Nashville, Battered and Mourning, Pauses for Easter

Less than two weeks after the shooting of six people at a small Christian school in Nashville, the city’s raw mourning was swept into sprawling, emotional protests and political strife, culminating in accusations of racism over the expulsion of two young Black state legislators. It has been an extraordinary and painful season of hugs and funerals, marches and speeches, tears and anger.

Now, this divided and battered city will pause 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, a biblical account that for Christians signifies the ultimate triumph of life over death. And it is serving as a touchstone for mourners and activists across the city, who are finding a kind of assurance in the 2,000-year-old holiday.

“Everything changes on Sunday,” said the evangelical podcaster Annie F. Downs, who lives down the street from the Covenant School, where an armed assailant shot and killed three children and three adults on March 27. “Our loss is not erased, but we all get this very visible reminder that hope is not lost.”

Nashville’s distinctly evangelical ecosystem means the shooting deaths of three 9-year-olds and three adults in a Christian school have had a reverberating effect through a large network of churches, Christian schools and celebrities in the city’s interlocking worlds of music, money and ministry.

That means Easter in Nashville is different than in many other places in the country. There are services at the Ryman Auditorium, at the Catholic Cathedral downtown and at hundreds of congregations large and small. It is a city where most people know where the governor and their senators go to services, and where the question, “Where do you go to church?” is a common icebreaker. More than half of the adults in the state of Tennessee identified as evangelical Protestants in a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than twice the share nationally.

Candles are lit during a citywide vigil for the victims killed in a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville.Credit…Seth Herald/Getty Images

It will be a moment for residents across the city to sit down, perhaps not in the same pews or with the same politics, but to contemplate the same story.

Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is attached to the school where the shooting took place, is planning its first Sunday service in its sanctuary since the shooting.Ms. Downs will host a sold-out benefit concert for the school next week whose headliners include Carrie Underwood, Thomas Rhett, and Sandra McCracken, a high-profile hymn-writer and singer who is married to the church’s director of music, Tim Nicholson. They’re calling it the “Night of Joy.”

The church belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America, a theologically conservative denomination that broke from a more progressive Presbyterian group 50 years ago. With about 1,500 congregations nationally, it is a relatively small denomination with outsize influence, especially among the region’s political and cultural elite.

One of the victims of the shooting, Cynthia Peak, a substitute teacher, had been planning to have dinner with Tennessee’s first lady, Maria Lee, her close friend, the day she was killed. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican United States Senator, attends Christ Presbyterian Church, which hosted funerals for several of the victims. In a dial-in prayer call hosted on March 30 by Paula White, a pastor and adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, she referred to Covenant as “our sister church,” attended by her daughter and her daughter’s husband and two boys.

“This has been a very difficult week for our P.C.A. community in Nashville,” Ms. Blackburn said, before touting her reintroduction of the SAFE Schools Act, which would allow grants for providing public and private schools with security measures such as bullet-resistant film on windows and doors.

At the Capitol, the ousted legislators, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, also deployed the language of faith.

At the Capitol, the ousted legislators, Justin Jones, left, and Justin J. Pearson, deployed the language of faith. Credit…Jon Cherry for The New York Times

Mr. Pearson, the son of a preacher, read Psalm 27 at the podium on Thursday, adding “colleagues” to a line about parties who “might betray me.”

“Amidst this vote, amidst this persecution, I remember the good news,” he said, saying that Jesus was “lynched by the government” on a Friday, and that hope seemed to be lost on Saturday.

“I don’t know how long this Saturday in the state of Tennessee might last,” he said. But “we’ve got good news that “Sunday always comes.”

Mr. Jones, who attended divinity school at Vanderbilt University, joined an “emergency” call with clergy and media on Good Friday morning led by the Rev. William J. Barber II, a co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, a social justice organization. “As clergy, as prophetic voices, we can no longer just do the pastoral work” of providing comfort and performing funerals, Mr. Barber said. “We must do the prophetic work of changing policy.”

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

Some local pastors saw the political and the spiritual converging. The Reverend Danny Bryant, a former teacher at the Covenant School, noted that the expulsion of the legislators was taking place on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed.

Mr. Bryant leads St. Mary of Bethany Parish, an ecumenical church in South Nashville. He attended a gun-control rally at the Capitol with one of his children last week, and later joined other faith leaders and Nashville residents at the Capitol to protest the expulsion of Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson.

Scripture has guided him in his grief but also in his protests this week, he said.

“I do think it’s holy to say, ‘Protect our kids,’” he said. But he also pointed to the moment in the Gospel of John when Peter slashes the ear of a high priest’s servant, and Jesus instructs him to put away his sword.

“I think that Easter says, ‘Death will not have the last word,’” he said. “Love and mercy and beauty and justice will chase us.”

Covenant Presbyterian Church is planning its first Sunday service in its sanctuary since the shooting.Credit…Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For others in the Covenant community,this is a time to focus on grieving and connecting.

Dick Koonce delivered a eulogy on Wednesday for his wife, Katherine, who was killed in the shooting. “Honoring Katherine compels us to remember a seventh family, equally wounded in the loss of someone dear to them,” Mr. Koonce said, a reference to the family of the shooter. “We are trusting in the strong and loving embrace of a strong and loving God to take each of the seven that died and heal their wounds and their souls.”

A friend texted lines from the eulogy to the singer Amy Grant, who has layers of connection with the Covenant School reaching back decades. She knew one of the victims, Cynthia Peak, for years through her family’s longtime nanny. Other friends had grandchildren who attended the school. And her great-grandparents once owned the land the school and the church were built on, just a few miles from where she now lives.

“I see life through the lens of scripture because I was raised that way,” she said on Thursday. She had been thinking about a passage from the beginning of the Gospel of John, that describes Jesus as “the true light that gives light to everyone.”

“What Dick said speaks to the light in every man,” she said, referring to the eulogy, adding that she does not know Mr. Koonce. “It feels like there’s the potential for change to happen when it’s led by love.”

Jeremy Casella, a Nashville musician, has ties to Covenant and played at the funeral for one of the children killed last week. He has found himself grappling with how to respond to what he called a “transformative event.”

He described himself as not terribly political, but felt compelled to start reading more about gun policy and other possible solutions. “I don’t know what the answers are but part of my response is feeling so incensed that this keeps happening,” he said.

In recent days, he has been reading Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” — and turning frequently to “Abide With Me,” a hymn written in the 19th century and more recently set to new music by a Nashville community of hymn-writers and composers. Mr. Casella recorded a version of the song with a small group of musicians at Covenant Presbyterian Church just a few years ago, part of a the church’s response to the uncertainty and fears of the early pandemic.

“The darkness deepens,” he sang in the near-empty sanctuary. “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, abide with me.”

Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett and Jamie McGee contributed reporting.

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