Tennessee faith communities make sense of tragedy during Holy Week


We visited more than three dozen religious services, finding hope, resilience and admonishments for action following The Covenant School shooting.

One hand rose in praise.

It belonged to Richard Koonce, who lost his wife in the shooting at The Covenant School. He was sitting seven rows from the back of Koinonia Church in Nashville’s Bordeaux neighborhood.

The pastor had looked into Koonce’s eyes.

Editor’s note: In the wake of the Covenant School shooting, many in our community are hurting. A cornerstone of our philosophy at The Tennessean and the USA Today Network is how we empower communities to connect, act and thrive. To that end, we deployed dozens of journalists – from news and sports writers to photographers and editors – to faith services across our entire region this past weekend.

We wanted to be there to capture how our community is dealing with this unimaginable grief but also document messages of hope and inspiration and how we as Tennesseans rely on each other during difficult times. – Michael A. Anastasi, vice president and editor

“Our beloved sister, Katherine Koonce, will rise again,” the Rev. Mika Edmondson said from the pulpit. “We are weeping with you and we count it a privilege to be able to walk with you.”

The pastor finished the thought with his eyes closed, a shake of his head and an “Amen.”  

It was a moment as powerful as any that happened across Middle Tennessee on Palm Sunday, the end of a week in which seven people were killed in a church school and the beginning of one of the most holy weeks of the year. Muslims, Christians and Jews are all observing major religious holidays with Ramadan underway and Easter and Passover around the corner. 

Between Friday, March 31 and Sunday, April 2, USA Today Network – Tennessee reporters, editors and photographers visited 40 faith communities in eight cities across Middle Tennessee, to check-in on the spiritual well-being of congregants after the tragedy at The Covenant School in Nashville, a school associated with Covenant Presbyterian Church in Green Hills. 

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.

Places of worship all around Middle Tennessee took time to acknowledge the Covenant School shooting which took place March 27.
Places of worship all around Middle Tennessee took time to acknowledge the Covenant School shooting which took place March 27.
Places of worship all around Middle Tennessee took time to acknowledge the Covenant School shooting which took place March 27.
Nicole Hester and Mark Zaleski/The Tennessean

So many faith leaders acknowledged the tragedies at The Covenant School where 9-year-olds Evelyn DieckhausHallie Scruggs and William Kinney along with staff members Katherine KoonceCynthia Peak and Mike Hill were shot to death.

In services both large and small, the most memorable moments included: 

  • At St. Augustine’s Chapel on Vanderbilt University’s campus, the regular Palm Sunday procession through the church which includes an enthusiastic song became a march in silence.
  • Red ribbons (The Covenant School color) decorated Hillsboro Church of Christ, Green Hills Community Church and Woodmont Baptist Church, all of them situated close to where the violence occurred.
  • At The Table in Nashville, they played a video from Bishop Kevin Strickland of the Southeast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America speaking enthusiastically about LGBTQ rights.
  • At Church of the City in Franklin, Senior Pastor Darren Whitehead ended his sermon by introducing a grief counselor who led a ceremony with bowls of water representing the tears shed over the tragedies.
  • At The Village Chapel, where the family of the shooter (who police have identified as Audrey Hale) attended, curate Kim Thomas acknowledged the good works coordinating volunteers and meals done by the Hale’s mother, Norma Hale.
Thoughts and prayers

Middle Tennessee’s faith communities first responded to tragedy befalling their neighbor in a way they know best: crying out to the heavens. 

“Creation itself groans,” said lay leader Joel Plunkett at Hillsboro Church of Christ, located just 1.7 miles from The Covenant School. “Our hearts are so heavy and sad. We’re short of words to explain our hurt.”

In a homily during mass at St. Edward Church in South Nashville, the Rev. Andrew Bulso said moments like the shooting can instill great fear and make people ask why God permits suffering.

At Watson Grove Baptist Church, the Rev. John Faison, Sr., said, “When evil shows up, fear follows.”

The heaviness manifested in tangible ways for some.

Congregation members hold their hands up during a service at Koinonia Church in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Congregation members hold their hands up during a service at Koinonia Church in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean

St. Augustine’s Chapel, an Episcopal congregation, modified its typical Palm Sunday tradition when more cheerful music leads congregants in a march into the chapel who then place palm branches on the altar. 

But this year started with a pregnant vocalist and a musician with a side-pedal guitar performing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Then, congregants walked in silently, not in song, to reflect on the grief all were feeling. The guitarist moved to the altar and continued playing with a fiddler at his side.

Other faith communities similarly modified holy day traditions. The night of the shooting, the Islamic Center of Nashville prayed for The Covenant School families and for elected officials to find solutions during Tarawih, a special nightly prayer Muslims only perform during the month of Ramadan, said Imam Ossama Bahloul. 

At BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Hermitage, about 700 people prayed for peace in a special ceremony observing the birth of the god Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Worshippers held candles, a group of men in white tunics beat on drums, and screens displayed videos of gurus chanting, “May no one suffer. May the heavens be peaceful.”

Some faith communities, like Koinonia, prayed specifically for Covenant families’ material needs. Cornerstone Church Nashville, a nondenominational Pentecostal congregation, prayed for their mental health needs. 

“We pray over those children,” said Cornerstone Pastor Jeremy Austill. “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 influence the trajectory of their lives.” 

Praying for all seven

Audrey Hale, the shooter killed by police, was part of several remembrance ceremonies. 

At Koinonia, Christina Edmondson, Mika’s wife, said Richard Koonce reminded the church to pray for seven families, not six. 

“God, if Richard can remind us to do that, then certainly we can do that. So we pray for each of those families right now, oh God,” Christina Edmondson said. “And we ask for a grace that does not require understanding.”

Like Covenant Presbyterian Church, Koinonia is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America and started through another local church, Christ Presbyterian Church.

Congregation members embrace during a service at Koinonia Church in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Congregation members embrace during a service at Koinonia Church in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean

At West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, the Rev. Erin Racine, pastor of spiritual formation, prayed for the six Covenant victims and mentioned them by name. Then she mentioned a seventh name: “Audrey.”

Police identified Hale as transgender, and Hale in recent months used he/him pronouns on social media —information that has also led to hateful rhetoric toward the LGBTQ community.

At The Table, an LGBTQ-centered community affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Dawn Bennett said the seventh name has not been said enough.

“Beloveds, I have done far too many vigils this week,” Bennett said. “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.”

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

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

Dealing with grief

The sermon at Church of the City in Franklin ended unusually.

Senior Pastor Darren Whitehead introduced Amy Alexander, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who offered up an ancient tradition used in communities experiencing trauma.

At Church of the City in Franklin on Sunday, April 2, the congregation participated in an ancient ritual where bowls of water, which represent tears, are passed.

Melonee Hurt

Alexander said community members would sit in a circle and pass around a bowl of water, which represents all of the tears shed in the community. Each person would dip their fingers in the water and let the excess drop off their fingertips, signifying tears dropping into the water. 

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.

One week earlier, Cynthia Peak, a substitute teacher at The Covenant School and one of the six victims, had attended the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated megachurch.

Lament for gun violence

Amid reverence for the Covenant victims, some faith leaders also took on gun violence.

“Get these automatic rifles, assault weapons that are military grade out of the hands of people,” said the Rev. Aaron Marble at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, his words carrying above hand claps, hand waves and calls of response. “It’s time.”

“We don’t have to keep going through the same thing over and over,” said Marble, who’s long been outspoken about gun violence. 

At Nashville First Baptist Church, transitional interim pastor Darrell Gwaltney said he loves both “a passionate anti-NRA guy” and “a hardened NRA guy,” but still considers gun violence as a problem. During his sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church, Gwaltney listed off statistics on mass shootings dating back to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

Nicole Hester/The Tennessean

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.

Light described 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.

Politics from the pulpit

While some faith communities specifically avoided politics, others leaned in.


At First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, the Rev. Diane Dowgiert called on Tennessee’s legislators to “spend less time banning books and drag shows” and “spend more time on compassionate laws and allocation of resources” to boost schools and health care access and “limit access to weapons of war.”

Some faith leaders asked politicians to speak up.

At Woodland Presbyterian Church in East Nashville, lay leader Sarah Levy preached against state legislation that many see as 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.”

Woodland Presbyterian, located in East Nashville and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a more progressive Presbyterian denomination, recently appointed Adrian White, who is trans, as its new interim pastor.

At First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Jr. also called out state lawmakers, specifically House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, for likening protesters at a March 30 rally to “insurrectionists.” Sexton later said his comments were misinterpreted and he was referring to three Democratic lawmakers who broke House rules to lead chants for gun control.

Smith’s church, located a short walk of the state Capitol, is affiliated with the Nashville-based American Baptist Churches USA, a historically Black denomination.

“They came with the desire to get a message across,” Smith said. “And we must understand that’s what communities do.”

Faith without works

Anchored in prayer, some groups recognized the need to do more.

“When I see suffering with clarity, I cannot do nothing,” said Jennifer Wang, spiritual leader and mindfulness practitioner, during a meditation practice at Mindful Nashville.  “When I see the opportunity to do something, I know immediately I need to go.”

Wang and other faith leaders mentioned upcoming protests against gun violence, including a student walk-out on Monday. 

The Rev. Travis Meier said at Nashville’s First Evangelical Lutheran Church, “I fully believe if Jesus were here today, he would march with the high school students as they make their way to the Capitol to protest injustice and protest madness.”

The student walk-out was among four demonstrations calling for gun reform in the past couple weeks. Also, faith groups, such as First Evangelical Lutheran, organized or participated in more than 15 prayer vigils in the days following the shooting.

Meier, in his sermon on Sunday, 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.”

In the same spirit, Belmont United Methodist Church erected a table outside the sanctuary with resources encouraging churchgoers to contact 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.”

A congregation member cries as the names of the victims of the mass shooting at Covenant School were read during a Palm Sunday service at Belmont United Methodist Church Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
A congregation member cries as the names of the victims of the mass shooting at Covenant School were read during a Palm Sunday service at Belmont United Methodist Church Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Zaleski / The Tennessean
One tragedy, two churches

Though dozens of faith communities turned their attention to the tragedy, very few were directly connected to the events. 

The one that was closest, Covenant Presbyterian Church, gathered for a service that promoted closeness. 

Candles adorned the sanctuary and set an intimate ambiance, while a string quartet led the congregation in serene worship. The service was closed to much of the public and the media, and a video recording later became available on YouTube.

The congregation met in a different building — at Christ Presbyterian Church — but heard from their own pastors, who emphasized the need for normalcy amid extraordinary devastation. 

“The world has changed since the last time we got together on the Lord’s day,” the Rev. Britton Wood said in his opening invitation to worship. “Some things are different today. Some things have changed. But the Lord remains the same.”

Covenant’s lead pastor, the Rev. Chad Scruggs, who did not speak at Sunday’s service, lost his daughter in the shooting.

It was just as personal for The Village Chapel in Nashville.

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

At the base of the lectern from which Thomas spoke 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, whose parents Ronald and Norma are Village Chapel members.

A five-member band played songs like “Lord, from sorrows deep I call” and Jim Thomas preached on the crucifixion and a “broken” world. 

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

Near the exit, 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.  

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