Do You Have Koons in Your Church?

I was so lucky to have my favorite human being I have ever met as my father. Those of you who knew me in my early days know that Olin Galloway was smart as hell. He graduated from high school at 16, moved to Atlanta and got a job with Delta Airlines. He worked as a cost accountant while going to school at Georgia State. He rose through the ranks of Delta to finish his career as the Senior Vice President of Finance in a company that he loved. He was a part of the special family of folks that started with founder, Mr. C. E. Woolman, who took it from its crop dusting background to an international airline. He was a great father to me, loving me as unconditionally as any father can. There was NO question as to who the “Best Man” would be at my wedding.

This is the set up for a quick story that get me to a deeper point, a pressing point a provocative point.

My dad had taken me with him to the local barber shop to get our hair cut. The owner, Jimmy, was a good ol’ boy who cut hair as something to do while he talked. He loved to talk to people, and his barber shop was not unlike other such places that I remember growing up. It’s kind of a men’s social club, with gossip, political discussions, and awful jokes. Jerry Seinfeld did NOT get his start in a barbershop. No observational humor, here. Just yuk-yuk jokes, the kind my grandfather called a “knee slapper”.

My dad was in the classic barber chair that probably came from the turn of the century while I waited in one of those 60’s plastic bucket seats, looking at Sport’s Illustrated, Sport’s Afield, and hoping for a stray Playboy that wandered over from Jimmy’s secret stash. I was an observant little boy and hungry to learn.

The setting was Southside Atlanta that was undergoing a sociological shift as blacks were moving in, and whites were moving out. I learned later in my Urban Geography class by Mr. Cason that this phenomenon was called “white flight”, with whites moving out of the neighborhood.

So, this was just getting started. My home church, a progressive Southern Baptist church had been visited by black folks which caused a bit of our furor. Our pastor, a PhD in New Testament, took a stand and opened the doors of the church to all people, including blacks. The board of deacons met that Sunday night and voted to make this pastor a Rhodes Scholar, saying “hit the road, scholar!” They fired him.

This was a formative moment for me in coming to an early recognition that the Church of Jesus doesn’t do a very good job in following the teachings of the one they call Master. “Loving your neighbor” seemed to apply to only those who look like me. This was my first experience of realizing that disciples rarely measure up to their teachers. I wish I had taken more notice of this as it might have saved me other moments of disappointments, but that’s for my therapist.

So white flight was just beginning, that is the context. Jimmy, ever the conversationalist, is using the clippers on my dad, when I heard him ask, offhandedly, “Olin, you got any coons in your church?” Now Jimmy’s question betrayed his native prejudice as he used that derogatory term to refer to black folks as “coons”.

I paused, wondering how my dad would respond, as he was someone I would characterize as financially conservative but socially progressive. He had been supportive of our pastor’s move to open the doors of the church to all of God’s people, and so I braced for his reaction.

But my dad’s native innocence overtook him from behind, as he was probably not really paying attention to Jimmy’s usual banter. Come to think of it, I am probably the only one paying any attention to the conversation, seeing as how I had not found any stray Playboys among the dated sports magazines. My dad responded, as only he could, “Yeah, we have some Koons. There’s Pete Koon, and his family. I believe he married into the Folsom family, you know, Homer Folsom, who was a Baptist minister?”

I do not recall Jimmy’s response, just my laughter at the comedic miss. I told my mom when we got home and the story has become legendary in my family. Still one of my favorite stories. Your welcome, in this not so funny time.

The last six weeks have been quite a time in our country. I have been focusing on the “second wave” I see coming in the pandemic, which is not from the infamous opening of bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, and hair salons by our Governor in Georgia. No, I am talking about the mental health crisis that is coming in the wake of isolation and stress of disrupted life structures that typically relieve the stress we experience in the course of life.

This isolation acts like a Petry dish for developing incipient mental health issues that bubble quietly in our normal lives. Both the isolation and the close quarters exacerbates the tensions that exist within, bubbling up in some odd ways. It is predictable that there will be an increase in depression, domestic violence, addiction issues, to mention just a few. I am particularly worried about the Post Traumatic Stress that will predictably occur in the next few months among our healthcare workers who are pulling sixteen hour shifts, with massive exposure to suffering and death. Two ER docs that I know in New York, both vets from Nam and Afghanistan, say this is overwhelming, worse than they experienced while in a combat zone.

I have been working with healthcare leaders to proactively deal with this surge that will occur in the wake of this pandemic. Setting up natural breaks, conversation points, huddles, check ins, buddies….all ways to help people process their experience and to unload their stress. Most hospitals I work with are not staffed or structured to make this happen and so we are in the mode of nimble redesign to respond to the need. I have been impressed with the willingness and ability of healthcare leaders to make the appropriate and timely investment to make this happen proactively, rather than as our country has responded, which has been more reactive and piecemeal.

Yesterday, news of one of the first victims of this stress turned up, Dr. Lorna Breen. She was a middle-aged ER doc from New York City who had thrown herself into the fray, combating this virus. She actually was infected, went through recovery, and returned to the battle. Her body and psyche were obviously depleted by the stress and the disease. In her weakened state, she left the hospital to go recover at her sister’s in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, it all caught up to her, and she took her life. This suicide will not be isolated, as I have heard of two more suicides among our first responders this morning.

As a priest, therapist, and coach, I find myself wondering “why?” She was an experienced pro in emergency medicine, so she knew trauma. Her father, a physician himself, said that she had never suffered with depression but was swamped by the massive experience. Any one who has lived in the healthcare world knows of that “swamp” of emotion, of the dark night that can come. While this story fascinates me, it is more helpful to use it to prompt our responsiveness that might avoid further despair with ways of meeting those needs.

My colleague, Mike Murray, pointed out a book written by a Holocaust survivor that noted some coping techniques that got her through that horrific experience. She noted four observations that seem instructive to those of us in the middle of this dark night.

First, she noted that people afflicted with perfectionism died within a month of arrival to the death camp as they could not cope with disruption. As the social scientist, Jimmy Buffett, says, learn to roll with the punches. Be creative with this disrupted time and the lack of structured activity.

Second, “loners” also succumbed early as they did not have a small support group of people who cared. This is a great time to reconnect to friends from the past. With the technology of Zoom or even the simple phone call (no more Sara on the party line in Mayberry) you can use those old relationships to get you through,

Third, survivors created “small victories” where they would celebrate wins that would get them through the night. I have used a journal most of my life, to list the Big Three things I was going to get done today. I also use it to begin my day by noting my blessings, things for which I am thankful. And I end my day by jotting down things that I am thankful for. Try journaling if you aren’t doing it now, and double down if you have some practice at it.

Fourth, survivors were strategic, thinking their way through the situation by being smart in the moment. Think through how you are experiencing this time. Talk it through with a partner, a friend, or a coach as to where you are struggling and where you are thriving. Set yourself up for a positive mindset. Be smart! Learn something new. Did I mention, Be smart?

Now, some of you are wondering how we got from Koons in your church to four recommendations to getting through the Holocaust? Fair enough.

I wanted to wind up telling you about an old friend of my Kenneth “Lou” Koon, who grew up in the church I mentioned. In fact, he is the grandson of the aforementioned Rev. Homer Folsom. Lou has developed an amazing group that seeks to intervene in the rise in suicide within our veterans and first responders. Lou can quote a bunch of statistics that clearly show that we are seeing a huge increase in suicide deaths in these groups, as well as in our general population. This was true before our current crisis and will only increase the severity and frequency.

Lou’s mission is to get people to be more aware of the people around them, to be attentive to people’s behavior, to what they say, to signs they give off, indicating they might be at a point where they might hurt themselves. His payoff pitch is to get people to be comfortable in asking the hard question of “Are you considering killing yourself?” If answered in the affirmative, Lou helps people to know how to then connect them to the people that can save their lives. Lou’s point is that by observing and then asking a question, you can save a life.

Lou heads up an organization that runs seminars and training in suicide prevention. They are geared for regular folks, both those in various first line caregivers as well as normal citizens. They are offering some online training that you can do from home during this time of sheltering. The name of the organization is Armed Forces Mission, as Lou is an Army chaplain, but he has extended his mission to a broader audience.

You can find opportunities for training at ListenLearnLead.org or AFMfamily.org .

You can also connect people to folks who can help immediately by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. I encourage you to put these numbers on your phone directory. You never know when you might need it for others or yourself.

So Jimmy the Barber asked my dad, “You got any coons in your Church?” And my answer is proudly, Yeah, got this dude named Lou Koon, who can save you or your friend’s life!

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