From tragedy to affirmation

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2008

O n Sunday, July 27, the peace and sanctity of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville was shattered by shotgun blasts, resulting in the death of two parishioners and the wounding of six. As often happens when tragedy strikes, we learn a lot about ourselves and about the institutions we belong to.

Unitarians in Juneau have a special connection with the church in Knoxville, because the Rev. Ken MacLean, who served as our consulting minister last year, was the minister at the Knoxville UU Church for eight years and shared many stories of his years in Knoxville during the sometimes turbulent 1960s and early 1970s.

When I reflect on what being a Unitarian means to me at times like this, I can do no better than to quote the words of our current national president, the Rev. Bill Sinkford. His words can help us to live and to grow, and that's what this column is all about.

"In the aftermath of this horrible tragedy, it would be understandable if the Knoxville Unitarian Universalists responded with anger, with fear, or with despair. Instead, they have greeted hatred with love and have created meaning from a horribly destructive act. Their courage, their love, and their unbreakable spirit have been an inspiration to people everywhere.

"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, the Tennessee Valley Church faithfully embodies Unitarian Universalism's focus on deeds, not creeds.

"Unitarian Universalists know that our congregations are places where our spirits can be nurtured and we will be lovingly supported on our spiritual journeys. But we are not content to leave our faith in our sanctuaries when Sunday worship has ended. We are called by our faith to help heal our world. And we thank people of all faiths who have reached out with support.

"On Aug. 3, just one week after the joy and innocence of their Sunday service was defiled by gunfire, the Tennessee Valley congregation rededicated their sanctuary to peace. Inspired by the Unitarian Universalists of Knoxville, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have rededicated themselves to our religious mission: to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor, to work for justice, to nurture the spirits of all who seek a liberal religious home, and to help heal this wounded world.

"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."

The reaction of Unitarians in Knoxville and across the country has strengthened my resolve to work ever harder to bring our message of love and justice to the Juneau community. In Juneau, Unitarian Universalists are hoping this year to purchase our first church building and continue our 52 years of work for peace and justice in our hearts and in our world. May it be so.

• Dave Dierdorff is the board chair of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

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