BRATTLEBORO — First came the man waving a knife. Then came the police wielding guns.
Parishioners of this town's All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church read last week's reports of a “person of interest” - wanted after the death and discovery of a missing woman - fleeing on foot to their property, where authorities shot and killed him after seeing his weapon.
The event was breaking news throughout New England. But for the spiritual congregation, it also was a page out of history, coming two decades after another man arrived at the church with a knife, only to die when police responded with gunfire.
“I've felt a wilderness of feelings and thoughts, grappling with why and how this could have happened here again,” the Rev. Telos Whitfield said at Sunday's service.
The three dozen parishioners in person and online knew the many differences between the 2001 case of Robert “Woody” Woodward, a 37-year-old Bellows Falls man experiencing what authorities called “an extreme psychotic episode,” and the July 19 appearance of Matthew Davis, a 34-year-old Massachusetts man who police were seeking after they found his ex-girlfriend dead in another part of town.
But the aftershocks of the two deadly shootings were similar enough for Whitfield to rewrite her sermon to address them.
The minister - whose Unitarian Universalist tradition doesn't assert one particular creed but instead aims to bridge religions - began by noting Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed faced their own struggles before finding the way.
“We come together to mourn and to heal,” she said. “It's our calling to offer this care.”
Many parishioners had hoped they had moved past the 2001 shooting of Woodward, which the Vermont Attorney General's Office ruled “legally justified” but caused division between those who disagreed whether the man who interrupted their weekly service could have killed someone or was only a threat to himself.
Then Davis - wanted for questioning in last week's death of 23-year-old Mary Anderson of Massachusetts - was shot and killed outside the church after he “lunged at police with a knife,” according to authorities.
As investigators continue work on the latest case, a group of parishioners met over the weekend to practice the mindfulness teachings of the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
“We are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life,” the Zen master wrote. “We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us.”
That last line concludes with a call to do so “in all situations.”
“We do have an opening in the thick brush and fallen trees, of feeling and unknowing, to come together to grieve and to heal,” Whitfield said in her Sunday sermon.
The minister went on to read from the Mary Oliver poem “Sleeping in the Forest”: “All night/I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling/with a luminous doom. By morning/I had vanished at least a dozen times/into something better.”
“A community is tested and strengthened through difficult experiences,” the minister said. “Yes, we may be grappling with a luminous doom - and we will break into something better.”