For survivors of Tennessee church shooting, healing will take time and patience
The gunman took the love of Mavy Stoddard’s life. She…
ANTIOCH, Tenn. — It’s just before 9 a.m. on a Sunday in early October as a handful of church members gather for Bible class in the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ fellowship hall.
There’s a yellow basket of flowers in front of the podium where teacher Danny Carter looks over his notes. A simple wooden table stands to his right, set up for communion later that morning.
As people trickle in, they greet one another with a smile or a hug, as if they’ve come home to a family reunion.
For a moment, life regains a sense of normalcy.
But on a sign outside the church is a reminder of the tragedy that struck this close-knit family just a few Sundays earlier. “Remembering Sister Melanie,” it reads.
On Sept. 24, Melanie Crow, 38, had been among the worshipers at Burnette Chapel, a small congregation in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Nashville.
That Lord’s Day, when Crow walked out the door after services, she had no way of knowing how quickly her time on Earth would be over.
A masked gunman parked outside the little-known Tennessee church and waited for the assembly to end.
The man charged in the shooting — 25-year-old Emanuel K. Samson — was no stranger to the congregation.
A few years earlier, he’d been a regular, attending services at Burnette Chapel, helping with Vacation Bible School and sitting down for meals with church members.
Then he’d disappeared. No one had seen him for years.
Since leaving the church, his life had become troubled, according to news reports. He’d threatened suicide and had two incidents of alleged domestic violence.
As the worship service ended, Crow was first out the door. She would be the only person to die. But others would face a barrage of gunfire.
Catherine Dickerson followed not far behind Crow. She stopped outside to talk with Peggy Spann, whose husband, Joey, is the minister at Burnette Chapel.
As they talked, shots rang out from the direction where Crow had walked. At first, no one knew what was happening. Dickerson heard a “pop, pop, pop” but thought a car was backfiring. Then the gunman came into view, dressed in black, his face covered in a mask.
Dickerson bolted. She collapsed after being shot in the leg. She lay still on the ground, playing dead as the gunman entered the building.
Joey Spann, the minister, yelled out a warning before being shot in the chest.
“Move!” he told fellow church members.
Armilla Bishop hid beneath the front pew, praying that her daughter would be safe.
Carter, the church’s treasurer and a longtime Sunday school teacher, ran down the hallway to a children’s classroom, where his wife was serving. There he found that one of the kids already had barricaded to the door.
He returned to the scene of chaos in the auditorium. All told, seven church members besides Crow would be shot that day, including Donald William and Marlene Jenkins, both in their 80s, and Linda Bush, 68, who’d returned to church that week after a long absence.
There might have been more casualties, had it not been for 22-year-old Robert “Caleb” Engle. A soft-spoken, gentle giant with a deep faith and a wry sense of humor, Engle wasn’t supposed to be in worship that morning. But at the last minute, he and his girlfriend, Bailey Inman, had changed their plans to be away.
“God wanted us to be there,” he told The Christian Chronicle.
Engle confronted the gunman and subdued him, suffering a separated shoulder and other injuries in the process.
“He’s down,” Bishop heard Engle shout. “Is everyone OK?”
After checking on her daughter, Bishop, a nurse, and fellow church member Minerva Rosa tended to the wounded. Peggy Spann called out for her husband.
“He’s killed me. I’m dying,” Joey Spann told his wife. “I’m sorry.”
Bishop was having none of it.
“I’ve got him,” she told Peggy Spann, reassuring the minister’s wife and tending to Joey Spann’s wounds. Bishop applied pressure to staunch the bleeding.
“I’ll take care of him,” the nurse said.
Police arrived soon and took Samson into custody. The wounded were rushed to nearby Vanderbilt University Medical Center and TriStar Skyline Medical Center. Another nearby church, New Beautiful Gate Church and Ministries, opened its doors so that members could be reunited with family members.
Still, there was one more shock to come, when police informed church members of the suspect’s identity.
“I knew him,” said Bishop, who has been a member at Burnett Chapel for 18 years. “I had given him a ride before. I have eaten lunch with him before. I thought, ‘What in the world?’”
Joey Spann, a bivocational minister who teaches Bible at Nashville Christian School, said he would have welcomed Samson to the church with open arms. If he had troubles, the church would have helped him.
“If he had come walking up that sidewalk without that mask on — we’d have hugged him and asked, ‘Man, where have you been?’” Spann said.
Since the shooting, the church has begun the long, slow work of recovery.
The first step was finding a place to worship. The main auditorium was off-limits after the shooting, since police still considered it a crime scene. And it was a shambles after the shooting.
The congregation does not have elders. Church leaders such as Carter didn’t want to call off services or use another church’s facilities. That would have felt like giving up.
“We are not giving up,” said Carter, 65.
So members, along with volunteers from other Churches of Christ and Lipscomb University, got to work. They set up chairs in the fellowship hall and moved some of the pews from the church into that space as well, lining the walls with them.
Three days after the shooting, the church held its Wednesday night service, as usual. The room was packed with church members and visitors alike.
Scott Sager, Lipscomb University’s vice president for church services, helped lead the prayers: “We want to claim the promise that if you’re for us, no one can be against us.”
The following Sunday, 140 people gathered for worship – about three times the normal attendance at services. The following Sunday, about 100 people showed up.
Spann hopes it’s a sign of things to come.
Like many small congregations, Burnette Chapel has had its struggles. Money is tight, the building is aging, and the congregation is getting older. Attendance had dropped in recent years.
“The people here love each other, but we’re an older church,” Spann said. “You look around, and there was that fear that, maybe it’s dying. Not dead, but declining.”
Things changed after the shooting, he said. The church now has a chance to rebuild its ministry.
And despite their challenge, the church had a deep well of faith to draw on. Church members have weathered this storm, he said, because they are older, and many are mature in their faith.
They won’t give up easily, he said. And they’re willing to forgive and love Samson – despite what happened.
Related: Praying for Coach Spann
Related: Praying for Coach Spann
Not that forgiveness is easy, he said. Spann said his granddaughter was at church on the Sunday of the shooting. She’d gone out of the building around the same time as Crow — but headed in the opposite direction.
“If he killed her, I don’t know where I would be,” Spann said.
Despite the evil the Burnette Chapel congregation experienced, the minister said, God has not abandoned the church. “God will make this right,” he said.
Other church members are dealing with a mix of grief and anger. They want to forgive, but it’s not easy, Bishop said.
There’s a real sense of betrayal — that someone who’d been part of the family caused so much pain. And the church, once a place of refuge, became a place of suffering and terror. Even those who weren’t shot did not escape unscathed, Bishop said.
A lot of anger is focused on Samson and his actions.
“You were part of our family – and you took someone from our family away from us,” Bishop said. “And you hurt some other people forever.”
Since the shooting, Bishop has had a hard time sleeping. Every little noise can set her off, she said. And she thought about staying away from church for a while.
“I can’t let him take the rest of my family away from me,” she said. “I felt I had to be back to support my church.”
In the weeks to come, the church hopes to organize counseling sessions to help church members cope with the trauma they’ve experienced. It’s a process that could take months or even years.
Recovering from the physical wounds will take time as well. At a recent service, Spann gave an update on church members who had been wounded. The Jenkinses had been transferred to a rehab center. Engle’s arm remained in a sling. Bush and Dickerson had been treated and released.
Peggy Spann remained hospitalized. Doctors had discovered two major blockages in her arteries after the shooting and scheduled open-heart surgery. Had she not been shot, those blockages could have caused a fatal heart attack, her husband said.
Joey Spann deals with his own challenges. Along with his bullet wounds to the chest, he lost a finger in the shooting. And a pinched nerve causes him tremendous pain. At a recent Sunday service, he made his way down the center aisle at church with a walker — pausing to greet church members and visitors alike — his enthusiasm undaunted by his pain.
“Being back in the building is kind of scary. When I have been down there, I have made sure the doors are all locked.”
Meanwhile, work continues on the church building itself. It’s unclear how much of the damage insurance will pay for. And the damage from the shooting revealed other issues with the building.
That’s a lot to deal with, Dickerson said.
Then there’s the lingering worry that something else could happen.
“Being back in the building is kind of scary,” said Dickerson, who is helping with plans for making repairs. “When I have been down there, I have made sure the doors are all locked.”
She said she’ll be glad when the main church building is reopened. It will be a way of reclaiming that space — to say that the church remains strong, despite its recent trauma.
“It is important that we do get back to the sanctuary quickly,” she said.
Until that happens, church members will keep plugging along, doing what needs to be done and having faith that God is not finished with them yet.
Said Carter: “You just have to keep moving.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.