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Podcasting the Pandemic

Moving from dark places to hopeful answers

Podcasting the Pandemic

Moving from dark places to hopeful answers

On March 11, Marisa Prince and her American Awakening team sat in the Winchester, Massachusetts living room of John Kingston and talked about the coronavirus beginning to ravage the nation.

For years, Kingston—a lawyer by training and businessman by experience—had been trying to culturally and spiritually enrich the nation through politics, cinema, and the arts. In 2018, he even ran as a candidate for the United States Senate, hoping to unseat Elizabeth Warren and usher in a new era of political unity in Massachusetts.

He lost.

In the aftermath of that defeat, Kingston felt like America was losing too: its unity, its patience, its dream of economic prosperity and peace. Instead of marinating in his political disappointment, he wrote a book, American Awakening: 8 Principles to Restore the Soul of America (Zondervan, July 2020). For too long the nation had been struggling under the weight of despair, racial strife, and an ever-growing political polarization that felt more like contempt than patriotism. He wanted to speak into that moment and those issues.

Still, it didn’t feel like enough.

With Prince, he formed “a campaign for the soul of America”—also known as American Awakening—which pushed back against our national problems. “We are committed to slaying the giant of death and despair in this American moment. Resisting today’s onslaught of anxiety, isolation, and depression, we instead celebrate the life that’s truly life,” the organization’s mission statement proclaims. “We are Black, White, Latino, and Asian. Democrat, Republican, Independent, and Green. No division. No divide. There is no them. There is only us.”

In addition to the book, they began other projects that advanced the same cause. They would film a docuseries, put on an interactive immersive dramatic production, and host gatherings.

But on that day, everything was coming to a standstill.

Dispirited and confused, they wondered what to do next. How could they promote an agenda of “radical togetherness” in an era where Americans couldn’t even safely be in the same room?

“I don’t really know what we should do,” Marisa Prince told John. “But we should continue.”

“How?” Kingston was incredulous, but hopeful.

“No clue.”

Prince—the producer of American Awakening initiatives, and the spiritual leader of the team—returned the next day with the conviction that the team needed to create a daily show to get a renewing word out to the nation and world.

Overnight, the crew’s lament of “the global pandemic is shutting us down” morphed into a fierce determination to “try something entirely new.” COVID-19 made the execution and logistics more difficult but provided a certain clarity.

It would not be easy. The team needed livestream and podcast equipment, but how could they get microphones to a team distributed around the country when shipping was limited to “essential items”? Within 48 hours, they’d gotten what they needed and began the hard work of actually learning to podcast and master streaming software in a matter of hours.

Prince created a basic framework for the show: a devotional moment, a brief dialogue about the morning’s headlines, a discussion question, and a movie line of the day. In addition to the Awakening squad, they recruited Pastor Joel Searby (from Florida), acclaimed author Jeff Bethke (Hawaii), singer/songwriter Josh Jacob (Boston), and former lead vocalist for Jars of Clay Dan Haseltine (Nashville) to form a cast which crossed six time zones. Haseltine in turn invited several dozen Grammy- and Dove-winning and multi-platinum artists to the show as guests. Within weeks, American Awakening’s show had become the destination for the “who’s who” of the Christian music industry, many of whom were suddenly available due to travel and concert restrictions.

When Americans were sequestered in their homes, unsure when they could leave again and if they’d recognize the world when they did, the American Awakening crew made an audacious promise.

“We committed to showing up and offering a word of encouragement to the world—every single day—until the quarantines lifted,” Prince told Christianity Today. “We had no sound engineering or hosting capabilities, but we learned as we went along.”

Prince knew the more pressing issue was having God’s blessing on their efforts.

Every morning, she got up at 4:00 to pray about and prepare the run of show. At 10:00, the team convened with her on a conference call for a devotional, regularly praying for the people receiving the show’s message. Eventually, these times of prayer became so popular that various leaders and friends of the Awakening join the team from around the country.

During the first few shows, technical problems loomed large, kinks had to be worked out, and the cast members sometimes didn’t feel the hope they wanted to pass along to the nation.

“I showed up a lot of days to the show like, ‘I can barely put it together today,’” Kingston said. “I’d feel like saying, ‘I don’t have insight. I don’t have hope.’ I’ve been dragging a lot this week. Then I’d hear a soulful adaptation of a worship song or Marisa would say something really insightful, and the show became an exercise for me in going from my own dark places to those hopeful answers.”

But they would look back at those early broadcasts as the “easy ones.”

On May 25, 2020, a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota during what should’ve been a routine interaction with the police. Now, in addition to dealing with the coronavirus, America was plunged into a new grief that manifested in powerful and often intimidating ways.

The multi-ethnic cast of the American Awakening show and podcast attracted an even larger and more diverse audience. Given America’s racial and ethnic complexity, and role in the world, people around the globe pay close attention to our nation’s struggles with justice and freedom. During the show’s broadcast, comments from members of the global African diaspora began pouring in.

The world was watching.

Since the coronavirus shutdown the American Awakening show has been downloaded over 400,000 times, and the corresponding live streams have been viewed over 1 million times, with viewers providing hundreds of thousands of interactions.

The team was in awe: what had seemed like a complete disaster for their group turned into the opportunity to share the hope of Christ to a desperate world.

As the nation began to slowly open back up, the team cut back from five shows a week to three and used the extra time to focus their efforts on the other aspects of their mission. But that formerly dispirited little rebel band from the living room had made an impact on the world. They won’t ever forget God’s prompting and presence during this experience.

“That is the thing I’m most excited about coming out of this season,” Kingston explained. “What you need, God will provide. You don’t have to live in anxiety, paralyzed and unable to move forward. If you’re living in service and God is leading—take heart, God will provide.”

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