In his 1969 novel, “The Poseidon Adventure,” author Paul Gallico tells the harrowing tale of a luxury liner, the S.S. Poseidon, capsized by a rogue wave. The protagonist, Rev. Dr. Frank Scott, is a no-nonsense cleric; a former Princeton University football player who found a higher calling. Scott’s unorthodox views on religion and how it should function in the everyday lives of its believers had gotten him into trouble from his local bishop. In particular, Scott believes people shouldn’t just pray and hope for the best when they encounter problems or crises; instead, he declares, they should do what they can to resolve the dilemma. He proves true to his word when disaster strikes. Initially trapped in the first-class dining room, Scott convinces a handful of fellow passengers that they need to make a concerted effort to climb up towards the ship’s bottom; rather than just wait for someone to find and rescue them. The ship is sinking, after all, and it could be hours before any rescue personnel make their way to the overturned vessel. They have to try, he insists – even if they all die in the process. As the oxygen begins to run out, a few in the group perish amidst their struggles to survive. When yet another person dies, Scott becomes angry at the God he vowed to honor. “What is it you want – another sacrifice?!” he shouts. “More blood? Another life?” Then, just before he hurtles himself into a watery pit, he screams, “Spare them! Take me!”
Gene Hackman breathed life into Scott in the 1972 film version, which remains one of my favorite movies. But, while many people recollect actress Shelley Winters actually swimming underwater, I think more of the Scott character.
He came to mind after deadly tornadoes struck Granbury, Texas on May 15 and Moore, Oklahoma on May 20. In each instance, survivors often said they prayed as they sought shelter. That’s a common reaction; one that shouldn’t be faulted in the midst of a horrifying situation, when people suddenly realize how fragile life is. But, while thousands prayed along with them in the chaotic aftermaths, they also responded immediately. Many went so far as to make their way out to the afflicted areas to help survivors rebuild; others have been donating to the Red Cross. In each case, the Texas Baptist Men, founded in Lubbock, Texas in 1967, quickly began packing up food and medical supplies, water and generators – as they always do after such disasters. Even following the 2004 Indian Ocean seaquake and tsunami, the TBM gathered together cases of bottled water and water purification systems to ship out to the affected areas. They even engaged Muslim community leaders to emphasize that their mission was purely to help; not proselytize. They weren’t handing out packages of dried food with Christian bibles taped to them. But, they’re all doing something; they’re not just sitting down and praying – or telling people they prayed.
It’s easy to pray. It takes no real effort to sit down in the privacy of your home, or walk into a stall in the restroom at work, and offer up a quick prayer for someone. I understand that some people can do no more than that; they don’t have the means or the money to help out otherwise. And, no one should blame them for that. Others simply don’t care to anything else except pray. That’s fine, too; it’s their choice. But, prayer is cheap; they’re thoughts evolved from someone’s private cogitations. You may have no proof that someone prayed for you, but then, they have no way of disproving. It’s so easy, of course, to tell someone you prayed for them. How do they know?
In September of 1993, I contracted a vicious case of hepatitis. Because of my severe dehydration, my doctor decided to hospitalize me. I didn’t feel I was that sick at the time – and never have felt it – but I had no energy to fight it at the time. Besides, I’d just lost one of my best friends to AIDS the day before I went into the hospital. I was one of the few friends who hadn’t abandoned him and had promised to be a pall bearer at his funeral. But, on the day he was buried, I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV. While hospitalized, only two people called me: my mother’s younger sister and a woman who worked with both of them; the latter who was also a neighbor and a close family friend. After returning home, I received one get-well card: from my assistant supervisor.
Later, as I discussed the illness with my parents, my mother told me, “A lot of prayers were said for you.” It had an almost admonishing tone, as if I should have known that folks in the family were praying for me and had better be thankful they did.
Instead, it made me angry. “I can’t hear a prayer!” I told them. “I can hear a phone call. I can read a get-well card. But, I can’t hear or read a prayer!”
My parents were shocked by my response. After all, they said, several members of my dad’s family had expressed concern for my well-being – and allegedly prayed.
Great, wonderful, I told them. But, no one except my aunt and a family friend called me, I emphasized. Not one other person in the family seemed to make an effort to contact me and ask if I was okay. Not even when we gathered at my grandmother’s house that Christmas Eve did anyone mention it. I left there that evening, seething with anger, and returned to my apartment alone. Prayers – shit! That’s easy.
What’s not easy is giving up money to somebody or a charity organization, especially when you have your own financial needs. It’s not easy – as I did one day in the summer of 1993 – to visit a sick friend and help him take a much-needed bath. It’s not easy to jump into your vehicle and drive to a storm-ravaged neighborhood to help people look for their missing pets.
Right now, I can’t donate much money to the victims of these recent tornadoes, or put my big truck to good use by helping them move junk. So, yes, I do pray for them. And, in a way, I feel bad that I can’t do more than just that. I’ve written before that, while I don’t adhere to any religion, I am very spiritual. I’m not certain there is a Great Creator; it’s merely a belief.
But, I do know thoughts – and sometimes words – are somewhat flippant in comparison to actually doing something. It’s up to each individual, though, to make that move; that’s their choice. You don’t volunteer other people’s time or money. Regardless, yes, it’s important to pray for the less fortunate, or at least think about their ordeal and wish the best for them. But, it’s even more important to work towards making their lives better.