Seven Heroes, Seven Faiths
A look at the astronauts' different spiritual paths--and their communities' different ways of mourning.
Before he left on the Columbia shuttle mission last month, Michael P. Anderson had a talk with his pastor, the Rev. Freeman Simmons. On Sunday, congregants at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Spokane, Wash., learned of their conversation.
"Don't worry if I'm not coming back," Simmons said Anderson told him. "I'm just going higher."
For two hours this Sunday, the yellow clapboard church where Anderson grew in his faith was full of electric organ and hearty gospel singing as members worked through their grief at the loss of a son of the congregation. A robed choir sang gospel music, accompanied by organ and drums. A gospel choir brought the mostly black congregation to its feet with a rousing "Amazing Grace." The church bulletin bore a picture of Anderson in his NASA jumpsuit, an American flag and the space shuttle.
Anderson's parents, Bobbie and Barbara Anderson, were making plans to travel to Houston for a memorial service. "I can feel sure that, by him being a Christian man, he is in a better place than where he would be on Earth," Anderson said.
At the church, Rev. John Claiborne, another of the church's pastors, prayed: "We thank God for Michael because he died doing what he loved. I will that each of us could live a life like he did. Just yesterday, a tragedy came, but, Lord, we know that you have all power on Heaven and Earth.Don't let their lives be in vain. We pray now that some life will be changed. Someone will realize that there's more to life than right now."
Like many memorial services in African-American Baptist churches, the mood was exuberant. One member, Joan Johnson, explained it this way: "It's not ever sad here. We know Michael is with the Lord," she said. "It's like a home-going."
Hindu and Sikh background
"The first view of the Earth is magical. ...in such a small planet, with such a small ribbon of life, so much goes on. It is as if the whole place is sacred. You get the feeling that I need to work extraordinarily hard along with other human beings to respect that," said astronaut Kalpana Chawla in a 1998 interview. The 41-year-old Indian-American's sentiments about Earth's fragility--along with her achievements--resonated with people across the world.
A vegetarian who requested a Ravi Shankar raga (song) to be played during her first shuttle flight, Dr. Chawla rarely spoke about her beliefs. Born into a family that respected both Sikh and Hindu traditions, she grew up in a home where, among other things, her father counted the number of references to a Hindu god in a famous Sikh scripture.
After she moved to America, Chawla could be seen at Hindu temples in California's Bay Area and in Houston. In a 1997 Hinduism Today interview, her statement--"Do something because you really want to do it. If you're doing it just for the goal, and don't enjoy the path, then I think you're cheating yourself"--echoes a guiding principle of the Bhagavad Gita, a beloved Hindu scripture--"Work, but work for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your labor."
This past weekend, Hindu and Sikh temples across the country commemorated Chawla's life and the lives of all the crew members. At Houston's Sri Meenakshi temple, Chawla's father silently lit the fourth of seven candles--one for each astronaut. The service included prayers, songs, and brief statements by Chawla's friends and colleagues. Hundreds of people attended an hour-long service at the Hindu Temple & Community Center in Sunnyvale, Ca., where they recited a mantra in praise of God that had been chanted by Mahatma Gandhi. At a brief ceremony at New York's Ganapathi Temple, participants said prayers for the peace of the astronauts' souls. "Our tradition and philosophy tell us ...that they are safe in a different home which is really our true abode," says Dr. Uma Mysorekar, who attended the New York ceremony and is president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America.
Though Hindu funeral rituals typically center around the cremation of the body, Hindu theologian Arvind Sharma of McGill University says that the tragic case of the Columbia victims will not pose a religious dilemma. "Whatever remains can be found [can be] cremated and ...deposited in a sacred location or river," says Sharma.
Though the Hindu belief in reincarnation does not necessarily lessen a grieving family's pain, says Sharma, the belief that life continues in some form does provide some comfort. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, often referred to at Hindu funerals, is particularly relevant in light of Chawla's legacy: "No one can destroy the imperishable spirit."