McAbee is a poet, essayist, and theologian, whose work has appeared in TIME, The New York Times, The Hudson Review, The Sun (US), and a variety of other publications. He has spoken widely in university and congregational settings throughout the US and the UK. He works as Professor of Religion and the Arts at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
On Friday, March 31, 2023, I sat in a small room, just off the choir loft at Woodmont Christian Church, the church where I’m a member, in Nashville, Tenn.
From that room, I listened as the legendary singer, Vince Gill, sang for the funeral of Evelyn Dieckhaus, one of the nine-year-old children killed in The Covenant School shooting just a few days prior.
I don’t know how Gill kept his composure—how his vocals stayed so true. When he looked back at the piano player once, I could see he was crying, but he managed to make it through the song, “What a Wonderful World,” his voice conveying tenderness and brokenness and somehow, even beauty.
In fact, Woodmont Christian’s pastor reached out to Gill earlier in the week and requested that song for the family. The very day of the funeral, Evelyn and some of her classmates were supposed to be in a play at school, and they had been practicing that song. Can’t you just hear the voices of children singing those words that are such an integral part of our national songbook? “I see trees of green, red roses, too.”
With The Covenant School shooting and the political furor in the U.S. surrounding guns, we can be forgiven for not feeling that this is a wonderful world, especially not lately for thousands of parents in Nashville.
I think back to the day the shooting happened: As I sat in my office at Belmont University on Monday two weeks ago, my colleague in the next office came to my door, staring at his phone in disbelief. “There’s a school shooting in Green Hills,” he said.
My mind rushed to my older child’s kindergarten classroom at his elementary school in Green Hills, a mile from our house, the image of him at his table, the sounds of gunshots jarring him.
“It’s at a Christian school.”
I breathed almost a breath of relief, knowing my son was safe at his public school. But my mind went to the Christian school less than a mile from our house, and I tried to think if we know any families whose children go there. Then, I remembered that my wife and daughter were on a walk in our neighborhood. Were they safe? What kind of shooting? Were the children safe?
“It’s the Covenant School,” he told me.
I walked out of my office, down the hall, though I wasn’t sure why or where I was going. The Covenant School. Just a few miles from our house. It hit me: Two of our closest friends’ daughters go there. I thought of those two girls and wanted to rush to them.
I texted their dad, my friend, but I didn’t know if he knew yet, so I didn’t want to panic him in a text out of the blue. What should I say to check in but not to panic? So I typed, “Everything okay?” and sent the message.
A colleague came to mind, who’s an Elder at Covenant Presbyterian, the Church that the school is part of. I didn’t know if he knew yet. I walked to the office suite across from mine and looked in his office door. He wasn’t in.
I went to the elevator to get to the parking garage. I had to get to my car. I was in a panic. I had to check on my friends’ daughters. That’s all my body knew, like a reflex. I was shaking. I had to get to those girls, who are like family to me. Those babies, I just kept thinking. I had to get to them.
My friend texted back a few minutes later—a picture of their kindergartner, safe. She was in a parking lot. That much I could tell. I assumed he was with her, though I found out later, he wasn’t. It was a picture someone sent to someone else, who sent it to him. That’s how information was flowing in those moments of panic. Another friend texted to go to Woodmont Baptist Church. That’s where the families had been told to converge.
I spent hours that Monday in the sanctuary at Woodmont Baptist Church with hundreds of parents waiting for word on their children.
Our friends’ younger girl wasn’t in school that day. The wife’s brother and I got to Woodmont Baptist before my friends did. I was with them when they were reunited with their daughter hours later. I was a minister at their wedding, helped them get together as a couple, the husband was a groomsman in our wedding, and I held that baby girl, who was in a kindergarten classroom during the shooting, in my arms in the hospital room the day she was born. I hugged her harder that Monday than I ever have, just after her parents and uncle.
In the hours of waiting, I was with my friends, with ministers from our church, and another family from our church, who were waiting for word on their children. That family got news about two of their three being safe early. We were waiting so long for word on their middle child that we were all very scared. Finally, they heard she was ok—it had been her class that had been hit the worst, thus the time lag for information.
And then, there was the Dieckhaus family: Mike, Katy, Eleanor, and the child who at the time was at Vanderbilt Hospital, Evelyn. One of the ministers from our church was with them as the doctors delivered the news that they couldn’t save her.
What wonderful world? Where? Not here. Not in Nashville. Not in the U.S., where our elected officials are cowards, beholden to the blood money of the gun lobby.
What do we do in a country where easy access to weapons of death takes precedence over the lives of our children? What do those of us in Tennessee do, when our supermajority legislature attempts to silence the voices of two young Black American lawmakers, Representative Justin Jones and Representative Justin Pearson, who, with their colleague Gloria Johnson, dared to speak up against the insanity of “business as usual”?
The list of school shootings in the U.S. is too long for most of us to remember. We’re the only country in the world where this sort of preventable tragedy happens again and again and again. This time, the school shooting was in my side of town. Perhaps next time, it will be in yours.
Two weeks later, we’re all still shaken in Nashville. All the schools had lockdowns and lockouts for hours. Our kindergartner could tell something had happened, and he has been very into hugs and snuggles these last two weeks. Even though he didn’t know any of the specifics for days, you could tell he felt shockwaves of trauma via the adults all around him.
Waiting in a church sanctuary with hundreds of parents to find out if their children are alive was the closest thing to hell I’ve ever witnessed. For American parents, waiting for real change from our politicians is its own kind of hell that we’re all stuck in.
How do we respond in the hell of this waiting? What wonderful world, I wonder?
When Louis Armstrong was asked how he could sing such a song in a nation filled with racial strife and unrest, he responded: “Seems to me, it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doin’ to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love.”
Sounds simple—and yet. We find ourselves in a nation with a lack of imagination for how to shape a better tomorrow for our children, with a lack of empathy, where communities of color have been wounded by the violence of our culture for far longer than those in more affluent neighborhoods. But the problem belongs to us all. The children are all our babies.
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