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All I Have is a Voice

Here we are again. Stunned. Whispering in twos and threes via text, in office kitchens, swapping lines from poetry as if we are in Fahrenheit 451 or some sci-fi movie in which we can be arrested, deported, disappeared for having a heart.

Last night, I attended a gathering at my church of people who wandered in from the stupor. We hadn’t done this since 9/11. Same time. Same place. Same terror in our eyes. Same need to know that we are not alone and that it is not illegal to be human.

And before 9/11, there was the first time I walked into an ACT UP meeting, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, back in 1987. 200 terrified souls were gathered on a Monday night simply to know what the hell to do and whether or not we were still human, whether or not there was any value to that, whether or not we could save our lives so suddenly vulnerable, and how it felt to be together, instead of so terrifyingly alone.

Some of my moments yesterday were when my co-worker erupted in staff meeting and said that he is afraid his child will be taken from him, that his family is so fragile, it only having been made legal within the last five years.

In the same meeting, a workmate leaned over and whispered that another colleague thinks she will have to leave by January, rather than be deported.

Another was at the gathering last night, sitting across from my friend, who is Muslim, as she described the call she was going to be on at 10pm to determine how to keep Muslim families safe for the next seven days. I wondered, what happens on the eighth?

Another was dinner last night when I made my parents-in-law, Jews who feel like we’ve been here before, promise not to talk about the election, so that our girls — for whom I am terrified — could have a little peace and feel held by our love. I failed. I lost my temper with my mother-in-law for the first time in 24 years when she said that what I am doing at work is not enough to save us.

So what is enough? What do we do? And if we are not the ones who are in danger, then what do we do for those who are, before the new policies begin to float down these city streets like death eaters, those lethal jailers in the Harry Potter stories who steal our souls and rob us of our desire to fight for all that is good.

The answer, of course, is in the poem to which I have turned since I learned what it meant to be human.

All I have is a voice.

It is the time for poets and prophets and speaking our love for one another publicly, personally, politically, regularly, gratuitously, dangerously – to our neighbors, our workers, our estranged friends, our family members, the ones who voted with us and the ones who voted against us, who perhaps are just as terrified as we are and that’s how we’ve arrived at this moment.

We must have the moral courage to show up in places and for people we have not before yesterday bothered to visit. We must interrupt our routines and love one another. If we do not, we will find ourselves, as W.H. Auden writes in his poem, lost in a haunted wood, neither happy nor good.

I went to ACT UP because people everywhere were dying, people like me and not like me. The president and the mayor, along with most polite company, wouldn’t mention it. There seemed to be nothing to be done.

But entering a room of 200 people that Monday night, holding each other, doing things, lifting our voices, art, bodies made in the image of God – infected or not, felt like life in the moment, like hope in the lifting, like the world for which we longed in the room. And our coming together did change things, did save lives. Of course it did. That’s just how it works. We are only strong together.

And so last night we came together: the undocumented college student and the adopted child of gay dads, the Muslim mother of an American veteran and the singing rabbi, my friend from whom I am estranged who hugged me to tell me we are in it together, my husband, my broken-hearted pastor, and so many people I have never met before. I am praying we will meet again next week and until this nightmare is over.

For so many, it did not begin yesterday. May we gather, act up and speak out until it ends.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(W.H. Auden, from “September 1st, 1939”)

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You Have Something to Say That We Need to Hear

You have something to say that we need to know.

You were not born for nothing. In you, in the terrific, singular way life has shaped you, there is a truth that is yours to tell. You may say: Not me. You may think: What I have done in this lifetime is to follow orders well. Not true. There is an undercurrent. You dream. You have something to say that we need to hear.

I was the one at the table whose comments always disappointed. I was the one who never glittered. But like a geode, somehow even I knew that deeper within was a hall of chandeliers that dazzled, the place God designed, beauty beyond all estimation, who I really am.

Now I am a prophet whisperer. I wash the feet and the words of the visionaries of our time, listening them into their small, still voice, teasing it out and into a roar.

I am also a documentary filmmaker. My job has been to do justice to each real person I have filmed, to get inside that inner chamber with my camera and return with the footage that reveals God’s truth about the grandeur of each unique soul.

Smash a hammer to the geode that is you. Shine a light on what is most beautiful, heartbreaking, and real for you in life and in your heart. Then let this vision be known, let us be made right, made whole, be dazzled by your truth.

If you don’t, something better than diamonds, than all Rembrandts, will go eternally unnoticed. God, blaming no one but God’s self, will ransack rooms in heaven with rage.

I don’t know exactly why, but life has taught me this: There’s healing if you do. Flowers will bloom from your palms, your curved spine will uncurl like a stem straightened by the sun. Yes, it may also kill you or we may kill you when you tell the truth about us all, but better to live in the light of truth than to never live at all. Better for you and for us, I mean.

Tell me the truth. What is it? I need to know.

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The Power and Pleasure You Can Unleash When Your Inner Artist Joins Your Inner Activist

What would happen, do you think, if we unleashed our most creative selves as we’re considering what action to take to right the wrongs in this world?

Too often, we think of artists as freaks of nature. Fact is: we are all artists. We are born that way. Look at the stuff you drew at age three. It’s brilliant.

For most of us, shortly after age three, society, mean teachers, older siblings, and our own inner soul-crusher convinced us that the way we make art is inadequate, stupid, embarrassing, and so we left art-making to those who for some reason refused to listen to the mean voices within and without. But here’s the bad news: the price of kicking our creativity to the side may be the end of the world.

What makes me crazy about Oscar week is that it feels like it’s intentionally designed to make us, the viewing public, distinguish ourselves from the ones who should be allowed to create, the geniuses, the true artists. But Selma, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, tells a crucial narrative about unleashing the artist in every activist that we desperately need to hear and heed.

Selma is the story of a group of people collectively creating and performing the most powerful “ethical spectacle” they can think of in order to move American hearts and minds to support Civil Rights. Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism and author of the thrilling book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, defines “ethical spectacle” as an action that ravishingly “illuminates and dramatizes real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise tend to remain hidden in plain sight.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues knew that the only way they could get Americans to support the Voting Rights Act was to viscerally render inequality in the consciousness of those who had not experienced it firsthand. These activists did not go to art school, yet the devastating images of their protests in Selma that tore through mainstream media — the peaceful marchers brutalized by police on horseback during the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the determined multitude that returned to march again — were the direct outcome of the organizers’ aesthetic strategy.

And it worked.

Of course, the lesson to be learned from Selma is not that the way to advance every social cause is to put on a good march. Because people think they’ve seen it all before, most marches don’t even make the news today.

The lesson I am hoping that we do learn from Selma is that when we unleash our inner artists and create “ethical spectacles” so surprising, so fresh, so disturbing that they tell the whole story in one striking image or scene, we can capture the public imagination and inspire the public will to change the course of history.

At Sundance this past month, I saw two soon-to-be-released films that show how we can save lives and save the world when we marry our creativity with our activism.

Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger is a study in “ethical spectacle.” Kramer is an artist whose outrage incited AIDS activism in this country in the 1980s, humanized the way the medical industrial complex treats suffering people in clinical drug trials, and expedited the discovery of the medication that saved Kramer’s life and the lives of millions around the globe who are now living with AIDS. In the film, Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since AIDS first became part of our public consciousness, states: “There’s medicine before Larry Kramer and medicine after Larry Kramer.”

What Kramer and a host of artists and activists in New York (including myself) did was take art and theater into the streets. From putting a rather large condom on the home of the notoriously anti-gay, anti-sex-education North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to throwing ashes of our loved ones onto the White House lawn, we expressed our outrage in ways that the news and the public could not ignore.

In another Sundance documentary, Racing Extinction, film director Louie Psihoyos and his environmental activist friends are seen projecting gorgeous images of the animals we have lost or are likely to lose to extinction on buildings across the nation, including the entire exterior of the United Nations building in New York. The result is breathtakingly beautiful; it stops crowds, gets constant news attention, goes viral, and drives people in droves to sign onto the activists’ education and action campaign to save dying species.

As I write these words, I am sitting on a bench in the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as thousands of people stream by me to admire the paper cut-outs the old guy made while lying in bed. Over and over, I hear people saying: “I could do that” and I find myself wanting to cry out: “That’s right! You can!”

So I say to you, to myself, to all who believe in freedom: think of something that outrages or excites you, a change you pray might be made in the world. Now, with friends, in your journal, on Pinterest, or with scissors and construction paper, spend two hours imagining what kind of spectacle you might dream up to capture our imagination, move our hearts, make us care, make us act differently, make us act up. Then, with that same group of friends or flying solo if that’s your style, make it happen.

The fact is that our lives depend on all of us bringing all we have to our justice-seeking movements, including our creativity. And there’s a fringe benefit to marrying art-making to our activism. When we unleash our creative spirits, when we banish those soul-crushing voices that tell us that we’re not creative, we can unlock all kinds of joy and soul liberation. I could use a little bit more of that in my life and activism. Couldn’t you?

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Leaders Like MLK Are Not a Thing of the Past, But We Must Shape the Moral Frame of Our Day

Watching Selma in the middle of a crowded movie theater this week, I found myself doubled over in emotion. I knew the faces and their voices. My daddy was a white preacher who was run out of his North Carolina pulpit by the KKK for his civil rights support. In 1964, he and my mother moved to Alabama. She was a teacher who was among the first to work in the integrated schools. I was born the following year, six months after the Selma March and two years to the day after four little girls were murdered at a church up in Birmingham.

Not surprisingly, I got hooked at a young age on the power of prophetic witness. Today, I train leaders of faith and moral courage — as King called them in the film, “people of God and good will” — to speak their truth and stand for justice in the media. A documentary filmmaker with a theological education, I couldn’t bear the fact that the household names who spoke for faith and values in this country in the 1980s and ‘90s — people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed — bore no resemblance to the prophets who risked and often gave their lives to stand for freedom in the name of faith just decades before.

So I launched a program with my colleague Katharine Henderson at Auburn Seminary to identify and equip today’s voices of moral courage. What I have learned is that voices like King’s are not a thing of the past; they are courageously leading movements in communities all over America. Over the past ten years, we have trained 5000 of them — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist and more. But I have also learned that the movement and its leaders must up their game to carry the moral frame over and against the mighty and monied Right. It is when the public will requires nothing less that our jaded and cantankerous congress and politicized Supreme Court are most inclined to stand for justice for all.

And so, I want to offer three recommendations to all who believe in freedom and are praying that 2015 is the year that future history books and major motion pictures show that we stood as communities and as a nation for justice for all.

First, lift up your voice. Much has been written over the last 10 years about the fact that this is not your grandparents’ movement and that there is strength in the decentralized, multi-vocal collective outcry that we see from Tahrir Square to Occupy to Ferguson and the streets of New York after the senseless slaying of our hometown neighbor, Eric Garner. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we all must unleash our inner prophet. What I loved about Selma was not just King’s testimony, but the power of John Lewis’ voice, the meaning of Viola Liuzzo’s and Annie Lee Cooper’s witness.

But second (and on the other hand), there is still a critical role locally, nationally and internationally for the singular prophetic voice who captures the public imagination and changes history.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II and his Moral Mondays protests have inspired the nation as he galvanized the people of North Carolina to mobilize against well-funded attempts to redistrict the state — a surreptitious move to effectively undo the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement by keeping the poor, people of color and the progressive majority in North Carolina from carrying the vote.

Sister Simone Campbell, when the Vatican came down on her posse of nuns for being too outspoken about poverty and not loud enough about abortion and homosexuality, took it as an opportunity. She purchased a bus to proclaim good news to the poor all across the land. Now, on any given day, you can hear her moral call across the media landscape; it seems to me that even the new pope has borrowed a page from the good sister’s book.

There’s Bishop Gene Robinson. For four years, I personally watched history tip in the wake of his moral stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In my 2012 documentary about the Bishop, Love Free or Die, we see policy dramatically change in church and state right before our eyes. He stood down daily death threats for the better part of a decade and stood up for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s first inauguration. I don’t doubt that he gave moral cover and framing to Obama when, at his second inauguration, he so famously put equality for LGBT people on the national agenda for the first time in American history.

And new prophetic voices are emerging. Last month I worked with two young Union Seminary students whose unequal treatment at the hands of the police — based on their different skin colors — made plain the racist state of affairs in this nation and in the NYPD. Their everyday story tore through the news cycle that week from the New York Times to MSNBC. I had the feeling that I was witness to the birth of two future leaders who we will be hearing from in the years to come, not unlike the young leaders in Selma whose early experiences in the Civil Right Movement led to lifetimes of history-changing service.

But third, and perhaps most important, no matter how important your point of view, you cannot expect the media to come to you for comment on the news cycles of the day. You’ve got to make your own news cycle. As it was in the days of the prophets who launched our faith traditions in the first place, so it is today. Where would Sister Simone be without her bus? Where in fact would she be without Sound of Music and Sister Act? She knows the role she is playing in the public imagination and public square and does not shy away from understanding how this news business works.

To grab headlines and capture the attention of national news cameras in 1965, selecting Selma, Alabama was an important and strategic move. King and his colleagues studied the various Southern towns, searching for the right backdrop and cast of characters — not unlike Selma‘s director Ava DuVernay had to do — in order to achieve success. What Selma and history show is that you have got to work to capture attention before you can move hearts and minds.

Walking out of the movie theater last night, I knew that my daddy needs to come and take my sixth-grade daughter, a girl of color named for him and my mother, to see Selma. I imagine he might make it real to her the strides we have taken as a nation in just a generation that make it possible for her, a Latina with two gay dads, to flourish. But in this land where still today too many are treated unjustly just because of who they are and how they look, my prayer is that my daughter Alice gets hooked as I did on this grand tradition of speaking our truths so that all may be free, and that in 2015 our cries for justice flow like a stream more mighty than this nation has ever known. Having worked with so many powerful voices in this current generation, I believe we can. May it be so.