"Pay It Forward": Excerpt from BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith & the Heart of Justin Bieber
The idea behind my new book BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and The Heart of Justin Bieber was to peel back the veneer of celebrity and take a closer look at Justin as a person and as a cultural phenomenon. At 17, Justin's reach and influence is international, vast and unprecedented.
As someone who watches popular culture for a living -- looking for signs of the sacred in the places some folks say the divine isn't supposed to turn up -- I had a hunch there was more to the Biebermania than Justin's foppish hair and smile that, as Tina Fey famously said, "is like watching a baby bunny sniff a tiny flower."
I knew Justin had made statements publicly about his faith pretty much from the first time he stepped onto the world stage, but lots of young stars have clung to an appearance of wholesomeness by making religious statements. What, if anything, made Justin different?
What I discovered by listening to him closely, reading thousands of Twitter and Facebook posts, scores of print and broadcast interviews from all over the world, was that the way Justin expresses his faith is consistent, authentic, and heartfelt. But more unusual -- for any evangelical Christian, and Justin most certainly is that -- is the humility with which he communicates his beliefs and the boldness with which he expresses God's love for everyone.
Of course, there are many ways to "express" one's faith. I think of that famous quote that is most often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, "Preach the gospel and if necessary, use words." I wanted to look at how Justin lived his faith. Did he walk the walk or just talk the talk?
In the chapter from BELIEBER! that follows below, I walk Justin's fans (and their curious parents) through one vivid expression of Justin's faith: His commitment to "doing unto others" and caring for "the least of those" among us -- his charitable work. And it is pretty epic. From huge, multimillion-dollar business deals, to small, private acts of kindness and generosity, Justin's heart (and soul) appear to be oriented toward giving back, doing good, and healing the world.
It's an ambition and commitment Justin shares with his manager, Scooter Braun, who is also a person of deep faith. Scooter is Jewish. Justin is a Christian. And it would seem that at the intersection of doing good, being light, and working for justice (and grace) in the world, Justin and Scooter are soul mates.
Charity is one of the ways Justin Bieber is sharing his story with the world. It's the way he's preaching the gospel without words. And his fans are listening.
CHAPTER 12: PAY IT FORWARD
"There's nothing worse than a rock star with a cause ... But celebrity is currency and we want to spend it this way."
"What can I give back to God for the blessings he's poured out on me? I'll lift high the cup of salvation -- a toast to God! I'll pray in the name of God; I'll complete what I promised God I'd do, and I'll do it together with his people."
-- Psalm 116:12
A half-dozen years ago, while backpacking around the world during his junior year at Rhode Island's Brown University, [Justin's manager] Scooter Braun's younger brother, Adam Braun, had a chance encounter that changed his life -- and eventually the lives of scores of children in the developing world -- forever.
While traveling through India, Adam met a young boy begging for money on the street. As was his custom when approached by "street kids" in many of the desperately poor regions of the world his round-the-world journey led him to, Adam asked the boy what he wanted more than anything else.
He had asked the question many times before and figured the young Indian's answer would be similar to what he'd heard in the past. A cell phone or an X-Box, perhaps? Or maybe a sports car or a mansion or a million dollars?
The boy's surprising answer was what Oprah Winfrey might call an "Aha!" moment for Adam.
Adam reached into his backpack, handed the child a pencil, and "watched as a wave of possibility washed over him," he recalled. "I saw the power and promise brought through something as small as giving a pencil to just one child."
For the next five years, as he finished his studies at Brown, graduated in 2006 and launched a lucrative career at a top New York City consulting firm, Adam continued to "backpack relentlessly" across the globe, visiting 50 countries on six continents, handing out pencils and pens to children wherever he went.
"I'd come home, I'd work, finish up my classes, and then I would just book an open-ended ticket to a really poor part of the world," he said.
In a remote Guatemalan village, Adam met a father who asked him to read his Bible in English into a tape recorder. "He wanted to listen to my English so he could teach his children," Adam recalled. That encounter struck a chord deep in Adam's heart, reminding him of his own grandparents -- Jewish refugees from Europe who came to America after surviving the Holocaust. "My grandfathers emigrated to this country so my mother and father could have a better education," he said. "Both my parents worked really, really hard so my siblings and I could have a better education."
Back in the States, Adam decided he needed to find a substantial way to give back, following his parents' example of "paying it forward" in the world by helping others in need. "The biggest single way I could find to give back was to start Pencils of Promise, build a lot of schools and inspire kids globally," he said.
In October 2008, just before his 25th birthday, Adam opened a bank account in his hometown of Greenwich, Conn., with a $25 deposit, created a Facebook page and began hosting fundraising parties for his new charity. The following year, he took a nine-month leave of absence from his consulting job to open Pencils of Promise's first school in Pha Theung, Laos, and shortly thereafter, quit his job at the consulting firm so he could focus entirely on PoP.
About the same time Adam was launching the PoP charity, his older brother, Scooter, was launching the career of his latest musical discovery, 14-year-old Justin Bieber. In fact, Justin was one of PoP's earliest supporters, Adam says, long before the teen singing sensation was, well, a sensation. When Adam was contemplating leaving corporate America for his heart's work among the poorest of the poor three years ago, Justin told him it was the right thing to do.
An estimated 75 million children worldwide have no access to education. And 98 percent of all illiterate people live in the developing world. Access to education doesn't just make people smarter, it makes them healthier and their communities more stable and prosperous. For instance, in the developing world, a child born to a mother who has had even the most basic education -- in other words, she can read and write and has some basic math skills -- is 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five. Making education accessible to the poorest among us will make the world a healthier, more just and more peaceful place for all of us.
As of July 1, 2011, Pencils of Promise had built forty schools for children in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala and was well on its way to reaching Adam's goal of building 100 new schools by 2012.
Justin is one of PoP's biggest supporters. In mid-April 2011, he helped launch a special fundraising campaign (that he and Adam dreamed up during a vacation together in Africa) with a single tweet:
shoutout to @pencilsofpromise and the @justinbieber new #schools4all campaign helping #makeachange
The Schools4All campaign challenged people -- friends, families, community groups, classmates -- to get together to raise money for Pencils of Promise, with the biggest fundraiser winning a visit from Adam and Justin to their school. Justin and Adam shot a video together and Justin continued to tweet about the campaign -- more than two dozen times -- to rally the troops in the Bieber Nation.
By the time the contest ended on July 1, it had raised more than $285,000 -- enough to build 14 more schools for Pencils of Promise and help provide education to thousands more children in the developing world.
"Justin is one of the most talented and special people I've ever met in my life," Adam said. "What a lot of people don't realize is he's not a part of Pencils of Promise because he's a celebrity. He's part of Pencils of Promise because he believes in creating good."
In addition to his online support for Pencils of Promise and its Schools4All campaign, Justin also donates $1 from every concert ticket he sells to the charity. (That means for his two sold-out shows at Dublin's O2 Arena in the spring of 2011 -- 28,000 seats each night -- Justin donated $56,000 to Pencils of Promise. And those were just two concerts out of more than a hundred he played in 2010 and 2011.)
"I just think that, for me, it just goes past, you know, money," Justin said. "That can help out so much. It's just $1 out of every ticket sold and it can go so, so far."
Beliebers who follow Justin on Twitter will be familiar with the tags #payitforward and #makeachange.
From the time he joined Twitter in early 2009 through July 1, Justin posted more than 80 tweets with those tags and a few hundred more tweets about gratitude, making a difference in the world, giving back to others for the blessings God has given him -- and encouraging his fans to do the same.
"It's really easy to do something good, whether it's helping an old lady across the street or, you know, just doing something small for your city, helping out picking up garbage -- whatever you can do. Little things make such a difference," Justin said around the time he was named among the 12 "most charitable" celebrities of 2010 by DoSomething.org, an advocacy group that encourages charity and volunteerism among American young people. "I have such a big platform, it would be silly if I didn't do something good with it."
Optimism and commitment to doing something (and not just hoping) to make the world a better place are qualities that set Justin apart from many of his colleagues in the music industry. When you listen to Justin's song "Pray," he talks about seeing the world with open eyes -- with all of its suffering, disease, wars and injustice -- and feeling powerless to do something to help. Rather than wallow in despair, however, Justin tells his fans, there is something they can to. They can always pray. Justin's "Pray" stands in sharp contrast to, for instance, John Mayer's hit single "Waiting on the World to Change," where the 33-year-old singer/songwriter bemoans his generation's lack of influence or power to make a change: "It's not that we don't care / We just know that the fight ain't fair."
Rather than hopelessness and helplessness, Justin reminds his audience that they do have the power to change the world, whether it's by lifting a prayer, offering a helping hand, raising awareness, or even donating a few dollars. Since his earliest days in the global spotlight as an up-and-coming pop artist, charity has been a hallmark of Justin's career as well as how he sees his mission in the world. One of his earliest tweets, from October 2009, would seem to indicate he was already thinking about how to pay it forward for the amazing blessings and success he'd just begun to enjoy when he asked his Twitter followers, "If you could give to any charity, what would it be?"
Growing up, Justin said, "I didn't have a lot of money -- and for me, it's about helping people out who haven't had opportunity." Charities that involve children are particularly close to his heart because he's both inspired by children and is just at the tail end of his own childhood.
"I just love kids ... In Romania, there are a lot of orphans. There are lots of babies. They're never touched," Justin said, referring to thousands of children in that eastern European nation who spend their childhood institutionalized in crowded orphanages. "They're never, you know, loved and they're never really held, and that's really sad to me. And, for me, I want to go over there and just hold them."
A portion of the proceeds from his album My Worlds Acoustic went to the Children's Miracle Network, which raises funds for children's hospitals. "I am in the position to give back thanks to my fans and God," he said at the time of the album's release. "I wrote 'Pray' thinking I wanted to help others and I feel like I have a responsibility to do so. What is the point of doing all this if you can't make a difference in others' lives? This album is a gift to my fans and the money raised from it allows us all to help out."
Justin makes a point of trying to visit patients in children's hospitals wherever he travels on tour, and regularly meets personally with a child from the Make-A-Wish foundation at his concerts. An encounter with one young girl from Make-A-Wish in particular moved him deeply.
"They flew from Australia to come over here," he recalled. "She came and she was so excited and all she wanted was a kiss. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. It makes you realize how much you have when you see people like that." What does he get out of those encounters? "For me, I just like making people smile."
Well, mission accomplished! Justin certainly makes millions of fans around the world smile, but he does more than that. Still in his teens and just a couple of years into his public career, Justin is fast becoming a standard-bearer for how celebrities can use their influence wisely. The list of charitable organizations and projects that Justin has been involved with since 2009 is vast. His efforts range from the large-scale -- such as his work with Pencils of Promise and the Children's Miracle Network -- to one-time events and simple, individual acts of kindness.
For example, in spring 2010, Scooter helped Justin launch a contest for schools to support the Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. The school that collected the most pennies would win a free concert by Justin himself. The contest ended up raising $152,000 -- 15.2 million pennies weighing more than 40 tons!
In February 2011, he had his famous "swoosh" cut into a shorter, spiky do -- much to the dismay of millions of Beliebers who expressed their outrage on Twitter for weeks. Afterward -- at the request of talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, with whom he's been friendly for several years -- Justin agreed to donate the hair clippings to charity. The remnants of his former "swoosh" eventually netted more than $40,000 at an auction, which he then donated to The Gentle Barn, a rescue facility for severely abused animals that is a favorite of DeGeneres.
When Justin turned 17 a few weeks later, he asked his fans to donate to the organization charity: water in lieu of sending him gifts. Through donations made to charity: water's website on Justin's behalf, Beliebers raised $45,000 for the organization that works to make clean, safe drinking water available to the estimated 1.8 billion people worldwide who currently lack access to it. The funds raised for Justin's birthday were enough to provide more than 2,300 people with a permanent source of clean drinking water.
In the fall of 2009, six weeks before his first album dropped, Justin took time out from preparing for his world debut to record a public service announcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urging people to adopt pets from shelters rather than buy them at pet shops. "My dad and I used to go and hang out ... just go and visit the different animals and stuff. It's really important that people adopt," he said. "I really encourage going out to an animal shelter or a place where you can get a dog that has been abandoned or doesn't have a home."
Justin also contributed his own "It Gets Better" video to the anti-bullying campaign founded in the wake of a spate of suicides by teenagers who had been harassed and bullied because they were gay or thought to be gay. Bullying is something Justin has experienced personally, and he's ever quick to speak out against it. In fact, while on tour in Australia in the spring of 2011, he brought Casey "The Bully Punisher" Heynes out on stage in Melbourne to thank him for standing up for himself. In March 2011, a cell phone video of Heynes body slamming a schoolyard bully who had tormented him for years went viral on YouTube, quickly becoming one of the most-watched videos of all time on the site.
Justin has lent his voice to various musical fundraising campaigns, including singing the opening line of the 25th anniversary remake of the famed "We Are the World" benefit single in 2010. Originally recorded in 1985 by stars including Justin's musical idol, Michael Jackson (who died not long before the anniversary recording was made), to benefit famine relief in Ethiopia, proceeds from the "We Are the World 25" single went toward earthquake relief in Haiti. A year later, when massive earthquakes devastated Japan, Justin donated the acoustic version of his song "Pray" to the Songs for Japan benefit album (alongside artists that included U2, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen). The album raised more than $5 million for Japanese disaster relief. And when Justin performed in Japan in April 2011, he donated the proceeds from his concert in Tokyo to the relief effort.
Scooter has famously said that every business arrangement Justin is involved with must have a charitable component built in "or else we don't do the deal." So all of those Justin Bieber singing dolls, scented dog tags, musical toothbrushes, purple headphones and OPI nail varnishes benefit charitable causes. When Justin launched his Someday fragrance for women in June 2011, he also announced that every penny of the net proceeds would be given away to Pencils of Promise and the Make-A- Wish Foundation. Justin's fragrance, Someday, generated more than $3 million at Macy's within the first three weeks of its release and was poised to be the bestselling perfume of the year (and the most successful celebrity fragrance launch in history).
"This isn't just for me," Justin said. "I want to be, you know, a role model, as well as someone that can make a difference."
Brad Haugen, the marketing director for Pencils of Promise, which "wants to be this coming generation's nonprofit," said that's exactly what Justin is doing.
"My feeling is that kids are looking for something to believe in," Haugen said. "We're trying to give that to them, and Justin is a way to open the door."
Cathleen Falsani is Web editor and director of new media for Sojourners. She is author of the new book BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber.