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By CINDY SIMPSON
A former Harriman woman was lucky that it took longer than usual to make her trek to church Sunday.
Sara Pierce, a senior English major at the University of Tennessee, was late for services at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church near the university.
That’s where police say Jim David Adkisson, also a former Harriman native, injured several and took the lives of two members during the morning services as children performed a play.
“When I go by myself, I’m usually on time,” Pierce said.
This time Pierce went with her boyfriend, who also attends services there. They arrived in the parking lot to the sight of the flashing police lights and chaos.
“We actually pulled in the parking lot at 10:23. We were turned away,” she said.
“Police had been whizzing by us on the way there,” Pierce said. “You don’t think the police are going where you are going.”
The implications of her tardiness are not lost on her.
“If I had been 10 minutes sooner, I would have been in there,” she added.
Pierce, who has been a member of the church since September, calls the church as a welcoming place where she met many of her closest friends.
“They were just really loving and inclusive. I made my first friends in Knoxville, my first friends in college at that church,” Pierce said.
She expresses shock that such violence befell a congregation known for its peaceful ways.
“We’re the least violent church you could find, like Quakers,” Pierce said.
Pierce also knew victim Greg McKendry, 60 —one of the people killed in the shooting.
Pierce said she understood that McKendry put himself between the children who were performing and the gunman.
“He was a wonderful man,” Pierce said. “He died shielding those kids. Greg McKendry was a hero.”
Pierce said she grew to know him and his wife, Barbara, through the church.
Around two months ago, the couple were celebrating the formal adoption of their 16-year-old son, Taylor Bessette, who Pierce said is a transgender youth.
“He finally found a family that wanted to keep him,” Pierce said.
Once they began letting the people out of the church that afternoon, some of her church friends came to her apartment, which is a short distance away.
A group of people later went to eat later that day “to sort of decompress and be together,” Pierce said.
The young woman said she hopes something good can come from the shooting.
“I would hope an event like this would show the need for love and tolerance among people of all religious and political (views). We’re all just working to make things better,” she said.
“Violence doesn’t solve anything,” Pierce added.
Pierce said church members will be having vigils and services at a nearby church until the church is cleared as a crime scene.
The incident has done nothing to impact her decision to return to the church she loves, except maybe to remind her how special the people who attend are to her.
“I plan to go back as soon as possible.
“We’re a church family and a community, and this is when we need each other more than anything. I was just reminded of how much I love and value my church family there,” Pierce said.
The shooter grew up and spent about 20 years in Harriman before moving out of the area.
Becky Tapp of Harriman said she grew up living near the close-knit Adkisson family and going to school with Adkisson’s sister Louise.
David Adkisson, as the alleged shooter was was known locally, was around four years older than Tapp and his younger sister.
The young man she knew is a different picture than the one recently portrayed in the news.
“He was a nice guy. He was a clean, decent church-going person,” she said.
“They were a close-knit family, nice family,” Tapp added.
Adkisson grew up near the First Christian Church in Harriman where he went to services as a youth, according to former Harriman High teacher Nancy Thompson.
“I went to church with them,” she said.