1 of 7
Jen Ackerman, For the Deseret News
A portrait of Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer and priest, with his telescopes at his church, St. Joseph Catholic Parish, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Father James Kurzynski will greet the solar eclipse later this month with deep Roman Catholic faith and telescopes equipped to study the sun. He plans to host a viewing party with members of his western Wisconsin parish who are used to hearing about his love of the stars and sky.

"I like to show people that I do a lot more than celebrate Mass," said the self-described amateur astronomer, who started an astronomy minor in college but never finished it.

A portrait of Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer and priest, with his telescopes at his church, St. Joseph Catholic Parish, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9 2017. | Jen Ackerman, For the Deseret News

Father Kurzynski stands out because of his unique set of interests, but he's not the only faith leader getting involved in the solar eclipse. Some have gone so far as to use it to predict the end of the world, while others have taken on the less glamorous task of warning people about the health risks of the upcoming festivities, beyond the potential eye damage.

"Our community leaders are encouraging people to not wait until the last-minute to buy water and food or fill up your car with gas. There will be a zillion extra people on top of us," said Jim Creighton, who serves on the parish pastoral council for Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

Hopkinsville is in the eclipse's path of totality, a swath of the United States where people can view the moon completely cover the sun for around two minutes on Aug. 21. Millions of Americans are expected to flood into the path, potentially overwhelming small towns with limited lodging accommodations and cell service.

Affected cities have spent months preparing for the rush of visitors, promoting town festivals, free concerts and lots of faith-related events, too. Creighton's parish in Hopkinsville will host an astronomer from the Vatican to discuss the science of the eclipse. In the predominantly Mormon town of Rexburg, Idaho, the Tabernacle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will welcome guests to a night of sacred stories and music.

These faith communities are not just stepping up to help their town meet the demands of an unprecedented number of visitors. They're also embracing an opportunity to evangelize in uncommon ways, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, a faith-focused survey firm based in Nashville.

"Sometimes just saying, 'Yeah, you can use our parking lot. We'll provide some refreshments,' sends a message of friendliness that can lead to conversations later," he said.

Even churches outside of the path of totality can benefit from the solar eclipse, said Father Kurzynski, who leads St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin. He's been preaching this month on the Bible's astronomy-related teachings, finding ways to deepen his congregants' faith by deepening their understanding of science.

A portrait of Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer and priest, with his telescopes at his church, St. Joseph Catholic Parish, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9 2017. | Jen Ackerman, For the Deseret News

"When many people who know my faith come to know I also love astronomy, their concern is that looking through my telescope brings my faith into doubt," he said. "But looking through my telescope has only brought me closer to God."

Embracing the excitement

Cameron Mills is kind of an expert on unusual evangelism opportunities. In 1998, his 3-point shooting helped the University of Kentucky men's basketball team win the NCAA championship, and he's turned athletic stardom into a ministry career.

"I've spent 20 years talking to people about Jesus all because they came to hear about basketball," he said.

This month's solar eclipse is sort of like a game-winning 3-pointer, said Mills, who will be a guest preacher at Christian Way Farm in Hopkinsville on Aug. 20. It marks the first time since 1918 that a solar eclipse has cut a path across the continental U.S.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. It's a time when churches and faith communities can say, 'This is what people are excited about. Let's come together and tell them what we're excited about,'" he said.

Eclipse-related evangelism doesn't have to be overly direct, McConnell said. Research has shown that the "unchurched," or people who haven't attended a regular worship service in at least six months, are hesitant to attend obviously religious activities.

"Normal activities like worship, small groups or Sunday School classes are much less popular than things like an event helping keep your neighborhood safer," he said, citing a LifeWay Research survey from June 2016.

A portrait of Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer and priest, with his telescopes at his church, St. Joseph Catholic Parish, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9 2017. | Jen Ackerman, For the Deseret News

Eclipse watchers will likely respond best to churches that are getting involved in the festivities in a variety of ways, such as by renting campsites, providing public restrooms or hosting informal worship services. Around one-third of the unchurched said they'd be more interested in hearing what Christians have to say if they saw them caring for their community, according to the survey.

Eclipse-related events "send the message that the church is in tune with what's going on in the community. People see that they're being friendly," McConnell said.

Soft evangelism, or the type of outreach that flows from seemingly nonreligious events, might seem opportunistic, said Jeff Zweerink, an astrophysicist who serves as executive director of online learning at Reasons to Believe, an organization that seeks to link religious teachings with scientific research. But Jesus himself found success going where the people are, he added.

"Look at how Jesus interacted with others," Zweerink said. "That's my advice to Christians. There's an event here that people are interested and engaged in and there are some obvious connections to be made to the Christian faith."

Public service

For many faith communities, going where the people are during the eclipse allows them to stay right where they are. Churches in the path of totality are expecting a tidal wave of visitors to hit their towns in the days leading up to Monday, Aug. 21, one day after the traditional Christian sabbath.

"We're planning for the worst and best that weekend," said the Rev. Charlie Evans, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hopkinsville.

Members of his faith community want to be available for visitors who are unprepared for hot summer days in Kentucky, he noted. They feel called to address health concerns, in addition to spiritual ones.

"It's always hot, hot, hot. We thought folks might enjoy getting out of the sun," the Rev. Evans said. "At our church, we've stocked up on water, so that people can have access to it. If worst comes to worst, and visitors have no bathroom to go to, we're ready and willing to provide one."

Churches in the path of totality have also worked to expand access to the solar eclipse. For example, Pastor Joel Schmitz of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Oregon, advocated for opening his church's parking lot to guests after dedicated campgrounds in the area filled up.

"I first got interested in providing parking for guests in RVs because there was literally no place for people to park," he said. "The campgrounds have been full on that weekend for months. Local residents are making their driveways and backyards available for $200 to $300 per night," the Rev. Schmitz said.

Our Saviour's Lutheran Church charged between $175 and $200 for its 19 available spaces, and it threw in pairs of eclipse-safe eyewear for free.

Visitor-focused resources complement services offered to local residents. In the weeks leading up to the solar eclipse, faith leaders are becoming key points of contact for people who want to know what to expect on eclipse weekend, Creighton said.

"I've been involved in a lot of preparedness activities," he noted. Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church has printed five bulletin inserts with safety information to share with worshippers.

"The one out now says if you're going to be in town, buy some eclipse glasses," he said. "I know people whose relatives were blinded as children by looking at an eclipse too long."

Creighton's congregation has also organized a visit from Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. Before delivering a public lecture, he'll meet with young people involved at Saints Peter and Paul.

Science and faith

A total solar eclipse is like no other natural phenomenon. When the moon covers the sun, cities in the path of totality will be as dark as night. Birds will stop chirping, because they'll think it's time for bed.

"We'll see planets and stars in the sky. The temperature will drop," said Zweerink, who is co-leading an excursion to Oregon. "It's supposed to be pretty spectacular."

The eery and awesome sensations that accompany solar eclipses lead many observers to reflect on God, although not always in traditional ways. Some faith leaders are focused on the potential apocalyptic consequences of the sky going dark during the day.

"The Bible says a number of times that there's going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth. We see this as possible one of those," said Gary Ray, an evangelical Christian, to The Washington Post.

Most faith leaders are taking a less controversial approach, relating the coming eclipse to biblical metaphors about spiritual darkness. In addition to planning events for eclipse weekend, they're leading community discussions or preaching sermons on the relationship between science and faith.

"I believe in science, and I believe God can also be active in what we know scientifically," the Rev. Evans said.

Similarly, Father Kurzynski views scientific discoveries as an enrichment to his faith. He's been combing through the Bible, looking for examples of how early church leaders used the language of scientific discovery to teach religious lessons.

A portrait of Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer and priest, with his telescopes at his church, St. Joseph Catholic Parish, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, on Aug. 9 2017. | Jen Ackerman, For the Deseret News

The Bible "includes lessons like, 'Just as the sun can be darkened, so can sin darken the soul,'" he said. He's urged his congregation to think less about the end of the world and more about how scientific events can bolster their faith.

"The ancient (church leaders) saw these moments as calls to conversion," Father Kurzynski said.

Zweerink, a committed Christian and professional astrophysicist, said his engagement with science has helped him understand God in new ways. The solar eclipse is a chance to discuss the wonders of the universe and God's role in creating them, he noted.

"The laws of physics are constant throughout the universe, and that (constancy) is a biblical notion. How the universe behaves is anchored in God's character," Zweerink said.

Although his congregants in Menomonie won't be in the path of totality, Father Kurzynski hopes that his telescopes will allow them to see their world with fresh eyes.

"I think sometimes we take for granted the beautiful symmetry that we find in creation. Do we really grasp the fact that the moon is just the right size and distance from us that when it gets between the earth and the sun it more or less covers the sun?" he said. "Through experiences of awe and wonder, we can take the things that are everyday and realize that maybe they're not as everyday as we think they are."