Comfort sought after crash

Sunday was a day of prayer and remembrance for congregations in east Texas.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | NACOGDOCHES, Texas | February 3, 2003

"We're not living in the same kind of world that our parents lived in, or our grandparents lived in."

—Rev. Robert Lauritzen

Sunday was a day of prayer and remembrance for congregations in east Texas prayers for the dead astronauts and their families, and comforting words for those who watched the burning fragments of the space shuttle Columbia fall to earth.

The Rev. Robert Lauritzen, pastor of the Bible Missionary Church in Nacogdoches, thought the exploding shuttle was an unexpected display of fireworks.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said.

His young son immediately thought, "it could be a bomb or missile."

"We didn't used to think like that," Lauritzen said. "We're not living in the same kind of world that our parents lived in, or our grandparents lived in. The uncertainty of it is kind of unnerving."

These two reactions the shock of seeing the shuttle's explosion, and the initial fear that the explosion could be an act of terrorism were common experiences with which clergy had to help their parishioners cope.

"There was a sense that [my parishioners] were shocked by what happened," said the Rev. Robert Kobler, of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Nacogdoches. "One doesn't feel like this could happen in one's own backyard. There's still a sense of disbelief that it happened, and that it happened here. So there's that feeling of shock."

"For most of us, it's sort of surreal, it doesn't really seem possible," said the Rev. Rita Sims, pastor of the Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches. "I don't think for a lot of [my parishioners] it's really sunk in the severity of it all."

"It creates an extreme feeling of loss when something like this happens," said the Rev. W. E. Shiflet, of the United Pentecostal Church in Palestine. "But I think our people are pretty mature spiritually, and I think they understand that there are some things that you just have to accept."

Acceptance of the disaster, however, is a reminder of the "the brevity of life, and how fragile life is," said Lauritzen, a fact of which many of his parishioners have become increasingly aware since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As a result, Lauritzen found that his parishioners were "turned more toward religious things and turned more toward God than maybe they had been before."

Comparing Sept. 11 to the shuttle explosion was a common theme in the conversation with clergy, who were hard pressed to think of another recent event of similar magnitude.

Shiflett said this disaster caused mainly grief, and not the grief and rage caused by the Sept. 11 attacks, which was more difficult to deal with.

"There was not as much anger in this one as there was grief," he said. "You don't have to deal with an anger situation."

Kobler, however, pointed out that even though the shuttle exploded over east Texas, it lacked a central crash site, and its psychological impact was dispersed in a similar manner. The Sept. 11 attacks, he thought, had even more of a terrifying impact on his parishioners, even though these events took place more than a thousand miles away.

"There was no neighborhood destroyed" in the shuttle crash," Kobler said. "There were no people killed here, other than the people in the shuttle. It's a totally different experience from a plane crash or a helicopter crash. The disbelief is that the shuttle has gone down."

And this disbelief is no different than the disbelief felt by all other Americans. "They're feeling the loss just like the whole country is feeling the loss," he said. The idea that fragments of the shuttle rained flaming from the sky over the town of Nacogdoches is a media exaggeration, according to Kobler.

"It wasn't stuff just raining down in people's back yards. I think the press has overdone that a little bit," he said. "We've got little bits and pieces here, there and everywhere. It's not in everyone's yards."

But the fact that the debris fell in east Texas is a significant one for those who live here, said Sims. This weekend was certainly not a normal one National Guard convoys, swarms of reporters, military aircraft overhead not the features of an average day in Nacogdoches, she said.

According to Shiflett, looking at the debris, while "gut-wrenching," is also a redemptive experience, and an opportunity for prayer and reflection.

"Seeing it, looking it, and knowing what it represents, gets you a little closer to the people who perished and the families who are suffering," he said.

And for Lauritzen, the debris was a reminder that a piece of America has tragically been destroyed Saturday.

"This is part of us," he said.

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