Published August 28th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
It was only later — an hour or more after an Amtrak train smashed into a dump truck in northern Missouri — that the Rev. Donna Simon, a passenger on the train with her wife Colleen Simon and their son Dominic, was overwhelmed by a need to thank God in prayer for their survival.
“When we finally were all out and they put us in a school bus to go to the local high school, I said, ‘We have to pray.’ I honestly felt at that point that it had been too long. I had prayed while I was standing and waiting for Colleen to come out of the train. But after she came out, the fullness of my being was invested in ‘We have to give thanks because we’re OK.’”
Colleen says that although they “prayed and gave thanks, we were painfully aware of how many lives were affected.”
Sometimes members of the clergy are slammed by traumatic events that test their own theology, giving them a chance to confirm, alter or discard what they believe and, in turn, what they teach.
That’s what happened on June 27 to Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City, when the train she and her family were riding to Chicago hit a truck at a passive graded crossing near Mendon, Missouri. Eight train cars and two locomotives derailed, and four people died, including the truck driver.
The time between the collision and the Simons realizing they had all survived was, as Donna put it, “the most traumatic thing that’s happened to us as a family.”
For one thing, at the instant of the collision, Donna and Colleen were separated because Donna had taken Dominic to get something to eat in the café car, the last one on the train. Donna and Dominic were on their feet when the crash occurred. Colleen was seated in the next car forward with a woman named Kay whom the Simons had met at Union Station while waiting for the train, and it took time for them to find each other.
“We really didn’t realize how horrific the whole thing was until we stood up,” Donna says. “You know, there’s that moment of silence and then the wailing begins. Fortunately, I fell and then Dominic fell on top of me.”
Dominic was uninjured and Donna merely bruised. Colleen, it turned out, broke her nose and a rib.
“The man who landed next to me,” Donna says, “was gasping. He couldn’t breathe. His daughter was screaming, ‘He’s dying. Somebody do something.’”
There were similar scenes of chaos throughout the train after cars fell over.
Soon after reuniting, the three Simons got a ride to a hospital in nearby Brookfield, Missouri, from a nurse who had quickly left her job at a nearby nursing home to become a first responder. It was just one example of how people living near the tracks flew into action to assist, and the Simons found such help overwhelming.
“When the accident happened,” Colleen says, “a farmer who was on his tractor in the field came right out. And a woman looking from her kitchen window saw it and came out, even though she was only minimally dressed.
“For Donna and me, rural territory in some states is not safe, and yet we didn’t hide that we were married. But even at the hospital we got great care. If there’s some positive that came out of this, it’s the way relationships change people for the good sometimes.”
Since the wreck, both Simons have recognized that thinking about their experiences has been both necessary and difficult.
“It’s hard to know how to process what happened,” says Colleen, formerly Catholic but now Lutheran. “Yes, we feel grateful but also guilty — guilty that we got off. We got hurt,” but all three Simons will be fine, she says.
For Donna, the post-wreck questions are, not surprisingly, rooted in theology.
“After 22 years as a pastor,” she says, “probably the biggest open theological question for me is the omnipotence of God. I believe fully in God’s power to do anything and create anything. If God can create the whole world, clearly God has unbelievable power. But when you start down the road of understanding God as omnipotent, then you have to grapple with why an all-powerful God allows the world to be as it is.”
Theologians call that the old question of theodicy, which asks why, if God is powerful and loving, there is evil and suffering in the world. It turns out that so far no one has an answer that’s completely satisfying to everyone.
“I think the answer always comes back to that it’s humans who have created the evil,” Colleen says. “There are ways that humans fail that cause evil to happen and there were humans on that train who were hurt. But the reason for it is not clear in my mind.”
Donna adds this: “I would say that our faith is very rooted in community and relationships. That’s where we have put all of our hopes and all of our being. That faith and hope were confirmed by the people who came (to help). There were so many people on the site before we even heard the sirens.”
And Colleen says this of the experience: “It will always be part of our journey with God and why things are the way they are and how to live into a vision of how life is supposed to be and how we can make a difference. In hindsight, Donna and I agree that although it was horrible to be separated at the moment of derailment, we were exactly where we were supposed to be. I believe that I was supposed to be with Kay, our newfound friend who was traveling alone, and Donna was with Dominic. We still keep in touch with Kay and know we have a lifelong friend in her.”
Donna already knows what one of her responses will be: “We came back and I recommitted to being in better shape because I may need to crawl out of a train again. And it wasn’t very easy. It would be better if I were in better shape.”
But Donna is left with an inspiring image from that stressful day: “I think I had the wind knocked out of me. And then I had the first full asthma attack I’ve ever had. So I couldn’t breathe well for like an hour. Dominic scrambled right out but it took a while for me to move. Then a woman got Dominic and said, ‘I’ve got him.’ What an image of being held. I feel like that was the sense of being held by God — that lady holding Dominic.”
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and formerly columns for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at email@example.com.