After shooting at school, United Methodists grasp for answers

After shooting at school, United Methodists grasp for answers

A student was killed on school property and a police officer was wounded April 12 in East Knoxville, Tennessee.

Update | April 15, 8:30 p.m.: About 80 people, including about 20 United Methodist clergy, participated in tonight's prayer service at Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church.

Update | April 15, 2:15 p.m.: This is a developing story. Please follow for details and updates.

Update | April 14, 4:30 p.m.: Due to weather, the prayer service for the East Knoxville community has been rescheduled for April 15 at 7 p.m. in the Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church parking lot.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- United Methodists in the city where a fatal shooting happened yesterday are trying to find ways to help a school that was already reeling from shooting deaths of four other students since January.

On Monday afternoon, April 12, a student was killed and a police officer was wounded at Austin-East Magnet High School in East Knoxville. The student has not been identified. Knoxville police officer Adam Willson was shot at the scene and is recovering after surgery.

Located 1½ miles from the high school, Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church has announced a prayer service in the parking lot on Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. The public is invited, and the service will also be live streamed at, said the Rev. Leah Burns, pastor.

This afternoon, Holston Conference staff released a statement and an announcement of a new fund to support ministries, present and future, in the East Knoxville community.

"My prayer is that the Spirit of God would move through Holston and stir the hearts of God's people to minister in ways that help abolish tragedies like we have experienced in East Knoxville," said the Rev. Tim Jones, Holston director of communications, based in Alcoa, Tennessee.

In his conference-wide email, Jones asked United Methodists to pray and to give to a fund "to help our churches in this area establish or strengthen their outreach and missional ministries." Give to East Knoxville Fund.

Ministry leaders and church members who live or work in the community were already alarmed that four Austin-East students had died from shootings this year before the fifth fatality occurred yesterday, Burns said.
Neighbors gather to pray at Austin-East today.

“It took my breath away when I heard about it,” the pastor said. Several church members at Lennon-Seney are teachers or staff at Austin-East Magnet High School. Burns confirmed that all were safe, but said she is grieved by concern for the children and families of the community.

“Five children have been shot and killed since January. ... This is big,” Burns said. “The question that the families now have is, ‘How are we going to keep our kids safe through the rest of the year?’”

The Rev. Stephanie Parrott said she and her senior pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Sherrod, immediately texted their love and support to Burns after hearing of the most recent shooting. Parrott and Sherrod are pastors at Central United Methodist Church, located 2 ½ miles from the high school. Central and Lennon-Seney are considering a partnership to reach out to the East Knoxville community, Parrott said.

“We’re tired of saying ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you,’” Parrott said. “What can we do to stop this? I’m heartsick that another young life is gone.”

The community where Austin-East is located is underserved in many ways, Burns said. Lennon-Seney is attempting to help with grocery giveaways and COVID-19 vaccinations in the parking lot. Other plans include offering free wifi to students and helping them locate jobs.

Other churches have reached out to join with Lennon-Seney to help, but the work is big and complex and the path to change is not clear, she said.

“We talk about ways that we can be present in this community,” she said. “It’s one thing to take a meal to them and then leave -- but to build relationships and connectivity, that is transformational. If the church can’t be in that equation, then we’re not being the church.”

The Rev. Scott Montgomery is pastor at Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church, located 1/2 mile from Austin-East Magnet High School. Magnolia Avenue continues to serve its neighborhood with a free clinic and meal ministry, despite having been recently closed by the city after the church building was assessed to be unsafe without crucial repairs to the roof and other structures.

Montgomery said he holds out hope that Magnolia Avenue can work with other organizations “to offer a safe and constructive environment for local teens within our community.”

“We hope to have the church become a valuable asset after the repairs are complete, to help house the programs currently available and future ministries,” Montgomery said.

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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