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A week after the Nashville school shooting, a pastor speaks of grieving with hope

Woodmont Baptist Church is located a few miles from the Covenant School in Nasvhille, Tenn.
Andy Morris
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Andy Morris Productions
Woodmont Baptist Church is located a few miles from the Covenant School in Nasvhille, Tenn.

Nathan Parker, senior pastor at Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., fought back tears at the pulpit on Sunday as he commenced the first service since an assailant opened fire at a nearby elementary school, killing six people.

"To all who are weary and need rest, to all who mourn and long for comfort, to all who fail and desire strength, to all who sin and need a savior, this church opens wider doors once again with a welcome from Jesus," Parker told his congregation.

He went on to speak about grieving with hope — a sermon that he planned a year ago for his Palm Sunday service, but became eerily appropriate this week.

During worship, some people clung to each other as they sang of God's goodness. Others wiped away tears as children waved palms to honor the Sunday before Easter. At one point, Parker called forth people who needed prayer and a few trickled to the altar.

Congregants gather after a week full of sorrow

There has been much to grieve about this week in Tennessee. On Friday, severe storms and tornadoes barreled through the western region, killing15 people across five counties. A few days earlier, nine servicemen diedin a helicopter crash at Fort Campbell, an army base that straddles Tennessee and Kentucky.

And on March 27, a heavily armed attacker entered the Covenant School in Nashville and fatally shot three children and three adults. The victims included Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; Cynthia Peak, 61, a substitute teacher; Mike Hill, 61, a custodian; and Katherine Koonce, 60, who served as the head of the school.

Woodmont Baptist Church is about two miles from where the shooting took place. On Monday, the church was also where anxious parents waited to reunite with their children who attend Covenant.

Woodmont Baptist Church served as the reunification site for parents and children after the shooting at Covenant.
/ Juliana Kim/NPR
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Juliana Kim/NPR
Woodmont Baptist Church served as the reunification site for parents and children after the shooting at Covenant.

Across the city, people have been grief-stricken by the attack. Candlelight vigils and tearful gatherings continue as funerals for the victims are underway. At Woodmont Baptist, Parker said some church staff and members had difficulty getting out of bed over the past few days.

But on Sunday, congregants filled the sanctuary, embracing one another in hugs and singing "O Come to the Altar" — a melody for the hurting. After the service, Parker greeted people by saying, "How are you? Not OK? Neither am I."

"For us to say we're OK, not only is that not true because of the trauma, but it's also not true theologically," he told NPR. "We come broken and with nothing to offer of our own righteousness but fully dependent on God's good grace."

Not just a place for worship, but a refuge and sanctuary

Parker, who has been pastoring at Woodmont Baptist for about seven years, said he was caught by surprise to learn that his church would be the reunification site. He added that he is usually not at the church on Mondays and only visited this past week to attend a maintenance meeting.

That's when he heard a cacophony of sirens outside. Less than 30 minutes later, police officers and parents began to flood the building and Parker directed them to the sanctuary.

"In that moment, it hit me. This is not just a holy place for worship, but it's also a refuge and a place for people who are in despair to find sanctuary," Parker said.

Church staff and other volunteers also poured in, offering boxes of food and water. Parker estimates that over 200 people were at the church.

"I think our staff wants to reiterate how unheroic what we did was," Parker said. "We did what we always do. We opened our doors to the people who need it."

For one parent, fear and hope

Makenna Parker, who is not related to the pastor, said she has been not only heartbroken, but fearful since the attack. Parker recalled living through a shooting at Perry Hall High School in Maryland in 2012. She said she did not attend the school, but knew a few of the victims.

"Now seeing this happen again, I'm just struggling all over again," she told NPR. "I hate to be away from my daughter, even for a second. I'm contemplating homeschooling."

Parker is a preschool teacher at Woodmont Baptist and the mother of 1-year-old. On Monday, she and seven toddlers hid in the classroom after being alerted of an active shooter in the area.

Parker hopes this will be turning point for legislators to enact laws that will meaningfully keep children safe. For now, Parker said she is taking it a day at a time and focusing on her daughter.

"That's the only thing I can do is take in her laughter, take in her silliness, her smiles, her hugs, everything," Parker said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.