Amid A World Of Troubling News, Group Gathers To Seek Serenity, Maintain Sensitivity
By ANNE VANDERMEY | COURANT STAFF WRITER
July 15, 2008
In a small room in the basement of the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry, a group of area residents sat in a circle with a copy of a newspaper in the center, listening to one another read an article out loud.
Although reading the newspaper might not sound like the type of activity that would require a support group, after a recent spate of violence and hit-and-run accidents in Hartford, getting through the front page can be an exercise in emotional stamina. For these gathered residents, the program, called "Praying the News," seemed a natural way to lessen the psychic gut-punch of reading about crime and death.
"Praying the News" was organized by Melina Rudman of Hartford's St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, who was hoping to give some direction to people who felt helpless or alone after hearing about one catastrophe after another in Hartford, let alone in places like Myanmar or Iraq.
"We can't change the news, but we can change ourselves," Rudman told a group of seven at the first meeting.
At least for me, it's about becoming less frightened and discouraged," she said.
The idea was conceived by the Sisters of Our Lady Mount Carmel in Indianapolis. The program was adapted for Hartford with the blessing of the Carmelite Sisters, and though religious, the sessions are open to anyone who wants to attend.
Seven people came to the first meeting, and a few more to the second. Rudman hopes to eventually attract still more people as a word spreads. The meetings start at 7 p.m. each Tuesday and will continue through August.
The trouble is, there's a lot to be discouraged about. With 115 shooting-related injuries in Hartford so far this year, according to police statistics, it's tempting to tune out the violence and focus on more personal matters, like what sort of toothpaste to buy or how to save on gas.
At their first meeting on July 1, the group of seven read from an article in The Courant headlined: "A show of care: Hundreds of Hartford residents turn out against violence" — about a vigil held to support the families of this year's 12 homicide victims. Even though this story of support had a hopeful message, after it was read three times aloud, a sad recognition of the brutality that prompted the vigil had sunk in.
"This is my city," said John Lemega, who works as a lawyer in West Hartford. "I was born here. I went to high school here. I went to grade school here. And it's falling apart."
The severe beating in June of Nick Carbone, former deputy mayor of Hartford and an anti-poverty leader, on a city street struck Lemega as a particularly bitter blow.
"The irony that the violence engendered at least partially by [that poverty] should strike him just adds to my feeling of despair," Lemega said.
But even though the topic was gloomy, the feeling was tempered by the camaraderie that comes with mutual frustration.
"I think that it's sort of a way of being able to sort through it in a safe environment," said Francesca Lawson of Manchester. "You sort of feel that you're not alone."
The sessions are not intended to lessen outrage over these incidents, Rudman noted. If anything, people said the meetings leave them with a heightened sensitivity to current events.
The following week, those gathered read from an article about possible civilian casualties in Afghanistan and from a more upbeat story about how some American Muslims have achieved a unique blend of tradition and modernity. Rudman hopes that meditation and prayer, and a mix of heavy and light articles, will help humanize otherwise daunting numbers — like 4,110 Americans killed in Iraq, or 46 crushed in a Bolivian bus' plunge. The idea isn't just to provide support but also to guard against the human tendency to glaze over when confronted with big numbers about tragedies in faraway places.
But that leaves the question: What's to be done?
Obviously, there's no easy solution for Hartford's troubles, let alone the world's. Still, the group concluded that there's nothing wrong with starting small — even little things like smiling at people in the street or meeting in a basement to pray for change.
"There's a principle in law," Lemega said. "The simplest solution is usually the right one."
"Praying the News" meetings are open to the public and are held in Room 10 of the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry at 285 Church St., Hartford. The group meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m. through Aug. 26. For more information, visit www.stpatrick-stanthony.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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