Wrestling with hard truths
Nashville Christians cling to the hope of the gospel amid overwhelming sorrow
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When George Grant stepped into the hall at Christ Presbyterian Church to grab a cup of coffee, he saw fellow pastor Chad Scruggs had the same idea. Scruggs is senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian, a church about 5 miles away. Grant, a pastor and author, had gathered with Scruggs and some of Middle Tennessee’s most recognizable Presbyterians to map out an upcoming meeting of the Nashville Presbytery.
The two men sipped their coffee and chatted a bit, then rejoined their committees and got back to business. It wasn’t long, though, before silenced phones started vibrating, and screens lit up with awful news: An active shooter. At Covenant Presbyterian’s school.
As Scruggs and his elders hurried to leave, the others spilled out of the rooms, stricken. Grant says it’s a moment he’ll never forget. “All of us fell on our faces to pray.”
Scruggs dashed to the parking lot and sped toward his church. He did not know what he would find when he got there.
Nashville resident Kathy Kidwell was already near the church. She was driving a client to a tax appointment when she heard sirens. Then she ran into a massive roadblock near Covenant. Red and blue lights flashing, police vehicles had pulled across four lanes of traffic, leaving room only for a train of fire trucks and ambulances to rush through.
“I thought a bomb had gone off,” Kidwell says. Soon, she saw dozens of panicked adults—parents, she would later realize—sprinting up the street toward Covenant.
Five miles northeast of Covenant at Daystar Counseling Ministries, Sissy Goff heard about the shooting from a co-worker. Goff has spent 30 years at Daystar helping Tennessee’s children and parents wrestle with hard realities, and last year made Instagram videos offering tips for parents in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting.
When she heard what had just happened at Covenant, Goff texted her friend, Covenant Headmaster Katherine Koonce. No response. A few hours later, Goff learned why. Koonce, 60, was dead.
At 10:13 a.m. on March 27, a 28-year-old former Covenant student named Audrey Elizabeth Hale gunned her way inside a building shared by the church and school. Within 14 minutes, seven people lay dead, including Hale.
The student victims were all 9 years old, and included Scruggs’ only daughter, Hallie. Three adult staffers—a substitute teacher, a custodian, and Koonce—also perished. Nashville Metro Police ended the assault by killing the assailant, who shot at officers from a second-story window as they arrived.
The Covenant attack marks the 17th U.S. school shooting this year. But for many Christians, this shooting feels different. Around the country, they’re wondering: Were Christians targeted? Why did the incident fall so quickly from the headlines? Is this perhaps the first time some media, activists, and even the White House became sidewise apologists for a school shooter?
Investigations revealed Hale, a woman who identified as a man, meticulously planned the crime. She drew detailed maps of the school’s surveillance and entry points. She also made plans to target at least one other school in the area, but abandoned them after deciding it was too secure.
FEW WOULD HAVE CONSIDERED Covenant vulnerable until now. Green Hills is an affluent neighborhood just south of downtown Nashville where upscale shopping and dining reign, and a house on Harding Place, a street adjacent to the church, is listed for more than $3 million.
Not much of Covenant can be seen from Harding Place, or from any other street flanking the property, which sits atop a large, wooded area known as Red Bud Hill. Drivers on Hillsboro Pike are treated to quick views of a cathedral-style steeple and the tops of a few stone-clad buildings. A longer glance through the mix of hickory and oak trees reveals a playground.
Covenant is denominational—the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—with high church leanings. On Sunday mornings, the sounds of a pipe organ and liturgical readings round out worship in a cross-shaped sanctuary designed with history in mind. When a reporter from The Tennessean interviewed founding pastor Jim Bachmann during its construction more than 20 years ago, he described a grand vision: “We hope to build a church that expresses something of the transcendence and sovereignty of God.”
Almost exactly 24 hours before the shooting, Covenant’s current pastor Chad Scruggs put on a black robe and stood in that church to preach on other attributes of God. The sermon he delivered included John 12:40, a verse he admitted had “no soft landings.” The topic? The hardening of men’s hearts. “If this makes you sad, you should know it made Jesus sad as well,” he told the crowd filling the wooden pews. “Jesus wept over unbelief.” Scruggs went on to remind listeners of God’s character. “God is always far more righteous than we are. And He is also far more abundantly merciful than we think ourselves to be.”
The morning of the shooting, terrified Covenant parents prayed for mercy as they hoped to reunite with their children. Sissy Goff dashed to Woodmont Baptist Church, Covenant’s reunification center for students and parents, where a host of counselors had gathered to offer help.
“I have a sister who has a 4-year-old, and I just thought about all these parents who would be picking up their kids,” Goff says. “I wanted to help parents know what to say.”
Before long, partly because of her experience with Uvalde, a leader at Covenant asked Goff to come to the front and speak to the crowd. She says it was hard. “They were calling names of kids on the microphone to connect them with their parents, and they would hand me the mic in between. I felt like I was in shock.”
Goff did the best she could, suggesting that parents try to remain calm and let kids take the lead in asking questions while giving them space to feel their feelings. But Goff herself had a sinking feeling about Katherine Koonce.
“I knew she would have been there hugging those kids. I wouldn’t let myself think about it.”
Within an hour of the incident, all of Nashville was thinking about the tragedy. Memorials sprang up that afternoon at the two entrances to the church property. Stuffed teddy bears covered the grass, along with balloons, crosses, and wreaths. Enlarged photos of the six victims stood tall in wooden frames, turning once little-known faces into familiar ones. Evelyn Dieckhaus. Mike Hill. William Kinney. Katherine Koonce. Cynthia Peak. Hallie Scruggs.
At the north entrance, sympathy wasn’t just tangible. It was palpable. That’s where I first met Kathy Kidwell the day after the shooting. Kidwell was the woman who thought a bomb had gone off, who saw all the parents running to find their kids—a scene she said she couldn’t get out of her mind. Now, she had come at dusk to pray. “For the families,” she says, mentioning that her granddaughter is the same age as the students killed in the attack, a fact that had kept her up all night.
That’s why Kidwell, 63, says the Covenant tragedy hit close to home. She couldn’t stop hugging her rollerskating granddaughter that night, but over a chicken fajita dinner, the conversation was careful, measured. Still, Kidwell knows her daughter and son-in-law can’t protect the girl from everything. She wanted to cry when she heard her granddaughter ask the question being raised in too many Nashville homes: “Am I safe at school, Daddy?”
It’s a question being raised across the nation. But the Covenant attack may have been more than a shooter’s bid to leave this life in a blaze of gunfire, name forever cemented in infamy. Nashville police said Audrey Hale left copious writings, but added that sifting through them will take time. Still, Police Chief John Drake said investigators believe Hale’s “resentment” over having to attend the private Christian school may have played a role in the shooting.
By Tuesday, March 28, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked that the attack be investigated as a religious hate crime. In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Hawley wrote, “It is commonplace to call such horrors ‘senseless violence,’ but properly speaking, that is false. Police report that the attack here was ‘targeted’—targeted, that is, against Christians.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters any such labeling is premature. “As of now, motive hasn’t been identified,” he explained, adding that the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working with Nashville police. “Motive is what determines whether it’s a hate crime or not.”
Although many questions about the attack remain unanswered, Covenant’s tragedy made headlines for less than a week. By Saturday, major news outlets posted stories about a transgender woman’s troubles at WrestleCon, but no new details of the shooting. The silence could be a result of the church’s decision to hire a public relations firm to negotiate media interactions, which have been few. But Nashville police, who quickly offered press briefings and security footage in the aftermath, are now quiet, too.
News coverage of the Covenant attack looked starkly different from other school shootings—ranging from White House declarations that seemed tone-deaf to activists rationalizing the Nashville shooter’s murder spree. President Joe Biden joked with reporters that if Republican Josh Hawley felt Hale had specifically targeted Christians—well then he, Biden, didn’t. And three days after the transgender shooter killed six people—four of them female—Biden warned of an “epidemic of violence against transgender women and girls.”
Meanwhile, the Trans Resistance Network, a Boston-based pro-transgender group, said in a statement that the “constant drumbeat of anti-trans hate [and] lack of acceptance from family members and certain religious institutions” may have made Hale feel there was “no other effective way to be seen” than killing people. “Hate has consequences,” TRN said.
Four miles away from Covenant, Bloom Flowers owner Gina Ashwood is taking a break. It’s noon, two days after the shooting, and she’s sitting behind the counter spooning down a cup of yogurt. “First meal of the day,” the brunette acknowledges, stopping to answer the phone. Tuesday’s volume of orders was so overwhelming she had to shut down the store’s website.
The shooting shocked her. Nationwide sympathy has, too. “All these orders started rolling in for the church, for the school, for children who were at the school at the time but were uninjured.” Bloom has 12 employees, and right now three are in the back snipping leaves and hydrating a load of flowers that just arrived.
Buckets of hyacinths, Gerber daisies, and snapdragons are lined up in front of a glass-front floral refrigerator, and Ashwood says every stem will find its way into an arrangement by the end of the day. But not every customer wants flowers. Ashwood reaches over and pulls an order for an indoor plant. “It’s from the Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. They said they don’t know anyone at Covenant. They just want to be in solidarity with the school.”
Last night, the regular delivery driver worked until dark. Ashwood even took a shift. Her stepbrother jumped in to help. “He messaged me and he said, ‘You know, some of the deliveries were to the actual families affected by the shooting.’”
“This one’s going to the Koonce family,” Ashwood tells me, moving to grab another call. It’s clear she doesn’t yet recognize the deceased Covenant headmaster’s last name.
On Tuesday morning, the day after the shooting, CNN interviewed Koonce’s friend, Sissy Goff, at the entrance to the school. She was cold and nervous. Her knees were shaking. Then Goff noticed something. “There was a sign for Covenant School, and next to it, they were advertising their Easter services. There was ‘Easter’ in these large letters. And I just thought, ‘That is it.’”
Goff knew she didn’t understand what had happened. She was confused. “But here’s the darkest day of my experience in Nashville, and next to all of it is a sign for Easter that says this is not the end. You know, there’s a promise we can cling to in the midst of all this.”
For some, knowing what to cling to takes on a strange twist. On March 29, two days after the shooting, most news crews followed first lady Jill Biden to a citywide candlelight vigil headlined by singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. But across town, some 200 men and women are quietly filling pews belonging to the Village Chapel, a nondenominational congregation established in 2001. Emotions are high in the space that once housed a Catholic girls’ school, and members aren’t afraid to show it. As one commented, “We are a hugging church, but tonight there’s more hugging than usual.” That’s because the grief at the Village Chapel has an added dimension: The parents of the Covenant shooter are tied to this body of believers.
“There is no place in our minds or hearts to file these emotions,” a speaker prays from the front. “We are shattered and shocked.” So they turn to meaty hymns that have sustained the generations. Through sobs, voices sing “I Need Thee Every Hour” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”
According to Nashville Police Chief John Drake, Hale was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder. They say she legally purchased seven firearms but hid them from her parents, Ronald and Norma Hale, with whom she lived.
“Norma is a special lady. She heads up our meals team,” a Village Chapel member named Sheila tells me. Sheila has kind eyes and a gracious, outstretched hand. The red scarf wrapped around her hair bobs in agreement as Senior Pastor Jim Thomas takes the mic and laments the calamitous week.
Thomas also acknowledges the church is crying and praying “alongside Norma and Ron” as they experience the “inexplicable shock of knowing that their child is the one who caused the death of these other six beautiful people.” He’s speaking in a historic auditorium with soaring ceilings, antique fixtures, and arched windows that run nearly the height of the walls. With the setting sun pouring its golds and ambers through the glass, it’s hard to reconcile the peaceful ambiance with the problems outside its walls.
The pastor goes on to describe the Village Chapel community as one including musicians, songwriters, authors, journalists, publicists, publishers, and editors—people whose job it is to work with words. “And yet, this week, many of us find ourselves stunned into silence.” Even so, he encourages members to send any correspondence for the Hales via the church leaders. The couple, he notes, “will have to lay low for quite a while.”
Three days after the shooting, a steady stream of moms, dads, and children are crossing the threshold at Daystar Counseling Ministries. Its office building is a happy yellow house topped with a green roof, and it’s located in the distinctive Berry Hill neighborhood, an area many call “a music hub.” In fact, country star Martina McBride’s recording studio is just across the street from Daystar. But inside the counseling center, the environment is purposefully low-key and homey. Whiffs of chocolate chip pancakes drift from the kitchen where volunteers have bent over a griddle all morning. Shag rugs cover the floors, and baskets of toys sit on coffee tables, waiting for takers. A young girl in a gray Covenant Knights T-shirt walks through the foyer, bringing a bag of popcorn with her. She stops at a table to check out a laminated feelings chart. It’s covered with illustrations representing sad, brave, frustrated, and grateful faces.
The mix of emotions is familiar to those close to the Covenant crisis. And figuring out the “what’s next” is a weighty responsibility. In the days since those interrupted presbytery meetings, George Grant, like thousands of others, has watched footage of the attack. He pushed “pause” to take special note of where the assailant finally fell—right next to an entrance to the sanctuary’s balcony.
That juxtaposition of a worship space with the scene of such violence is “haunting,” Grant says, and could make the return to normal church life difficult. But he has confidence in Covenant’s leaders. “They are extraordinary pastors with such godly presence. They know that the promises of the gospel are true for eternity, but they are also a solace in the present. As horrific as this is, beauty will rise from the ashes.”
Just hours after learning his daughter was among the shooting victims, Chad Scruggs released a statement testifying to the only hope for both his daughter and a world where school shootings are increasingly common, increasingly horrific: “Through tears we trust that she is in the arms of Jesus who will raise her to life once again.”
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