Seven Heroes, Seven Faiths
A look at the astronauts' different spiritual paths--and their communities' different ways of mourning.
The grieving are calling out to Jesus--and God and HaShem and Krishna. They are chanting passages from the New Testament, the Torah, Unitarian readings, and the Vedas.
The crew of Columbia represents an extraordinary variety of faith traditions:
Kalpana Chawla - Hindu and Sikh background
William McCool - Roman Catholic
Ilan Ramon - Jewish
Rick Husband - Charismatic
Laurel Clark - Unitarian
David Brown - Episcopalian
Michael Anderson - Baptist
This is just the way America is right now. Seek the best and the brightest, and you'll invariably scoop up a great assortment of faiths.
There are some differences, of course, in the ways that each faith attempts to make sense of the tragedy. St. Bernadette Church in Houston, attended by William McCool, emphasized that because Christ died for humanity's sins, no one need fear death. A Hindu memorial service, drawing on completely different texts, evoked sentiments similar to those found in the Christian and Jewish services:
Lead me from unreal to real;
lead me from darkness to light;
lead me from death to immortality.
Om...peace, peace, peace.
At Laurel Clark's childhood Unitarian church in Racine, Wisconsin, the minister's remembrance focused not at all on the hereafter but celebrated the doctor's joy in life, expressed in an email that she had sent from space: "I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet."
Each astronaut followed a different spiritual path, each with a different style of mourning. Here are brief spiritual biographies of the astronauts--accompanied by examples of how those traditions are marking their deaths.
Rick Husband, perhaps more than any of the other astronauts, believed his fate was with God. He saw his choice to become an astronaut not just as a big career move, but as a path he was led to by God. He would never put his job before his faith, however. " I just want to be somebody who lives the life that glorifies you. I want to be a good husband and I want to be a good father, and come what may as far as the rest of it goes," he said in a video interview with the Rev. Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church in Clear Lake, Texas.
This video was played to a tearful audience of more than 2,000 at the church on Sunday, where members gathered to pray and remember Husband and fellow astronaut Michael Anderson. At the service, the Rev. Riggle told the congregation that Husband had left a note in case he died aboard the shuttle. "Tell them about Jesus," the note said. "He means everything to me."
Since the disaster, Husband has been embraced as a Christian hero. "Rick Husband is probably the godliest man I've ever met," Pastor Steve O'Donohoe of Grace told Crosswalk.com. He was a model church member, singing in the choir and even offering to donate his vintage Camaro to help fund the church building effort.
Husband, according to USA Today, brought objects on board the space shuttle that were to later be delivered to a Christian children's home outside Amarillo, Texas, and to Focus on the Family and the Christian Broadasting Network. His family was very involved in the church and his wife, Evelyn, hosted a reception the night before the shuttle liftoff at Calvary Chapel, a Christian church close to the Kennedy Space Center.
Grace is an interdenominational charismatic church. Other Christian churches throughout the country marked the deaths of the astronauts with special sermons or readings. The Rev. Riggle chose several short Bible passages to provide comfort to his congregation, including a passage from Proverbs and the famous verses from Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season . A time to be born and a time to die." The Grace choir sang, this time without their longtime member and soloist, and ended with "Amazing Grace."
Ilan Ramon is being mourned widely in the Jewish community, not only because he made history as Israel's first astronaut but also because he transformed the Columbia from an ordinary shuttle mission into a flight rife with Jewish symbolism. Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor, took several Holocaust objects into space with him. He brought a Torah that was used at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in a concentration camp. He carried a drawing entitled "Moon Landscape," by 14-year-old Petr Ginz, who died at Auschwitz. Ramon also brought on board with him kosher food, a kiddush cup, several mezuzahs, and a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Ramon is said to have spoken the words to the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer, as the space shuttle passed over Jerusalem.
Many Jews first heard about the tragedy en route to Shabbat services on Saturday morning, and some rabbis delivered impromptu sermons based on the disaster. Others marked the tragedy with a few words or a special kaddish during the Saturday morning services. Some communities are holding memorial services throughout the week, including one held Monday at Yeshiva University, where president Norman Lamm praised Ramon: "What a magnificent gesture, what a magnificent Jew, what a magnificent human being."
Though there have been other Jewish astronauts, Ramon's mission took on added significance because he went to space at such a difficult time for Israel. He served as "a hopeful beacon," said his friend Rabbi Mark Blazer, of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, Ca.
Ramon was viewed as a hero in Israel. The Israeli government had already issued a postage stamp commemorating Israel's first astronaut. "The average Israeli knew far more about this mission than the average American," noted Blazer. Blazer was at the launch, and described a moving moment when many of the Jews and Israelis gathered at Cape Canaveral broke out into the song, "Oseh Shalom" ("Make Peace"). Blazer said that song was true to Ramon's message, that "this [space travel] is what can happen when people make peace."
The Israeli and Jewish communities are using technology to mourn Ramon as well. The Israeli Defense Force, which Ramon served as a colonel in the Air Force, set up a special email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) where mourners can send messages that will be delivered to the family. One Israeli company has set up a website where users can light virtual candles in honor of Ramon and leave a message in either Hebrew or English.
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