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Students find solace in faith

BY SUSAN KIM | COLLEGE STATION, Tex. | November 19, 1999

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. (Nov. 19, 1999) -- In the wake of a 90-year

college tradition that became a human tragedy, thousands students at

Texas A&M University are finding solace through their faith.

Some 14,000 students packed into Reed Arena on campus last night for

a memorial service that was held several hours before search crews

pulled the last two bodies from the pile of logs that collapsed early

Thursday, killing 11 and injuring 28. Friday morning, some 20

students formed a prayer circle, singing hymns as cranes gathered up

the rest of the timber.

Local pastors and psychologists are staffing special counseling

rooms, and an all-faiths chapel has been open to students who want to

pray, said Kyle Walker, who is director and campus minister with the

United Campus Ministry and also a Presbyterian pastor.

The 40-foot stack of logs, which students traditionally work in

constant shifts to wire together, fell early Thursday morning.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that the center pole

supporting the logs collapsed.

Students usually spend several weeks building the bonfire under close

supervision by engineers and other adults.

A few hours before Thursday's memorial service, thousands of students

gathered at a campus fountain to pray and sing the hymn, Amazing

Grace, said Walker.

Since Texas A&M is a state institution, most religious events are not

sanctioned by the campus itself, though the memorial service was. But

other prayer gatherings and observations over the past two days have

been created by students on their own, Walker said. "This response

has not created by campus ministers but by students themselves. It

speaks of God."

What had been a bitter albeit good-natured rivalry between Texas A&M

and University of Texas has become an camaraderie of grief, said Norm

Hein, a disaster resource facilitator for Church World Service who

has been offering personal support to local pastors.

"Pastors have been discussing ideas on how to help people talk about

this, how to answer their question of what this means," he said.

Scores of local congregations throughout Texas prayed for members who

are students at the two universities. Organizations such as Lutheran

Disaster Response reached out to individual congregations, offering

support and counseling for caregivers.

There is a need for balance and hopeful theological response in the

wake of the tragedy, Hein said. "Already there have been a couple of

instances in which people are saying this is God's reaction to

frivolousness and to people wasting time and not studying," he said.

But most churches are offering health outlet in which people can talk

about the disaster and work through grief, he said.

Walker said the reflections offered at Thursday's memorial service

"reassured students that it's okay to have emotions of anger, fear,

and doubt, and to question God."

A telephone helpline is also open and staffed by student volunteers

who are trained by the university's counseling center.

Walker said his two biggest concerns are making sure students know

what resources are available to them, and that students helping other

students will remember to think about themselves.

Walker also added many Texas A&M students were already deeply

religious before the tragedy. "Every Tuesday night, there is a

non-denominational Bible study and 15,000 students gather every week."

This is the third tragic accident to strike on or near the Texas A&M

campus in a matter of months. In September five people died when a

skydiving plane crashed, and, in October, six students were killed

when struck by a pickup truck.

For many denominations, this Sunday involves liturgy related to

Christ the King, and many churches traditionally read the names of

people who died during the year, said Hein.

"This Sunday become even more poignant in the wake of this tragedy," he said.

The faith community has also played a major role in helping to

transform scheduled events related to the game into meaningful

outlets of grief and comfort. "Events have not necessarily been

canceled," Hein explained, "But they have been changed."

On Monday, the usual "hex rally" - in which University of Texas

students traditionally light candles and put "a hex" on the opposing

team -- will be a memorial service instead. The lights in the

University of Texas tower will be turned off in remembrance of the

students who died.

The two campus newspapers usually exchange biting editorials but

"that's not happening," said Hein.

Instead, pastors from the two campuses are communicating about how to

respond in tandem. What had at times been a bitter rivalry seems to

be erased as students draw together, observed Hein.

"Football is a game -- it's not life," he said. "So our prior

antagonism and rivalry now means nothing as people respond together."

As search crews continued to move logs for nearly 24 hours straight

after the disaster, the Salvation Army provided food, water,

blankets, and pillows for what turned out to be thousands of response

workers.

The Salvation Army also coordinated the donation of cell phones that

rescue workers could use throughout their response.

One Salvation Army volunteer -- herself a student -- was scheduled to

work on the bonfire on the shift immediately after the collapse.

Although most national disaster organizations did not formally

respond, the tragedy drew concern and prayer from across the nation.

Fritz Parker, an Austin, Tex.-based volunteer for the United

Methodist Committee on Relief, said that many people were left with

the feeling they'd like to do more.

"We're all shocked by this," he said. "But for most people it seems

like all we can do is pray for them."

He said the tragedy hit local people so hard because so many people

participate in game-related events. "Some events that were going to

be held in Austin were canceled," he said. "The game will be a somber

event. I would be surprised if they ever had another bonfire out

there."

Hein said that, while national response organizations have expressed

concern, it is important for response to be led by local pastors and

organizations. "They were here before the disaster and they'll be

here afterward," he said. "That's why we're letting the campus faith

community lead the response."

This year is the second time in 90 years that there will be no

bonfire. The first was in 1963 when President Kennedy was

assassinated.

This year's bonfire, which would have attracted tens of thousands of

spectators, had been planned to be a 55-foot high stack of 7,000 logs.

In 1994, the stacked logs collapsed but injuries were averted and a

new stack was built and lit.

Posted Nov. 19, 1999


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