and remember the humanity of the person on the other side.' The program includes an interview with Buice and a segment from his recent sermon titled 'God, Gays, Guns, and the Gospel'."

A video and written transcript was posted on the PBS website at:

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UUA ad in the New York Times:

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) placed a full-page ad in the New York Times for 2008-OCT-01. It was titled "Our doors and our hearts will remain open: A tragic act of violence in Knoxville." It was written by the Rev. William Sinkford, then president of the UUA.

After acknowledging the brave actions by members of the congregation who faced the gunman's rifle and wrestled him to the ground, he wrote:

"Our prayers are also with the shooter, that he may find peace and reconciliation."

"The tragic events of that morning have much to tell us about the Unitarian Universalists of Knoxville and about the larger Unitarian Universalist faith community. ..."

"Police reports suggest that the Tennessee Valley Church may have been targeted because of the congregation's justice work in the community: opening its doors in welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, feeding and housing the homeless, and working for racial justice. Indeed TVUUC faithfully embodies Unitarian Universalist's focus on deeds, not creeds. ..."

"We will not give in to fear. We will meet hatred with love. We will continue to work for justice. Our hearts, and the doors of our more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations nationwide, remain open. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. We invite you to stand with us." 12

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See also public comments on media articles:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "1 killed, 8 others wounded in Tennessee church shooting,", 2008-JU-27, at:
  2. "Church's liberal views led to shooting, note says," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 2008-JUL-29, Page A9.
  3. "Gunman targeted Tennessee church for liberal policies: police Burly church usher gave his life to protect others, witnesses say," CBC News, 2008-JUL-28, at:
  4. Bob Fowler, et al., "Church shooting: 2nd victim dies; authorities search accused man's house," KNOX News, 2008-JUL-27, at:
  5. TVUUC Supporter, "Support TVUUC by supporting its causes," at:
  6. Hayes Hickman & Don Jacobs, "Suspect's note cites 'liberal movement' for church attack More charges expected to be filed against Adkisson," KNOX News, 2008-JUL-29, at:
  7. Amy McRary & J.J. Stambaugh: "Many denominations, one common prayer Services of support for church, victims held across the city," KNOX News, 2008-JUL-30, at:
  8. "Former UUA President Prepares to Speak at Knoxville Rededication Service," Unitarian Universalist Association, 2009-JUL-31, at:
  9. "In The Time of Trouble: Safety in the Sanctuary?," Faith Matters program, 13 minutes, 14 s., NPR, 2008-AUG-01, at:
  10. UUA-L Digest, Vol. 66, Issue 4, on 2008-AUG-05.
  11. "Church shooting suspect eyes insanity defense," Associated Press, 2008-AUG-06, at:
  12. William Sinkford, "Our doors and our hearts will remain open," Unitarian Universalist Association, 2008-AUG-10, at:

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Copyright 2008 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally posted: 2008-JUL-31 
Latest update: 2010-DEC-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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