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.

Advertisements

t

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)

arthur ashe wimbeldon1975 tony triolo sports illusArthur Ashe died 23 years ago today at the age of 49. If he were still alive, he’d be 72. The cause of death was pneumonia, an opportunistic infection his immune system developed, ravaged by the HIV virus. He received HIV from a blood transfusion that he was given during heart surgery in the early 1980s. This was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before all donated blood was carefully screened for HIV and well before there were medications that could enable people (at least in those in the West)  to live full lives treating AIDS as a manageable, chronic infection.

Arthur was my first real hero. I learned to play tennis @ the age of 15 in Nigeria when a Nigerian coach approached the PE teacher at our American school offered to teach tennis to anyone who was interested. I was one of three who stepped forward to learn. To this day, and despite a chronically injured body, playing tennis remains one of my great joys and passions. I grew up knowing that Arthur was the first (and so far only) black man to win Wimbledon (1975) beating Jimmy Connors for the first and only time in his career which was a huge upset. He also won the US Open (1968) and the Australian Open (1972). On the court, he was known to have a fiery serve-and-volley game (sadly, all but gone among today’s players).  As the only black player at the time in an all white country club sport and growing up in segregated Richmond, he learned from a young age to conduct himself both on and off the court with the utmost integrity and respect. The likes of Zina Garrison, James Blake, Mal Washington, Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys – and the list goes on – stand on the shoulders of Arthur.

I never had the privilege of seeing Arthur play tennis. He retired over a decade before I came to the US. But on one occasion, I did see Arthur up close. I was at the Wimbledon Women’s final in 1990, sharing a single ticket with a friend. I watched the first set: Zina Garrison lost that one 4-6 to Martina Navratilova, and then I came out of Centre Court to give my ticket to my friend so he could go in to watch the second set. Arthur was milling around outside. Of course I recognized him, looked at him, and he looked at me, but that was it. I didn’t know at the time he was living with HIV and that he had less than three years to live. I wish I’d had the courage to shake his hand and thank him for all that he’d contributed to tennis, but I was too shy (and frankly dumbstruck) to seize the moment. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of anything to say, so I kept moving and that opportunity passed.

Arthur was far more than an outstanding tennis player who made history. He was also a scholar (compiling a 3 volume work on the history of African American athletes called ‘A Hard Road to Glory’); a writer (he was just finishing his memoir ‘Days of Grace’ when he passed away so it was published posthumously; an activist (demonstrated against apartheid and got arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian immigrants); a non-conformist (the first black man to be given a visa to play in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa), a mentor (founded what is now called the National Junior Tennis League to introduce city kids to tennis and the skills to that go along with being a upright citizen of your community); a philanthropist (he started the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to contribute to research that would limit the impact of this disease); and a recruiter (he plucked Yannick Noah from the tennis courts of Cameroon who later became the second black man  – after Arthur –  to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1983). He was also a father (he died when his daughter was 6, sadly, just as his mother had passed away when he was 6), husband (married to the esteemed photographer Jeanne Moutousamy), friend, widely respected colleague, and beloved son of Richmond, VA. Thousands filed past his open casket when he lay in state there for two days before his funeral on Feb 10 and 5,000 were thought to attend the memorial service @ Cathedral St John the Divine on Friday the 13th.

I was one of them. There was a snow storm that day and the city was shrouded in a blanket of thick, wet flakes. I remember being cold inside that Cathedral; large old churches like that are notoriously difficult to heat. But I was warmed by the love and affection countless friends and colleagues had for Arthur and how well, it seemed, he’d lived his all too short life. Billie Jean King had been a commentator with him @ Wimbledon and she wore a purple blazer – one of the Wimbledon colors – in solidarity with him. His best friend and lawyer, Donald Dell, told us how Arthur was as a solid a person away from the publicity as his celebrity status  had led us to believe. I was always impressed that Arthur used his platform to speak (and act) out against injustice and for those less fortunate than he. He remained a man with simple tastes, understated to the end, but his legacy as a Renaissance man lives on and for that I am grateful.

Hallelujah Arthur Ashe, hallelujah! (Courtesy of Andrew Young who married Arthur and Jeanne. This is how he concluded his Eulogy @ Arthur’s funeral)

(Photo credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

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.

Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo chose these 7 words to describe herself when she was being introduced at the NY Public Library on Wednesday night.

Several writer friends on different occasions mentioned Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which prompted me to finally read it. Frankly it was tough going at the beginning. There were so many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But knowing I had a chance to hear Boo talk about writing this book was incentive enough to keep me  at it. And by the end, it was a journey well worth traveled.

She has a brilliant mind. As does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx interviewed Boo. (Random Family about survival in the South Bronx is a subject close to my heart having worked there for 9 years where I frequently encountered mothers and daughters that closely resemble Coco and other young women in LeBlanc’s book. ) The conversation between these two MacArthur “genius” Fellows was both rich and rambling. Though both women had been influenced by the other’s work, they’d never met in person before. So we as the audience got to eavesdrop on two new friends sharing stories and swapping trade secrets.

Several gems Boo gave us that night:

“What I do in the reporting comes out of my weaknesses. For example because I’m shy about talking to public figures, I’d spend my time filling out freedom of information requests. ” (In doing so, her data gathering and crossing checking of  facts and stories became a strength.) “And because I have a terrible visual memory, I used a camera and videos.”

” ‘Their griefs are transient’ which is something Jefferson said about the slaves. People feel this about the poor (as if their losses and pain are somehow different or less traumatic than they are for others who don’t also struggle with the complexties of poverty….)

“[In my work], I hope to leave the community better off.”

Several gems of LeBlanc’s:

“Dead ends have been my best friends.”

“In the future, I’ll always use real names. In my book, it was less of an issue for them than I expected. Some of them got attention in the press and have gone on to do great things.’

If you have any interest in fresh perspectives which seek to understand the lives and challenges of those who survive on the fringes, pick up either of these provocative and sobering books.

 

 

 

This weekend, I had the wonderful pleasure of attending a launch of the latest issue of Black Renaissance Noire (www.nyubrn.org) an artsy literary journal, which the Institute of African-American Affairs @ NYU puts out three times a year. I’d never heard of Black Renaissance Noire, edited by the esteemed writer and poet Quincy Troupe, until my friend Linda was contacted by Quincy who wanted to include an excerpt from her forth-coming book about Toni Cade Bambara.

A Joyous Revolt, the first ever biography of Bambara is coming out later this spring. In 1970, Bambara published The Black Woman, a collection of essays and poetry that she’d edited, “igniting a new political movement within the Black community (p. xvii).” Having begun a new conversation about African-American women’s lives and stories, Bambara went on to publish novels (i.e.The Salt Eaters), short stories (i.e. Gorilla, My Love), and make documentaries (i.e. The Bombing of Osage Avenue). With each genre she tackled,  she pushed the boundaries of identity and dignity a little bit more. For this ground-breaking book on Bambara’s rich and varied life, Linda conducted 50+ interviews with those who knew and worked with her, including writers like Toni Morrison and Jan Carew and filmmaker Louis Messiah.

At NYU on Friday night, one of the others featured in the new spring issue of Black Renaissance Noire was Ghanian-born poet Kwame Dawes, a Jamaican who’s now a Professor @ the University of Nebraska. He told of meeting Bambara at a conference in Toronto when he was a fledgling, no-name writer, toiling away behind a closed door, wondering what he was doing there and whether he would ever really make it. Out of the crowd – Dawes led us to believe there weren’t too many others there that looked like them(!) – she picked him out, without knowing him beforehand, and invited him to spend the day with her. They hung out, talked, and she fed him. She was a well-known and established writer by this point. During the course of their time together, she encouraged him to keep writing, to keep plugging away at his craft. They kept up somewhat by email as she continued to encourage him, but that was it. Today Dawes is the author of 18 collections of poetry, as well as two novels and several anthologies. He’s currently working on a project that looks at the church’s response to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

As I reflected on Dawes’ story about Bambara, I realized that he had similarly encouraged me to write. I didn’t meet him at a conference and we didn’t spend the day together, but probably about 15 years ago, a friend of his and mine took me along to hear him recite poetry. I recall the force of his passion in a poem that was a tribute to Bob Marley, and I was intrigued that he was a Christian poet making art that the mainstream culture was embracing.  Afterwards, we all went out to a Jamaican restaurant (Rice and Peas?) in midtown. Over dinner, I tentatively confided a fledgling interest in writing – I was not even sure then what I thought I might write about – but without knowing much more about me, he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so. “Just write,” he urged several times, and then again when we were saying goodbye, and “try to do it every day,” he added. I nodded, thinking to myself how unlikely – unrealistic even – that would be.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me close to a decade to put his advice into practice.

When I heard Dawes pay tribute to Bambara for encouraging him in the generous way that she did, I realized I had benefited from him. The words he said to me – which he didn’t remember saying, he didn’t recall even meeting me – were an encouragement nonetheless, and I was grateful to be able to thank him for that.