Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Unitarian pastor says hate is a national problem


The Reverend Gordon Gibson witnessed last month's shooting at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville; he's a guest pastor in San Francisco this month. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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A survivor of the recent church shooting in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Reverend Gordon Gibson, doesn't blame the conservative cultural mores of the South for the hate-motivated rampage at his church last month.

Instead, citing reports that the alleged gunman had annotated copies of books by conservative pundits Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, he blames Fox News, where both have television shows.

Gibson, a longtime Unitarian church member and pastor, understands the tragedy as one of national, not local, significance. The alleged shooter, he said, tapped into a national intolerance broadcast on the popular news programs as an outlet for his personal frustrations.  

The Unitarian Universalist Church teaches a decidedly progressive theology. The Knoxville church welcomes LGBTs and the local PFLAG chapter meets there.

But tragedy struck when two people were killed and seven were injured when Jim Adkisson, 58, allegedly opened fire on the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville on Sunday, July 27. After his arrest, Adkisson led investigators to a four-page letter in his car that outlined his hatred of liberals and singled out gays in particular, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. 

Fox News has yet to mention the link between their pundits and the church killings, Gibson said in an August 1 interview with the Bay Area Reporter. Gibson is staying in San Francisco this month, filling in for vacationing pastor Greg Stewart at First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

"If one goes to Fox News [Web site] and enters the shooter's name, one finds no posting," Gibson said. "Fox News is not owning that two of their folks contributed to this person's paranoia."

A Fox News spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.

Gibson was one of about 200 people in the church, watching children perform a version of the musical Annie, when Adkisson allegedly opened fire. The first person killed in the church shooting was Gibson's close friend, Greg McKendry, 58.

Gibson, 68, is articulate and polite, even when answering the most difficult questions.  Asked about the shooting, he reached for his briefcase and pulled out a map of the church published in a Knoxville newspaper. He pointed to his pew, near the exit, where he fled the building when he realized the bangs that he was hearing were gunshots, not special effects from the musical.

He talked, too, about how he and certified counselors who were present at the church began to offer grief counseling less than an hour after the shootings. He described waiting with the elderly wife of one of the seven people injured in the rampage, and waiting with the rest of those who witnessed the shooting to be debriefed by police investigators.

But he firmly resisted any attempts to discuss Southern conservatism, or the problems specific to a progressive congregation in the South. Intolerance, he said, is not a regional problem.

"I saw the statue of Harvey Milk downtown," Gibson said, referring to the bust of the gay supervisor who was assassinated in City Hall. "It's dangerous to be a progressive everywhere."

Gibson spoke of this danger with the assurance of someone who's seen the worst of American intolerance. Born in Kentucky in 1939, Gibson attended Yale University and Tufts Divinity School. He returned to the South in 1969 after a five-year posting in Massachusetts to minister at a Unitarian church in Jackson, Mississippi. The last minister there had been shot by the Ku Klux Klan and run out of town for his civil rights work, Gibson said. Gibson worked in the civil rights movement, too, in his capacity as a Unitarian minister, and he said that he still feels a reflexive fear when he sees a sheriff's car.

But the South is very different today, Gibson said. The tacit approval of hate crimes and violence by officialdom – police and politicians – that fueled injustice in the pre-civil rights era South no longer exists, he noted.

The mayor of Knoxville, he added, was among the first on the scene of the church shooting. The outpouring of sympathy from the community in Knoxville in the days after the shooting, he said, was also a significant sign of progress.

LGBTs in the congregation, he said, were no more remarkable than glass in the windows. "They are part of reality," Gibson said. "They are part of the fabric of the church community."

The atmosphere in the South is changing to become more progressive, Gibson said, but he was also careful to point out that the region was never monolithically conservative.

Gibson offered his own upbringing as evidence that progressive politics always existed in pockets throughout the South. His Kentuckian father, son of a long line of Southerners, was "an active socialist his entire adult life," he said, while his mother was a "good liberal type."

Gibson has, in one capacity or another, worked for the Universalist Unitarians in the South – living in Mississippi for 15 years before he moved to Knoxville in 2006 – for his entire adult life. Asked if it was difficult to reconcile the shootings with his faith, he didn't answer directly. 

Instead, he said the most difficult aspect of the shooting for him was Adkisson's connection to the church. Adkisson's ex-wife, Gibson noted, was a former member of the church. 

"It's ironic too that he would attack us," Gibson said, "because if they were to go for the death penalty, we would be the folks out there saying 'don't kill him.'"

In his first sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco last Sunday, August 3, Gibson called on the congregation to remember that while social mores and bodies of knowledge may change, "faith, hope, and love remain forever these things. And the greatest of the three is love."

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