When Lara Patangan was about to turn 40, she had a revelation.
She had thought about how to celebrate the birthday, but couldn’t think of anything particularly attractive. Then, while sitting in church on a Sunday, she decided to celebrate not herself but everyone else.
“Everything felt kind of hollow until I decided to spend the year doing church services … and sharing my experience on a blog,” she said.
Patangan didn’t know who to help or where to serve or how to start a blog. But she was confident that she should serve and share.
“I was kind of empowered by how little I knew,” she said. “I’m always so insecure, that’s why it felt really big to me.”
In that year of service (2012-13) and the resulting blog, the book “Simple Mercy: How the Works of Mercy Bring Peace and Fulfillment” was published on Friday.
“The goal for the book is simple, but it’s also big,” she said. “Quite simply, I want all of us to see the power of our good deeds and look for ways to share kindness as an organic part of daily life. What makes this simple goal great is that I believe that mercy has the power To change lives – not just others, but our own as well.
“We can change the world by showing compassion to one another. It sounds great and maybe even idealistic to say I want to change the world, but I also bet it’s easier than many of us think. It definitely is worth a try.”
The needs are everywhere
The now 48-year-old freelance writer from Jacksonville had prior experience in the nonprofit world. Before becoming a mother, she worked in development at Hubbard House in Jacksonville, which serves domestic violence survivors, as well as the NO / AIDS Task Force and New Orleans Children’s Hospital when her husband was studying law at Loyola University.
But she didn’t know the breadth of northeast Florida nonprofits, other charities, or other places that need volunteers. So she did some research.
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“I was basically scouring various nonprofits to see how I could serve,” Patangan said. “It was a great way to get to know our community and see all of the needs and all of the good organizations working to meet them.”
As a Catholic, she also had the 14 “Works of Mercy” as a guide. Seven of the works focus on the material and physical needs of others, such as feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and visiting the sick and incarcerated, and seven deal with the spiritual needs of others, including counseling the dubious, forgiving offenses and the consolation of those affected.
“I had to be creative,” she said.
Their decisions ranged from feeding the hungry to visiting the detainees.
Patangan helped serve meals at St. Francis Soup Kitchen, where she learned to do so with respect and dignity “without question or judgment.”
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“I knew this before volunteering, but putting it into practice took more effort than serving food. I wondered if I was doing a work of mercy or if the real work was what God was doing in me “, she said.
She helped distribute baby and maternity clothes at the Jacksonville Women’s Help Center and held a baby shower with her group of women in the church. They collected everything from maternity and baby clothes to strollers.
“I never used to think about who I was helping when I was donating clothes,” she said. “Now that I saw the grateful faces of the recipients, I realized the importance of offshoots. If you’re just as desperate to give a pregnant mom a pair of jeans as I am, you realize that cleaning your closet really makes a difference. “”
Patangan and her two sons worked at Rethreaded’s downtown warehouse, which provides trafficking survivors with jobs in the manufacture of upcycled clothing, leather products, jewelry, and other items.
“It was stifling. Still, it felt cathartic to sweat next to these women brave enough to choose a different pattern for their lives,” she said.
Some of their service options arose organically. She heard of a car accident involving Burmese refugees, two of whom died, and asked a volunteer in that community how she could help.
Patangan’s job was to help plan the funeral. She had no experience planning a funeral, and in this case a language barrier had to be overcome. She and her husband visited a family that had lost a father and took them to the funeral home the next day.
“The family spoke little English and the person who helped translate spoke a different dialect,” she said. “But we did it. Little by little we found out. One of the most important things I learned is that we just have to be ready and open to help each other.”
Patangan’s family supported their aid projects – until they decided to visit Florida State Prison.
“This was the only time my mother and husband raised concerns,” she said. “But I left anyway because it is a work of compassion to attend to the prison and I did not want to bypass my commitment. I did not love the prison, but who does it? Still, I am glad I left , and because I have been praying for prisoners all the time. “
A personal testimony to making the world a better place
The high school friend, Helena Parola, said Patangan had a non-judgmental and empathetic nature and the ability to calm people down.
“When you’re with Lara, it’s easy to be yourself and to bury your thoughts and problems,” said Parola.
The two friends discussed each stop in what Parola Patangan’s called “Road Trip to the Works of Mercy”.
“I tried to encourage her in her writing and to tell her how much her contributions meant to me and others,” she said. “I really encouraged her to write the book, even if she never published it. I thought it was really important for her children to have her document this journey.”
The service Patangan did mattered to her, Parola said. She took it seriously.
“It was like Lara suddenly doing what she should, using her compassion and love for others and her writing to make the world a better place,” Parola said.
Bishop Filipe Estevez of the Diocese of St. Augustine approved the book.
Patangan “doesn’t just write about mercy, she lives it,” he wrote. “‘Simple Mercies’ is her personal testimony to the peace and fulfillment she has found through the works of mercy. As she testifies, the best way to find meaning in life is not by doing, having and being our neighbors achieved, but by loving them. “
The service can be big or small
On her blog and book, Patangan writes about the lessons she has learned:
• You may never see the effects of your service, which can have a ripple effect.
“I’m not a patient person, but I really believe that,” she said. “I trust him and I love to think about it. I think we carry other people’s kindness with us and it just goes on.”
• The service can be big or small. You can join the Peace Corps or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
“Our world teaches us that everything has to be big to play a role. This is where we think we will find meaning,” she said. “But so often it is our simple friendliness to one another that has the greatest impact.”
• The services are both internal and external.
“When we start to believe in our power to improve the lives of others, it is empowering,” she said. “It’s hopeful. … We are more motivated to get in touch.”
• Some ministries require a witness of sadness and suffering, such as what Patangan saw helping the Burmese family.
“Just accept it as part of our humanity and do whatever it takes to help,” she said. “We are not called to solve these problems, we are simply called to serve. … There are people who need us, and even if we give them just a moment of compassionate relief, it matters.”
• There are few or no qualifications.
“As an ordinary person, not as a theologian or scholar, or as someone who suspected what he was getting into,” she said, “I was most qualified to do a year of service because we are all.” I felt that if I could, anyone could, and because works of mercy are so good, everyone would want them.
“It was probably the first time in my life that being normal felt an advantage. I went into the year with a real openness and honesty that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would do it anyway. If we all waited until we knew what we were doing or had all the answers, then nothing would ever be done. “
Beth Reese Cravey: [email protected], (904) 359-4109
For more information about Lara Patangan or to order her book, visit larapatangan.com.