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 (email@example.com) 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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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."
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."