Seven Heroes, Seven Faiths
A look at the astronauts' different spiritual paths--and their communities' different ways of mourning.
Commander Laurel Salton Clark, 41, a Unitarian, was deeply connected to the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. She was married there, and her younger brother, Daniel Salton, is an active member and Sunday School teacher. The Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen, minister of the church for 27 years, met her when she was a teenager and officiated at her wedding to Capt. Jonathan Clark in 1991. Dr. Larsen spoke with Beliefnet shortly before leaving for Houston to be with Clark's family.
"On Sunday we held a remembrance for Laurel during the 'Joys and Concerns' portion of the service. We lit candles for Laurel. There was nothing written down, but I spoke spontaneously. Here's what I recall I said at that time:
"'Although we grieve for Laurel's loss, we know she was doing what she really wanted to do. She really believed in the space program, and the scientific and medical work they were doing in outer space. And it's fitting that all those astronauts of different cultures and nationalities could get along and work together. It's a model for how we might do that on earth. We must be joyful for all of the things she represented.'"
Dr. Larsen also read a portion of a remarkable e-mail that Clark had sent from the shuttle on Friday to family and friends.
In many ways, Clark's mission embodied some of the core principles of the Unitarian Universalist faith, which welcomes all spiritual beliefs and emphasizes social justice and world peace. Respect for "the interdependent web of all existence" - a Unitarian principle - was acknowledged by Clark in an interview she conducted with a reporter from the shuttle. Clark spoke of a silkworm cocoon she had seen hatch onboard. "There was a moth in there," she said, "and it was just starting to pump its wings up. Life continues in lots of places, and life is a magical thing."
The Rev. Kit Ketcham scrapped her sermon on Feb. 2 and opened the service up to the congregation.
Unitarian minister Sarah York on how to create a meaningful memorial service
Cmdr. William C. McCool was a stand-out athlete and student, a Naval Academy graduate who ended up joining the military's most elite corps of fliers. "Willie's one of those people you don't expect a tragedy like this to happen to," his former Annapolis classmate, Mark Patterson, told Newsweek magazine. "He was blessed. And we were blessed to know him." Speaking on Sunday, Rev. Chris Kulig of St. Bernadette Roman Catholic Church pointed to McCool and his fellow astronauts as men and women who "did not let the fear of death prevent them from achieving."
But St. Bernadette in Houston, it seems is the one place McCool liked to blend in with the crowd. McCool, raised in Southern California and Texas, knew his mother's Methodism as a child. Though he became a Catholic as an adult and his mother describes her son "Willie" as "deeply religious," the clergy at St. Bernadette's say they knew McCool, his wife and three sons only slightly.
But bowing their heads for the family during intercessions were McCool's fellow members of the close-knit space community. Hundreds of St. Bernadette's 3,500 families are connected to the Johnson Space Center, and many who attended the contemporary-style church in Houston knew McCool as an outgoing, sometimes boisterous friend, neighbor and colleague. "He was very easy to get along with," Larry Rollins, a church member who worked with McCool. "He was very courteous to people."
As in many Christian churches, St. Bernadette's regular Sunday services, held barely 24 hours after the news of the Columbia's breakup began to spread, became a center of the space community's grief. The pews were filled all weekend with parishioners "seeking an outpouring of faith and hope," in the wake of the tragedy, said St. Bernadette's pastor, Rev. J.J. McCarthy. A formal memorial service for McCool and his fellow astronauts was held at St. Bernadette on Feb. 3rd, followed a few days later by a memorial at the Methodist church in his mother's hometown of Nashville, Mo.
"If I'd been born in space I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I ever yearned to visit space. It's a wonderful planet," wrote Capt. David Brown to his parents in the last e-mail they'd receive from him.
Brown was close to his parents, visiting their Virginia home often--once to deliver a computer so they could receive his e-mails from space. Raised Episcopalian, he was an acolyte at his Arlington, Va. parish. His father is now an active member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, Va. At the request of his father, Capt. Brown spoke to the church's Brotherhood of St. Andrew--a men's fellowship group--during one of his visits. "He made a wonderful presentation," recalls Trinity's Rev. Jennings Hobson. "I saw a truly happy, passionate, caring person."
Episcopal churches across the nation are mourning the loss of the shuttle crew; in Texas, several Episcopal churches are directly in the pathway of the debris. Many NASA employees and their families are parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle in Nassau Bay, Tx., where a Saturday night prayer vigil was held.
In Lufkin, Tx., the rector of St. Cyprian's included a dedicated Eucharist for the astronauts and their families in his Sunday service. The Collect for Burial was read from the Book of Common Prayer, and in many churches, the names of the astronauts were included in the Prayers of the People.
To commemorate the crew, a retired Episcopal priest, the Rev. Vincent Uher, wrote a special new verse to a popular hymn, according to Episcopal News Service. He added the verse to the hymn "Eternal Father, strong to save," often known as the Navy Hymn. Uher said that he used both the passage in Isaiah that President Bush quoted as well as the poem that President Reagan quoted after the Challenger disaster.
"O God who names the starry host
and by whose love not one is lost,
who stretched thy arms wide to the sky
from cross to heav'n so death would die
Oh care for those who traversed space,
Embrace them now who touch thy face."