Nashville, battered and grieving, Easter holidays (2023)


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The holiest day in the Christian calendar arrives, as the church-filled city is mired in intense political debate and is still mired in grief.

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Nashville, battered and grieving, Easter holidays (1)

Less than two weeks after six people were shot dead at a small Christian school in Nashville, intense grief in the city turned into widespread emotional protests and political strife, culminating in accusations of racism over the expulsion of two young black lawmakers. It was an unusual and painful time of hugs and funerals, marches and speeches, tears and anger.

Now it is a divided and troubled citywill stop and gather in its many churches for Easter Sunday, the culmination of the most important week in the Christian calendar. It is a day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, the biblical story that for Christians marks the final triumph of life over death. And it serves as a milestone for mourners and activists across the city, who find some form of solace in the 2,000-year celebration.

"Everything changes on Sunday," said evangelical podcast host Annie F. Downs, who lives near Covenant School, where a gunman shot and killed three children and three adults on March 27. "Our loss has not been erased, but we all have a very visible reminder that hope is not lost."

Nashville's distinctly evangelical ecosystem marks the death of three 9-year-olds and three adults at a Christian school that has reverberated through a vast network of churches, Christian schools and celebrities in the city's interconnected worlds of music, money and ministry.

This means that Easter in Nashville is different from many other parts of the country. Services are held in the Ryman Auditorium, the Catholic Cathedral in the city center and hundreds of churches large and small. It's a city where most people know where their governor and senators attend church services, and where the question "Where do you go to church?" is just an ice breaker. More than half of adults in Tennesseethey identify as evangelical Protestantsin a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, more than double the national rate.


It will be a moment for the entire population of the city to sit down, perhaps not in the same chairs or with the same politics, but to reflect on the same history.

Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is affiliated with the school where the shooting took place, is planning its first Sunday service in its sanctuary since the shooting. Downes is hosting a sold-out concert for the school next week, featuring Carrie Underwood, Thomas Rhett and Sandra McCracken, a leading hymn writer and singer who is married to the church's director of music, Tim Nicholson. . They call it "The Night of Joy".

The church belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America, a theologically conservative denomination that split from the more progressive Presbyterian group 50 years ago. With approximately 1,500 congregations nationwide, it is a relatively small faith community with great influence, especially among the region's political and cultural elites.

One of the victims of the shooting, Cynthia Peek, a substitute teacher, planned to have dinner with Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee, her close friend, on the day she was killed. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican US senator, attends Christ Presbyterian Church, where many of the victims' funerals have been held. In a March 30 phone prayer call, Paula White, a pastor and adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, called Covenant "our sister church," attended by her daughter and her daughter's husband and two boys.

"It has been a very difficult week for our P.C.A. community in Nashville," said Ms. Blackburn before she announced the reintroduction of the SAFE Schools Act, which would allow grants to provide public and private schools with security measures such as bulletproof films on windows and doors.

On Capitol Hill, ousted lawmakers Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson also developed the language of faith.


Sir. Pearson, the preacher's son, read Psalm 27 from the pulpit Thursday, adding "companions" to the line about parties that "may betray me."

"In the midst of this vote, in the midst of this persecution, I remember the good news," he said, saying Jesus was "lynched by the government" on Friday and hope seemed lost on Saturday.

"I don't know how long this Saturday in Tennessee can last," he said. But "we have good news that Sunday always comes."

Mr. Jones, who attended the divinity school at Vanderbilt University, participated in an "emergency call" with the clergy and the media on Good Friday morning led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor People's Campaign, a social justice organization. "As pastors, as prophetic voices, we can no longer just do pastoral work" of consolation and funeral services, Mr. Barber said. "We must do the prophetic work of changing policy."

Mr. Barber announced a meeting in Nashville on April 17.

Some local priests saw a political and spiritual convergence. Reverend Danny Bryant, a former teacher at Covenant School, noted that the expulsion of the Lawgivers took place on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed.

Mr. Bryant leads the parish of St. Our Lady of Bethany Ecumenical Church in South Nashville. Last week, he attended a gun control rally on Capitol Hill with one of his children, and later joined other religious leaders and Nashville residents on Capitol Hill to protest the deportation of Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson.

He said the scriptures have guided him through his grief, but also through the protests this week.

"I think it's sacred to say, 'protect our children,'" he said. But he also pointed to the moment in the Gospel of John where Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant and Jesus asks him to sheathe his sword.

"I think Easter says, 'Death doesn't get the last word,'" he said. "Love and mercy, beauty and justice will pursue us."


For other members of the Alliance community, this is a time to focus on grief and connection.

Dick Kunze delivered his memorial speech on Wednesday for his wife Kathryn, who died during the shooting. "Worshiping Kathryn forces us to remember a seventh family that was also traumatized by the loss of a loved one," Kunze said, referring to the shooter's family. "We trust in the strong and loving arms of a mighty and loving God to take each of the seven dead and heal their wounds and souls."

A friend sent praise to singer Amy Grant, who has several levels of ties to Covenant School that go back decades. He had known one of the victims, Cynthia Peak, for years through her family's longtime nanny. Other friends had grandchildren in school. And her great-grandparents once owned the land on which the school and church were built, just a few kilometers from where she now lives.

"I see life through the lens of the scriptures because that's how I was raised," he said Thursday. He thought of the passage at the beginning of the Gospel of John that describes Jesus as "the true light that enlightens all."

"What Dick said speaks to the light in every man," she said, referring to the praise, adding that she did not know Mr. Kunze. "It seems that change can happen when driven by love."

Jeremy Casella, a musician from Nashville, has ties to the Covenant and played at the funeral of one of the slain children last week. He noted that he struggled with how to respond to what he called a "transformational event."

He described himself as not particularly political, but felt compelled to read more about gun policy and other possible solutions. "I don't know what the answers are, but part of my answer is to be so angry that this is happening," he said.

In his last days, he reads Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my shepherd, I will not" - and often turns to the hymn "Be with me", written in the 19th century and later set to new music. and Nashville Composers. Mr. Kasellarecorded a version of the songwith a small group of musicians at Covenant Presbyterian Church just a few years ago, part of the church's response to the uncertainty and fear of the early pandemic.

"The darkness deepens," he sang to the nearly empty sanctuary. "When other helpers fail, and comforts depart, Help the helpless, be with me."

Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett and Jamie McGee contributed reporting.


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