Today, I am sharing something a little different.
On this day, I tend to act a little differently. Tragedy will do that to you. If you’re visiting today to read the blog, I am sharing the story of the most impacted day of my life. I’ve told my story so many times in the past 6 years. Sometimes I share as a victim. Sometimes I share as an activist. Sometimes it’s brief. This time, I am sharing from the memory of my 13 year old self. This version was actually prepared for a speech conference back in high school three years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to attend and my story never left my public speaking class. It was the first time I completely dove in and relived the shooting. It’s a little lengthy and being as I was 13, it’s possible more facts have been revealed and my memory may be off. But from my heart, it is true. I appreciate everyone here to read it today. God Bless.
Sanctuary. A place where you find security and love. Safety and warmth. Answers. A place you would think, couldn’t be stolen.
But you’d be surprised how easily it can be done. It can be taken from you, ripped away in a matter of seconds. Count it. One, Open the door. Two, Three. Four, Five. A walk down the hallway. Ten seconds later, you make a left turn. Five more seconds, and you find yourself outside the sanctuary of the church, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Two seconds to set down your guitar case, three seconds to take out your concealed shotgun.
And one second to open fire. Twenty Six Seconds. But it felt like and instant, and that was just the beginning.
It was the beginning so much so, because we were only 16 minutes into our service, our debut for our children’s theater summer camp. We were only one scene into Annie Jr, our small stage adaption of Annie the Musical. I was the stage manager, and I was in charge. In charge of 26 other kids back stage with me. I was only 13 myself. I had them lined up along the outside wall, opposite the stage. We were listening to our amplifier for cue lines, feeding through the stage mics and out of the speakers. All at once.
Deafening. A boom that shook the ground. Not a microphone. Not a fallen prop. Only the sound of blood draining in the audience’s faces, fear filling eyes, and my sanctuary being stolen.
Of course, still outside, I hadn’t yet realized what had happened. All I knew was that the lines had stopped, the room was silent. When I had the chance to peek through the curtain, all I saw were sheet white faces. The fear had put the entire room in slow motion. I found no answers when I looked into the audience. I never saw a guitar case. I never saw a gun or a puddle of blood. But another floor shaking boom put that moment into fast forward. My thoughts at the time? Run. Run away. What did I do? I ran outside, snatched up two little hands and wrapped the youngest kid around my neck and screamed. And really screamed. Run.
When you have something on Fast Forward, you only catch little clips of what is playing. Little images or bits of sound that stand out while the rest is skipped. My kids, so full of questions I couldn’t answer. The congregation pouring out of the stage exit. Mothers of my actors, shaking me, pleading for their children. Hands being taken and hundreds of prayers being sent to Heaven. Still so many didn’t know what was happening. We were all so lost.
I grew up a lot July 27th, 2008 I had to grow up fast that day, or at least pretend I was grown up enough to do what I needed to do. Maybe that’s what I did. I pretended a lot. I pretended that my mommy and daddy and sister were safe. I never saw them once for three hours. I pretended to be one of the youth directors, leading prayers and kissing the tears off the crying little ones, just like I saw them doing. I pretended to know how to clean up blood splatters of traumatized grownups. I pretended it was just stage make up and that the blood didn’t belong to someone who may, or may not be dead inside my sanctuary.
But my greatest pretend was being a mommy. I was also a mommy that day, for two hours. My child was my little Gwen. She was 5 years old, the youngest, and was to be the dog Sandy in the play. She was the music director’s granddaughter, visiting for the summer. Gwen was with her father outside during the chaos. He approached me, tears in his eyes, and said, “My wife is inside I have to go find her. Will you take care of Gwen.”
Will you take care of Gwen, he said. His precious grandchild, who was otherwise completely alone. He put her life in my hands to go back inside the church to uncertain danger. Because none of us really knew what was happening inside. He kissed her cheek, and handed her to me while I tried to understand how someone could trust me so much. I was thirteen. But I pretended to be a grownup, a mommy, and the best mommy I could be for that little girl. In a few hours, her parents received the news and drove into Knoxville to the church. Her mother found me and her baby safe and sound. She took my hand and if words ever failed, her eyes gave me the most desperate thank you she could give. Then she turned and left with my girl.
Everything about that day breaks my heart. But one of the worst, is knowing Gwen was old enough to remember it all. She will remember that a man came into her Grandma’s church, during her very first play, and shot and killed the man who held the door open for her that morning. Greg McKendry, a long time member of the church, a man who had a loving heart like no one else I’ll ever know, left us that day. He was an Usher, who was just around the corner when the gunman came in. Greg witnessed the last six seconds before our sanctuary was stolen. The guitar case, the gun, the trigger. He tired, he tried to save our sanctuary. Bur he traded his life for it. HE stepped out before the bullet could strike anyone else. But that was only one of three. The other into the ceiling in the hall. The last, the kind that scatter pellets, found its way into curtains, pews, walls, and other audience members.
The gunman fortunately, stopped to reload, and several men jumped to tackle him down. They wrestled away his power and restrained him until the authorities arrived.
Seven people left in critical condition. Despite the prayers, only six recovered. Linda Kraeger was the second to pass. She was a beloved member of another UU church in town. I never got the privilege to meet her, but I did know she was well loved and respected. And still is.
It has been six years since July 27th, 2008. I am proud of my church which has grown into an even stronger more loving congregation with the inspiring memory of Greg and Linda at it’s foundation. I too, have grown up a lot. Not just as pretend.
I proudly defend the liberal, open minded, open hearted beliefs that TVUUC stands for; the beliefs that so highly upsetted the shooter that he felt the need to lash out. I proudly stand against hate crimes and stand for equality and love. I can see Linda and Greg’s face and smile. And remember the impact their lives made after they died. The outpouring of love and support from the community, and the rest of the United States, was overwhelming. And I can’t help but think we affected the changes sweeping the world, making life safer and easier to be the individual you want to be, and to love. It amazes me. And many of my questions about that day have been answered.
Answers, Security, Love.
I have taken back my sanctuary.