Gathered with students inside Concord High School’s library to watch the launch on a recently donated television, McAfee recalls how fast the festive and highly anticipated morning suddenly turned dark and chaotic.
“Shortly after the explosion, we began hearing a news helicopter overhead. Reporters were crawling all over outside, too. Classes were cancelled. Some of the kids talked to the press, but most were just too upset.”
With the students gone, Concord’s principal Charles Foley convened the faculty together inside the auditorium to discuss the way forward, including a plan to bring in grief counselors to help everyone process the tragedy.
At the conclusion of the briefing, with many on staff still dazed and overwhelmed by what they had all just witnessed, an arm went up in the crowd. It was the hand of Nick Houston, a building and trade teacher.
“I know everybody processes grief differently,” he said. “But the only way I know how to do it is to pray. So, this is only voluntary, but I would like us to pray for the families and for everyone who is hurting.”
Every head bowed and a hush fell over the assembled as Nick proceeded to pray a simple but sincere word of petition. It was a sacred moment, a unifying action that pulled everyone together in their grief and sent them out into the cold New Hampshire afternoon with a spirit of quiet hope after a miserable and tragic morning.
Both Foley and Houston are gone now, their legacies left to the memories of Concord High School’s alumni. I spoke with Barbara Houston last week, Nick’s widow and wife of 63 years. She’s 82 now, misses her beloved husband something terrible, but is relieved that he’s now whole and restored and walking on streets of gold.
I asked her about his special prayer on that tragic day, and she broke down in tears. “I never knew that story,” she said, “but that’s the kind of thing Nick did all the time. He just didn’t talk about himself. He preferred talking about the Lord.”
It’s been three plus-decades since a quiet shop teacher offered a bold prayer in the midst of a shocked and rattled school faculty. After I told her about the content of her late husband’s prayer, Houston’s widow pointed out that much, if not all of it, was answered, as the survivors of the lost were loved and cared for over the years and the country’s space program regrouped, recalibrated and eventually relaunched its missions to outer space.
This is the mystery and power of prayer. We so often ask for so many things – health, wealth, wisdom and happiness, to name just a few common prayer request topics. We’re always looking forward at what’s needed, but how often do we look back at what has been received?
It was the late Apple founder Steve Jobs who once famously observed, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”
So it goes with our prayers, including the spiritual petitions offered 33 years ago upon the loss of the seven American heroes of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.