The shooter was a disgruntled trucker who had lost his job and his marriage, and he blamed liberal theology for ruining his life. He fed his mind with books whose titles read: “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” and “Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism.”
On July 27, 2008, he walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, where his ex-wife had been a member, took out a sawed-off shogun, and opened fire on the gathering of 230 people during the children’s production of “Annie.” He killed two people and injured six more before four members of the congregation wrestled him to the ground and disarmed him.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post:
Jim David Adkisson told police after the shooting that he was unemployed, depressed and ready to take his anger out on what he called an “ultraliberal” church that “never met a pervert they just didn’t embrace.”
He was referring, of course, to the Unitarian Universalist commitment to welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Though he intended his shooting spree to be a suicide mission, Mr. Adkisson is now serving a life sentence. But that is hardly a comfort to the families who still mourn the tragic loss of their loved ones.
I tell you this story because we cannot fully understand how we got to where we are if we don’t take the time to examine the origin stories that brought us to our present situation. Today’s topic is “Standing on the Side of Love: Re-Imagining Love for Valentine’s Day.” It sounds like a nice, feel-good theme to put a new spin on a tired commercialized holiday. But the Standing on the Side of Love initiative has its roots in the tragedy of the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville. From the deaths of our brothers and sisters in Tennessee comes a startling—and overwhelmingly simple—message of tolerance and love.
Lila Sommers of Battle Ground, Washington responded on a public blog the day of the incident:
My dear daughter-in-law was one of the victims shot in the head in front of her two sons, ages 3 and 5, and is in critical condition. I am in shock and can’t believe this happened in church—in a church that she believed would teach her sons to love and respect all people at all times.
But here’s the amazing part:
Tennessee Valley UU Church did exactly that. From the ashes of this tragedy, they found within themselves the flame of love and compassion and respect for all people. They held vigils, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and support from the interfaith community. Within two weeks of the shooting, President William Sinkford of the Unitarian Universalist Association had put a full-page ad in the New York Times. The headline read: “Our Doors and Our Hearts Will Remain Open.” In the middle of explaining the tragedy, Reverend Sinkford includes a prayer for the shooter.
The text of the article concludes, “We will not live in fear. We will meet hatred with love. We will continue to work for justice. Our hearts…remain open. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. We invite you to stand with us.”
This was the beginning. A congregation, faced with a horror beyond imagining, made a choice. Instead of reacting in fear, they chose to set aside their fear and act in love.
Within a year of the shooting, they had become a “Welcoming Congregation,” which is the Unitarian Universalist designation for congregations who openly affirm, support, and actively promote human rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community.
Within a year, the Tennessee Valley congregation’s membership had swelled to over 500 members.
And within a year, Standing on the Side of Love was born.
Reverend Chris Buice, the minister at Tennessee Valley, said that the new public advocacy campaign would be about the “positive bystander” effect. Bullies often are empowered because nobody takes action. “We’re not all going to agree,” he said, “but we have to respect the dignity of every person. That’s the vision: a love bigger than our disagreements.”
And so Lila Sommers, along with people across the nation who were touched and shocked by these events, was given good news. Her grandsons were part of a church that taught them to love and respect all people at all times. Lila Sommers also received the good news that her beloved daughter-in-law, Tammy, who had been shot in the head, survived, and was able to return to her two sons.
A year later, Tammy Sommers had regained full health, and was more active in the church and the Knoxville community than ever. She refuses to dwell on the shooting, instead teaching her sons about the value of love and forgiveness in the face of tragedy.
In the face of love, courage, and commitment like that, how can our human hearts do anything but respond? As our song earlier asked us: Do you hear in your soul? All the dreams, all the dares, all the sighs, all the prayers—they are yours, mine and theirs. Do you hear? Do you hear?
Once the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was launched, it quickly encompassed more issues than the shooting in Tennessee. It became the face of public advocacy, championing gay rights and humane immigration reform. Though it was started by the Unitarian Universalist Association, it is designed to appeal to anyone, of any faith, who wants to stand on the side of love and lend their support to human rights issues.
A year ago, when Standing on the Side of Love was getting ready to celebrate its first anniversary, they announced that Valentine’s Day 2010 was going to be the first National Standing on the Side of Love Day. I found out about this challenge to re-imagine love in an email, and since I had just been invited to preach my first original sermon here at Groveland, I decided to support the cause. After all, it seemed like a straightforward enough topic.
I preached right here on Valentine’s Day last year. I delivered a sermon about how celebrating love involves more than observing a commercialized holiday with chocolates and roses and unrealistic expectations. I dare to say it wasn’t a bad sermon; but I see now that it was far from complete.
Little did I know at the time what the future of Standing on the Side of Love held for me.
This past June, at the UU General Assembly here in Minneapolis, I sat in the audience as Unitarian Universalists from around the country engaged in a heated debate about Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation and whether or not to boycott our own General Assembly in 2012, which is scheduled to take place in Phoenix.
At the peak of the argument, Salvador Reza, leader of Puente Arizona, came to the podium and invited us to come to Phoenix in 2012. He wanted us to see what was happening with our own eyes. He wanted us to witness, and if we were willing, to help. So rather than crossing the metaphorical picket line, Mr. Reza was asking us to join it.
Then Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Church in Phoenix, asked us not to wait until 2012. She asked us to come now, and to participate in the National Day of Non-Compliance on July 29th, 2010, which was sponsored by Standing on the Side of Love. On this day, she told us, the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070 would go into effect. People’s human rights would be trampled as the sheriff’s deputies raided private residences and tore families apart. Racial profiling still makes fear a constant presence in Phoenix, and the people there desperately need a sign that there is still love in this world.
So I went to Phoenix to answer the call for love, peace, and justice. I went, and when I got there, I met hundreds of wonderful people—clergy and lay people, Unitarian Universalists and Muslims and Catholics and Jews and Episcopalians, white people and black people and brown people and all the colors in between. On that day, there was an outpouring of such support, such caring, and such bravery that I was humbled to be even a drop in that powerful tide of human compassion.
A few of us decided to risk arrest and participate in an act of civil disobedience. We marched into the street in front of the Wells Fargo building where the police had already blocked off the intersection. We formed two circles and linked arms, facing out toward the chanting crowds of yellow-shirted people. One circle stood; the other sat. The pavement was hot enough that we needed mats to sit on, or else we would have been badly burned.
Meanwhile, the crowds continued their chanting.
Meanwhile, the police began closing in.
The tension in the air was as palpable as the oppressive heat and the monsoon humidity. The media were everywhere. It would have taken very little for something to spark a violent situation.
And as the crowds shouted around our little band of protesters, I began to sing:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace….
When I breathe out, I breathe out love….
The others in the middle of the street immediately joined in, and we sang under the hot Arizona sun for over an hour before the police surrounded us, asking if we understood we were about to be arrested.
We kept singing.
One at a time, the police asked us to stand, cuffed our hands behind our backs, and walked us over to the police van. The ministers who were arrested were defrocked by the police in the middle of the street, their stoles and collars shoved into plastic bags.
We kept singing.
As we rode through the streets of Phoenix in that sweltering van, we sang our song. By the time we arrived at the jail and had to stop singing, we had been doing it for so long that I felt as though I had gone deaf and mute, not having those words pass my lips and echo in the air around me.
I won’t spend too much time telling you what it was like inside the jail. Suffice it to say that it was brutal, and that most people treat their dogs better than we were treated by the sheriff’s department.
We were fed less than a dollar’s worth of food in the 27 hours we were there.
We were given nothing soft to sleep on, or even a blanket. More experienced inmates snatched up the rolls of toilet paper to use as pillows. They advised us to stuff one of our dinner rolls into our shoe and use that to protect our heads from the cold cement floor.
Guards made sure we were awakened periodically through the night, never allowing us to rest. Sometimes they marched us into the hallway. In a military setting, this qualifies as low-level torture.
But all in all, we had it easy. The guards were on their best behavior for these privileged white prisoners.
Raina, in jail on a felony charge for possession of a marijuana pipe, had her nose broken when a guard smashed her face into a cement wall at 2am.
Audrey, an African American UU protester from California, was confined to a wheelchair because of her arthritis. She was left in solitary confinement the entire time we were in jail, unable to use the toilet, terrified out of her mind, and taunted by the guards that she didn’t want to be with us, because why would a bunch of white people care about a black woman?
Sondra, an epileptic woman who got swept up in the protests, was denied her medication for 24 hours. We promised to hold her if she started seizing.
Pregnant women were not provided with any special treatment or comfort. There have been cases in the past of pregnant women losing their babies in Arizona jails because they have been denied medical treatment.
And then there was Miguel, an Hispanic man who wasn’t trying to get arrested. The sheriff’s deputies (not to be confused with the Phoenix police) dragged him out of a crowd on the sidewalk. They hauled him roughly into the jail as he shouted, “Please, you’re hurting me! I’m not resisting arrest! I’m not resisting!” The next time anyone saw him, he had been badly beaten.
This is why the work of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is so incredibly vital. No living creature on this earth deserves to be treated the way our brothers and sisters are treated in Arizona. And that is only one aspect of the campaign for human rights, protecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have certain privileges—namely, “we” aren’t treated like “those people.” That’s a power differential right there. As soon as things can be segregated into “us” and “them,” the balance is uneven.
The idea behind this sort of public advocacy campaign is that we harness what privilege we have to help those who don’t have the same kind of protection. In our bright yellow shirts, we have become a visible marker, telling the world that the Love People are here, and we’re not leaving until every man, woman, and child has access to their inalienable human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—regardless of how they dress, what gender they identify as, whom they choose to love, what color their skin is, or what particular patch of earth they were born on.
As Martin Luther King tells us, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The only solution is to love. Love all the people with all your heart. Then life will be given the shape of justice. As Mary Oliver reminded us this morning, “It’s simple. You, too, have come into this world to be filled with light, and to shine.”
So go forth. Love. Shine. So may it be.
This sermon was presented on February 13, 2011 to Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Paul, Minnesota where I am serving a quarter-time internship. Responsive Reading #584 (“A Network of Mutuality” by Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Hymns #112 (“Do You Hear?”) and #123 (“Spirit of Life”) were used from the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. Hymn #1009 (“Meditation on Breathing”) was used from the UU hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey. Readings included “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, and excerpts from Faith Without Certainty by Paul Rasor.