ON ELECTION DAY, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan suggested that we may need “a Reconciliation Commission, starting as soon as the results come in—no matter who wins.” In this troubling national moment, stories gleaned from historic truth and reconciliation processes can offer glimpses of hope and guide us forward.
A boy named Free Spirit was only 4 years old when he was wrenched away from his family and forced into a Canadian residential school. A nun gave him a new pair of shoes, which he plunged into a sink filled with water. He was shocked by the beating he received. His Algonquin people always soaked their new moccasins and chewed on them to soften the leather.
Decades later, during Canada’s 2011 Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Free Spirit joined scores of witnesses who shared their stories of suffering in schools whose purpose was to annihilate their culture. Each evening, all the tissues used to capture the day’s tears were gathered and released into the Sacred Fire that burned outside. There they mingled with ashes that had been carried from previous hearings in other cities.
In the United States, the first large-scale truth and reconciliation process was launched in Greensboro, N.C., in 2005. Its focus was the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party opened fire on marchers demanding economic and racial justice, killing five and wounding 10.
As the hearings opened, Gorrell Pierce, who was the Grand Dragon of the Federated Knights of the KKK in 1979, strode in with a cadre of young white men. African-American community activist and pastor Nelson Johnson, who was wounded in the attack and lost five of his closest friends that day, immediately stood. He walked across the auditorium and made his way down that row of men, shaking every hand and thanking them for coming. Nelson admitted later that it wasn’t his first impulse, but that as a Christian he knew he needed to bring his best self to that encounter and try to reach out to the best self within Pierce.
THE FIRST TIME I saw John Rush was during a 2015 political forum at a local high school in Columbus, Ohio. Rush was running for city council, and though all the candidates had been invited, many didn’t bother to show up. As Rush began his presentation, he brought empty chairs up on the stage and made some quip about how the chairs were waiting for the absent candidates. The joke was not cryptic or unkind; it drew gentle laughter and applause from the audience. I didn’t know what party Rush belonged to, but I was captivated.
As a longtime pastor in Columbus, I’d seen a lot of candidates for city council. All of them had the usual rash of promises: They would create jobs; they cared about “the least of these”; they listened to the hearts of the people. Voting for them would help change the world.
But Rush seemed different. Though he was a white man with a military-style buzzcut speaking to a room full of African Americans, he didn’t seem shy or uncomfortable. He didn’t make a lot of promises. He just talked about how he knew what people were going through, and his knowledge seemed genuine, like he had “been there.” He mentioned growing up really poor, in Appalachia, and how that felt. He joked about being an evangelical who cared about more than the wedge issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. He talked about knowing how to listen to and appreciate all kinds of people. Nobody, it seemed, was an outsider to him.
Rush eventually lost his bid for election, but the more I learned about him, the more fascinated I became. He spent his early years in a trailer park surrounded by racism, joined the Marines, and later returned to the Midwest to help found a nondenominational church in Chicago. He now runs a business that helps people who were incarcerated or caught in human trafficking reintegrate into society. He was an ordinary person, leading an extraordinary life.
As part of his “Islam in Film” class at the University of Nebraska, religious studies professor Kristian Petersen screens movies such as The Hurt Locker (2008), Argo (2012), and American Sniper (2014) to make the point that depictions of Muslims on the big screen often involve a conflict narrative.
The diagnoses are grim. Fervent supporters and ardent critics of religion both point to your decline. An urgency, if not an all-out alarm, fills the air. There are those who hope beyond hope for your renewal and transformation. Others stand steadfastly by your side as they "wait and see." Still others wipe their hands of the whole ugly mess and leave you to your ever-more-inevitable demise.
I'm not sure what to do. But I know I love you.
I know that you have grown weary in a bewildering, fast-paced world less inclined to pause and listen in. I know you have clung to models of leadership, governance, and programming through which you reached prominence, but now seem sluggish in the world today. I know you have tried new methods and "relevant" techniques for attracting new life, but they did not pan out like you dreamed. I know you have been let down by ministerial leadership, and not just in the pulpit: in the boardroom, in the choir lofts, in the denominational office. In this time of shrinking attendance, recycled ideas, and diminishing resolve, I'm not sure what the magic cure is. Or if there ever was one. But I know I love you.
You left groceries on my family's doorstep when my parents could not make ends meet. You carried the weight of my family's grief when my sister drowned. You encouraged me when I felt so alone and afraid. You challenged me to live beyond myself and for those who are so often ignored. You surrounded me with gentleness and love on my wedding day. You gave me time-worn words and melodies to express the joy and lament of my spirit. You pointed to a holy feast big enough to include all of humanity, and you set a place at that table for me.
You introduced me to God.
Conversations in the car are intense. Colonization, spirituality, politics and utter brutality, violence and betrayal — all incomprehensible factors that led up to genocide. Our conversations are set to the backdrop of thousands of lush hills and thousands of massive graves concealing bones — bones of innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was being born Tutsi. The coexistence of Rwanda’s brutal history and scenic beauty is surreal.
No matter how many questions I ask, how many stories I listen to, how many fragments of bones I see, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand how in just one hundred days, close to one million people were slaughtered as if they had no worth. Identifying with these stories of gross atrocity seems impossible.
“I don’t really call myself a survivor because when the one hundred days of genocide began, I was in Uganda. Even though I came back to Rwanda in the middle of the killings, I was never in an area controlled by the militia. Yes, it was risky to return to Rwanda at that time and I remember two occasions where I got very close to being killed—but my story isn’t as significant as others we will be seeing. For example, my wife’s—she survived, but barely. She doesn’t talk about it.”
I was a reluctant artist, self-doubting leader and a broken soul.
I was in search of healing.
After a series of traumatic experiences that culminated with my hospitalization in Zambia, I went on a sabbatical in search of courage, tenacity, and renewal to continue in my vocation. It was early 2014, and we were entering into the year commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. During this time, my mentors were leading a pilgrimage to Uganda and Rwanda to journey through places of immense pain and tremendous hope as a means to engage in the pain and hope in one’s active life. Because of my closely related work in Africa, I didn’t want to go — I knew I would have to intentionally delve into the hellish reality of a violent massacre I knew very little of. Simultaneously, I knew that by stepping into the pain, I would find the hope I was so desperately searching for. And so, together with eight other pilgrims, I went. We journeyed alongside of survivors and perpetrators of genocide as an attempt to identify in the incomprehensible pain that oppresses us all. It was through this experience that healing came in a profound way.
Since the production of The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has lived with the mythic world imagined by artists who view the lives of people of color as footnotes and props. From Gone With The Wind to Django Unchained, the most difficult type of film for Hollywood to get right is the antebellum story of people of color.
Django, for example used the archetypes designed by Hollywood — “Mammy, Coon, Tom, Buck, and Mulatto,” to quote film historian, Donald Bogle — and exploit them in order to create a hyper-exploitation Western fantasy, with slavery as the backdrop. The film is a remix and critique of exploitation clichés, not a historical drama seeking to illuminate our consciousness. Django is a form of visual entertainment where enlightenment might happen through a close reading of the film. All the archetypes remain in place. Nothing is exploded or re-imagined, only remixed to serve the present age.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, sits within and outside the Hollywood fantasy of antebellum life. I say it sits within, because the archetypes forged by the celluloid bigotry of D.W. Griffith are present. But, in the hands of the gifted auteur, Steve McQueen, they are obliterated and re-imagined as complex people caught in a system of evil constructed by the immorality of markets, betrothed to mythical, biological, white supremacy.
Upon my recent return from the Middle East (with The Global Immersion Project), I was struck more than ever before at our Western infatuation around military aggression, violence, and division. Not only are these the primary narratives we are fed through our major media outlets, they are the narratives we subconsciously embrace through the latest bestseller, box office hit, or video game. Violence, death, and division have become normative. We are becoming numb to the very things that we – as ambassadors of hope and reconciliation – are to turn from as Resurrection People. It is as though there is a stranglehold on our on our ability to see and participate in the stories of healing and new life.
As surprising as this may be, embedded in the midst of these conflicts are endless stories of hope that never make the latest headline or sound bite. And in the times I've followed Jesus INTO these places of conflict, I continue to encounter stories of peace and hope that embody the Gospel message, stories by real people, happening right now, in places usually known only for conflict, violence, and death.
During the shoot one of the crew members said to me, “I could never do what you guys are doing — leave the storytelling to someone else.” I get that. I haven’t seen the show yet and, honestly, I’m a bit nervous about it. But, I trust my friend Linda. I trust her honesty, creativity, and passion to show what is real. Just like on my better days, I trust God to work out the story of my life, despite scenes I really wish would be chopped before going to print.
I wonder what you’ll see when you watch the show. I wonder what I’ll see. I wonder how many times I’ll wince and think, “James – seriously?” But, I believe that everything is valuable – the good and bad – in the hands of God. I have faith in The Great Storyteller. I have hope in what God is doing in our real world and in our real lives.
Polley’s theater family has kept a rumor for years that Sarah’s dad may not be her biological father. Nagged by persistent jokes about her striking non-resemblance to the rest of the family, and unable to ask her long-since deceased mother, Polley sets out to put the record, and her family’s memories, straight.
There’s much to love here, and what immediately distinguishes Stories is the openness — both uncomfortable and endearing — with which Polley invites the audience to see the intimate process of art-making.
In short, we see a family — recognizable, ordinary, and still very much in the process of living — grappling with what it means to be suddenly be subjects in an intimate story no longer their own.
Though the church remains stuck in a culture of silence on sexual abuse, advocates are steadily building the platforms for individual voices to change the narrative. The depth of reconciliation that plays out upon these platforms can be profound. Rachel Halder, founder of Our Stories Untold — a blog that hosts stories from survivors of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church — has witnessed such moments happen in real time.
We have come to Kenya to hear our brothers and sisters bear witness to the ways environmental degradation and recent changes in the climate are harming them. Their testimony is disturbing and compelling. We are privileged to hear their stories, and honored by their trust in us as bearers of the message that they and their land, water, and air are suffering. Their words are a painful reminder of the brokenness of our world.
It is the most vulnerable in our world who suffer primarily and predominately from climate and other environment-related problems. While here, we are reminded that it is the poor who are affected first of all, and most of all, by these problems. The loss of one season’s crop can be catastrophic for those who live on the margins. Today, we are looking at massive dislocations in the ecosystems which sustain our world and all the life on it. Of these dislocations, the world’s poorest bear the brunt.
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.
Earlier this month, the public radio show This American Life held a wide-scale live event in New York City. I attended the two-hour event via satellite in Washington, D.C. Like its weekly radio broadcast, the live show included pieces from a variety of storytellers gathered around a common theme — in this case “the invisible made visible.”
The medium of radio doesn’t lend itself to visuals — it is "theater of the mind" after all — but the live-on-stage iteration of This American Life took full advantage of the occasion (and change in medium), including many extra bells and whistles they could never pull off on the airwaves alone.
This week I came across a dynamic outlet for new forms of storytelling. MAKERS is a documentary project where dozens of short reflections and dreams are gathered to promote the ways a diverse collection of women are transforming the planet into a more holistic and habitable place. While most of these stories are non-fictional, rooted in a place that may not extend too far beyond their origins, the opportunity to zoom in on an impassioned way of living, thinking, and acting, is an encouragement for all people to continue acting out the worlds we desire. These many narratives of change and engagement craft a large and resounding story of the power of women.
President Obama helps an eighth-grader shoot a "Marshmallow Air Cannon" at the White House Science Fair. Watch art come to life with a little fire. Banksy art spotted on the streets of New Orleans. Jack White releases first cut from debut solo record. The Moth explores religion in American life. The World's Largest Doge Ball Game. And more!
Broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West just wrapped up their 18-city "Poverty Tour." The aim of their trip, which traversed through Wisconsin, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and the Deep South was to "highlight the plight of the poor people of all races, colors, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible." Although the trip has been met with a fair amount of criticism, the issue of poverty's invisibility in American media and politics is unmistakable. The community organizations working tirelessly to help America's poor deserve a great deal more attention than what is being given.
The main attack against the "Poverty Tour" is Smiley and West's criticism of Obama's weak efforts to tackle poverty. For me though, what I would have liked to see more is the collection of stories and experiences from the people West and Smiley met along their trip. The act of collective storytelling in and of itself can be an act of resistance.