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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Victims of Flight 261 a Focus of Prayer Day

May 05, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In years past, in churches and public spaces across Ventura County, they have prayed for victims of Kosovo and Columbine, for Oklahoma City and Bosnia.

This year, many of their prayers were directed closer to home: toward the waters and beaches of Port Hueneme. They prayed for the 88 people who died in the Alaska Airlines crash in late January. And they prayed for the county emergency workers and volunteers who toiled to recover the wreckage and to comfort the grieving.

John Kelly, chairman of Alaska Airlines, traveled from Seattle for this National Day of Prayer, speaking at a breakfast in the Clarion Ventura Beach Hotel, one of several prayer day celebrations across the county.

Kelly thanked Ventura County residents for their efforts, and for their "compassion, support, thoughts and prayers."

"God bless you," he said. "I will never, ever forget your acts of kindness, your caring and your compassion. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

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Sheriff Bob Brooks showed a video with images of recovery crews, a helicopter drop of bouquets of red roses over the site, the lapping of the water against rocks on the coast. In the audience of several hundred, including emergency services officials, sniffles could be heard in the dark, and when the lights came back up some eyes were wet.

"This wasn't just a job," Brooks said. "A good friend was on one of the flight crews, and he was just brokenhearted to discover that no rescues would be made that day."

In Oxnard, at the Ventura County Mayors' Prayer Breakfast, the outlook was one of hope and inspiration. Paul Petersen, a child actor known for his role on "The Donna Reed Show," talked about the hazards of being a child star and the power of prayer in turning his life around.

In Thousand Oaks, on the lawn in front of the Civic Arts Plaza, more than 400 worshipers spent the afternoon praying with Conejo Valley church leaders for forgiveness, patience, peace and a prosperous, God-fearing nation.

The gathering was a sea of bowed heads. Families sat on blankets in the sunshine. Children knelt in the grass, their eyes squinted tightly shut, their palms pressed firmly together. Dave Gudgel, one of 14 area pastors who led the congregation in prayer, has attended the event in the Conejo Valley for each of its six years. He said the event brings hope to those who attend.

"We all have struggles and problems and we see that in life around us," said Gudgel, who has been a minister at Agoura Bible Fellowship for 19 years. "This gives us the opportunity to give our problems to God, who has promised to hear our prayers and do something about them."

Ventura's event, which started with the recognition of the workers who assisted after the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, ended with a speech by John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego.

He decried the teaching of evolution in schools, calling for a creation-based curriculum, and presented an image of Christians beleaguered by a secular world of problems such as AIDS, drug abuse and teenage suicide.

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The National Day of Prayer was first celebrated more than two centuries ago by a declaration of the Second Continental Congress. In 1952, the practice was revived by a joint resolution of Congress. And in 1988, President Reagan set aside the first Thursday in May for the event.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force is an independent organization overseen by Shirley Dobson and housed in the offices of Focus on the Family, a conservative Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group founded by her husband, author James Dobson.

At the Ventura event, Kelly declined to talk to reporters. Attendees said they were very impressed by his words, and empathized with his responsibility as chairman of the airline.

"He has a lot of weight on his shoulders," Gail Messersmith said. "He probably has a hard time forgiving himself for it. I know prayer is important to him."

In his speech, Kelly told a story about his visit to the Hueneme Pier shortly after the crash. There, he and employees looked out over the water's edge and prayed for strength. As if in answer, a rainbow spread over the horizon, he said.

"Do you believe in miracles?" he asked the audience. "I do. And you have been one."

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Times Community News reporters Tony Lystra and Catherine Blake contributed to this story.

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