Friday, July 8, I was supposed to talk on Relevant Radio’s “Morning Air” program about summer stresses and how to cope with them, a topic related to my new book Don’t Panic!: How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough. But, like many others, I’d been up late the night before, watching the unfolding horror in Dallas as it was reported live via television and social media.
The reality of such violence clearly overshadowed my topic for the next day’s interview; I wasn’t surprised when the producer called me to say they would reschedule me because of all the breaking news. But I was prepared to join in the conversation about that, too, from a very personal perspective that is also included in Don’t Panic! And when I explained this to the producer, who relayed it to John Harper, the Morning Air host, the interview was, blessedly, back on. Here’s why:
For nearly 13 years, I was the director of an adult choir at a Catholic church in South Los Angeles. The choir members were all African-American, and although we sang many different genres of music (all fitting into the liturgy), we especially loved to bring the spirit and song of gospel music into the Mass. My time with the choir was both a musical and spiritual highlight for me. Unfortunately, I had to leave the position because of my diagnosis of lupus, but not before forging wonderful friendships and learning much that cannot be taught in an academic setting. These lessons are with me to this day, and sparked memories as I watched the recent scenes in Dallas.
I was with the choir in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots, a time of violence, destruction, and community turmoil. The National Guard was called out. People were on edge and fearful. And the thing that brought calm for me and many others, including the people at my parish, was reliance on and expression of our faith.
In Don’t Panic!, I write about some of the details of life in Los Angeles during those turbulent times, and I explain how my relationship with the choir and church community with whom I worshiped was strengthened, not frayed. On “Morning Air,” I translated my experience in Los Angeles in 1992 to watching things unfold in Dallas – and how, in the aftermath of the initial heated, dangerous situation, the first thing to turn to is prayer. As others were posting and tweeting about their anger, frustration, horror, and very pointed opinions about what was going on (much of which contained facts that were later found to be untrue), I posted and tweeted prayers. Prayers that just asked God to bring wisdom, calm, and grace.
The next expression of faith that forges relationships, even with those who are very different from us, is worship. I encouraged listeners to go to Mass to pray together and build up strength with one another, perhaps even at a parish that is out of the usual “comfort zone.” I’ve always been comforted that, no matter where I am or what language is spoken (linguistic or social), the Mass is something I can share in common with Catholics worldwide. It is also an action that takes our focus away from panic, fear, anxiety, and ego to strength that is far beyond what we humans can imagine. By celebrating Mass, we celebrate God’s love, Jesus’ triumph from death to life, and the ever-present inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which provides us with wisdom for difficult journeys.
Taking our faith to others is the third tangible expression of our belief and purpose. But the more we engage in prayer and community-bonding activities such as the Mass, the more we show how we cope – which is always much more powerful than merely telling others we are Catholics. And, of course, comforting those who mourn and healing fragile, broken hearts is an extension of personal, faith-centered action, too.
Was I fearful during the Los Angeles riots? Oh, yes. And not only for myself, but for the people I knew and loved and even those I did not know. It is always horrible to watch our communities break and burn, to see good people nearby suffer and sometimes die.
But we have a priceless gift that sustains us through these times: Faith. And the more we turn to actions that express that faith, personally and in parishes and churches, the more we are able to be stewards of hope and bearers of healing. And, of course, the less we will ever feel the need to panic!
As I finished my interview, I realized how flexible the message of Don’t Panic! is. Yes, it deals with those personal stresses we experience, whether because of summertime, health, or other challenges. But it also addresses, through concrete experiences and actions, how the same actions (crisis coping “tools”) can be brought to bear on more public problems. Faith does make a difference always and all places!
In the aftermath of Dallas, I’ve heard more news about people gathering to pray. This is very encouraging and much needed.
Imagine the healing that can come from a world turning to prayer!
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