Nashville, Battered and Mourning, Pause for Easter

Less than two weeks after the shooting of six people at a small Christian school in Nashville, the city's mourning turned into emotional protests and widespread political wrangling, culminating in accusations of racism over the expulsion of two of the state's young black legislators. It's been a season of incredible and painful hugs and funerals, marches and speeches, tears and anger.

Now, this divided and battered city will pause and gather at 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 signifies life's ultimate victory over death. And it served as a touchstone for mourners and activists across the city, who found a kind of certainty in the 2,000-year-old holiday.

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

Nashville's distinctive evangelical ecosystem means the shooting deaths of three 9-year-olds and three adults in a Christian school has had the effect of reverberating through the city's vast network of churches, Christian schools, and celebrity in the interconnected worlds of music, money, and ministry.

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

It will be a moment for residents across the city to sit, perhaps not on the same bench or with the same politics, but contemplating the same story.

The Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is attached to the school where the shooting occurred, is planning its first Sunday service at its sanctuary since the shooting. Ms. . They called it “Night of Joy”.

The church belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative theological denomination that broke away from the more progressive Presbyterian groups 50 years ago. With about 1,500 congregations nationwide, it is a relatively small denomination with enormous influence, especially among the region's political and cultural elite.

One of the victims of the shooting, Cynthia Peak, a substitute teacher, was planning to have dinner with the first lady of Tennessee, Maria Lee, a close friend, the day she was killed. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican United States Senator, attended 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 called the Covenant “our sister church,” attended by her daughter and her husband and two sons.

“This has been a very difficult week for our PCA community in Nashville,” said Ms. Blackburn, before touting the re-implementation of the SAFE Schools Act, which would allow grants to provide public and private schools with safety measures such as bullet-proof film. on windows and doors.

In the Capitol, deposed legislators Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson also spread the language of faith.

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

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

“I don't know how long this Saturday in the state of Tennessee is going to last,” he said. But “we have the good news that Sunday always comes.”

Mr Jones, who attends the school of divinity at Vanderbilt University, joined an “emergency” call with clergy and 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” providing comfort and conducting funerals, said Mr Barber. “We have to do prophetic work to change policy.”

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

Some local priests see a political and spiritual convergence. The Reverend Danny Bryant, a former teacher at the Covenant School, noted that the expulsion of the legislators occurred 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 religious 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 think it's sacred to say, ‘Protect our children,'” she said. But he also points to the moment in John's Gospel when Peter cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, and Jesus orders him to lay down his sword.

“I think Easter says, ‘Death will not have the last word,'” he said. “Love and mercy and beauty and justice will catch up to us.”

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

Dick Koonce delivered a eulogy Wednesday for his wife, Katherine, who died in the shooting. “Honoring Katherine forces us to remember the seventh family, who were both hurt by the loss of someone they loved,” said Mr Koonce, referring to the family of the shooters. “We believe in the strong and loving embrace of a strong and loving God to take each of the seven who died and heal their wounds and souls.”

A friend texted from the speech to singer Amy Grant, who has had a layered relationship with Covenant School for decades. He had known one of the victims, Cynthia Peak, for years through his old nanny. Other friends have grandchildren who go to school. And his great-grandfather once owned the land where the school and church were built, just a few miles from where he now lives.

“I see life through the lens of the Bible because I was raised that way,” he said Thursday. He had been thinking about a passage from the beginning of the Gospel of John, which describes Jesus as “the true light that enlightens all men.”

“What Dick said speaks of the light in every man,” he said, referring to the speech, adding that he did not know Mr Koonce. “I feel there is potential for change to occur if led by love.”

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

He describes himself as not being very political, but felt compelled to start reading more about gun policy and other possible solutions. “I don't know what the answer is, but part of my response is to feel really angry that this keeps happening,” he said.

In recent days, he has been reading Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing” — and turning frequently to “Abide With Me,” a hymn written in the 19th century and recently set to new music by a Community member. Nashville hymn writer and composer. Mister Casella recorded a version of the song with a small group of musicians at Covenant Presbyterian Church a few years ago, part of the church's response to the uncertainty and fear of an early pandemic.

“The darkness deepens,” he sang in a nearly empty sanctuary. “When other helpers fail and comforters run away, help the helpless, stay with me.”

Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett and Jamie McGee contributed reporting.