A Weekend of Fear, Hate and Faith in Tennessee

“Lord,” Broderick Chunn began his prayer, “we thank you so much for this beautiful day.”

The informal, jeans-and-jackets Sunday night service at Burnette Chapel seemed profoundly and reassuringly ordinary.

But there is no pure ordinary again, certainly not for the family of Melanie Crow, a 39-year-old mother of two, who was gunned down by Mr. Samson in the parking lot. Bible study routinely turns to talk of counseling sessions and healing updates, tests of faith and attempts to make sense of senseless acts. The fellowship hall, with a kitchenette behind the pulpit, will be the sole meeting place for a long while, until the bullet-riddled sanctuary is repaired.

But the pastor, Joey Spann, who was shot in the chest and hand trying to block the gunman at the front door, hopes to preach again this coming Sunday. The soft-spoken Caleb Engle, who was injured wrestling with Mr. Samson but was able to hold him at gunpoint until the police arrived, has been cleared to go back to work. The catalog of prayer concerns in the church bulletin lists those with bladder cancer and carpal tunnel syndrome alongside people recovering from gunshots.

“You guys know already that we got a lot of crazy stuff going on in the United States right now,” Mr. Chunn said to the small congregation scattered around the room. “I want to talk about that a little bit.”

People at the church generally loathed being asked about the weekend rally — they wanted no part of it. But a handful of white supremacists had shown up earlier in the day. As the 10 a.m. service let out, they stood in the parking lot holding a banner: “Defend America + Save Our Faith ... Refugees Kill.” The police were called and chased them off.

Few here think of Mr. Samson as a refugee, in the way it is hard to reduce someone you know personally to a single category. Several years ago, he had been a regular at the church. People remember him as friendly and good-natured. He was even baptized here. It was all achingly inexplicable.

Continue reading the main story

At a court hearing last week, a Nashville detective testified that Mr. Samson had left a vague note in his car that said something to the effect of “Dylann Roof was less than nothing,” referring to the white supremacist who shot and killed nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Samson shot only white churchgoers during his rampage. But the detective testified that he had not yet been able to ascertain a motive. Mr. Samson had talked of voices and visions.

Mr. Chunn, 38, knew Mr. Samson and he knew all the victims. He volunteered to lead Sunday night services after the shooting.

The church was not, as some reports had it, a “white church,” not exactly. Most of the congregation members, and nearly all of the 20 or so people there on Sunday night, are white. But the church has Asian members, Latino members and black members — like Mr. Chunn.

“I’m from Shelbyville,” he said to the congregation, “so this means something a little different.”

He talked a little about his grandfather, who was half white and half black. Some of this he had never talked about publicly. Then he paused.

“I’ve only been in love twice in my life,” he began again. The second and lasting time, of course, was with his wife, Ashanti.

“The first,” he said, “was Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was in the high school band with him. She was white.

“Mom didn’t like it because of things like what was going on this weekend,” he continued. His mother remembered the Ku Klux Klan marches when she was growing up — the birthplace of the Klan is an hour’s drive from Shelbyville — and how dangerous things could be.

Continue reading the main story

Elizabeth’s grandmother did not like it at all. They stayed together for more than a year, but the pressures grew. In the last days of Mr. Chunn’s senior year, Elizabeth told him through an intermediary that the relationship could not work.

“When I tell you I was hurt, that is an understatement,“ Mr. Chunn said, slowly. “I loved her, so much.”

The room was quiet but for the buzzing of the fluorescent lights.

He turned to the scripture lesson, on the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the world’s people. This led to discussion of God’s reasons for creating different races, the diversity of the early Christian church, and finally the troubles of the current times.

“We don’t really know how deep this thing is going to go, how dangerous it’s going to get,” Mr. Chunn said. “We have to be careful how we treat one another. We have to love each other.”

Two hymns followed. Floyd Alexander said a closing prayer. A couple of women, still pressing tissues to their eyes, came up and hugged Mr. Chunn. And in a congregation that had been violently attacked and then championed against its will as a symbol for a weekend of hate, conversation turned to Gloria Riches’ chocolate meringue pie, as it if it were the most important thing in the world.

Continue reading the main story


Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive