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The Final Frontier

AG "pastornaut" spends a week in "Glory Seven" mock space capsule.

Faced with the galactic-sized challenge of being a 150-member church body with a youth group that's ballooned from a dozen members to 70 -- and with Asian and African refugees living in nearby public housing composing the lion's share of the group -- Walnut Grove Assembly of God needed a way to fund camps, retreats, and other cool stuff for their children and teens.

Bill Galus, pastor of the church in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, considered fundraising options such as walkathons and lock-ins.

"Let's do something that's really out there," Galus told the church board and youth pastor.

You might say even say Interstellar: He's become a pastornaut.

After preaching his Sept. 13 sermon, Galus entered the mock capsule parked on the church grounds where he lived for seven days, eating freeze-dried meals like astronauts do. He ended his stay on Sept. 20, just before the Sunday service.

Galus figured pledges from church members and others could raise perhaps $2,000.

But as of Friday, pledges had tallied more than $7,000. Galus also found he didn't get to spend the quiet week reading Scripture in his tiny hexagonal pyramid prayer closet he'd expected. Instead, he answered a steady stream of calls from media such as Pittsburgh television stations, the Associated Press, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal. He also spent time blogging his adventure.

The self-described sci-fi fan/amateur astronomer witnessed the glory years of NASA.

"What child born in the '50s did not want to be an astronaut?" asks Galus, 62. During the Vietnam War he served four years on the aircraft carrier USS Constellation. The original Star Trek television series also included a USS Constellation  

Galus named his enterprise Glory Seven in honor of the space missions that all had the number in their name. In particular, he says, "The capsule is a tribute to America's first manned space program called the Mercury program." Psalm 19:1 is on its shell.

The space capsule, built of ¾-inch plywood by a member of Walnut Grove and painted silver by the youth pastor Ryan Deal, is a little more luxurious than that of the Mercury Seven astronauts. For one thing, the module has a camper toilet, a five-foot-long bed, and a dorm fridge stocked with water. Galus had a fan and the Internet. His space wardrobe consisted of a surplus flight suit given authenticity by replica Mercury Seven patches found on Amazon.

The purpose is twofold: "We want to lift up Jesus Christ, that the message of the Lord gets through," Galus says. The stationary earthbound space voyager's blog posts about life in his capsule each conclude with a spiritual point.

Second, Galus aimed to educate students in the church's school, which includes preschool through sixth grade, about space exploration. To that end, each day during the week, he spoke to two classes via Skype and answered questions.

"They all want to know three things: What I eat, how I sleep, and how I use the bathroom," Galus says.

In general, he says, nights were fairly quiet.

"I felt the peace of God," Galus says. "I felt the prayer support."

The part he didn't foresee was all the media coverage.

"God wanted to do more than for me to prepare a sermon and raise funds," Galus says. 

Deal, the youth pastor, says the adventure will have an impact on teens in the church.

"They live here in a country that's not their own, with low funding, with families that don't speak their language," Deal says. Most of the internationals are from Nepal and Burma, with others from African nations such as Nigeria and Mali.

"Their families don't have the money to send them to things, and they probably wouldn't be able to come," Deal says.

After the pastor's week in earth-space ended, the church put the capsule on Craigslist.


Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.