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07/28/2008

For peace, for Zac, for Knoxville -- I'll say a prayer

by Jeremy Hooper

200807280949-1While a college student in Knoxville, TN, this writer was quite the fan of the city's surprisingly bountiful nightlife offerings. On any given Friday or Saturday night, you can find me out with a smile on my face, a drink in my hand, and a dance in my step. I was, for the first time in my Tennessee born and bred life, able to be myself in these nocturnal hours, and I so seized upon the newfound freedom with the fervor of an eager puppy.

On the weekends, nights began just after the late local newscast and ended around 5 the next morn'. I ate breakfast before I went to bed, not after I arose the next day. And as for functionality between the hours of 7AM and noon on a Saturday or Sunday? Well let's just say that during the recent Tim Russert tributes, any "Meet The Press" clips from the Lewinsky thru 9/11 eras were new to me.

There was only one person in my circle of friends who tried to get me to break this routine. My friend Zac, like far too many other Volunteer State gays, had been virtually abandoned by his family, kicked to the curb because good old mom and dad couldn't reconcile their own notions of acceptability with their son's truth. At some points he and his family talked, but little more. At other times, even simple conversations were cut off. And while the familial estrangement was tough on the nineteen-year-old college student for a number of obvious reasons, there was another element of it that upset Zac on perhaps an even deeper level. That major issue: He, a person of faith, was no longer welcome in the church he had always known as his spiritual home. This forced schism created a hole within him that he was always struggling to fill.

Determined to find a prayer home if not a parental one, Zac would ask me at least three times a month to wake up early on a Sunday morning and attend services with him at a new place he'd discovered: The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. A social justice-minded, gay-accepting oasis in a land chock full of non-welcoming Southern Baptists, this was a church, Zac would tell me, that would allow us to be who we were. This was a home, he would say, where we'd feel just as free as we did in any club or bar. TVUUC, he was convinced, was where both the hymns and the vibes were genuinely good-natured. He was an immediate acolyte.

Zac's enthusiasm in speaking the church's praises was undeniable, and I was thrilled for the friend who I looked at like a younger brother. This was a new path that had made him see something I was always trying to tell him: That "gay" and "God" were not oil and water. And if this church was having this effect on him, a young man who was remarkably well-adjusted in the face of so much adversity, I couldn't help but believe that a place like this might literally save the lives of those not-as-well-adjusted young gays who were just about ready to give up. So I too was an instant fan and supporter of this religious outlet, if from afar.

Well this morning, that same church was brought back to my mind for far less pleasant reasons. The possibility that it was for anti-gay reasons adds an extra level of distress:

Rest. Peace.

2 killed in Tennessee church shooting; suspect charged [CNN]
Several people shot at gay affirming church in Knoxville [Out & About]

**UPDATE: Hatred of "liberal views," inclusing gay acceptance, has been confirmed:

Police: Accused shooter hated liberals, expected to be killed [Knox News Sentinel]

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Your thoughts

Zac wasn't one of the injured was he? Sorry for them all...and yes we don't know the 'awful hate words he spewed yet.' .... at a children's play! At least he didn't shoot at the stage apparently.

Posted by: LOrion | Jul 28, 2008 10:54:19 AM

I too attended this same church. My lover of 13 years was always a spiritual person and it grated on him that we didn't attend church. I have never been a churchgoer since childhood when my mother was raped by our preacher during my father's hospitaliztion. We tried the MCC church in Knoxville but felt that it was not for us. When we attended the Unitarian Church, we immediately felt a warm embrace for us as a couple and kept attending until we left the area a few years ago. To give you an idea of the christian values in Knoxville, when we told a few relatives what we had found in the church, we were told that there was a problem. That the Unitarian Church was not truly "Christian". This from a close relative that was a member of a Southern Baptist Church in a town nearby, my grandmother. It was sad that the fellowship of various cultures, denominations and people attending this church provided for us what we felt was the true message of faith but did not subscribe to the rules as written by men through the centuries.

Posted by: glennmcgahee | Jul 28, 2008 10:55:26 AM

LOrion: No. I'm not sure if Zac currently attends the church (or even lives in Knoxville). Unfortunately we lost contact.

Glenn: Thank you for sharing you story. And yes, I too experienced some of the "that's not a TRUE christian church" mentality during my years in Tennessee.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Jul 28, 2008 11:17:00 AM

Thanks so much for sharing this story. I live in San Francisco, but I was born and raised in Knoxville. I didn't attend TVUUC, but I was there often for anti-war organizing meetings, for the Spectrum Youth Cafe (safe space for queer youth), for anti-death penalty events, etc. And Rev. Chris Buice was always out in the streets to support us and speak out at LGBT equality events. TVUUC is committed to peace and justice, and in East Tennessee that really takes some heart and courage. My heart goes out to them now.

Posted by: Kip Williams | Jul 28, 2008 1:33:43 PM

Yeah, this is horrible.

I wish I were surprised, as an almost lifelong Tennessean, but I'm not completely...

I'm not familiar with the church specifically, but I have Unitarian friends, and, when I go, I go to a peace-and-justice UCC congregation, so I, too, know the "that's not real Christianity" meme.

Being a Memphian, I've had at least a gazillion friends go to UTK, and I'm sure a few of them know the church. Sad.

Posted by: Evan | Jul 28, 2008 1:55:40 PM

To be fair... I don't think that the Unitarian Universalist Association claims to be Christian. On their site, they say:

"Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion with Jewish-Christian roots. It has no creed. It affirms the worth of human beings, advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth, and tries to provide a warm, open, supportive community for people who believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion."

I don't think that they can accurately be called "Christian".

But this doesn't make them less worthy or less spiritual. Certainly we wouldn't think that a shooting in a Buddhist, Jewish, or Sikh place of worship is justified or any less horrific than one in a Catholic or Baptist church.

Posted by: Timothy | Jul 28, 2008 2:56:12 PM

Oh lord, Jeremy. I think we ALL have go-go-boy looking pictures from our clubbing and partying days (daze?) LOL

I'm really shocked at the "christian" reaction about the shooting. If anything, it's proving who the REAL Christians are, and who's just a lunatic with a bible in hand.

Just because the church isn't preaching fire and brimstone 24/7, and enforcing a velvet rope, doesn't mean it's not a real Christian church. As a matter of fact, that's how it's SUPPOSED to be.

Posted by: Scott | Jul 28, 2008 4:53:58 PM

Thanks Jeremy. That was a beautiful piece.

Posted by: johnozed | Jul 28, 2008 7:30:28 PM

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