Cable news and social media often insist that our nation is torn asunder by race, ethnicity, religion, class, and politics. But the reality revealed at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ and its Nashville community is that most Americans most of the time are not inextricably divided but strive to live harmoniously and as neighborly as possible. I experience this reality endlessly in my own experiences at home and traveling around the country, and probably you do too.
The shootings Sunday in Nashville at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ were of course horrible but also were counter conventional narrative in several ways while also showcasing the better side of fallen humanity.
A gunman shot a woman in the parking lot and then shot six worshipers inside before subdued by a 22 year old church usher. The woman, the mother of two young children, tragically died, her Bible left on the pavement beside her. The wounded worshipers, including the pastor and his wife, mercifully survived. Believing he had his own gun on his person instead of in his car, the usher confronted the gunman before realizing he was unarmed. During their physical fracas, the gunman apparently shot himself inadvertently. While the usher’s father stood guard over the wounded gunman, the usher retrieved his own gun from his car, then detained the gunman until police arrived.
About 40 worshipers were at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, so it’s not large. It seems to be a mostly white congregation with strong outreach to its racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, as one news account described. Photos on the church Facebook page show many non-Anglo children at church activities. A 10 year old boy who sagely barricaded his Sunday school class during the shooting seems to be black. A photo shows him being carried safely from the church by a black man and white white woman. He afterwards gave a very well spoken interview to a reporter, as recorded in video. The grief stricken in photos appear to be white, black and Hispanic. A couple who fled the church ran to an older white man living across the street who returned with them to help, despite the danger. Doubtless others responded in similar spirit. A young black pastor from a nearby church told a reporter: “This is our family. We stick together. That’s what we do in Christ. God tells us to come together in one accord. So when it’s happening, when it affects them, it affects us.”
The congregation, which dates to the Civil War, belongs to the usually very conservative Church of Christ, a tradition rooted in the Stone-Campbellite revivals of the early 1800s especially strong in Tennessee. The Church of Christ traditionally declares it has no doctrine but the Bible alone and also rejects instrumental music. (My Tennessee grandmother grew up in the Church of Christ, so I’ve always been familiar with it.) This communion is traditionally nearly all white, and some might call it “fundamentalist.” But this congregation illustrates that evangelical churches are increasingly among the nation’s most racially diverse.
Emanuel Kidega Samson, a Sudanese immigrant who’s lived in the USA for 20 years, was the murderous gunman. Sudan is predominantly Islamic while the new breakaway nation of South Sudan is mostly Christian. News reports don’t specify where he originated exactly. Sudan was one nation when he left it. His name implies he came from a Christian background. And in fact some in the congregation were shocked to learn from the police afterwards who their masked gunman was, as he had previously with friends worshiped at their church. His motives aren’t reported but he had a police record with domestic abuse, and his Facebook postings imply he maybe was more deranged than ideological.
A prayer vigil after the shooting shows a multiracial crowd grieving together. It seems the horrible event has drawn the community together. But it also appears the church itself was a close community that was very intentional in reaching others. The young usher who subdued the killer, who was himself severely wounded by the gunman’s pistol whipping, released a statement:
I’ve been going to this church my whole life, since I was a small child. I would have never, ever thought something like this would have happened. I ask everyone to pray for the victims, family members of the victims, our church community. Please pray for healing. Also, please pray for the shooter, the shooter’s family and friends. They are hurting as well. I pray that through all of this that people will come to know Christ and I ask our nation to reflect on Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”