NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When an out-of-work truck driver opened fire in a Tennessee church because it welcomed gay and multiracial families, the congregation met that hatred with love. In the process, it inspired a national campaign centered around Valentine's Day to promote tolerance.
Unitarian Universalist churches across the country will be holding events on Sunday and Monday promoting civil political discourse, gay rights, humane immigration reform and ending what it calls the demonization of American Muslims as part of "National Standing on the Side of Love Day."
The idea is to take a day that is already about love, albeit the romantic variety, and expand it into a day when people seriously consider the implications of loving your neighbor as yourself.
It's the sort of thinking that made the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville a target for Jim Adkisson, whose ex-wife had once belonged to the congregation. The denomination promotes progressive social work, including advocacy of women and gay rights.
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 walked into the church on July 27, 2008, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from a guitar case and fired into a group of about 230 people watching a children's performance of the musical "Annie."
He killed two people and wounded another six before church members wrestled him to the ground. He pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.
The night after the shooting the church held a vigil that was attended by an overflow crowd of many faiths and political persuasions. The service ended with the children, on their own initiative, singing the "Annie" theme song with the lyrics "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow."
"Everyone was standing up and clapping," Tennessee Valley Pastor Chris Buice said. "At that moment, I had a palpable sense of love that is greater than our differences that I felt, and still feel, in a physical way."
One of those attending was the Unitarian Universalist Association's then-president William Sinkford. Inspired by the church's example of overcoming hatred with love, he helped launch the national campaign.
About 150 congregations around the country will be holding an event for Standing on the Side of Love Day this year. The churches have tailored the events to the concerns of their communities.
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., that means sending a giant Valentine to U.S. Rep. Peter King, urging the House Committee on Homeland Security chairman not to hold controversial hearings on what he calls the "radicalization" of some American Muslims.
Shelter Rock social justice coordinator Claire Deroche said her Long Island congregation has strong ties with the Islamic Center of Long Island, often working together on issues and attending each other's services.
"The point is to express to Rep. King that we, too, want him to stand on the side of love," she said. "We don't want him to disrespect the Muslim community this way."
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, which has been active in protesting Arizona's divisive immigration law, is asking its members and allies to call their U.S. senators and protest the deportation of unaccompanied children, Social Justice Director Sun Principe said.
Members of a sister congregation close to the border with Nogales, Mexico, have documented several cases of children being left by themselves at a bus station by immigration agents, Principe said, but most Americans are unaware this is happening.
"When people understand that children are being abused, they are able to put politics aside and do something," Principe said.
In Knoxville, Tennessee Valley UUC will hold an interfaith forum.
"What we will focus on, because it's what we've been victimized by, is the politics of polarization, where you lose any sense of the loyal opposition and people are branded as traitors," Buice said.
Buice said it is not just politicians who need be concerned about the issue.
"There's a member of our congregation whose father refuses to talk to her after the last presidential election," Buice said. "He cut someone out of his family because the election didn't go the way he wanted it to."
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign will present the Tennessee Valley congregation on Sunday with an award honoring their work.
Standing on the Side of Love: http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/