O&AN Exclusive: Lewis offers first-hand account of tragic church shooting

Editor's note: Below is an account from Carla Lewis of Sunday's tragic church shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville . Lewis, who is a member of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and often attended church services and group meetings at TVUUC, was present at the time of the shooting.

by Carla Lewis

Jaime and I were running late to church Sunday morning.  This is usual - it's always me that takes too long.  Driving to TVUUC, I was wondering if I really wanted to go.  I really like the "sermons" or "lectures" about society or philosophy but this was going to be a children's musical program and I just didn't know if it was for me.

The breezeway of the church has an opening in the middle that leads to a foyer for the sanctuary.  The entrance is split.  You can enter through double-doors to the right to or to the left.  The sun was especially bright so Jaime and I decided to go to the left side.  We started to walk in as the production was underway and was quickly pulled back by John Bohstedt, who looked very much like Daddy Warbucks. 

We were asked to stand by the door and to seat ourselves after the first act.  I'm hard of hearing and Jaime and I walked to the main foyer door.  He motioned us back.  As we walked back to the sanctuary, I saw someone walk behind me.  My mind keeps telling me it was the shooter, but I didn't give a second look. 

The Annie character was just finishing "Maybe".  I was thinking, "this is really good."  The Miss Hannigan character walked in stage left and slapped a basket Annie was holding out of her hand.  From the sanctuary right entrance, I thought I hear yelling and a loud BOOM of an explosion.

My mind tried to register the sound.  I was thinking, "Did a speaker explode?  Did I hear a prop gun?  Did something go wrong?" and as soon as that thought left my mind I smelled the sulfur from the gunpowder and heard another BOOM and then BOOM.  I left go of Jaime's hand and stepped around the corner just as John Bohstedt tackled the shooter.  Immediately two others were on top of him.

As he hit the ground shotgun shells went everywhere.  The gun landed upside down against a bag or some other object on the floor.  There was a shell halfway in the ejection port.  It didn't look spent.  He must have been trying to shove a shell straight into the chamber to take another shot.

It seemed like an eternity, but it was only a few seconds.  Jaime and I were grabbed by several church members and pulled into a room.  I opened the door to look out and someone yelled at me to get on the floor.  I couldn't.  I grabbed Jaime's hand and we went through the foyer and out the back door.

In the minutes leading up to when the police arrived Jaime and I saw children with escorts looking for their parents.  We saw children and adults with blood on their clothes.  We saw the worst side of human cruelty we had ever seen.  We knew people had been shot but we didn't know who.

We eventually gathered with the rest of the church family on a hill behind the sanctuary.  Most of the children were in safe hands at the Second Presbyterian Church next door.  While we were congregated together I noticed our friend.  She is a transgender youth.  She told us that Greg, her foster father, had been hit.  That really hit home.

Just two weeks earlier Greg McKendry and his wife Barbara and their trans-foster child were at our home celebrating Jaime's birthday.  I really liked Greg and to think someone could hurt him was very troubling.

The police gathered everyone together in the fellowship hall to tell us what to expect.  The police identified the types of witnesses they wanted and eventually dismissed everyone.  As Jaime and I stood by the door, Barbara McKendry came walking by.  She stopped to give both of us a hug and said, "Greg got hit.  He's dead."

Oh God!  My heart just broke and Jaime and I couldn't hold it together anymore.  How could this happen to group of people as loving as the members of TVUUC?  I needed an answer.  I had to know why.

Today, we found out why when some of the contents of the killer's letter were revealed.  A supposed hatred for the liberal establishment and "gays".  Yes, TVUUC, embraced gays and the entire GLBT community.  Jaime is the president of PFLAG which meets at TVUUC, and a group of local transgender people and I had just started a new organization which meets at TVUUC.  As a matter of fact, Jaime and I met at TVUUC in October 1999, at a transgender support group at TVUUC.

This church has always loved everyone in the community and would turn their back on no one.  Jaime and I hope that this resolves quickly so that we can get back to rebuilding lives and rebuilding our church's spirit.

UPDATE (07/29/08)

A candlelight gathering was planned for 7:30 p.m. last night at our neighboring church, the Knoxville Second Presbyterian Church.  Jaime and I arrived early for one of the debriefing session.  Adults and children were separated and broken off into rooms with ten to fifteen people.  Each was facilitated by a counselor trained in crisis management.

This is the reason that Jaime and I went.  After what we went through on Sunday, we were each having difficulty dealing with the sounds and images we saw.  Several others in the room were also dealing with survivor's guilt.  Somewhere in the back of our mind there was a part of us saying that we could have done something more than hide or run.  In the larger picture 6-7 seconds is a short period of time, but when a man is unloading a shotgun into your sanctuary, it can seem an eternity.

The session was very helpful, but could have lasted hours more.  The facilitators lead us to the fellowship hall where plenty of light foods, dips and fruits were served.  Many of the food items were provided by local restaurants.  I know the Red Cross was present as well as the Helen Ross McNabb Center and many others.  I saw Muslim women, Jewish men and women, and members of the host church all busily working to make sure that the congregants of TVUUC were well accomodated.   

Soon after we all headed for the sanctuary which quickly filled to capacity.  An overflow room was opened and soon it was full as well.  Several clergy members spoke including Chris Buice, the leader of the TVUUC and William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Assocations of Congregations.

After a warm candlelight service, some of the youth that were performing "Annie" during the shooting broke out into song, "Tomorrow".  It was really heartbreaking and lifting to hear those same kids singing that song.  It couldn't have been more appropriate.  It helped me realize that the sun would come out tomorrow.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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