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Tragedy strikes at the spirit

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, and then face to face,” the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. The verse is part of Chapter 13, now commonly referred to as the love chapter.

People who waited for word of the fate of the coal miners trapped in the Sago mine stared dimly into the hope that their prayers were answered. Then they came face to face with the reality that all but one miner had died.

The thought occurs even to people unconnected to the families: where was God?

“It makes you think — why would God let bad things happen to good people?” said Sister Mary Pellicane. Her own first reaction would be anger, she said.

But Pellicane, a Catholic nun and director of the West Virginia Institute For Spirituality, said God did not let anything bad happen. She hopes anger will give way to acceptance.

“I am hoping that wisdom will be born from this tragedy,” she said.

The Rev. Denise Hall, pastor to both the Westminster Presbyterian Church and the South Park Presbyterian Church, watched the tragedy unfold on TV.

“It’s easy to praise God when the good news comes. But I hope people will remember that in the midst of the tragedy God was there. God was there the whole time.

“God’s heart was the first to break. Realizing that always gives me hope,” she said.

Hall is concerned for people who may lose their faith. “But God was there. Just like God was there in all the Gulf Coast tragedies. God was also there welcoming them [the miners].”

As the story unfolded this week, the Rev. Lawton Posey imagined what he would have done if he had been called on to bring comfort in Sago.

“I would have been at as much of a loss as anyone,” he said. “People are perhaps quick to declare something a miracle in one breath, and then to announce the absence of God in another.

“Jesus, whom I try to follow, gave no quick answers.”

Posey pointed to Luke’s account of a disaster in which 18 people were crushed when a large tower fell on them. Luke records Jesus saying: “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?”

Jesus reassures his audience. “I tell you — no.” But Jesus urged them to repent and be ready to face their own deaths.

“The best we can do,” Posey said, “is to wait for what healing may come, to realize that life is full of suffering, that humans are capable of terrible mistakes, and that none of us is God, for which I am most thankful.”

Rabbi I.B. Koller retired from his Charleston congregation and, living in Virginia, said humans’ prayers to God are often like children’s letters to Santa Claus.

“They are invariably requests, and the exigencies of life dictate that many will not be granted. Disappointment follows, and it causes us to question God’s fairness, as well as our own worth.

“The puzzle to address is: Why are we reluctant to demand of God some answers to human (and animal) tragedies? Abraham challenged God in the days of Sodom. Moses challenged the Almighty during the journey after the Exodus. Even Jesus asked of God ‘Lamah zabachtani?’, or ‘Why have you forsaken me?’

“It is good to thank God. But it is equally responsible to ask why we must also suffer horrendous afflictions.”

No one merged these two approaches to religious commitment better than the author of the biblical book of Job, he said. In Upshur County, the news went from almost certain tragedy to salvation and then the reality of death.

“That is essentially the human condition,” Koller said. “We must seek answers to suffering, give thanks for blessings and not be timid to face both.”

Messages of sympathy for the miners and their families have come from all directions. West Virginia’s Islamic community faxed a message to newspapers offering their prayers to those who are grieving.

The Rev. William Slates, a Methodist minister, said he can understand the feelings of grief, anger and frustration.

“It’s an understandable anger. People also look for someone to blame. But blame does not ease the pain. We have to work through it,” Slates aid.

Father Everett Francis Briggs relates to the tragedy through his experiences from another horrible mining disaster — Monongah. In 1907, 362 miners died in the worst mine tragedy in American history.

“It’s the same old tragedy,” said Briggs, who turns 98 this month. “People go underground and do not come back.”

He is working on a memorial to honor Monongah widows.

Jerry Murrell, pastor of the Way of Holiness Church in Buckhannon, spent many hours on the scene at Sago.

“Just being there for them, hugging them, holding their hands, just listening,” is the best way to respond, he said. “So much of what they have experienced is beyond words.

“But as Christians we hold out the hope of eternal life,” Murrell said.

“I can’t get the children out of my head. They were so excited at the thoughts of a reunion.”

To contact staff writer Susan Williams, use e-mail or call 348-5112.


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