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February 14, 2003


Churches reach out to Space Coast community

Photo by Mike Loomis  

Melbourne District clergy gathered Feb. 4 to support each other in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Dr. John Galloway (standing) from Florida Memorial, Winter Park, spoke about the signs of increased stress clergy should be aware of in the days ahead.
By Tita Parham

LAKELAND— While the nation mourned the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the seven astronauts on board, members of the community and churches in the Melbourne District felt that loss even more deeply. For them, the tragedy hit home and on very personal levels.

Churches throughout the district opened their doors Saturday and Sunday following the Feb. 1 breakup of the shuttle to help members and neighbors cope with their grief and fear about the future.

Approximately 11 United Methodist churches north of Melbourne have high concentrations of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) employees, between 10 percent and 40 percent of their members, according to Melbourne District Superintendent the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder.

Burkholder called many of those churches Saturday after learning of the disaster, offering support and help.

“Without a doubt they were all making changes in their services [Sunday], opening their churches…I was really proud of our clergy and our churches. They responded immediately,” Burkholder said. “For other communities this is a tragedy. For this community it’s a disaster.”

At Satellite Beach United Methodist Church, about 15 miles south of KSC, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the church’s members “have aspects of their work supporting space flight,” according to the Rev. Mike Loomis, the church’s pastor. “The whole area is intricately involved with Kennedy Space Center.”

That includes KSC Director Roy Bridges, a member of the Satellite Beach church.

“I spoke with Roy Saturday night…this is a man of very deep faith,” Loomis said. “His comment was, for people that are part of NASA it’s like losing seven family members all at one time.”

Loomis said about two dozen people, mostly church members, visited the church Saturday for prayer and counseling. Sunday morning worship was dedicated to remembering the shuttle crew, their families and the community, but also communities in Israel and India as they mourned the loss of their astronauts aboard Columbia.

“We just tried to think about the anxiety that was there. People are very anxious about the future. ‘Will I have a job in a few months?’ ‘How long will the investigation take?’ ” Loomis said. “It’s a very personal grief for people who knew the astronauts and are involved with the space program.”

Members of First United Methodist Church, Titusville, also felt the sting of loss. “Anyone who lives in this area feels pretty personally about what goes on at the space center,” the Rev. David Waller, pastor of the church, said. “The community kind of listens for that dual sonic boom [upon reentry].”

Waller said some members of his congregation work at KSC, but there are many more who were related to the space program in the early years “We have a history of seeing that program develop,” he said.

Waller said KSC’s vehicle assembly unit and launch pads are visible from the church. “When there’s a launch, sometimes when we’re having a meeting, we can step out and see the launch.”

First, Titusville, also opened its sanctuary Saturday evening and dedicated Sunday’s worship to remembering the crew. On Sunday, worship leaders placed a candelabra holding seven candles on the altar, one for each astronaut who died, and each astronaut’s name was read aloud.

Waller, Loomis and Burkholder all say people couldn’t help but remember the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger Jan. 28, 1986. Loomis said a member of his congregation was one of the KSC personnel who made the decision to launch Challenger.

“There are people here who still have very many painful memories, not just from the accident, but the aftermath,” Burkholder said, adding the area suffered a major economic downturn as a result, with no shuttle launches for three years. “It triggers within them a real fear about consequences in the area—about jobs. That’s an issue other people are not worrying about.”

Burkholder held a meeting for district pastors Feb. 4, offering them an opportunity to seek support and support each other. A statement from Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker was read aloud and offered for inclusion in bulletins and newsletters. A specialist from Florida Memorial, Winter Park, helped debrief the clergy and prepare them for the potential crises their members and communities will be facing.

Loomis said one of the things his church can do in the days to come is be aware of the issues affecting people. “Psychologically it’s [our role] to provide a non-anxious presence,” Loomis said. “Theologically it’s to help people get in touch with the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

A memorial service for KSC employees was held Feb. 7 at 8:15 a.m. on the landing site where the shuttle would have landed. Loomis participated, along with other spiritual leaders of the community, former astronauts and Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bridges led the service.

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