Stories

'Girl Rising:' Changing the World, One Story at a Time

Photo courtesy the filmmakers
10×10 behind the scenes. World Vision Drop-in center, India. Photo courtesy the filmmakers

In her 1968 poem, “The Speed of Darkness,” the late American poet Muriel Rukeyser penned the line, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

While the medium is different, a new feature-length documentary, Girl Rising, also bares witness to the same truth in poetic images and stories of girls from around the world.

Through the vivid accounts of nine girls from the developing world — Cambodia, Nepal, Peru, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Haiti, and India — and their valiant struggles for the right to be educated, Girl Rising articulates a universal truth: Educating girls ensures a safer, healthier and more prosperous world for all of us.

The film, a project of the 10×10 Campaign to educate and empower girls, paired a girl in each locale with an accomplished writer — novelists, journalists, and screenwriters — from their own developing country to help craft and tell the stories in the girls’ own words.

Top 10 of 2012

THE BEST experiences I had at the cinema last year were nostalgic—re-releases of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lawrence of Arabia were uncanny reflections on the cost of war to soldiers and some roots of contemporary Middle East strife. Here's my list of the best films released in 2012:

10. A tie:The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a gloriously rich, smart comedy for all ages, full of life and self-deprecating humor, and Life of Pi, which envelopes its audience with visual wonders and spiritual questions.

9. Wes Anderson's delightful treatment of childhood first love amid dysfunctional adults, and a film not afraid of the shadow side of growing up, Moonrise Kingdom.

8. The Cabin in the Woods, a gruesome horror comedy that not only enacts and portrays, but understands the lie of redemptive violence.

7. The sprawling, operatic imagining of love-transcending-all that is Cloud Atlas, which made me feel the way Star Wars might—if it were written for adults.

6. The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to a truly epic film series that imagined heroism as self-giving rather than merely slaughtering every bad guy in sight.

5. A disturbing, unpleasant, and utterly compelling vision of religious searching and abuse, relational longing and exploitation, holistic change and psychic torture, The Master.

4. Looper, the most fully realized and coherent future sci-fi world since Blade Runner, and over-the-top entertainment invoking both The Wizard of Oz and just war theory.

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Storytelling and Social Change

PERHAPS NO FRAMEWORK has impacted my organization, Interfaith Youth Core, more than Marshall Ganz’s approach to public narrative (“leadership storytelling”), best articulated in his March 2009 Sojourners article “Why Stories Matter.” We use it in our trainings with college student interfaith leaders and recommend it in the workshops we do with university faculty. Most famously, it was employed by the 2008 Obama campaign.

Like all effective frameworks, there is both a visceral and a heady quality to what Ganz teaches. Stories are the way human beings understand and communicate our deepest values, Ganz says, and there are three major stories that leaders must tell. The first is the story of self. This is not a selfish activity, or even one just about self-understanding (although that is certainly a piece of it). It’s about interpreting to others your reasons for being engaged in a struggle. This helps them understand your involvement and, more important, gives them inspiration and language to get active themselves.

The second type of story is the story of us. Religions, races, ethnicities, and nations tell such stories brilliantly but often do it in a way that excludes—and makes enemies of—those outside the magic circle. The challenge for the 21st century leader is to tell a story of us that includes people of all backgrounds who are fighting for the same cause. Stories of us build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.

The third type of story is the story of now—the reason for action, sacrifice, movement, and urgency at this moment above all others.

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Assassins and Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths

THREE OF THE best films of the year arrived in early fall and will hopefully still be around to experience by the time you read this. Each deserves to be seen on a big screen—I've long believed that the experience of watching films in a cinema compares with home viewing the same way that visiting the pyramids compares with seeing a mummy in a museum. But whether or not you see these in a cinema, please do see them.

Samsara, Looper, and Seven Psychopaths open up worlds of possibility where the varieties of human experience are respected, the myth of the cool assassin is revised, and the morality of violent fiction is stared in the face, interrogated, and not let go without an attempt at a convincing answer.

Samsara, the sequel to 1992's Baraka, travels the world seeking examples of our diversity and unity: dancers and warriors and builders and menders, broken things and healed things, innocent and wounded. It contains some of the most extraordinary imagery you've ever seen, in tune with vast musical cultures, reimagining our view of what we, a little lower than the angels, are and can be, and, when we're not conscious of our power, the damage we can do.

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VIDEOS: Caroline Herring

Our CultureWatch lead story for the December 2012 issue of Sojourners, “Singing the Stories Untold,” by Silas House, provides an in-depth look at the brutally honest musical stylings of Caroline Herring. With simplicity and grace, Caroline sings about the stories of the South and the rich and complex journeys of its people. Her modern, yet folksy sound and lyrical storytelling arguably make her “the social justice singer-songwriter of her generation,” according to House.

Learn more about Caroline Herring and her music here. Check out the videos below featuring some of the songs profiled in House’s article.

“Paper Gown” A song about Susan Smith, the young mother who drowned her two children in 1994 and blamed it on a fictitious African-American man.

“Camilla” A song about Marion King, an African-American woman who was beaten unconscious by police officers in Camilla, Ga., in 1962 and subsequently suffered a miscarriage.

“Black Mountain Lullaby” A song about 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson, a boy who was crushed to death by a massive boulder that dislodged from a mountaintop removal site.

“Maiden Voyage” A song that recounts Caroline’s experience of traveling with her daughter to Washington, D.C., for President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

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Singing the Stories Untold

SINGER-SONGWRITER Caroline Herring was completely naked when she truly found God.

Straight out of college, she spent three months as a missionary in China. “I was so ill-equipped,” she says now, over tea just before a show in Knoxville, Tenn. “The program was respectable—we weren’t Bible smugglers, but obviously we had an agenda.”

One of her students—a woman who had journeyed seven hours to attend English classes Herring was teaching with her fellow missionaries—took a liking to her and asked if she would leave the comfort of her air-conditioned room (with a private toilet) to join her students at the dirty, crowded bath-house, outfitted with several spigots in the ceiling. Herring believes it was a way to welcome her into their fold.

“And I felt like I was a part of humanity for the first time in my life,” Herring says, her face suddenly luminous. “My preconceived notions about the Trinity just slipped away. It was too much to comprehend, but I knew that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us because we were people together, being kind to one another.”

Herring, now 42, says the experience changed her life. She left China a different, humbled person, with whole new ideas about what God, religion, and service were.

“I knew for sure that I had a lot more to figure out about my own place in the world before I had the audacity to spread the word of Christ across the globe,” she says.

Several years later she wrote a haunting song called “China” that recounts the experience. “The father and the son left but the holy dove stayed / maybe clouds parted and the curtain was torn / but I was naked as the day / the day I was born,” the song goes. It appears on her 2010 EP, Silver Apples of the Moon.

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Homeless, Not Helpless

THE RED, RUN-DOWN, two-story frame house on Morris Avenue in the West Bronx that houses the Picture the Homeless offices looks much like those around it, except for the organization’s blue banner that hangs from the porch. The youths (there are older members too) who log in to their homeless blogs and look for jobs on the computers upstairs, surrounded by images of Zapata and the Selma freedom marchers, are mainly black and Latino, and they could be almost any of the young people you see on the street. Picture the Homeless is seamlessly embedded in this New York City neighborhood, where the new poor from Africa and South Asia join the long-established poor from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Picture the Homeless (PTH) combines social action, advocacy, outreach, and community and is run almost exclusively by homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers. The organization’s name references the importance of challenging widespread stereotypes about people who are homeless. “Don’t talk about us; talk with us” is a PTH slogan, and it claims as a founding principle that “in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective voice for systemic change.”

Kendall Jackman, in her 50s, one of PTH’s housing organizers, lives in a women’s shelter not far from Morris Avenue. The former postal worker from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood—“No matter where I live, I will always be a Bed-Stuy girl,” she said—lost her housing two years ago when the building she was living in was foreclosed on.

“Of the 72 women in my shelter, 69 of us either work or go to school,” Jackman said. “With no low-income housing available, shelters are now the homes of the working poor.”

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Jens Lekman: Why You Should Check out Swedish Indie Pop

Alberto Garcia, Flickr http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Jens Lekman came to the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. last Friday. Alberto Garcia, Flickr http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by

Jens Lekman is a storyteller.

Wait, Jens who? How do you pronounce that?

Jens (pronounced “Yens”) Lekman is a witty, hopelessly romantic Swedish musician from a suburb of Gothenburg.

Lekman was at the 9:30 club in D.C. last Friday — armed with a small acoustic guitar that fuels his unique indie pop style. Occasionally he reached over and pressed the pads of his sampler, cuing thumping bass accompaniment and flurries of strings to compliment his smooth voice, violinist, bassist, drummer, and pianist.

While he may not be on top of the iTunes album charts, Jens (I feel like we’re on a first name basis simply because he was so relaxed and open at the show) is definitely worth a listen, whether it’s at home, in the car, on the go, or — especially — in concert.

Gardeners of Youth

We who nurture the life of children could be compared to gardeners, conscientiously serving the God-given stages of the growing plant. We seek to support its development as a seedling, a young plant, and a fruit-bearing or mature plant.

However, Christian educators of young children often begin to water, weed, and prune without first observing children to grasp the stages of their relationship with God. God has planned human and spiritual growth just as well as God has prepared plant growth.

Catholic scholar Sofia Cavalletti and her collaborators Gianna Gobbi and others around the world and in many denominations have carefully observed the stages of newborn to 12 year-old children’s relationship with God, and they have developed an approach to religious formation, called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, that serves those stages well. The encounter with God over the years includes coming to know God who is love, God who is personal, and God who is just and merciful, as these and other aspects of God match the developmental strengths of the growing child.

Here is that development and its implications in very broad strokes:

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