Americans gathered in their houses of worship Sunday to pray not only for the seven members of the space shuttle Columbia but also for the nation, grappling with yet another tragedy so soon after Sept. 11.
Ministers who had planned to address the prospect of war with Iraq, the economy and other topics dominating public discussion instead spoke of the sacrifice the seven astronauts made to further science.
"There have always been those people who had the courage and the faith to move through frontiers. They do that at great risk sometimes, and we are the beneficiaries of their great spirit and bravery," said the Rev. Victor Nixon, of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark.
A 9-year-old girl stood on her toes to light seven memorial candles on the altar of the First United Methodist Church of Titusville, Fla., where many Kennedy Space Center workers live.
The pastor, the Rev. David Waller, called the trail of smoke from the shattered spacecraft a "glistening tear across the face of the heavens."
Members of Temple Israel of Greater Miami recited the Mourner's Kaddish, or traditional prayer for the dead, for Israeli astronaut Ilan Roman and the six other crew members. The tragedy happened on the Sabbath, when Jews are prohibited from mourning, so many congregations held special services Sunday.
"It is like something has broken," said Karina Zilberman, who helped lead the Temple Israel service. "The purpose was for them to come back and share their experiences."
Rabbi Zvi Konikov of the Chabad Jewish Community Service Center in Satellite Beach, Fla., near the Space Center, said mourners brought a "trail of flowers" to his congregation in honor of the crew. He led a memorial service Sunday morning.
"Everyone was in tears," said Konikov, who spoke of befriending Ramon during the Jewish astronaut's training.
At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in New Orleans, worshippers honored the crew with a variation of a military song called the "Navy hymn."
"Save all who dare the eagle's flight, and keep them by thy watchful care, from every peril in the air," churchgoers sang.
At the Roman Catholic Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, seven candles burned beside the altar. Mass began with 70 seconds of silence and the church bells tolling seven times.
Parishioner David Moore said the tragedy made him think of other explorers such as Lewis and Clark who sacrificed for the cause of human advancement. "These astronauts were pioneers," he said.
The Rev. Mike Weaver of the All Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, had planned a sermon called "Freedom from Fear," but instead talked about Saturday's disaster. He repeated the words President Reagan used to comfort the nation after the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
"They slipped the bonds of Earth to touch the face of God," Weaver said.
At St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City, the names of the crew members were recited during the customary prayers for departed loved ones.
"I woke up with them on my mind this morning," said Jane Betteken, a retired secretary and saleswoman, who attended Mass at Saint Justin Martyr Catholic Church in the St. Louis suburb of Sunset Hills.
"I took for granted that everything went so well for many years with those space programs," she said. "Then, all of a sudden, you're faced with reality."
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