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At NASA gate in Houston, grief encounters hope

HOUSTON (BP)–They continue to come.

They have been coming to grieve, to pay their respects, to leave flowers, cards, balloons and candles.

And they come to pray.

For many, the entrance to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is as close as they will ever get to hallowed ground for the seven astronauts killed aboard the Columbia space shuttle Feb. 1. With the remains of Columbia scattered across at least four states, there is no one place for mourners to go to say good-bye.

Starting the day of the tragedy as a line of neatly laid remembrances lining one side of the 30-foot-long entrance sign, the memorials have grown to encircle the sign, in some places to a depth of 12-15 feet, and run down the chain-link fence at least 50 yards.

It is because of people’s need to grieve and find resolution that Baptist Men of Texas created the Victim Relief Ministries. The resources of the Houston-area chapter are being utilized via a prayer center at the NASA entrance. Don Hawkins and a crew of volunteers arrived at the site at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4. Hawkins, a VRM chaplain and coordinator for Harris County, said they are committed to being on site each day from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. as long as they are needed.

Wednesday morning, Hawkins said many people have stopped to talk, pray or just rest in one of the green plastic lawn chairs. “We’ve got people saved,” he added.

Hawkins said he believes many adults are coming at the urging of their children. He has seen the way they interact at the memorial site. Notes, obviously written by young hands, have been placed among the flowers and lit candles. There was a letter delivered by a little girl Wednesday morning which Hawkins read. He said he was so touched by it he couldn’t bare to leave it on the ground as rain was expected later in the day. Instead, he delivered it himself to NASA personnel.

Another particularly poignant written in crayon on the back of a restaurant menu simply said, “We love you and so does Jesus.”

One car drove by Wednesday morning with a man, apparently dressed for work, and a young child in the passenger seat. To Hawkins, it seemed the child had brought the father. “We’ve got to go there,” Hawkins said the children seem to be saying.

And upon arriving, the chaplain said people end up dealing with unresolved issues of their own. “They’re coming up here and don’t realize they’re traumatized by something in their past” and they need to pray. When they arrive at the Columbia memorial site, what had been buried wells to the surfaces.

It is specifically for times such as these that VRM exists.

The organization is still in the developmental stage in the Houston area, Hawkins said. Even so, he still has about 50 volunteers committed to work at the prayer station – a white canopy with a few chairs and a table.

Although the ultimate goal of the group is to see people come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, VRM’s primary purpose is to meet people at their point of need. The goal, as printed in VRM literature, is to “mobilize the faith community to partner with victim service organizations and law enforcement to assist in delivering appropriate physical, emotional and spiritual support to any victim of crime in Texas.”

“This is a group effort for the churches to come together despite denomination,” Hawkins said. With more than 6,500 churches in the greater Houston area, he said that translates into more than 6,500 “ambassadors” for VRM if each congregation had a representative associated with the relief program.

There are so many resources available to crime and disaster victims — through churches, private organizations and businesses — but they are not always networked to meet cataclysmic needs on a city-wide basis or even the basic needs a family has when victimized by a robber.

With a network of people and resources in place, local authorities will be able to call upon VRM and get a chaplain to a crime or disaster scene as soon as needed, Hawkins said.

Such a system is already in place in Dallas, he said, and arrangements are being made with local authorities in the Houston area as well. Once VRM receives clearance from local authorities, volunteers will have security badges which will allow them onto crime scenes to minister to those in need.

The assistance is not limited to a one-time visit by a chaplain but is a commitment on the part of the organization to nurture those struck by crime or disaster back to a state of “normalcy.” If the people they seek to help are not healed, Hawkins said their hurt and anger can lead to more crime. That is why the long-term relationship is often needed. Those they minister to, Hawkins said, are often the families of the criminals. They are just as much a victim of the circumstances as anyone else, he said.

VRM uses the example of the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and Jesus’ greatest commandment (Luke 10:27) as their guide for healing. But for those who find help and, ultimately, salvation from the work of the VRM volunteers, they might testify, as Mordecai said to Esther, that perhaps they were brought here for such a time as this.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PRAYER AT THE GATE, CHILD’S HEART and COLUMBIA FAREWELLS.

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  • Bonnie Pritchett