Inside Tennessee faith communities as they grapple with grief and anger

Firearms


It’s one of the holiest times of 2023 and yet it started with a tragic shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville that left seven people dead.

When the terror happened — notably at a school associated with a local church, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Green Hills — holy days for Muslims, Christians, Jews and some Hindus had already started or were around the corner.

But Middle Tennessee’s faith communities adapted and made space for congregants to reflect and pray for the victims and for solutions to the problem, with some faith groups even modifying special holy day traditions.

Between Friday, March 31 and Sunday, April 2, journalists with The Tennessean visited 40 faith communities in eight cities across Middle Tennessee, to check-in on the spiritual well-being of congregants.

The coverage area stretched 2,400 square miles and included reporting from centers of worship representing 10 Christian denominations and five other religious and spiritual traditions.

Here are those stories:

West End United Methodist Church, Nashville

The Rev. Carol Cavin-Dillon, 54, isn’t always explicit in advocating for change, she admits. But the pastor at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville was clear in her messaging during a 12-minute sermon last Sunday, using the despair felt by Jesus’ disciples in the wake of his crucifixion to make sense of the cloud of hopelessness hanging over the city. 

“I believe in the Kingdom of God … and it’s not meant for us to be carrying around AR-15s,” Cavin-Dillon said. “Our children should be safe in school. That is the loving community and kingdom we are continuously called for, and it’s not the powers of the world that will get us there.

“It is the power of persistent love.” 

It was Palm Sunday, and the service reflected the Holy Week – even as Nashville grieved in the days following the Covenant School shooting. 

The service began and ended with children in focus. Twelve children waved palm leaves while singing “Hosanna in the Highest” to open the service.

At the end of service, Cavin-Dillon held up a picture given to her by a child earlier in the morning. With three orange crosses positioned on a red hill with a blue sky, the child wrote three sentences:

God is with us

Jesus died for us

You live on

— Chistopher Thomas, The Tennessean

Church of the City, Nashville

Pastor Matt Smallbone fell asleep Monday night holding hands with his child, who was terrified to go to school the next day. The devastating effects of the shooting came in waves for his wife and four school-age children.

Sunday morning, Smallbone stood before Church of the City in downtown Nashville and spoke about grief, and what the story of Jesus and the Bible says about it. 

The several hundred gathered, a typical gathering for the church, were reverently quiet as Smallbone laid out advice from mental health experts, tips on navigating social media during tragedy and a Biblical framework for lament, grief, hope and healing.

The sermon wrapped around the theme of community as an essential part of grieving – something Jesus modeled.

“Jesus needed His people,” Smallbone said. “Jesus named His pain.”

People in the community shared stories about where they were when they heard the news of The Covenant School shooting. In line at a grocery store. Leaving a meeting. In the middle of class or a workday. 

During the sermon, Smallbone prompted people to share their emotions, how they were feeling. Some named anger. Others sadness. Others fear. 

The service closed as the congregation sang “It Is Well with My Soul” – a well-known hymn penned by Horatio G. Spafford in 1873 after his wife and four daughters drowned in a boating accident, Smallbone reminded the crowd.

Some wiped tears away while others raised hands in worship, seemingly reaching for the kind of peace and grace that surpass even the deepest of pain, singing: 

When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul

— Rachel Wegner, The Tennessean

Hillsboro Church of Christ, Nashville

In the halls of Hillsboro Church of Christ, an air of quiet reverence was prominent as worshipers filled the sunny sanctuary for the Sunday morning service.

Just 1.7 miles from The Covenant School, church members seemed acutely aware of the emotional weight of the past week: red ribbons, honoring the school colors of The Covenant School, lined the outside of the facility while a Metro Nashville Police officer parked outside the doors in watchful vigilance.

On the screen inside the sanctuary, motivational phrases rotated, including a calming meadow superimposed with the words “You’re armed and ready, even on the darkest days….I will not be afraid. You are with me.”

“Our community is hurting now,” youth minister Joseph Makin said. “This past week was tough. We went through a lot in our community. But no one is going through anything harder than our friends at Covenant Presbyterian and School this morning.”

A short video clip showcasing the school was played for the congregation—in it, a beaming Principal Katherine Koonce can be seen, sitting among her pupils.

Audible crying could be heard in the church as congregants watched, with parents clutching their children tighter as the clip went on. 

“Creation itself groans,” said lay leader Joel Plunkett during a prayer for the families affected by the shooting. “Our hearts are so heavy and sad. We’re short of words to explain our hurt.”

Plunkett named each victim, praying for them individually, including the shooter.

“I pray for the family of (the shooter) that committed this great evil,” he said. “I know they’re looking for understanding and comfort. While we and they may never understand, help them find comfort in you.”

— Angele Latham, The Tennessean

Most eyes belonging to the 50 or 60 people inside Green Hills Community Church were locked on the Rev. Charles Moore on Sunday morning.

“There are a lot of parallels on Palm Sunday and the confusion of this whole chapter (with Covenant),” Moore, 59, said, before adding that The Covenant School and St. Paul Christian Academy, his church’s school “feel such camaraderie.”

“It feels like it’s happening to our family,” he said.

A red banner with white lettering that read, “We Love Our Covenant Neighbors” hung near the entrance of the church. Red ribbons were tied around the trunks of trees on the property, a somber homage to The Covenant School and Covenant Presbyterian Church, which sit less than a half-mile away, just across Hillsboro Pike.

Inside the fellowship hall at Green Hills Community Church, the sounds of Bible pages turning interrupted a brief silence during an adult Sunday School class of around 20 people. Prayer requests were taken and shared for The Covenant School.

“We’re sad, we’re happy, we’re hopeful, we’re sobered, we’re broken,” Moore said. “Do not let us fail to see what you are calling us to see.”

“Looking at The Covenant School and their church is like looking into a mirror,” Moore said at one point. “If you and I do not recognize how close this tragedy struck, we aren’t looking. … This is a wakeup call if there ever was a wakeup call.”

— Paul Skrbina, The Tennessean

Congregation Micah, Brentwood

She broke before she even started her story.

Veteran Nashville elementary school teacher Heather Light, in front of her fellow worshipers at Congregation Micah in Brentwood, choked up Friday night before describing an active-shooter drill for her students a few years ago.

“I’m gonna read this to you as best I can,” Light said before taking deep, ragged breaths for 10 seconds.

Light describes the 2017 drill, where her scared first graders looked at her the whole time.

“We watch each other — these 6 year olds and I. They look to me as strength and security. They really do,” Light said, taking some more ragged breaths.

“But this world is chipping away at my strength. Sometimes in large gatherings I wonder and imagine. I can’t help but look around and think — could it happen here?” she said.

“It could. It does. With alarming regularity. It happens.”

Later in the 90-minute service, the 50 or so congregants heard from the Rev. Nathan Parker, pastor at Woodmont Baptist Church, where most Covenant School parents and students were reunited the day of the shooting.

Parker conceded he first fought the idea that he and his congregants experienced trauma. “We weren’t first responders,” Parker said. “We didn’t rush toward automatic gunfire.”

He changed his mind after a conversation with his wife.

“When I close my eyes, all I can see is that body cam footage” from Metro Police officers who shot and killed the shooter, the pastor told his wife. “I wish I hadn’t watched that.”

“You have trauma,” she said.

“I said, ‘No, that’s not trauma.’ But she was right.”

Two video screens filled with the faces of the six shooting victims behind her, Rabbi Laurie Rice urged action to stop future school shootings.

“Faith without works is dead,” she said.

“We don’t need our legislature to take time for reflection or to commission a study. We need them to pass laws that will keep our children safe. … It’s up to all of us to demand to continue for a better and safer world for our kids.” 

— Brad Schmitt, The Tennessean

First Mt. Juliet Church

The Rev. Phillip Dunn, 42, led the congregation in a solemn time of prayer specifically for The Covenant School.

“We should pray and ask for God’s comfort for each of them,” Dunn said. “And it is a reminder that as believers, that we have been called to carry on the work of the Lord.” 

The Covenant School campus was pictured on a large video screen with the words “Pray for Nashville Covenant,” as Dunn prayed in the front of the church’s new worship center.

About 15 to 20 in attendance also came to the front to kneel as Dunn prayed and those in their seats bowed and were solemn in the second of two worship services the church holds on Sundays.

Mt. Juliet Christian Academy, a private Christian school and a ministry of the church, shares the North Mt. Juliet Road campus. The school was included in Dunn’s prayer, which emphasized hope and overcoming fear.

“With your spirit protect us from evil on this campus,” Dunn prayed as soft music played underneath the pastor’s voice.

First Mt. Juliet Church, a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated congregation, is familiar with tragedy on a direct level.

Its campus on North Mt. Juliet Road was in the path of the March 2020 tornado that inflicted damage to its facilities. Two longtime members of the congregation, James and Donna Eaton, were killed at their home.

There are few physical reminders of the tornado on campus now with a spacious new sanctuary connected to a commons area that opened earlier this year. The church typically draws more than 1,000 overall to campus on Sundays.

“And ultimately Lord this world is coming to you and it is a sure hope, it is a sure confidence,” Dunn prayed. “And we know, that Lord, you are victorious in and through even death and there is, but just a moment of separation for those who know you, for all of eternity will be under you renown and your authority…”

— Andy Humbles, The Tennessean

The Village Chapel, Nashville

At the base of the lectern from which Kim Thomas addressed The Village Chapel congregation on Sunday were seven white lilies. 

They grew from pots wrapped in shiny purple paper, one for each person who died in The Covenant School shooting. One was for Audrey Hale, the shooter and child of Village Chapel members Ronald and Norma Hale. 

“Many of you have asked about the Hale family,” said Thomas, who co-founded the church with husband Jim, who serves as the senior pastor. “We do love them and are doing our best to love and take care of them in this unusual situation.”

Norma Hale is the coordinator for volunteers and the meals team at the church, according to her LinkedIn profile. Thomas said Hale’s primary worry was for “absolutely everyone else.”

“She’s so concerned for all those others who are grieving,” Thomas said. 

The early April sunlight passed red and green buds as they were slowly unfurling into foliage and filled the chapel. A five-member band played songs, including “Lord, from Sorrows Deep I Call.” 

It was Palm Sunday and Jim Thomas took his congregation through Matthew 27:32-66, which depicts the crucifixion. Eventually, Thomas addressed the “broken” world.

“The power of the cross is an offer for the kind of transformation, the kind of salvation, that is the only real solution to what is wrong with this world,” Thomas said.

Soon the service ended. As parents left, they stopped in the doorways of the rooms where their children had been attending Sunday school. 

By them, a middle aged man stood watch. He was wearing a shirt that identified him as former law enforcement, as well as a belt with a gun on it.  

— Josh Keefe, The Tennessean

Woodland Presbyterian Church, Nashville

As the brunch crowd ambled late Sunday morning toward the nearby bars and restaurants around East Nashville’s 5 Points Neighborhood, a few dozen people holding palm leaves gathered outside Woodland Presbyterian Church.

Pastor Adrian White slowly recited the names of those who died in The Covenant School shooting before asking the congregation for a moment of silence. The quiet was punctuated by the rumbling traffic down busy Gallatin Avenue.

White somberly lamented the creation of “a world where violence is the answer to pain,” and said the moment was to honor both the victims and “all who are grieving, including all of us.”

Inside, Woodland Presbyterian leaders greeted a diverse and casually dressed congregation, telling them the church welcomes all races, cultures, and people of all gender and sexual orientation. 

Two young girls served as acolytes as the church’s pipe organist, a Nashville-based rock artist, led the group in song.

The service, featuring hymns, communion and readings from scripture, was informal. A small group of children played happily in the back corner of the church. 

But the sermon, delivered by lay leader Sarah Levy, delved into the weighty issues of the day. Levy spoke out against state lawmakers now pushing legislation targeting the LGBTQ community. She decried politicians who she said are remaining silent on the root causes of violence, but rather have “chosen to scapegoat trans people.”

“We can turn away from fear…turn to standing in solidarity,” she said. “Jesus knew suffering. He experienced it himself as a marginalized person.”

— Ben Goad, The Tennessean

Joy Church, Mt. Juliet

At Joy Church, a nondenominational church in Mt. Juliet where the dress is casual and the humor flows, little was different about Saturday’s 5 p.m. service. There were details of plans for next week’s Easter services and a report on a recent outreach event for first responders.

Then Senior Pastor Jim Frease, pacing in the sanctuary in front of giant video screens that flashed key points of the sermon, launched into the day’s lesson about being public with your relationship with God. Nowadays, Christians need to stand up and shine their light more brightly than ever, he said.

Mentioning “the tragedy that occurred here in Nashville,” he said, “We are living in very dark times. But I am telling you right now, there is no greater time to let our light shine.”

The crowd responded with applause.

“And you’re gonna see more and more darkness, it’s gonna get darker and darker,” Frease continued. “But you’re also gonna see more and more light. It’s gonna shine brighter and brighter. Therefore the contrast will be very, very stark. And there will be all kinds of people that will want to cross that chasm from darkness into light.”

— Heather Fritz, The Tennessean

St. Augustine’s Chapel, Vanderbilt, Nashville

A large crowd gathered outside Benton Chapel on Vanderbilt University’s campus on Sunday where St. Augustine Chapel parishioners attended the 9:30 a.m. Mass.

Normally, parishioners at the Episcopal church would sit in pews, but it was Palm Sunday, so throngs of parishioners stood in sweaters and coats in 49-degree weather, picked up a palm branch from a church volunteer, and stood together as the musicians began playing “Show Me the Way.” 

Two guitarists, a banjo player and several vocalists joined in.

St. Augustine’s chaplain, the Rev. Becca Stevens, was clad in a fire red clerical robe known as a cassock and co-chaplain the Rev. Scott Owings wore a bright red stole.

Stevens explained that congregants would march into the church, place palm branches on the altar and proceed to their seats – a common tradition during Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, which precedes Easter.

What was different – and what Stevens said was a first in the church’s history – was that they would process silently, not in song, to reflect on the grief all were feeling because of the mass shooting at The Covenant School.

“Our job is not to change the world,” Stevens said. “Our job is to change so we can love the world better.”

The Mass was divided into four parts, reciting the Passion of the Christ from the Gospel of Luke, with musical interludes. While there was not a traditional sermon, Owings asked for prayers for the three children and three adults slain at Covenant and also for the suspect, saying only their first names.

— David Plazas, The Tennessean

Lake Providence Missionary Baptist Church, Nashville

The Rev. H. Bruce Maxwell stood in the pulpit before some 250 congregation members at Lake Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville and called every teacher, student and their parents before the altar. They stretched from wall to wall, each holding hands with their neighbors. 

Before preaching his sermon, the 71-year-old pastor questioned Tennessee’s permitless carry law and how to balance 2nd Amendment rights. He and his family hunted on his childhood farm. But he suggested semi-automatic assault style rifles should be exclusively reserved for military use. He expressed the dire need for mental health screenings, particularly for firearm purchases.

Deacons dressed in one accord, adding gold ties and pocket squares to their black suits. But not Maxwell, who normally blends in with the deacons. Not on this day. 

He wore a red tie and pocket square with his pinstriped black suit as tribute to the six lives lost in the Covenant shooting. As pastor at Lake Providence for 46 years, Maxwell spoke of his prayer walks outside his South Nashville home at the beginning of each week, asking God what his church flock needs to hear from their pastor in the upcoming sermon. 

On this Sunday, he remembered his childhood, matriculating through Metro Nashville Public Schools and growing up at Lake Providence — two locations in the 1960s that were considered the two safest places to be. Not anymore, he said. 

Today, armed security encamps both, and Lake Providence is no different. “We got it here y’all and we gonna keep it too. Because we’re gonna try our best to keep you safe.” 

Maxwell encouraged the congregation to keep hope in God and His sovereignty, citing John, 16:33.

“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

— Drake Hills, The Tennessean

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Clarksville

Parishioners at Clarksville’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church grabbed a few palms and sat in glossy wooden pews as they waited for service to begin.

More than 400 people settled in, spilling beyond the pews to a row of chairs in the church’s common area. 

Sunday marked the start of Holy Week, considered the most important week in the Catholic faith, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Guests were asked to join the Rev. Jacob Dio outside for a blessing of the palms. The sun was visible through the clouds as Dio flung holy water from a gold scepter.

Clad in red and gold over a white robe, Dio began blessing the palms as church bells rang in the background.

He called the Covenant School shooting “heartbreaking.”

Dio offered prayers for the three children and three adults killed.

The congregation said, “hear our prayer” in unison.

As communion was held, parishioners sang, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.”

— Craig Shoup, The Tennessean

The Axis Church, Nashville

The past week brought a sense of bereavement and overwhelming loss to Nashville.

Within the humble walls of The Axis Church, a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated congregation, it was no different. 

Don Logan, a non-staff pastor, offered words of strength.

“The city suffered this week,” he said. “We are all praying for the survivors.” 

Members of the church embraced each other tightly, offering prayers, laughter, and warm welcomes akin to a communal benediction, filling each other’s empty emotional and spiritual cups.

— Liam Kennedy, The Leaf-Chronicle

The Table, Nashville

Congregants of The Table waited outside locked doors ahead of Palm Sunday service.

Messages of love and belonging covered the walls of the chapel of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Nashville, where The Table meets on Sunday evenings. The Table, an LGBTQ-centered community, is its own congregation but like First Evangelical Lutheran Church, is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Seven people sat in wooden pews as the sermon echoed through the sanctuary, a far cry from the normal headcount, though a livestream of the service gained almost 200 views overnight, said the Rev. Dawn Bennett, who leads The Table.

“You have undoubtedly heard about our events this week,” Bennett said at the start of service.

A recorded video message from the Rev. Kevin Strickland, bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA offered support for the congregation.

“This has been a really hard week … Know that in addition to standing with you as siblings of faith who identify as LGBTQIA+, we need to demand action when it comes to the insane ways in which we have allowed guns to take priority over human lives,” Strickland said.

“We spend more time concerned over drag queens … or over not giving people adequate attention to medical care because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. We need to spend way more time on gun control and legislation.”

A candlelight vigil was held in remembrance of The Covenant School shooting victims.

“Beloveds, I have done far too many vigils this week,” Bennett said. “As of Thursday, I think I had done three or four, I can’t remember, but I do remember this: not a vigil in this city lifted up the seventh name of the person who died by gun violence. And I refuse to do another vigil without lifting up that person’s name.”

She took a lighter and illuminated seven tea candles, reading each name aloud.

“All God’s children and the sanctity of all life matters,” she said.

— Katie Nixon, The Tennessean

Woodmont Hills Church, Nashville

Woodmont Hills Church Lead Minister Jeff Brown opened two Palm Sunday services with a prayer.

“It’s hard to imagine what our sisters and brothers at Covenant are carrying this morning. Lord, we beg you to be close. Do more than what we can do by ourselves.”

He spent time acknowledging the fear, anger, frustration, confusion, grief, gratitude and despair so many people are experiencing. 

The church had opened its doors Monday after the tragedy to anyone who needed a place to pray. On Sunday, churchgoers wrote messages and prayers that will be hand-delivered this week to Covenant.

Brown, whose own children’s schools were locked down the day of the shooting, grappled with the message to share on this Sunday. 

He ended up coming back to the planned text of Matthew 27 for Palm Sunday because he said the cross is the place to come with fear, anger, sadness and guilty gratitude. 

Brown told the congregation that Jesus knows what forsakeness feels like. “Here in the shadow of the cross, we are assured that God gets it.”

As Brown prayed at the end of his message, he paused for all to pray their own prayers. “Take time to communicate,” he said. “Maybe there are things you have carried all week but haven’t addressed yet.”

— Vicky Travis, The Tennessean

First Unitarian Universalist Church, Nashville

Unitarian Universalists, by principle, tend to be liberal-minded with hearts that bleed. They preach compassion and understanding and inclusion as well as a deep commitment to social justice and reform. 

Sunday morning at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, located near The Covenant School in Green Hills, touched on varied emotions.

This was acknowledged as a time for healing and comfort — the service ended with the rousing hymn “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers — yet for some, it’s also a time for anger and “good trouble,” in the words of the late-U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Such was indicated Sunday by clear calls for legislative action.

“This community,” said the Rev. Diane Dowgiert, the lead minister, “is strong enough to hold both.”

A native of the Denver area, Dowgiert was previously associated with a church near Columbine High School in Littleton.

“We are resilient,” she said, “but we are not OK in the aftermath of devastating loss.”

Several in attendance patted or wiped away tears as Dowgiert spoke, and she didn’t delay reaching the topic or mince words once there.

She named each of the six Covenant victims and the shooter in a prayer for “grace” and “solace.” She prayed for “any fear we feel to make us prudent but not timid.” For “tears of sadness to soften the places that have become hard.” And for “lawmakers that they may find a way to end our nation’s unholy obsession with guns.”

Dowgiert called on Tennessee’s legislators to “spend less time banning books and drag shows” and to “spend more time on compassionate laws and allocation of resources” to boost schools and health care access and “limit access to weapons of war.”

— Gentry Estes, The Tennessean

Nashville First Baptist Church

Nashville First Baptist Church of Nashville spent its Sunday services trying to find hope when expectations are crushed. It was the theme of its Palm Sunday dual services led by transitional interim pastor Darrell Gwaltney and Gary Morgan, pastor of urban mission.

More than 100 people attended both its traditional and contemporary services in downtown Nashville, and in the wake of The Covenant School shooting, First Baptist was focused on creating an environment of love.

“It’s been a week of crushed hopes,” Morgan told those attending the traditional service. “I keep hearing these phrases over and over, ‘I don’t understand. I’m so angry. I’m so confused’.”

But Gwaltney, a 62-year-old retired dean of Belmont University College of Theology and Christian Ministry, didn’t want to indulge in what he described as the darkness that can surround us. Instead, he offered a chance to show what First Baptist and others in the city are willing to do for each other.

“Our answer is love,” he said. “Love gives. You can be a hardened NRA guy. I love ya. You can be a passionate anti-NRA guy. I love ya. That’s the answer. We have to learn to love each other first.”

Gwaltney sat on his stool delivering the final 10 minutes of his sermon as the emotion of the moment began to take effect.

“This is what evil does,” he said. “It takes. It always does. It takes human lives. It takes families. It takes hopes, dreams and relationships.”

The St. Louis native, extended his arms and expressed a desire to love each other despite what has been a devastating and exhaustive week for Nashville and the faculty and students of The Covenant School.

“Sometimes it’s hard to hang on to hope after a week like that,” he said.

— George Robinson, The Tennessean

First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, Nashville

The theme of the Palm Sunday service at First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill was “finding triumph in the midst of tragedy.”

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Miller Smith Jr., spoke about the shooting at The Covenant School but the mid-air collision of two military helicopters that killed nine and this week’s tornadoes that brought death and destruction throughout the nation’s Midwest.

The church, located in downtown Nashville, is within a short walk of the Tennessee state Capitol.

“We’ve heard of it happening in other places around the nation, around the world,” he said. “But when it comes home to roost it’s a different kind of feeling.”

Smith said the community can take some solace in how police acted swiftly and more people weren’t killed at the school. He said the tragedy has also brought the community together to call for more regulations of guns.

He admonished House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, for likening a peaceful rally at the Capitol to an “insurrection” and suggesting that those in attendance, many of whom were teens and children, came with violent intent. Sexton later said his comments were misinterpreted and he was referring to three Democratic lawmakers who broke House rules to lead protest chants from the chamber’s floor. 

“But they came with the desire to get a message across. And we must understand that’s what communities do — they learn how to come together to get their message across not to destroy anything, ” Smith said. “This is what we need to do. That was a triumph.”

— Frank Gluck, The Tennessean

Grace Baptist Church, Springfield

At Springfield’s Grace Baptist Church, regular Sunday attendance is around 350 people.

Early in the service, deacon Otis Swallows led prayer.

“Be with the folks in Nashville,” he said.

Later in the service, the Rev. Steve Freeman expanded on that thought.

“We turn on the news, and it’s tragedy after tragedy,” he said. “There’s a lot more to come, but I want you to understand that we’re on the cusp of Jesus’ return. You know what I would think about in the time I have to reflect, I’d think about if Jesus were to come back today, where would I stand?”

Freeman said one day, this would all be over.

“One day, you’re going to turn it on the news, and they’re going to have it right,” he said. “One day, we’re going to be in a new place, a place called heaven. A place where there is no pain. A place where there is no sin. A place where there is no death. A place where there is no school shooting. A place where there is no natural disaster. Friend, we’re going to be in Heaven with God. But, only those who’ve accepted Jesus, so when God calls his bride home, are you going?”

— Nicole Young, The Tennessean

Spero Dei, Nashville

The faces were displayed on screens at Spero Dei, a nondenominational church. Three children and three adults who were killed March 27. 

Liz Perez, ministry director, read their names. A moment of silence and prayer followed. 

Under the hickory-colored, vaulted ceiling people of various races and ages wiped away tears. Sobs were the only sound in the Sylvan Park-area church.

“We ask that you would be with us as a city as we try to heal,” said Perez, who is the wife of a lead minister David Perez. 

Liz Perez delivered the sermon as her husband dealt with the sudden death of his sister.

She understood the congregation for Spero Dei — a Latin term that means trust God — might be feeling anguish for people they didn’t know, and maybe not understand why. 

“I know why. It’s trauma. It’s grief,” she said. “This is our home. Nashville is our home. These are our neighbors.” 

— Chris Gadd, The Tennessean

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Nashville

At the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Nashville, several children marked the beginning of Holy Week in front of the pulpit by waving palm fronds signifying Palm Sunday. 

The start of Holy Week, which marks Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, is sometimes seen as a celebration. But senior pastor Rev. Travis Meier outlined the central tension of Palm Sunday as he decried the loss of “innocents” in Nashville. 

Meier called for the congregation to mark Holy Week as part “protest against the profane and violent, and partly worship and proclamation of love, forgiveness and healing.”

The celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is sometimes seen as a celebration, but Meier outlined it as a counter-protest, a response to a military parade filled with armed soldiers and led by the Roman governor Pilate.

In contrast, Jesus entered the city on the back of a humble donkey to bring a movement of “peace, sustenance and healing” in contrast to “the powers of empire and violence and death.” 

“He doesn’t come in guns blazing, he comes in as a servant to the true God: the God of life and renewal,” Meier said. 

Though Meier didn’t mention Covenant by name, he then cited the “killing of innocents” in Nashville this week. 

“Immediately after the frenzy of political statements and public statements comes the litany that is all too familiar, that other parade that Pilate was leading: ‘We need more soldiers, we need more weapons, we need more defenses.’ That parade came into our community in a way that it never had before. It calls for more death, more systems of death, in the face of what is actually needed, which is sensible and reasonable,” Meier said. 

“The God whom we worship is never absent, and weeps with us in weeks like this week, and has very strong words about what it means to take care of a community. None of those words involve more weapons. God’s words involve presence, peace, reason. Jesus’ movement shook the status quo of the place in which he lived and these words of peace continue to provoke today.”

Meier said Jesus’ movement wasn’t without tension, pointing to his actions the next day at the temple where he overturned tables and drove out money changers.

“I fully believe if Jesus were here today, he would march with the high school students tomorrow as they make their way to the Capitol to protest injustice and protest madness. If you want to know where Jesus is on Holy Week, look for the ones who cry for justice.”

— Melissa Brown, The Tennessean

Iglesia Sagrado Corazon De Jesus, Nashville

Long lines of slow moving cars surrounded the Catholic Pastoral Center in Donelson.

People dressed in brightly colored vests waved flags, signaling available parking. Dozens of families walked hand in hand. Parents hurried their young children along, gently pulling them by their small hands and saying, “Vamos, vamos, vamos!”

Inside, people rhythmically swayed back and forth to the sounds of drums and tambourines. Others waved woven crosses made out of corn husks.

David Ramirez and Alejandro Godinez started by giving thanks for community and for the opportunity to be able to gather.

“We are so thankful with our God to have this community … But on this day we are especially grateful to our God because we see the fruits of this parish,” they said in Spanish.

— Diana Leyva, The Tennessean

St. Edward Church, Nashville

The Rev. Andrew Bulso spoke to his congregation during mass at St. Edward Church, a Catholic parish in South Nashville. In his homily, he described the shooting at the Covenant School as tragic, unthinkable, incredibly sad and infuriating. He said moments like these can instill great fear and make people ask why God permits suffering. 

Even absent tragedy, solemnity hangs over a Palm Sunday mass. The church’s statues and crosses are draped in purple shrouds in anticipation of Holy Week. Each parishioner received a palm frond to hold and pray over in commemoration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion. 

Bulso and deacon Brian Edwards process to the altar in their blood-red robes, symbolizing martyrdom and sacrifice, casting incense upon the congregation from their swinging thurible. 

Following a full reading of the Passion, Bulso focused in his homily on how to move forward after tragedy. He called the Covenant School shooting unthinkable. He said he’s infuriated that school shootings persist. He spoke about how natural it is to question faith in moments like these by asking why a benevolent God would allow evil and suffering in his world. And he takes no solace in saying those questions don’t have answers. But he’s comforted by knowing faith is a response to those mysteries.

“Faith lets us know in the midst of grief, anger and fear that we are not alone,” Bulso said. “Our Lord is with the victims. He grieves with them and lets them know we are with them. Lord enters into suffering so we know we’re not alone. By his grace may we never forget.”

— Nick Suss, The Tennessean

Cornerstone Church Nashville, Nashville 

By the time pastor Jeremy Austill took the stage at a packed Cornerstone Nashville, a sprawling Pentecostal church in Madison, the crowd was already animated. The Cornerstone Church band, a fully amped rock outfit, had performed a blistering mini-set that had some of the hundreds-strong congregation swaying in front of the stage. 

The songs’ messages of worship lifting up heavy hearts, even in darkness, carried extra weight in the dark, arena-like room, filled only with music, voices and the energy of the congregation.  

Austill’s message did not often veer from the scripture in the hour he spent on stage. He spoke of Palm Sunday, of the Last Supper, of the significance of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection. 

He doesn’t often speak to societal issues, he acknowledged.  

“But this week has been tough on our city as those that are part of Covenant School have experienced the worst of sin and darkness,” he said. “They experienced the worst of violence and rage. And it was sad and it was absolutely heartbreaking to watch, and I’ve spent a lot of the week praying for our churches all over the city.” 

He led the congregation to pray for the lord to comfort the community, and to guide the children of Covenant, whose lives were irrevocably changed this week. 

“Lord we pray over those children. We, in faith, declare that they’re not going to live with PTSD, that this will not get to haunt or harass them the rest of their lives, that this isn’t going to get to influence the trajectory of their lives.” 

Many of the congregation swayed to the cadence of Austill’s sermon, eyes closed tightly as he called for the power of collective prayer. By the end, the energy of the room had been palpably lifted. As the congregation emerged into the bright spring sunlight an hour later, many left with smiles on their faces.  

— Mackensy Lunsford, The Tennessean

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Columbia

Bible school children twirled on the front lawn of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, after an early morning palm procession, as their white robes with pink, blue and purple sashes blew in the wind under a sunny, blue sky.

The growing church, nestled in historic downtown Columbia in Maury County held its usual three services of the Holy Eucharist on Palm Sunday.

Without specifically stating the tragedies in the Nashville community last week, the Rev. Christopher Bowlay, rector since 2015, addressed universal suffering as Palm Sunday begins Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday.

Bowlay talked of God’s infinite love and made meaning out of Jesus’s suffering on the cross. He said Christians did not lose the son of God to “feel sad or guilty or afraid. He came unto us because he already felt those things, and he doesn’t want us to feel that way ever again.”

Bowlay then addressed similar suffering in the world today.

“We live in a time of great distress with terrible things happening in our state, in our country, in our world,” Bowlay said. “When we look at the cross, we see suffering, but when God looks at the cross, he sees love.”

— Kerri Bartlett, Columbia Daily Herald

Belmont United Methodist Church, Nashville

Congregants trickled into the pews of the Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville on Palm Sunday, listening to the usual announcements about Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.

Organ music resonated off the sanctuary’s high ceilings as more than three dozen children streamed down the center aisle, arms outstretched, gleefully waving verdant palm fronds above their heads.

The Rev. Paul Purdue, the senior pastor, approached the lectern and paused, adjusting his glasses.  

Jesus, he said, embodies trauma the responses during Holy Week: He weeps, flips merchants’ tables inside the temple, curses a fig tree. 

“Friends, if you have cursed a fig tree this week, give yourself some grace,” Purdue said. 

Purdue acknowledged those tired of “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies rooted in gun violence. The church is clear on its position: the Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference approved a resolution last summer calling for sensible gun control. 

Purdue called on congregants to “find a way to keep these stories on the front pages of our consciousness, and let nothing distract our commitment to curb violence, fight for justice, end systemic racism, elect politicians with courage.”

Worshipers responded with a soft “Amen.” 

Prayer was different this Sunday, remembering the many victims of gun violence. The church prayed for victims, children whose lives were cut short, loved ones and people who turned to gun violence. They prayed for the seven, including the shooter, who died in The Covenant School.

On the table outside the sanctuary, pages encouraged churchgoers to reach out to their representatives to oppose bills lessening gun restrictions and push for “common sense” gun laws. A list of upcoming protests and public meetings was headed by a simple phrase written in marker: “We Show Up.” 

— Cassie Stephenson, The Tennessean

Mindful Nashville

On Saturday, Mindful Nashville, a meditation and mindfulness center in Germantown, held a special compassion practice led by spiritual leader and mindfulness practitioner Jennifer Wang.

Sunlight from a window on the second floor filled the space, hitting the green elephant ear plants. The quiet in the room matched the somber mood.

The practice is designed to alleviate the suffering so the Nashville community can plant seeds for wise action to create social change, a sentiment Wang personally connects with.

“When I see suffering with clarity, I cannot do nothing,” Wang said. “When I see the opportunity to do something, I know immediately I need to go.”

Once everyone found a comfortable position for the mindfulness practice, Wang invited participants to close their eyes.

During the practice, Wang said the names of The Covenant School shooting victims, presenting a moment to reflect on their lives.

A group discussion followed the meditation exercise. One participant, a teacher and parent, expressed her want for change but struggled with the current political climate.

Another person talked about processing the same political climate, mentioning the recently resurfaced Christmas photo of U.S. U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Columbia, and his family brandishing guns.

The inspiration for the practice came from Wang’s desire to plant those seeds of action, but to also ensure they grow in healthy soil.

“If we don’t come from a space internally that is caring for ourselves and for others, then we could go out there and take action that is harmful,” said Wang.

— LeBron Hill, The Tennessean

Watson Grove Baptist Church, Nashville

Backed by the minor key tones of a keyboard, the Rev. John Faison, Sr., senior pastor of Watson Grove Baptist Church, stood on a sparsely appointed wooden stage and notedit was a “rough week” for his congregation. 

“If you’re human or [especially] if you have children, you’ve been feeling and thinking about this,” he said about The Covenant School shooting. “It’s important to call the names of those who lost because they’re not statistics —they’re people with communities and families now dealing with the wake of this tragic loss.”

“I don’t know what courage it takes to get back on that school bus, to [metaphorically] anoint their heads with oil in concern that they would not be protected in a safe space,” Faison said in a sermon on a passage from Exodus. 

“Tornado drills make sense — mass shooting drills don’t. For those teachers leading those drills, their jobs should not cost them their lives,” Faison said. “When evil shows up, fear follows.”

— Marcus Dowling, The Tennessean

Church of the City, Franklin

Pastor Darren Whitehead solemnly approached the stage and addressed his congregation with a heavy heart.

He explained the message was going to be a bit of a pivot because he felt like “we needed to circle up as a church family.”

“Cindy Peak, who was one of the teachers who died, was with us in church last Sunday with her daughter Ellie,” he said. “Cindy was in church last Sunday hearing about Jesus and less than 24 hours later she was with Him.”

An audible gasp filled the auditorium.

Darren Whitehead, pastor of Church of the City in Franklin, Tenn., read a Liturgy over the congregation gathered the first Sunday after the Covenant School shooting.
Darren Whitehead, pastor of Church of the City in Franklin, Tenn., read a Liturgy over the congregation gathered the first Sunday after the Covenant School shooting.
Melonee Hurt

Whitehead spoke directly to those who are hurting during his sermon.

“God welcomes our confusion in moments like this. He welcomes our protests, he welcomes our frustrations, our anger and our fears,” Whitehead said. “Last week was a senseless act of evil.”

Instead of continuing with a sermon, Whitehead welcomed three Christian-based counselors to the stage to provide some guidance to help families work through their grief.

After talking through methods of grieving and ways parents can help children work through this pain in a panel-style discussion, Amy Alexander, a licensed marriage and family therapist, offered up an ancient tradition used in communities experiencing trauma.

Bowls of water were then passed throughout the 2,300-member congregation. That water was collected and will be poured onto the church’s community garden.

“Your tears will turn into fruits and vegetables we will distribute throughout this community,” Whitehead said.

— Melonee Hurt, The Tennessean

Woodmont Baptist Church, Nashville

The Rev. Nathan Parker, senior pastor of Woodmont Baptist Church, said he knows people are limping through their Sunday.

Woodmont is the church that served, spontaneously, as the reunification site for children and parents from The Covenant School.

Now, Parker said, Woodmont stands in hope-filled prayer for The Covenant School.

“We are called to grieve with hope,” he said, choking back tears. “To all who sin and need a savior: this church opens wide our doors again with a welcome from Jesus Christ.”

Bows of red and checkered ribbon fluttered gently in the breeze as parishioners of Woodmont Baptist Church found their way up the steps.

The bright spots of color lined the iron railing and sat proudly at pews inside the church sanctuary. They were tied in honor of the victims of The Covenant School shooting.

The children’s choir at Woodmont Baptist is small but mighty. Thirteen young boys and girls waved palm fronds above their heads, making their way to the altar.

After laying the palms on the lowest steps, the children took their places facing the congregation.

“Hosanna loud,

Hosanna,

The little children sing.”

— Molly Davis, The Tennessean

Otter Creek Church, Brentwood

Blake Farmer, a member and longtime reporter for Nashville’s WPLN who just recently left journalism, greeted and welcomed congregants in a smooth radio voice from the stage to open each of the church’s morning services. Nearing its 100th anniversary as a congregation, Otter Creek Church is located along Franklin Road in Brentwood, not far from Green Hills, and counts many faculty and staff of conservative Lipscomb University as members.

The names of the victims were solemnly read and then Farmer spoke. “This uniquely American tragedy,” he said. “This just rocked us.”

“I pray the fear that we feel now prompts us to act somehow — I don’t know what that is — but, Lord, light a fire under us, not to just throw up our hands but so that we can be part of a solution. Help us fix this, help us make this more like heaven on Earth.”

Otter Creek is located among the green fields of Brentwood

Its current building is 20 years old and modern. Its faith tradition dates back to the early 19th century and Middle Tennessee is “Jerusalem.” The Nashville area is the epicenter of a faith tradition that traces its roots to the American restorationist movement. This juxtaposition of old and new plays out in many ways, including two services each Sunday, one traditional and one contemporary.

The youth minister, David Knox, delivered the message on this Sunday morning.

Concluding a series on the Lord’s Prayer, Knox examined the final verse and how Christians are called to be a part of a different kingdom.

“True power is not earned by more and bigger guns,” he said, prompting a singular and bold “Amen!” from the pews.

His voice cracked as he spoke. “Prayer cannot be devoid of action.”

“Think about how hard it is for people in power to change their talking points even when kids are dead.” 

Knox concluded the second sermon somberly, looking drained. “As much as any week ever, as brothers and sisters,” he said, “we need to go in peace.”

— Michael A. Anastasi, The Tennessean

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Hermitage

About 700 Hindu worshippers gathered in the main assembly hall at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir on Sunday night.

They prayed for The Covenant School victims during a special two-hour ceremony celebrating the birth of the god Bhagwan Swaminarayan, whose spiritual teachings dwelt on devotion to family and community, non-violence, self-improvement and humility.

Worshippers held candles toward a stage set with iconography of Hindu deities. A group of men in white tunics beat on drums and recited prayers for peace, comfort, and enlightenment.

Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the birth of Hindu God, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and hold a Prayer for Peace at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir at the temple in Hermitage, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023. The Prayer for Peace event was held in response to the shooting at Covenant School.
Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the birth of Hindu God, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and hold a Prayer for Peace at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir at the temple in Hermitage, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023. The Prayer for Peace event was held in response to the shooting at Covenant School.
Nicole Hester / The Tennessean

Screens depicted videos of gurus from other parts of the world, who repeated the line, “May all see that which is good. May no one suffer. May the heavens be peaceful. May space and sky be peaceful. May the earth be peaceful. May God bring us peace.”

“We feel that prayer heals all,” Prathana Patel, a volunteer at the mandir, said in an interview. “We want to put out good vibes and strength to the whole community, and to offer our condolences. Prayer has more power to heal than anything else.”

Metro Council members Jim Shulman, Burkley Allen and Erin Evans participated in a ceremonial lighting of candles during prayers.

 — Sandy Mazza, The Tennessean

Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, Nashville

The Rev. Aaron Marble glared at his Sunday morning congregation, his eyes dotting about Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church as he explained two types of Christians in the wake of the Covenant School shooting.   

The Christians that move with prayer and purpose.Then there’s local, state and federal politicians that continue to offer thoughts and prayers. Later, the same fingers that send emails, letters and social media posts, offering condolences and consolation, fail to sit with political adversaries and type new legislation.

“So we don’t have to keep going through the same thing over and over,” said Marble, his inflections and tone building, a fuse of sadness, disappointment, frustration.

He knew gun owners were going to get mad at him. 

MeKiah Campbell has her baby, Amorra Campbell, dedicated by Pastor Aaron Marble while her son, Judah Campbell reaches, to his baby sister at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville , Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
MeKiah Campbell has her baby, Amorra Campbell, dedicated by Pastor Aaron Marble while her son, Judah Campbell reaches, to his baby sister at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville , Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Nicole Hester / The Tennessean

“Get these automatic rifles, assault weapons that are military grade out of the hands of people,” he said, his words carrying above hand claps, hand waves and calls of response. 

“It’s time.”

— Gary Estwick, The Tennessean

Calvary Chapel, Columbia

Pastor Tim Romero strapped on his guitar and took the stage at nondenominational Calvary Chapel in Columbia, strumming a few chords while he finished a prayer.

Romero addressed The Covenant School attack by calling on the congregation to share God’s message.

“I was praying about how to respond to that. It’s so tragic,” Romero said. “The Lord told me: There’s not a single thing on this Earth that you can run to that’s going to prevent these things from happening. There’s no savior on the horizontal. The savior is vertical, his name is Jesus.

“You cannot legislate righteousness. The one thing we can do is share the gospel with people – that changes hearts. Our nation has gone away from sharing Jesus, obviously, and we’ve seen the effects of that. There’s a world out there that is completely and totally lost, desperate, totally deceived. We have the words of life because we obtained them in Jesus, so let’s pass them on.”

— Sandy Mazza, The Tennessean



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