GREENVILLE — The bell at historic Christ Church Episcopal in downtown Greenville tolled nine times Friday, once for each of the victims of a plane crash in Alaska that touched off an outpouring of tears as well as love from a grieving community.
About 1,200 friends, family and fellow parishioners of the two families who were lost Sunday turned out to say goodbye and to try to put the tragedy in perspective of their faith in a memorial service at Christ Church.
The Rev. Harrison McLeod, rector of the 4,000-member parish, consoled the mourners by reminding them of God’s faithfulness as portrayed through the stories of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
“But we gather here this morning and we hear the story of God’s mighty works in salvation history and we hear the names of those we love but see no longer, and we ask in our own generation that ancient question: ‘Can God be trusted?’”
Like the rainbow after the flood in Noah’s time, the manna sent to feed the Israelites fleeing from bondage in Egypt and the Resurrection of Christ, the lives of the nine, McLeod said, “were a sure and certain sign and a symbol, a sacrament that God would never aggrieve or afflict his children.”
Melet and Kim Antonakos and their children Olivia, Mills and Ana, were killed along with Chris and Stacey McManus and their children, Meghan and Connor, during a long-anticipated vacation together.
But the rector assured the congregation that they still live.
Authorities haven’t determined the cause of the crash.
Friday’s service followed the order of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, using readings from the Old Testament and Psalms, and one from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says, “I am the resurrection.”
Unlike a candlelight vigil held the previous evening for friends of the five young people who died, or others held earlier in the week, Friday’s service didn’t include remembrances from friends or family. Nor did it attempt to address the question of why such a tragedy would happen to such well-loved members of the community.
Instead, it focused on the question of faith in the life after death promised by Christ.
The nine “loved the God who loved them first,” McLeod said, “and their love and by their lives they themselves have reassured us, that even in the midst of our grief today, that the answer to the question we have all been asking is yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
“Even in the midst of the burden of grief our loved ones even now look down on each one of us from their place in heaven, from their experience of the fullness of joy of the power of the resurrection, each one of those nine glorious precious people shout down from heaven above the answer to our question today. It is true, it is true. The God of life can be trusted.”
The church’s main sanctuary was filled an hour before the 11 a.m. service started and a line had formed for an overflow crowd who watched a live stream on a big screen in Markley Chapel. They joined in the liturgy and singing just as though they were in the same room.
The families met with clergy in the chapel before the service and walked tearfully to the church at about 10:30. They processed out after the hour-long service as the choir sang, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee.”
“Our hope would be that as people entered the worship service feeling grief, a sense of loss, pain, questions, I think during the scope of the service we attempted to address the questions and the pain,” McLeod said afterward.
“I think as the service continued on, my hope would be, my experience would be that there are those beginning first steps that move us from the experience of grief to that experience of perhaps a little bit of healing.”
He said he wasn’t surprised to see such a turnout for the service. He has heard condolences from across the nation and around the world in the past few days, he said.
“I think when two families like this perish at the same time it really gets people’s attention,” he said. I think it is a painful reminder that life is fragile. So often we forget that.”