On July 27, 2008 a gunman walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire. In a matter of minutes 2 people were killed and many others wounded. On that day, the youth were performing a musical which included children from the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church located 16 miles away. By chance, one of the people killed and many of the people wounded came from the Westside Church. And as it also happened, the minister for the Tennessee Valley Church was away that morning, so the Unitarian minister on the scene as the aftermath unfolded was the minister of that Westside Church.
I was that minister.
I was at the Tennessee Valley church advocating with the police on behalf of the congregants. I was at the hospital with the families, most my congregants, not knowing who would live, who would die. I was on the phone with distant family sharing news about their loved ones. And I was every place I could possibly be in the days and weeks that followed trying to shield a devastated community from the press and politics that soon swirled around the incident.
In the decade that followed, I avoided talking to the media or advocating for my political position because I just happened to have the horrible misfortune to have been present for the aftermath of this atrocity. I did so not because I don’t have opinions or because I don’t care about what happens. I did so because I didn’t have the stomach for it. Linda Kraeger, my congregant who was murdered that day, was a beautiful human being, a light in the life of everyone who encountered her. Her extended family and friends were among the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. And the truth is, she deserves better than to be made a symbol. And her family had the right to choose for themselves whether to be dragged into a political debate.
On February 14, 2018 a gunman walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire. In a matter of minutes, 17 people were killed and over a dozen wounded. On that day, the youth were going about a normal day at school.
I still do not have the stomach for political debates about gun control. The fact that it is a “political” debate belies that we are taking the conversation away from real people. However, I feel compelled to ask all politicians, in the Senate, in the Congress, anyone who claims to represent the people to consider one simple thing.
On that worst of all possible days ten years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee, a very bad man used a shotgun and only two people died. Had he brought an AR-15, I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been. To be clear, this perverse human being took from their families two amazing human beings, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger. And I never want to forget how my life was personally enriched by their presence, nor how our world was unnecessarily darkened by their theft from us. But our nation’s future was also lessened by those lives stolen in Parkland, Florida. And if all we can do is make sure that we reduce the numbers so that we are talking about 1 and 2 deaths instead of 15 and 20, then to do anything else is by any definition a sin — a sin in the eyes of God and a sin in the eyes of those who have lost far more than you or I can ever possibly imagine.