For Many In Kansas City Area, The Eclipse Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Spiritual Event

Aug 19, 2017

Hazzan Tahl Ben-Yehuda, a clergy person at Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, likes to be amazed at the natural world, what she calls "God's creation." So, she is expecting Monday's much-anticipated total solar eclipse to be an emotional event. 

"I'm going to have to have a box of tissues. I'm pretty sure I'm going to cry because I'm the person who cries at a rainbow or at tremendous lightning," she says. 

Hazzan Tahl Ben-Yehuda is traveling north of the river to see the eclipse and expects to cry when it happens.
Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR

Overland Park is not in the eclipse's path of totality, so Ben-Yehuda has made plans to watch Monday's big event at a friend's house north of the river. A devout Jew and a long-time lover of science, she urges everyone who can to drop what they're doing when the eclipse occurs. 

"This is going to happen for a few moments, and then it's going to be done. And if you don't take a few moments to look up and see it, you will have missed it. And that will be regrettable," she says. 

Indeed, devout people across the Kansas City area, from all different faith traditions and practices, see Monday's eclipse in both celestial and spiritual terms. For many, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live out their faith and get closer to God. 

A special prayer

The Friday before the eclipse, the faithful who gather for afternoon prayers at the Islamic Center of Johnson County get instructions for a special prayer to be performed Monday during the eclipse. This prayer, or salah, will be in addition to their normal five prayers a day and will be done during the moments the moon passes completely before the sun, achieving totality. 

A prayer leader at the Islamic Center of Johnson County gives out instructions for a special eclipse prayer the Friday before the solar eclipse.
Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR

Moben Mirza, a local physician who helps lead the Islamic Center, says the special eclipse prayer fits nicely into a ritual that already focuses Muslims' attention heavenward. 

"This is our God, and this is his creation," he says. "And this could happen in His creation, that He sets the universe in motion." 

In the Muslim tradition, it is said there was an eclipse around the time one of the prophet Muhammad's sons died. The early Muslims feared this was a bad sign. But Mirza says Muhammad rejected that idea, saying an eclipse is not about humanity's problems but God's wonder.

"So when we see these things and they're so awesome, instead of being amazed by the actual event, you should be amazed by the creator of the event," he said. 

A chance to spread the gospel

There are others who express a similar idea that the eclipse itself is not as amazing as the God behind it. 

Green Valley Baptist Church sits near a busy intersection on the north side of St. Joseph. A sign in front of the church faces the road, clear for all the passing cars to see: "Watch the eclipse here," it reads. "Look beyond the SUN to find the SON." That's a reference to Jesus Christ.

Dave Mason, outside Green Valley Baptist Church, holding up a prayer card that goes with free eclipse glasses and bottles of water he's congregation passes out.
Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR

Dave Mason, pastor of Green Valley, thinks what's occurring in the sky is not nearly as important as what will be happening on the ground with his congregation. He wants them to use the eclipse as a chance to evangelize their Christian beliefs. 

"We are trying to show God's love in a practical way, to draw attention to the fact that this is actually the glory of God," he says. 

They've gotten their chance for sure. It's expected upwards of 100,000 visitors will descend on St. Joe the weekend of the eclipse. Several hotels stand near Green Valley's intersection. 

"We've already been in the streets and done outreach a little bit. It's been a lot of fun. People have great reactions, and we have good conversations, what I call 'gospel talk,'" he says. 

In recent weeks, Green Valley has passed out thousands of free eclipse glasses and bottles of water around St. Joe, all with a Bible verse attached. Psalms 19:1: "The heavens are telling the glory of God." 

A Melding Of Science And Faith

Across the Missouri River from St. Joe sits Atchison, Kansas, another central hotbed of eclipse viewing. More than 5,000 people are expected to turn out Monday at Benedictine College here to watch the moon and sun align. Ryan Maderak, the director of this Catholic college's astronomy program, will be leading the event. 

Ryan Maderak and his students will watch the eclipse through telescopes and record scientific data.
Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR

Maderak describes himself as "very Catholic," and he sees something divine in the movement of the heavenly bodies. 

"The fact the physical universe is not arbitrary, it implies in a philosophical and theological sense that there is order in the universe," he says. 

Maderak and his students will watch the eclipse through telescopes and record scientific data. Far from diminishing God's creation, he suggests studying the eclipse so thoroughly is a way to find a deeper spiritual meaning. 

"Its the immensity of the universe and that we're here to experience it. You know, we are here to experience this amazing event," he says.

When the moon finally passes in front of the sun Monday, many people of religious devotion, regardless of the god they believe is behind it, are likely to have similar thoughts. 

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle