In my last post, I wrote about Bryan Stevenson and the incredible work of the Equal Justice Initiative. Six weeks later, on May 20, Grace & Race, the Center for Faith & Work, and Hope for New York – all of which are connected to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City – collaborated to host Bryan Stevenson who appeared on stage along with our Senior Pastor, Tim Keller for the very first time. Prior to meeting backstage before the event, these two heavy hitters had never met. In the first half of the evening, each of these powerful speakers gave a rousing talk, available below in the first video. Following that, I moderated a question and answer time, including questions texted in by the audience, available on the second video.

Both are New York Times best selling authors and are now nationally and internationally known for the work they do. In the case of Stevenson, his life’s work has been dedicated to providing legal representation for those on death row, successfully advocating for relief for children tried and convicted as adults, and more recently, leading the charge to mark the sites of every location where a person was lynched in this country. Known for his gifted preaching, Keller, is also the founding president of City to City which has started 300 churches flung across six continents.

Interestingly, both men began their respective organizations 27 years ago with humble beginnings: Keller moved to New York City, which had more crime and far less wealth than it currently does, from the suburbs of Philadelphia to start a church with the least churched demographic: young urban professionals. Stevenson started his organization in Alabama, thinking he would be there for a few years and then relocate to Atlanta but has ended up making Montgomery his home, despite the sacrifices that decision has entailed. This common thread of being committed to the same vision for 25 plus years, signifying a long obedience in the same direction, is how I opened my conversation with both of them: what has sustained their hope over these long years? Stevenson has seen tangible successes in his work and when that fails him, he remembers those whose shoulders he stands on and that keeps him going. For Keller, he’s expected God to bring change through his life’s work because of his belief in the power of the gospel and even when he has doubts, he’s confident that justice will win in the end.

We covered a wide range of topics that evening. Among them: the role of the church when it comes to issues of justice specifically as they relate to mass incarceration and race, the importance of truth and reconciliation in creating a new narrative about the treatment of people of color in this country, and why we need to have a sense of urgency around these issues. For coverage of the whole evening, take a look at these videos, and be prepared, at moments, to be moved, outraged, challenged, and convicted.

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genocide memorial sign

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The first week of April…

  • On this day (4/4) in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, shot on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
  • (On this day in 1959, my parents, Gally Brown-Peterside & Elizabeth James were married in a registry office in South London.)
  • On April 7, 3 days from now, the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. It was the Thursday after Easter that year.

Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Rwanda. I was flying from Lagos to Entebbe and since we had to make a stopover in Kigali, I decided to pay a little extra to spend 48 hours there. My main purpose for this was to visit the National Genocide Memorial. I was intrigued by the effort of this nation to remember the terrible events over those 100 days in 1994 when up to a million Rwandans killed each other, many with ordinary garden machetes and clubs. Never before in the history of the world had so many people been murdered in such a short space of time by people who were essentially their neighbors. I wasn’t prepared to see the rows and rows of skulls and bones. I wasn’t prepared to see the walls of remembrance still incomplete and being added to as more names of the deceased become known. I wasn’t prepared for the final exhibit: huge color photos of vibrant, smiling children senselessly murdered, listing their names, ages, exactly how they died, and what they had wanted to become when they “grew up” – the horror, the wasted potential was unimaginable.

However, I think what struck me most were the mass graves, the entombed coffins, and the notations from family members who survived about the significance of having a place to come and grieve and remember. It had never occurred to me that given the brutal way in which loved ones were murdered and the context of genocide, there were often no bodies found, few if any proper burials, and a dearth of resting places to visit on anniversaries. Hardly any sacred physical places to pause, be still in, and remember.

So today, I pause to remember: Dr King’s incredible life and passing and that of the slain Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda. May their legacies live on. May we never forget.

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familiar feb2016It may be the first time that 10 black female actors are appearing on Broadway (Eclipsed @ the Golden Theatre on 45th) or off Broadway (Familiar @ Playwrights Horizons on 42nd) at the same time in the space of 3 blocks. We have the award-winning Zimbabwean American actor (The Walking Dead) and playwright Danai Gurira to thank for that. I had the privilege of seeing Familiar last weekend and then hearing Ms. Gurira talk about the play after the show. In broad strokes, the play is a window into the tensions that are exposed in a Zimbabwean American family living in wintery Minnesota on the eve of the older daughter Tendi’s wedding to a “white boy” who works in international development. Like any wedding – not to talk of an interracial/intercultural one – family stresses that have remained contained bubble up to the surface when the joining of two people/two families is at stake.

The first act had me and my (Nigerian) friend Ruth howling through much of it and I’m talking belly aching laughter. Picture an African version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and then add the complexities of trying to please Aunt Annie from Zim who’s flown in and insists that Tendi’s fiance pay a bride price, involving cows. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, a fiercely proud MIT-educated college professor and Annie’s younger sister, is vehemently opposed to anything Zimbabwean having raised her two daughters to be as American as McDonalds. Throw in the daughters’ father, a successful lawyer, pining for home and his younger artsy daughter, Nyasha, who’s just returned from Zim, jazzed about having had a chance to be exposed to the Shona language and who’s brought back a stunning mbira (thumb piano). If that weren’t enough, the couple getting married are both Christians and virgins – facts that become relevant to the plot as well.

The themes are not just familiar, but it’s a hugely ambitious play. The second act turns far more serious than the first when tensions reach a breaking point and we come to learn the hidden reason for so much (though not all) of the tension in this family… And then we discover that the character that has been largely overshadowed in the run up to the wedding, Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha – who’s name aptly means grace – is the one through whom redemption comes. The final scene with the daughters’ parents tentatively dancing to the sound to Nyasha playing Shona music on the mbira almost made me cry.

A review I heard on wnyc this morning criticized the play for having too many extraneous, undeveloped characters which meant Gurira “missed an opportunity to connect audiences with their point of view.” I disagree. At the speakout after the show, Gurira – before this particular review was aired – spoke about her intentionality in creating meaty, substantial parts for each character. A playwright who feels called to tell the stories of women of African descent, she’s committed to developing roles that an actor can really “sink their teeth into.” Bravo Gurira! It showed. The acting was first rate and the Zim accents and intermitent use of Shona was convincing. Familiar is not just funny but fantastic!

(Photo credit: www.playwrightshorizons.org)

I love most sports. And I love sports movies though I don’t find myself going to movies much anymore. However, 10 days ago, when I heard that ‘Concussion’ was about a Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, (played by Will Smith – who never did sound anything like a Nigerian/couldn’t Hollywood have cast an actor with Nigerian roots in this role??) who identifies a degenerative brain disease, now known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is linked to the death of a growing number of football players, I decided this was one movie I should make the effort to see.

I’m so glad I did, though on this Superbowl Sunday, I feel even more conflicted than ever about this national sport. It’s similar to the way I felt after watching ‘Supersize Me’: I can never walk past a McDonalds again without thinking long and hard about how awful that food (eaten in great excess) can be for us…

It turns out I no longer have a working TV and have not been invited to any Superbowl parties, so my coverage of the big game will be limited to the NYTimes and my local radio station, WNYC (tomorrow morning to hear the results). If I was a real die-hard, I suppose I could follow the game on line somewhere play- by-play. Still, I realize I’m actually glad that I’m free from watching the many collisions that will no doubt accompany tonight’s game.

Yes, there is beauty and grace in this sport too, and the thrill of competition, and the challenge of strategy in advancing the ball down the field through passing & dodging & tackling & catching. But it would be hard to enjoy all this without also thinking about the billion dollar entity that football has become. The 30 second ads alone cost a staggering $5 million, that’s $166,666 per second (source: NYTimes, Sports section 2/7/16, p1). Yikes! It would also be difficult to set aside the reaction of the NFL organization to Dr. Omalu’s discovery and how as an organization, they sought to undermine his findings and set up a questionable Commission to cover up what they had long known. There is a staggering amount of money tied to power in this business: According to Forbes, as reported in Sept 2015, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, up 38% from the previous year.

So tonight as the nation gathers around TV screens to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl, let’s not forget that as the hits pile up and concussions ensue, we may also be witnessing the acceleration of one or more of those athletes’ brains degenerating. CTE can only be confirmed posthumously but let’s not be naive about the fact that it has its antecedents in events such as these which we so readily glorify.

 

 

Today, on account of the blizzard pummeling the east coast of the US, the city which never sleeps has ground to a standstill — and that includes Broadway. Yes, all matinees and evening performances were cancelled earlier today. The hope is that by tomorrow afternoon, the storm will have blown away, and the city will re-awaken, the subways and buses will begin to move again, in time for Sunday’s matinees.

But in the meantime, here’s a touching Broadway story…

Last Weds night, a group of us from our midtown office decided to walk over to the Richard Rogers Theater to try our luck in the popular lottery for a front row seat to the performance of Hamilton that night. (We were hopeful. After all, a work friend had won front row tickets to the show the previous evening (!), and several others from the office had been lottery winners too. Apparently, their success is not unconnected to how one folds their ticket, it seems, but that’s a story for a different blog post.) As I put on my coat, a friend and colleague, Jess, was heading out, and she, being a lover of all things Hamilton – she’s memorized all the words to the soundtrack – decided to stop by with us on her way home. We joined 300+ other hopefuls, wrote our names on a piece of paper, tried to fold them in that special way, flung them into the basket, and waited on a crowded sidewalk in the winter cold.

The first name was called and cheers went up as that person dashed through the crowd and up to the front to present their ID, hand over their cash ($10/tkt, 2 max), and pick up their tickets. The second name was called and there was more yelling – and this time some groans too. Then the third name was called – and as God would have it – it was our friend, Jess! She blushed with disbelief, her eyes got tearful and then she scurried off to claim her tickets.

The show was in two hours and with three young kids at home, she had some juggling to do: she texted her babysitter and asked her to stay later that evening and then rushed home. Together they got the two youngest kids (4 1/2 & 2) into their pajamas and ready for bed after dinner. With C, her oldest @ 7, since she was having a special night out with Mom, she got to put on a pretty dress.

When the others were settled and in bed, Mom took C into the hallway and told her they were going to Hamilton. At first C couldn’t believe it. When she realized that it was really true, she started dancing and jumping up and down saying, “Nobody loves Hamilton more than I do!”

The show did not disappoint. They were in the front center – and C was given a booster seat so she could have a perfect view of the stage. She sat up, alert and awake, through every scene and rap.

By the end of the evening, both C and Jess were overwhelmed with tears. During the closing ovation, Lin-Manuel Miranda looked right at them, winked, and patted his heart. They were beyond ecstatic.

The next day, Jess couldn’t stop talking about their spectacular evening. I was both thrilled and envious. When she’d dropped C off at school, after letting her sleep in, C’s teachers told her how jealous they were too. Still on a high, Jess decided to tweet Miranda to thank him for such a special treat. And this was his response:

lin manuel tweet jan2016 cropped #2

How’s that for a sweet down-to-earth Broadway response: a 7 year old winking back at a star!

ocean grove jan2013 #3January 6th, is called the Day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is marked by the visit of the magi in search of the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that magi came from the east to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews. They had seen his star and had come to worship him. The star was a sign which led them first to Herod and subsequently to Jesus himself. They saw something unusual and different and it provoked them to take action, to go on a lengthy journey, not knowing where it would lead them or what it would mean for them. But nonetheless, upon recognizing the sign, they took off.

The Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus on a dark night that probably seemed no different than any other. When angels lit up the sky and shared news of the birth of the Savior of the world, they too were given a sign: They would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Despite being terrified, they went to see if what the angels had told them was in deed true.

God frequently gives us signs which prompt and nudge us out of our current situations and into experiences and deeper understandings of who he is and what he’s calling us to do. If you are anything like me, you are usually too distracted to notice the signs, to recognize them as such, to pay attention to what they might signify, or to act on them. It’s like when I get the flu: my throat begins to tickle, my nose runs more than usual, fatigue begins to creep in – all indications that my body’s immune system is becoming compromised – but usually, I don’t pay too much attention or make any significant changes to the rhythm of my days, until my throat is raging, my sinuses rebel in earnest and my body weakens further, demanding rest (and perhaps flu medicine). The signs were there all along but I ignored them until I couldn’t do so any more. And then I was knocked flat on my back.

As the start of this new year, I wonder what sign(s) God might be inviting you to see in your life right now. Are you strung out and weary from a holiday season that was too full of busy-ness with little time to slow down and reflect on it’s true meaning and implications? Do you need to make a significant change –let go of an unhealthy relationship, release a deeply buried grudge or hurt, transition out of a job that is violating your soul, build margins into your schedule that allow you to have moments of quiet and rest, take up something new that breathes life into you and stirs your passions? Or perhaps you’re already aware of the sign(s) but what to do about the fears and paralysis that interfere with you taking action?

Let the life-changing journey of the Magi encourage you. They didn’t travel alone. They weren’t in a hurry. They asked for help along the way. They kept following the star. And when they found the baby, they were overjoyed.  Open your eyes, look for the sign(s), start moving, take others with you, be willing to go slowly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and wait for the joy!

 

 

nneka okafor kibeho dec2014

Last Friday evening, almost on a whim, I went with a friend to see a play that was entering its final weekend. I was intrigued when I heard ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ was written by Katori Hall, a young playwright whose ‘The Mountaintop’ several years earlier on Broadway had garnered awards and lots of attention. That play featured Samuel L Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr and Angela Bassett as a maid whom Dr. King had an extended conversation with on what turned out to be his final night alive. While the performances were strong, the show included some supernatural elements at its conclusion which I found ruined what had come before. Still, I was curious about ‘Our Lady’ which was highly recommended by arts reviewers on my local radio station and which, I thought, might lend itself more readily to the supernatural. I was not disappointed.

Set in Rwanda, ‘Our Lady’ is based on a true story of 3 girls at a Catholic high school in the 1980s who claim visitations by the Virgin Mary. These sightings occur repeatedly over a period of  years and among the things she tells and shows them is a warning of the violence that is to befall this nation 10 years later. I was unfamiliar with this story which took place in the village of Kibeho (“chi be ho”), despite my keen interest in Rwanda and the subsequent ways forgiveness and reconciliation have been woven into the fabric of that nation following the tragic genocide of almost 1 million people over just 3 months in April of 1994.  Reports of visitations from Mary had occurred in several places in Europe but it was the first time this occurred in Africa which contributed to both local and international skepticism as to whether it was really true. In fact in the play, an envoy from the Vatican is sent to verify whether the girls’ accounts of seeing and hearing from Mary are credible. We as the audience observe some of girls’ experiences and are invited to decide this for ourselves. Is Mary really communicating with and through them or are the girls making the whole thing up to garner attention?

From the minute I walked into the 300 person space, one of three that is part of the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street, I felt as I was back in East Africa again. The set resembled many secondary schools I’ve seen in Uganda, banana trees framed the stage, and the horizon offered a view of lush rolling hills. Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills”. Recall that the hotel featured in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was called Mille Collines – 1,000 hills. Turns out Rwanda is so spectacularly beautiful that Rwandans like to joke that its where God goes on vacation. The priest sent by the Vatican at one point in the play counters that, God may vacation in Rwanda, but he lives in Rome.

The two main characters were Africans and as a result, they were extremely convincing (which doesn’t often happen when African-American actors try to play Africans. They often struggle with the accent which is an immediate give-away.) A Kenyan actor, Owiso Odera, played a Rwandan priest, the head of the school, who struggles to come to terms with whether to believe these events. The main actress, Nneka Okafor, who played the first schoolgirl to experience the visitations, was Nigerian-American. She was outstanding. Her powerful performance conveyed an unusual combination of innocence, humility and courage. It was out her mouth that the words “truth is not afraid of the machete” were spoken.

Sadly the play’s two month run ended on Sunday. This was the play’s debut but it’s sure to appear somewhere else in the next year or two – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a film one day. Hall, the playwright, disclosed in an interview that she was looking for a fresh way to write about the genocide, to better understand for herself what led to those terrible events. She learned about the visitations during a trip to Rwanda in 2009 when she visited the shrine now built to Our Lady in Kibeho. Focusing on three poor, Rwandan girls in a small village in the most Christian of African countries, Hall has succeeded in giving us new ways to understand the complex intertwining of ethnic tensions, Catholicism, political power, and colonialism  – Rwanda was under Belgian rule – on the psyche of a nation.

Photo: Nneka Okafor by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Signature Theatre.