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Ministers, elders and their wives from congregations across the nation surround members of the Burnetter Chapel Church of Christ as Lipscomb University's President Randy Lowry prays with the church's minister, Joey Spann, on stage during Lipscomb's Summer Celebration.
Photos by Kristi Jones

‘We do not go to church anymore’

Almost a year after a mass shooting, members of the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ 'gather to worship' — and make the most of each gathering, says minister and survivor Joey Spann.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — ‘I don’t know how they can ever fire me now,” Joey Spann said of his church. 

“I mean, how could they tell me I have to go when I just show them my hand?”

Joey Spann holds up his left hand — minus the index finger he lost in the shooting — as he speaks at Lipscomb University.

Joey Spann holds up his left hand — minus the index finger he lost in the shooting — as he speaks at Lipscomb University.

The minister for the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in the Nashville suburb of Antioch held up his left hand — missing an index finger — and waited for scattered laughs and applause from an arena packed with his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Spann’s signature, deadpan humor has helped the 66-year-old minister cope with the aftermath of the mass shooting 10 months ago that claimed the life of a church member and cost him his finger. He shared his church’s experiences with a crowd of more than 1,500 on the first night of Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration. 

“The thing that happened to us, we believe, was Satan’s attempt to actually stop the church,” Spann said. “When he attacked Burnette Chapel, he attacked every body of worshippers, wherever they may be. 

“That’s why I think so many people are touched by what took place at Burnette Chapel. When we were attacked, you were attacked.”

Lipscomb, a 4,700-student school associated with Churches of Christ, honored the congregation with its annual Kopio Award. The flame-shaped award takes its name from a Greek word that describes someone who “works until utter exhaustion for the glory of God,” said university president Randy Lowry. The word appears in texts including Matthew 11:28, in which Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Melanie Crow

“We don’t know what exhaustion can really be until we’re in the moment,” Lowry said. 

The accolade, he added, is appropriate for Burnette Chapel, a church that has endured “a story that’s tragic and yet a story that, woven into it, has moments of grace and forgiveness — and a sense that God is working in a larger way with this church and all of those who were affected by this moment.”

That moment happened just after Sunday morning worship on Sept. 24, 2017. A masked gunman waited outside in his car for the service to end. He shot and killed Melanie Crow, a 38-year-old mother of two children, in the parking lot and unleashed a barrage of bullets. Seven other church members were injured, including Spann. 

Related: One killed, eight injured in mass shooting at Church of Christ in Tennessee

Related: ‘God, I’m sorry for things I didn’t do right’

Micah Carter

Before Lowry presented the award, reporter Eric Egan of WKRN read snippet’s from the TV station’s coverage of the tragedy, highlighting the bravery of Robert “Caleb” Engle, 22, who confronted and subdued the gunman, and Micah Carter, 8, who barricaded the door of a children’s classroom. 

“While he did that, he protected the other children inside,” Egan said. “Not one of them was hurt on that morning.” 

In March, Carter was named Cub Scout of the Year for 2017 by the Middle Tennessee Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Police arrested 25-year-old Emanuel K. Samson, who had attended the church before disappearing a few years prior to the shooting. 

Since leaving the church, he had threatened suicide and had two incidents of alleged domestic violence, according to news reports. Police found a note in Samson’s car referencing a 2015 shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

In March, Samson was indicted on 43 criminal charges, including murder, civil rights intimidation and 24 counts of aggravated assault. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

During the Lipscomb event, Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson appeared in a video testimonial, praising the Burnette Chapel church.

“In the face of tragedy last year, they clung to each other; they clung to their faith; they shared their story,” Anderson said. “And all through this tragic event they have been a rock.”

Actually, “we’re not,” Spann said as he accepted the Kopio Award. “We’re just normal Christians. But I guess normal Christians have some rock in them — and it’s Christ Jesus.”

The shooting has “changed us in the fact that we do not go to church anymore,” Spann said. “We gather to worship. We come together. I’m reminded of the first century Christians and how every time they gathered had to be an exciting thing and a special thing because there were those who were trying to take it away from them. And they made the most of each gathering. Well, we do that at Burnette Chapel.”

Now “it’s extremely common to hear the word ‘love’” at church, Spann said. “We’re not a super church. We’re just a group of Christians that meet together in Christ’s name. But we love each other. We’ve been through something important, and I guess we’ll be tied together from now on.”

After Spann spoke, a small group of Burnette Chapel members gathered in front of the stage. Preachers, elders and their wives from Churches of Christ across the nation surrounded them as David L. Solomon, chair of Lipscomb’s Board of Trustees, led a prayer, quoting the words of the apostle Paul in Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive one another … Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

“Father, we don’t know why this happened,” Solomon prayed. “We don’t understand why the pain and loss of this fellowship had to be endured.” 

After a Sunday evening prayer in Allen Arena, Summer Celebration participants hug members of Burnette Chapel.

After a Sunday evening prayer in Allen Arena, Summer Celebration participants hug members of Burnette Chapel.

Yet “we look at how this fellowship has walked through this, the way Joey has shared into the Antioch community words of love, words of forgiveness and words of thankfulness for this fellowship.”

Filed under: Burnette Chapel church shooting Lipscomb National People Summer Celebration Top Stories

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