Leading her congregation in prayer last Sunday, the Rev. Paige Blair-Hubert realized that her mind had wandered from the sacred to the shooters.
"I'm thinking 'If something goes down, how do I get the acolytes out of there? The kids? Everyone else?'" said Blair-Hubert, the rector at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Del Mar.
"I shouldn't be thinking about that in the middle of church. But this is starting to affect our consciousness."
Last weekend's mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton accentuated a painful fact of 21st century life: the lurking fear that a lethal threat could erupt at any public gathering. Anxiety is soaring among the faithful (domestic terrorists have attacked houses of worship), shoppers (malls have been shot up), Hispanics (targeted in El Paso), concertgoers (remember the Las Vegas massacre?), parents and teachers (school shootings have come a long, lethal way since Columbine in 1999).
Everywhere, it seems, there are signs of a society under siege.
"Oh my God, it's come to this," said Kim Abagat, the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts's head counselor. "This is the saddest thing."
"This" was the latest back-to-school accessory: a bulletproof backpack.
"This is the United States," Abagat said. "We are supposed to be the safest and smartest country in the world, but it doesn't feel like that anymore."
The United States has endured deadlier eras. Through Friday, the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive reports, this year's average weekly death toll from firearms is 281 – less than 8% of the average weekly toll among American soldiers during the Civil War.
However, those combatants fought and died on battlefronts. What's happening today is different, said Rebecca Ching, and it takes a toll on society. A licensed family and marriage therapist who founded Mission Valley's Potentia Family Therapy, Ching said her practice is seeing more clients overwhelmed by free-floating fear.
"Anxiety feels like more of the norm," she said. "This is a culture that feels like it is in crisis."
The digital age feeds that feeling, delivering real-dispatches from every crisis spot. "In the past if something happened in small town America, an event wouldn't get the world coverage it does now," said Lt. Dan Peak, who oversees the Chula Vista Police Department's criminal investigations unit and SWAT team. "All the ways we communicate with each other now, it's just at the tip of your finger."
In a mobile society, networks of friends and family are spread far and wide. The Rev. Miles McPherson, pastor of The Rock Church in Point Loma, was preparing last Sunday's sermon when he received a text from a member of his congregation. Owner of a Texas business, she divides her time between San Diego and El Paso.
"This city is broken," she texted the morning after the massacre. "There's hardly any cars on the road."
She prayed for McPherson, that he would find the right words, that he could shed some light in the darkness. The pastor, who had just returned to San Diego after several weeks away, struggled to craft a message that could lift up and inspire a flock confronted with hatred and violence.
"There is an overall heightened tension," McPherson said, "for everybody."
That's especially true, he added, when crimes stem from racial hatred. The El Paso suspect reportedly told police he was targeting "Mexicans," and the "manifesto" he allegedly posted was drenched in white supremacist ideology.
"People of color are faced with racial issues their whole life," said McPherson, who is of mixed-race heritage. "We have those conversations all the time. As a white person that's not necessarily your experience, that's not a conversation you have a lot of practice with."
Now, that conversation is more widespread than ever.
"How do we deal with that?" McPherson said. "What do you say?"
NO FREE PASS
To cope with rising anxiety, Ching said, many turn to two equally unhealthy tactics: "hyper-vigilance" and "numbing out."
The hyper-vigilant are paralyzed by a relentless focus on potential threats. "They spin out," the therapist said. "Their brain can't relax, their nervous system doesn't turn off." Determined to protect themselves and their loved ones, they have mental "dress rehearsals" of calamities, imagining every possible outcome.
"It moves from a natural spectrum of anxiety, of stress anticipation," Ching said, "and then falls into that clinical place."
At the other extreme, some avoid thinking about threats by indulging in excessive mind- or mood-altering behaviors. "There's an increased use of substances, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or sex or exercise or Netflix or shopping," Ching said. "There's an increased use of that and it doesn't help. It hurts."
Yet it's human to respond to violence, even in an distant place, even if the victims are strangers. "It is courageous to care, it is brave work to stay caring," Ching said. "When we put ourselves in the shoes of a mom who has lost her kid in the shooting, we are connecting with someone, we are connecting with grief, with loss."
That compassion inevitably stirs difficult memories. "Everyone has trauma, no one gets a pass," Ching said. Then she laughed: "Everyone went through middle school."
Most adults can deal with seventh grade levels of trauma. It becomes harder if someone like you was the target, or if the violence seems an extreme manifestation of your own slights and hurts.
"We are Mexicans and we feel racism," said Maria Guadalupe Neri, a Tijuana resident who regularly shops at the Wal-Mart in San Ysidro. "It's hard, but it's part of life and we have to cross" the border.
Neri represents an important part of the local economy, as Mexicans annually spend an estimated $500 million in San Diego.
Officials must find "a solution to ensure that there is no violence, that there is public safety, knowing the importance of promoting tourism with Mexico mainly, the cross-border trade on which we rely for our economy," said Paola Avila, vice president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Federal officials will be pressed on this issue, Avila said, when a chamber delegation visits Washington, D.C., next month.
Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexico's consul general in San Diego, said he will be monitoring anti-terrorism steps taken by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
"But I would also like to make a very respectful appeal to people on both sides of the border not to panic," Gonzalez said. "I've been here a month and it's very impressive the commitment that the vast majority of people in the San Diego area have for Mexico, for this integrated economy, for being close to us."
A few years ago, Kevon Cumberbatch decided he couldn't wait for lawmakers to take action. "I knew that people would be looking to find a solution," he said, "while government tries to decide what it's going to do."
With wife, Jerrian Cumberbatch, he created a partial solution to gun violence: a bulletproof backpack they sell online.
"Our sales have doubled in the last year," he said. "The day after (El Paso and Dayton), we saw an increase in website traffic."
The Cumberbatches's Krhino is one of several companies selling "bulletproof" backpacks. Prices vary from $100 to $200. Colors range from pink to blue. Some have charging ports for cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices. None claim the ability to stop a bullet from a semi-automatic rifle; all maintain they can halt a 9mm or .45 caliber round.
"This is not magic, it's not a force field," Kevon Cumberbatch said, noting that Krhino backback relies on metal shields like those in a cop's vest.
In the post-Columbine era, active shooter drills have become so common in American public schools that the current crop of students is sometimes referred to as "Generation Lockdown." Chula Vista's Lt. Peak has coordinated dozens of drills at South Bay schools, counseling staff and students on survival techniques.
He urges everyone to remain aware of their surroundings.
"Especially if you are going to be somewhere with a large group of people, like a concert, a mall, a parade, even a 5k or a farmer's market," Peak said. "Those are the sorts of events that these cowards are looking to target because they know it will be a big body count."
Donna Smith, a retired nurse, thinks about this when she joins the other Grossmont Center Mall Walkers for their usual Saturday morning turn around that La Mesa landmark.
"I think we all are a little more hyper-anxious than we used to be," Smith said. "And whenever I go into a building, I look for the exits."
Smith admits she's always been a "nervous Nellie." But she's been even more on edge in the last six or seven years.
"It's so much more frequent," she said of the mass shootings.
Last Sunday, McPherson found his message. "We have to respond to the voice of God," he told The Rock's congregation. "Not the Republican voice or the Democratic voice, but the voice of God."
That seems to run counter to the current news cycle.
"You are almost being forced to pick one side of the other," McPherson said. "It is either one political party or the other, Fox or CNN, Trump or The Squad. Everything is so polarized.
"That is very real, but don't get pulled into it. We have to understand that as believers we are not called to fight that battle. We are called to be unifiers, to bring people together."
Last Sunday also found the Rev. Blair-Hubert shaking off her sense of dread. Despite the horrors of the weekend, she found herself moved and grateful by the hopeful spirit in one of the day's Scriptural readings.
"Rejoice in the Lord always," she recited from Philippians 4:4. "Again I say, Rejoice!"