It is easy to go down into Hell;
Night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
But to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air—
There’s the rub, the task
—Virgil, The Aeneid, bk. VI, l.126
I came to recognize hell on a typical, sultry mid-summer day at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The church, usually sparsely attended in the summer months, teemed to overflowing that day with both its regular members and an unusual number of guests. It was a celebration of the church’s weeklong summer camp. The young participants were excited to put on the play they had rehearsed. With the help of their adult mentors, the children and youth had prepared a special production of Annie, Jr., a miniversion of the lighthearted Broadway hit musical about a feisty little orphan girl who wins over everyone’s heart. The morning’s service had been offered to the camp participants as their moment in the sun. As the production got underway, family and friends, church members and visitors alike, clapped and laughed together as the cast, dressed in the ragtag costumes of the 1930s, sang and danced across the sanctuary’s chancel.
But one visitor wasn’t there to enjoy the play. This man parked his truck in the church’s crowded parking lot, retrieved a guitar case from the cab, left what the police have referred to as a manifesto on the seat, and softly closed the truck door. There are reports that he first tried to enter the church through a side door—one that would have brought him into the front of the sanctuary. If he had been allowed to enter through that door, he would have been facing the crowd gathered there. But a volunteer stage manager, who took her job very seriously, stopped him. “Sir, you have to go around to the main entrance,” she insisted.
And surprisingly—considering what he had planned—he did.
The next report of the man’s activity came from a little boy who recalled seeing him in the men’s room near the children’s religious education wing. No one knows what he did in there, whether he used the privacy of a bathroom stall to make final preparations or just to muster up his courage to do what he felt he had to do. When he left the men’s room, he proceeded down the main hallway to the sanctuary. He stood just outside the door, next to the glass-enclosed, soundproof nursery.
Guitars were a pretty common sight at this Tennessee church, so no one thought much about it when they saw him carrying the guitar case. One witness said he thought the man was just part of the morning’s musical production. After all, he didn’t stand out from other churchgoers. A white man in his midfifties, wearing jeans and a casual shirt, carrying a guitar case, fit right in.
The man laid down his case, opened the latches, pulled out a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, raised it to his shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
Some witnesses reported thinking that the loud noise reverberating through the sanctuary was part of the play. Some thought it was just another summer thunderstorm. Others were sure it was a bomb.
Greg McKendry, a gentle giant of a man, maintaining his post as usher near the sanctuary door, turned to the noise. When he did, he bore the brunt of an entire shot—all 250 pellets contained in one shell—in his side, back, and abdomen. He collapsed immediately.
By the time this shot rang out, everyone knew this was real. Blood spattered the room. More shots hit their marks. People crouched under the pews or darted through one of the multiple exits from the sanctuary, including that first door the shooter had tried to enter.
Finally, he lowered his gun to reload. As he did, the church member who’d been waiting at the back to make his entrance as Daddy Warbucks tackled him. Several others joined in and wrestled the shooter to the ground. Freeing the gun from his grip, they forcefully pinned his arms behind his back.
As they struggled to restrain him, Daddy Warbucks screamed in his face, “Why? Why did you do this?”
When the Knoxville police arrived only moments later, the church members, almost begrudgingly, released him to police custody.
By the time it was all over, one person, McKendry, lay dead, and another, Linda Kraeger, a member of nearby Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, would die at the hospital. Seven more people were seriously wounded. Still others reported various minor injuries. Except for a broken arm, the shooter himself was unhurt. The police later learned from the manifesto he had left in his truck that he had intended to keep shooting until the police killed him. He had seventy-six shells with him and was just reloading for the first time when he was taken down.
* * *
Text messages started arriving on my cell phone just minutes after the shooting. I was five hundred miles away at another congregation in Morehead City, North Carolina, and I knew I had to get there and get there fast. I serve as the Southeast District Executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. This is one of the congregations in my district; it was my job to bring the resources of the denomination to them, to help in whatever way possible.
Within minutes of confirming what was known at that time—at least one person dead, seven or eight injured—I left the congregation I was visiting, drove forty-five miles to the nearest airport, jumped on a Charlotte-bound plane just as the doors slammed shut behind me, hopped a connection from Charlotte to Knoxville, rented a car, and rushed to the church.
The sea of flashing lights, the yellow police tape, the trucks from various news outlets were a scene right out of a made-for-TV crime drama. By the time I arrived, the police had locked down the building. No one was allowed in or out without authorization. I would have to wait until the morning to go in, and in some ways that only made it harder. I was anxious to survey the territory, to get a handle on what I might be facing.
At the same time, my stomach turned. Despite my trauma response experience, my usual clear sense of what to do and say next abandoned me. Could I overcome my own anger, my own sense of helplessness, to help this congregation recover?
I stood in the driveway of the church, staring silently at the blue-black clouds looming over the building, and felt that same swirling blackness gather inside me. The desecration of this place dedicated to peace shook me as deeply as the thunder that rumbled overhead.
I read the words etched into concrete along the top of the church building. Community, Love, Spirit, Justice, Sorrow. An ache coursed through my muscles. In what might have been a minute, might have been an hour, I stood, utterly powerless, paralyzed in the face of approaching darkness.
What crystalized for me in that dark night was that this was not my pain alone. It was the shared pain of hundreds of thousands of people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists around the globe. This was our family. Death, destruction, and fear had been cast upon us by someone who unleashed an inferno of hate and rage on people who had done nothing to deserve the hell they found themselves in. That man was the face of hell and now, because of him, we all carried a piece of it within us.
When Monday morning dawned, I would begin my work to help bring healing to this shattered congregation. But that night, as the thunder and lightning rumbled around me, as the rain finally started to fall, all I could do was cry.
By the time I returned Monday morning, the yellow tape had been cleared. The news media had fortified itself with more cameras, satellite dishes, and crew. Red Cross trucks replaced the police vehicles. Local mental health officials, our own Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Team, and congregation leaders gathered together to plan the first phase of the response. Trauma counseling, debriefing sessions, care of the victims and their families, response to the news media, plans for a vigil and the memorial services, food for volunteers, deciding how to return people’s belongings—belongings they had deserted in the sanctuary as they escaped the carnage—the list seemed endless.
One thing at a time, we kept reminding ourselves. That’s all we could do.
The next few hours I sat in the small library next to the minister’s office and listened to people who needed to talk.
“I almost didn’t come to church yesterday. I wish I hadn’t.”
“I was so scared.”
“I ran all over like a madwoman looking for my little girl.”
The stories just kept coming. Person after person needed to tell someone what they had experienced, where they were when it happened, how they felt about it, and how they were doing with it all.
“I was standing right next to Greg when he got shot.”
“I thought I was back in Iraq.”
“Blood splattered on my shirt.”
The night before I was afraid I wouldn’t know how I could help. Now I only wondered if I had the fortitude to handle the overwhelming need. By midday, my head was swirling. I had to take a break. As I walked toward the front door of the church to get some air, two women came through the doors. They introduced themselves to me as Linda Kraeger’s sisters. They asked me to show them where it had happened. Would I take them there, the older woman asked, in a low and halting voice. I nodded and asked them to follow me.
We walked the same path the shooter had taken the day before—through the lobby, down the short hallway, past the nursery where a woman had blocked the door with her body to protect her baby, and then through the sanctuary doors.
I stopped where he had stopped, the man with the shotgun, and motioned for Linda’s sisters to go past me. As they did, I said, “Your sister was right over there,” pointing to the approximate location where I had been told their sister had been sitting, “There were pews there yesterday but they’ve been removed.”
Their deep sighs, like moans, broke the silence that filled the room. With each sigh, I could feel grief wash over them. I longed for some way to take it from them. But all I could do was hold vigil for them.
“He stood here,” I motioned with my hands to show I meant the place I was standing. Keep it together. I tried to fortify myself. He stood here. Right where I was standing. Just yesterday.
“All his shots were on this side of the sanctuary,” I pointed to the right side of the room.
The two elderly women looked around, their eyes darting from one side to another as if they had lost something they were trying frantically to find.
After a few minutes, one of them looked at me. “Do you think she is in hell?” she asked.
I felt myself flinch as if the shotgun blasts were still ricocheting off the sanctuary walls. She must have meant the shooter, right? But no, I had heard her correctly. She was asking about her sister, not the man who had perpetrated this evil. I had been so immersed in thinking about the hell this man had unleashed that I had not contemplated the hell of fire and brimstone where nonbelievers are purported to spend eternity. My eyes grew wide. I’m sure I telegraphed my surprise. I recovered my professional demeanor using a trick from my old days as a therapist—when you are too shocked to respond, answer a question with a question.
“Can you tell me why might you think that?”
The woman’s face was drawn, her lips pursed. I could tell she was holding back tears only by sheer force of will. “She was an agnostic,” she replied. “She didn’t accept Jesus as her savior.” She glanced down at the floor and then quickly away as if her sister’s body were still lying there and she couldn’t bear to look at it. “I’m afraid she went to hell.”
I imagined their sister’s crumbled and bloodied body lying on the floor. I imagined the pain this woman must be feeling to even ask such a question. I felt my hands start to shake. I am not a minister, I thought to myself. I haven’t been trained to answer questions like this. How did I get myself into this? What am I supposed to say to her? I looked at the place where Linda had lain and from somewhere deep inside, I found an answer—the only one my faith could give.
“I didn’t know your sister,” I paused and swallowed hard, “but I have heard a lot about her since it happened. I know she was a giving and loving person. She cared deeply for her family and for those around her. She struggled with questions of faith as many of us do, but I cannot imagine a God who would condemn her for that. She was a good woman. I hope you can come to believe that too.”
She held my gaze, sizing me up as if she were desperately trying to see in me someone she could believe. She lowered her head, shaking it slowly, “I don’t know,” she said, her eyes scanning the floor again. “I don’t know,” she repeated—this time, her voice trailing into a whisper.
We stood in silence for a few more minutes before the two women looked at each other, nodded in agreement that they were ready to go, and headed back to the door.
“Thank you for your time,” the other woman said as they passed by me.
I followed them to the front door and watched as they shuffled to their car. A profound sadness welled up in me. The hell these two women worried about was not the earthly hell consisting of the physical and mental trauma the shooter had unleashed on the congregation. It was not even the hell that tormented him so deeply it drove him to kill. Their hell, the hell they believed their beloved sister was now condemned to, was the eternal hell from which there is no return.
As I tried to make sense of all that had happened, I knew only one thing: this event would test our faith as nothing ever had. Could this congregation climb back up out of the living hell they had been cast into? Would they open themselves to feeling their grief so they could find healing? Could they learn to forgive like the Amish had done after the school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, a couple years earlier? Or would they lock their doors and their hearts to protect themselves from the pain while condemning this man for the evil he had perpetrated on them?
I didn’t know the answer, but I knew that if I were going to help them, I had to start looking for clues.
Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person.
By early afternoon, we agreed to hold a press conference to mollify the crowds of local and national media people who had gathered on the church’s front lawn. The congregation’s president, Ted Jones, and the denomination’s national leader, the Reverend William Sinkford, would speak to the media. The statements they made and the answers they gave spoke of the church’s long-standing commitment to welcoming everyone no matter who they were. The men emphasized that this commitment wasn’t going to change because of the actions of one individual.
“Love is the spirit of this church,” Jones said, “and that spirit will not be defeated by anyone or anything.”
* * *
Later that evening, as people stood patiently in line to secure a place for a community-wide interfaith vigil inside the already overcrowded Presbyterian Church next door, the heavens opened up. All the pent-up anger and hurt of everybody there crashed and boomed, flashed, and crackled across the black sky. Lashing rains drenched everyone who had not yet found sanctuary inside the building. But, remarkably, no one left the line, no one retreated home. And eventually, everyone had a place to sit or stand to join the vigil.
Candlelight reflected off the stained glass windows at the front of the chancel as we waited for the service to begin. Flashes of lightning and cracks of thunder reverberated through the sanctuary, keeping everyone just a little on edge.
It was in Reverend Sinkford’s homily that the question of hell came up again. This time, however, unlike the question from Linda’s sisters, it was about the shooter himself.
“I was asked by a reporter earlier today if the shooter was going to hell for what he had done.”
At that instant, an almost imperceptible chuckle rose up from around the room. It lasted only a second before it was absorbed by the uncomfortable shuffling of those who jerked their heads around to see where this jarring sound was coming from. Although impossible to settle on a single source, it was unmistakable. For what was probably the first time in all the hours since the shooting, Unitarian Universalists laughed. They laughed, not out of irreverence, not out of stress, not out of disrespect. They laughed at the incredulity of this question—a question that struck at the very core of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology rooted in the possibility of universal salvation and the promise of heaven on earth.
In his response, Sinkford articulated what Unitarian Universalists already knew, that no matter what the shooter did or why he did it, there was no greater hell than the one he was living in here on earth. He already lived in hell, held captive there by his hatred, his anger, his inability to see love where it existed, because hell only exists in the absence of love. He wrongly believed that if he brought others into hell with him, he would find relief for himself. What he didn’t know is that hell cannot be conquered through more hate. Only love can bring redemption.
As I listened to Sinkford’s remarks, I pictured the tormented grief of Linda’s sisters, their inability to reconcile the reality of her life with their belief in a literal hell where nonbelievers like Linda would spend eternity. I ached with the deep love they had for their sister and I ached for their grief, a grief compounded by their beliefs rather than alleviated by them.
How diametrically opposed our views were. My idea of hell finds fertile ground only in the absence of love. The shooter had closed his door to love and had bolted it shut. But I believe that even that door might be opened again. For when love is combined with faith, faith that others are there to help us when we falter, hell loses its foothold in our lives.
As the service came to a close, the children, who had been denied the right to finish their play the previous morning, crammed together in the chancel. They had requested the opportunity to sing the closing song they had worked so hard on, Annie’s famous theme song, “Tomorrow”:
The sun’ll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
There’ll be sun!
Just thinkin’ about
Clears away the cobwebs
And the sorrow
‘Til there’s none!
They sang as if life itself depended on it.
At first, the crowd sat in stunned silence. This upbeat, optimistic song seemed out of place in the gloom of this night. The crowd struggled to reconcile the singing with their grief. It was as if a bright light had been turned on, temporarily blinding them, and it took a minute for their eyes to adjust. When they could see again, they broke into a spontaneous cheer. They clapped and shouted and, for the first time since the tragedy, cried together.
Everyone in that sanctuary wanted desperately to believe that the sun would come out again. And yet, even the children knew it would take a lot more than singing about tomorrow to clear away the sorrow in that room. The work ahead would be hard and long. Climbing out of hell would demand more of them than they could probably even imagine on this first night after the tragedy. To reclaim what had been stolen from them, they could not pretend it didn’t happen. They could not lock their doors and post a sentry at the gate. They would all have to live in the pain and the grief.
I don’t know how long it will take this congregation to recover. The pain will lessen over time. But this is a part of them now, as it is a part of me. And everything they do, everything I do, from this day forward, will be affected by the day we all came to understand hell.