Religion and Space at a Presbyterian Church

Webster

Webster Presbyterian Church

Over at The Outline, Allyson Gross, a Ph.D student in rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes about Houston’s Webster Presbyterian Church, the so-called “Church of the Astronauts.”

Here is a taste of “Finding God on the Moon“:

Retired astronaut Clayton Anderson, 60, had returned to Webster Presbyterian, his former church, to deliver his first sermon on the anniversary of a special event in the community’s history. Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin consumed the symbolic body and blood of Christ on the lunar surface in an act of Holy Communion. In the Moon’s 1/6th gravity, the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the chalice,” as Aldrin later recalled. Inside the Lunar Module, Neil Armstrong watched quietly. But instead of following along across millions of radios, the world was none the wiser.

Webster Presbyterian isn’t just any church: It’s the “Church of the Astronauts,” located just down the road from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the home of space flight control since 1961 and the “Houston” in “Houston, we have a problem.” Like many other astronauts, Aldrin was a member. According to the 1970 book First on the Moon, he had approached the late Reverend Dean Woodruff in the weeks before the flight for help coming up with a symbolic gesture that “transcended modern times.” Woodruff believed that “God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life,” and suggested that Aldrin bring along with him a little silver chalice, a sachet of wine, and a piece of bread.

But 1969 was a tough year for NASA and religion. In an international radio broadcast on December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 had taken turns reading from the first 10 verses of Genesis upon completion of the Moon’s first circumnavigation. Activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair then sued the U.S. government, claiming the reading violated the First Amendment. “That’s the reason the communion was kept secret,” church archivist Pat Brackett told me. “[Chief of the Astronaut Office] Deke Slayton said, okay, go ahead with your plans, but keep it quiet.”

So in the moments before Neil exited the Lunar Module and took one small step, Buzz called for radio silence, and requested that all listening “contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours, and give thanks in his or her own way.” He then read John 15:5 from a small slip of paper, ate the consecrated bread, and drank the wine. “The ‘silver chalice’ [was] actually a shot glass,” Associate Pastor Helen DeLeon told The Outline. “It just happens to have the right shape, and it was small enough that he could take it.” This was, for DeLeon, both the beauty of the event and the lesson at its center: “We take ordinary things, and we imbue them with meaning.”

Read the entire piece here.

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