The families of the 39 American hostages have traveled their own road to Damascus, Syria, in the days since Trans World Airlines Flight 847 plunged into the chaos of Middle East politics.

Many live in self-contained suburbs, once insulated from debates over terrorism that now permeate their dinner table conversation. Few had been familiar with the Shiite factions, Amal and Hezbollah, that jousted for control of their relatives' fate. Many were unaware of seven other Americans, kidnaped in Beirut before the hijacking, who now weigh heavily on their thoughts. And none had weighed a relative's life against national security.

Now they live with all this and more. And life probably will not soon return to normal in the towns of Algonquin, Ill., Richmond, Mo., Bryn Athyn, Pa., Elkhart, Ind., and elsewhere -- even after the hostages of Flight 847 come home.

"We're a sleepy little town that has awakened with this incident," said Jack Pointer of Richmond, Mo., a longtime friend of Capt. John Testrake, the pilot of the hijacked plane.

"They've all seen more of the world than they intended," Martha Bartholomew, a lay minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church, said of the 18 hostages and families belonging to her Algonquin, Ill., parish.

Algonquin, a suburb of 4,000 people about 50 miles from Chicago, was swept into the international drama because the St. Margaret parishioners were among 35 Chicago-area residents returning from the Holy Land aboard the flight. All but 10 Chicago-area hostages, four of them from St. Margaret's, were freed early in the ordeal.

"We've heard nothing about Father [Lawrence] Jenco and the others," Bartholomew said, referring to seven American hostages seized before the hijacking. Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest from Joliet, Ill., was kidnaped by Shiites last January.

"It's significant that a number of people are not satisfied that only our own brothers are coming home," she said. "People are disturbed and concerned about what's going to happen to them the other hostages . We hope that stays stirred on the front burner. That's a trump card they [the hostages] are holding."

In Houston, Mike Conwell talked of his brother Allyn, who became a media celebrity as the TWA hostages' spokesman. "When it's somebody that you know or are close to, the words 'human life' take on a different significance than when it's just a face on a TV tube," he said. "I don't think I'll ever feel the same way about these situations as I did prior to this."

Those feelings loomed behind the jubilation that unfolded across the country in the home towns of the other hostages.

Relatives of about 30 hostages took advantage of TWA's offer of free flights to Frankfurt to meet returning husbands, sons and brothers. (Others were flown over by NBC.) In Algonquin, under a vaulting blue sky, yellow ribbons fluttered from almost every utility pole and from the four corner posts of St. Margaret's steeple. Stores displayed signs saying "Bring them home" and "Free my people."

"Just praise God!" Neta Slotowski, who was freed early, said after hearing that the remaining hostages were being released and driven from Beirut to the Syrian capital for the flight to Frankfurt. Exulting between masses at St. Margaret, she said: "That's wonderful. I'm ecstatic. They are truly my brothers."

"He looked good. He's not lost any weight!" Michael Lazansky, 23, said of his father, George, after watching the hostages' televised Damascus news conference beside the pool at his parents' Algonquin home. "We're all feeling great, but we'll feel better when he's actually here at home."

"He looked better. He shaved! It helped," said Freya King, after spotting her nephew, Blake Synnestvedt of Bryn Athyn, Pa., at the news conference. "The first pictures upset his wife [Jane Sharp, a former hostage freed earlier]. Somebody said he could have been out of a wax museum."

Many family members groped for ways to explain the horror of the last 17 days, and some turned to religion.

"We certainly acknowledge that everything that happens does so within the framework of divine providence," said Lewis King, Synnestvedt's uncle and bishop of the New Christian Church in the small community of Bryn Athyn near Philadelphia.

King called the hostages' ordeal a U.S. awakening that could lead to a more coherent national response to international terrorism.

"Let's not forget that an American serviceman [Navy diver Robert Stethem] was beaten to death and the most powerful and expensive media in the world has been seized upon by those perpetrating this to put forth their cause," King said. "A lot of good has come out of it, but this is not the plan for the future handling of these situations, I hope."

Although other relatives said they believe in turning the other cheek to the hijackers, King said he reads the Bible differently.

"Loving the Lord is loving what is good in others," he said. "When evil is there, we must fight against it. The Lord Himself said: 'I come not to bring peace but a sword, not a sword of aggression or vengeance, but a sword of truth that will fight for what is just and orderly.' "

King said he felt that the "sword of truth" moved President Reagan to denounce the hijackers Friday as "thugs, murderers and barbarians." And while some said they feared that this jeopardized the hostages, King said he viewed the statement as morally necessary -- even though his nephew's fate hung in the balance.

The pain behind the relief was felt most powerfully by Richard Stethem, father of the only hostage to die at the hijackers' hands. He watched on television from the seclusion of his Waldorf, Md., home during the returning hostages' joyful news conference in Damascus.

"Our prayers have been answered for the return of the remaining TWA Flight 847 hostages, and we are as happy to see them as free men as they must now feel," a somber Stethem read from a prepared statement as the plane took off from Damascus. "Our family and this country are heartbroken about Robert's tragic death, and we must not forget those who took him from us.

"We know Robert stood up for his convictions and for that we stand proud," his father said. "We hope that President Reagan will stand by his conviction of not tolerating this evil."

Families of the returning hostages rode a roller coaster of emotions over the weekend. They were told initially that the 39 would be released Saturday, then that the hostages' fate was uncertain, then that freedom would come Sunday. Many families politely turned reporters away from their doors and abruptly terminated telephone calls, fearful that any statement could jeopardize the return.

Robert Trautmann Sr., father of Robert Jr., one of four hostages held separately by a more radical Shiite faction, said during a news conference at New York's Kennedy Airport that he and his wife feared until yesterday that the four "were going to be used" by the Shiites, perhaps "executed one by one," if negotiations broke down.

The homecoming of the Flight 847 hostages will not end the ordeal for many relatives, who have been permanently changed by their new awareness. Clinton Suggs, a 29-year-old Navy diver from Norfolk, was on his way home last night, but his brother Shafer said he and other family members were going to fly from Elkhart, Ind., to Joliet, Ill., "to give support" to the family of Jenco, who headed the Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon when he was abducted last January.

Suggs said his family made contact with the Jencos through the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to whom they appealed for help when they learned of the hijacking.

Even as the hostages' plane took off from Damascus, many relatives hesitated to celebrate, recalling the foul-ups of the last few days. Robert Peel Sr. and his wife, Lou, learned this caution the hard way last Friday when they began celebrating what they thought would be the imminent release of their son, Bob Jr., 33. The older Peels had been passengers on the hijacked plane, but were freed.

The Peels were still awake at 2:40 a.m. Saturday when the State Department called to report that the hostages had left Beirut, but at 4 a.m., they saw their son on television, still in a Beirut schoolyard. On Sunday, they were understandably cautious when hopeful news came from the State Department. And they decided to stay home as Bob Jr.'s wife Kristi and brother Bill flew to Frankfurt.

"We've already had one time when the whole family was held captive on an airplane, and we're not going to get anywhere close to that situation again," Bob Peel Sr. said.