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Florida pastors minister to grieving space community


NOTE: For further coverage, see UMNS story #055.

By United Methodist News Service*

For members of churches near Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the loss of the space shuttle Columbia amounted to losing seven family members all at once. Since the Feb. 1 tragedy, church clergy have been helping NASA workers and their families cope with the grief.

"They will go on because they are pioneers," said the Rev. Mary Lou Tutt, an associate pastor at Satellite Beach (Fla.) United Methodist Church. "It is a very close-knit community, the space community, and … it loves its people."

Satellite Beach was one of many churches that opened its doors for prayer that day. The church serves a bedroom community for the Kennedy Space Center and Patrick Air Force Base.

Space center Director Roy Bridges is a member of the Satellite Beach church. "I spoke with Roy Saturday night...," said the Rev. Michael Loomis, senior pastor. "This is a man of very deep faith. His comment was, for people that are part of NASA, it's like losing seven family members all at one time."

Like many other churches, Satellite Beach replaced its previously planned Sunday, Feb. 2, service with one that included special music and a different message, but it kept the scheduled Holy Communion.

Loomis did "a fabulous job" of keeping the balance between the horrendousness of losing seven lives and "realizing that over the last 50 years of space exploration, we've lost far fewer people than they do every year in airplanes and cars," Tutt said. "In fact, the space program has been very successful in its safety records and at the same time honoring the pain and suffering of those people who lost a loved one."

First United Methodist Church in Titusville, near the causeway to the space center, also opened its doors to the community on Saturday and changed its Sunday services.

The men's choir sang "Bless Thou the Astronauts," a hymn composed in 1969, which goes on to say, "who face the vast immensities of space; And may they know, in air, on land, Thou holdest them within Thy hand. O may the small step each doth take aid others giant leaps to make."

In his message, "Into God's Hands," the Rev. David Waller, said, "We are reminded that the leap to space, the work there and safe return to earth is yet a pioneering adventure which involves the managing of high risk and pushing the envelope of cutting-edge technologies."

At the altar, seven lighted candles symbolized the spirit of the astronauts who had died the day before, just as a lighted candle is used to mark the passing of the congregation's members.

"We will remember and respect with gratitude and honor the contribution of these seven astronauts," Waller said. "In re-entry we watched the visual record of flames and the trail of ash, vapors and smoke. This was not unlike a multifaceted, glistening tear across the face of the heavens. And in this re-entry, as at launch, we commended them by our prayers and collective, heartfelt sigh into God's hands."

Church representatives spoke of the closeness of the NASA family and the personal grief that has been felt throughout the area. In addition, there has been some fear for jobs and the economic health of the area, the pastors agree. However, that is less of a concern than it was following the Jan. 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Loomis and Waller said.

For now, church services are focusing primarily on the grief of the community, a grief that is shared around the world.

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*Tita Parham, on the communications staff of the Florida Annual Conference, contributed to this report.

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