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Columbia

Religion is comfort for many

By CHRIS TISCH and KEVIN GRAHAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2003


After witnessing the fragility of humankind's search of the heavens, many in the Tampa Bay area turned away from science Sunday morning to seek comfort in God.

The Columbia disaster was the topic of scores of sermons locally. Church leaders encouraged their congregations to pray for the families of the seven dead astronauts and to seek solace in worship and prayer.

During morning services at Idlewild Baptist Church in north Tampa, images of the seven astronauts were projected on three giant screens as the Rev. Ken Whitten led a prayer.

"Today, their souls go on beating in eternity somewhere," Whitten said. "Although they did not make it to this home, we can pray they made it to God's home."

At First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Mike Davis said space exploration is perhaps humanity's most triumphant achievement. But he reminded churchgoers that our powers are not infinite, and that the most difficult answers come only through truly knowing God.

"We live in a world where things move by so fast, we often don't know what to think," said Davis, who noted the emotional ups and downs of a week in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and the Columbia disintegrated. "It's very confusing. It catches us off guard.

"You can hear the voice of God and you can follow Jesus," Davis told his congregation. "I can stop right there and that's the best news you will hear all week."

At a Hernando County memorial service to honor four chaplains of different faiths who died in World War II aboard the USS Dorchester, veterans paused to light a candle for the astronauts.

"We think it's only fitting to honor the astronauts who died aboard the Columbia," said Rabbi Cyrus Arfa of Temple Beth David Jewish Center, who asked the multifaith gathering to pause for a moment of silence. "And to remember their families at this time of sadness."

Many church leaders directed messages to children.

At Crystal River United Methodist Church, the Rev. Alan Jefferson told youngsters: "We had a tragedy yesterday, you know that? It blew up and all the people inside died. It's sort of a very sad day."

Jefferson told the children to remember God is with them during good and bad moments.

The Rev. Allen Johnson of Harvester United Methodist Church in Lutz said his congregation added the astronauts' families to the church's list of prayer requests.

At Idlewild Baptist in Tampa, Whitten said the astronauts died doing what they loved.

Tiffany Linquist, 18, of Tampa, who attended services at Idlewild, said she admired the astronauts for their courage. "I think they went down in glory."

Across town, Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins led afternoon Mass at St. Lawrence Catholic Church by reminding parishioners to have faith.

"Let's try to see God's will in everything that happens, whether it's bad or whether it's good," Higgins said.

At First Presbyterian in St. Petersburg, 82-year-old Sarah Jane Reese clasped her hands in prayer, took communion and had the Columbia disaster on her mind. She said attending church and hearing a lesson linked to the tragedy brought her some peace.

"You can hope and pray that it doesn't happen to someone else," she said. "I always wonder why and we don't always know why. But you have to have faith."

-- Times staff writers Suzannah Gonzales, Molly Moorehead and Joy Davis-Platt contributed to this report.

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