Wednesday night, I attended The Element’s presentation of “Together We’re Free,” a documentary released by the non-profit organization Invisible Children. Invisible Children was founded by three guys who traveled to Uganda in 2003. With naive hopes of capturing some of the Sudanese conflict on film, they instead found themselves witnessing the atrocities of war, as committed by rebel leader Joseph Kony and the LRA. Over the past couple of decades, they have kidnapped thousands of young children and forced them to become soldiers and kill. Since Invisible Children released their film in 2003, a movement has been steadily building throughout America and around the world to apply pressure to the Ugandan government and U.S. to end the war.
“Together We’re Free” chronicled the journey of thousands of volunteers who demonstrated solidarity with the kidnapped children in parks and squares in 100 cities throughout the world on April 25, 2009, an international event known as “Respond.” The volunteers were “kidnapped,” and could only be “rescued” by a local politician or celebrity bringing awareness to the issue of child soldiers. The volunteers would refuse to leave, defying city ordinances and the limits of overnight permits until someone of prominence gave voice to this critical issue. The film is really about ordinary people actively taking charge and effecting change.
Because of the efforts of Invisible Children through “Respond,” the issue of Joseph Kony now has the potential to finally be introduced into Congress this year as an official bill. Currently, a petition needs to be signed by 250,000 people to make it into Congress.
Watching the film, I was truly amazed and excited that the passion and energy of thousands of young people around the world can accomplish.
The word “responsibility” is thrown around a lot, that I often forget its most basic meaning: the ability to respond. This is essentially the rallying cry of this next generation. With wireless Internet and instant access to information all around the world, our social awareness level has rocketed sky high, higher than any other previous generation. Because of Twitter or a Facebook link, I can know literally within seconds of major world events of earthquakes or invasions, as well as pop-culture fiascos, like the death of a major film star or Kanye West’s rude, self-promotional outburst.
With the convenience of instant access comes an overwhelming sense of responsibility, or the ability to respond. The bar of action and response has been raised infinitely high, because we essentially have two choices: action or apathy.
I somehow think that our generation will either be forever thinking through, ignoring or acting on the implications on the infinitude of awareness, in regard to everything: poverty, the environment, politics, health care, spirituality. And there are things that are closer and more immediate: a neighbor that needs help or a friend who needs someone to talk to. Some days this excites me; other days it terrifies me. Awareness comes with an enormous price tag. I have a responsibility to thoughtfully consider these issues, and eventually shift or make choices as my response.
Because of the documentary the other night, I began to remember my own personal journey with Invisible Children and Uganda.
My own encounter with this issue of child soldiers did not begin last night. It began in a library, of all places. While I was a student at the University of Florida, I used to work at the digital library center, snapping photos of dusty, archived newspapers to be put on microfilm. Many of the newspapers like The Daily Nation and the Monitor came from Uganda. My friend Matt worked with me in the library, and asked me if I had heard about Joseph Kony of Uganda. I told him I hadn’t, and he immediately began to show me stacks of articles that detailed the atrocities of war. One article estimated that 50,000 children had been kidnapped and forced to kill over the past 20 years. I remember sitting there, stunned at the injustice and also completely shocked that the global media had failed to report this holocaust.
Later that year, my friend Sydney and I were invited to lead worship at a prayer conference. After the prayer and worship time, the speaker announced that they were screening a film, and all were welcome to stay behind and watch. As I was packing up my keyboard and sound equipment, a young guy approached me and introduced himself. “I’m Bobby.”
He asked me if I was going to stick around and watch the film.
Distracted by sound equipment, I gave him a non-committal “Maybe.” Then I remembered that Sydney and I had dinner plans to meet with a friend of ours, so I told him we wouldn’t be able to stick around.
He cracked some joke about coming to dinner and grinned at me and I could have sworn he was hitting on me. I figured he was some amateur, wannabe filmmaker whose only aim was to seduce the young women of America with his wiley, artistic ways. He thrust a DVD into my hand. It was a copy of the rough cut. He looked me in the eye and said, “I’m giving you a free copy. On one condition. Promise me you’ll watch this.”
Oh, this guy is good. I wanted to laugh at him, because despite his seriousness, he was still simultaneously smiling and winking. I couldn’t take him seriously.
He gave me his card and said, “I’d love to know what you think of it.” He scribbled his personal cell phone number on the back of the card and handed it to me. Wow. I came to lead worship, and I came away with a guy’s number. Awesome.
I hastily stuffed the DVD in my purse, and it lay there for days, virtually forgotten. Almost a week later, my roommate Kyara, Sydney and I were sitting around our living room. Suddenly, Sydney said out of nowhere “Hey, whatever happened to that DVD that guy gave you? Did you ever watch it?”
“No. But we should.”
“Let’s do it.”
So for the next hour, we watched the film Invisible Children. We were stunned. Wrecked. Outraged. And immediately motivated to do something about it.
We immediately called Bobby. (I think I had to dig his number out of the bottom of my purse. Good thing I didn’t put it in the trash). The three of us crowded over my cell phone as we put him on speaker phone and asked the simple question, “What can we do to help?” Bobby shared their vision of bringing an end to the war and helping Ugandans rebuild their broken society and communities which have been absolutely devastated, physically, psychologically and emotionally by the rebel conflict.
He simply told us at this point, that we should share the film with as many people as possible, raising awareness and the profile of this movement. Over the next couple of years, Sydney, Kyara and I organized screenings of Invisible Children and facilitated forums on how best to address this situation. We were involved in the Global Night Commute and Displace Me events. I decided to sponsor a child from Uganda that was living in Gulu, specifically in regard to the child soldier problem. I watched Invisible Children grow–in my own limited perspective–from an awkward conversation and a free DVD into a worldwide movement that has resonated throughout college and high school campuses and churches, reaching the very steps of Capitol Hill.
Eventually, however, my attention and active support for Invisible Children gave way to Hananasif Orphanage, with whom I had a more personal, direct relationship. But even now, I haven’t really done anything in support of Hananasif in the past year. I would chalk this up to being in Australia. But now it feels like I am at a crossroads again, trying once again to reconcile all of these causes and issues that are vying for my attention. I want to live a life that is consistent, full of integrity, and at least on the trajectory of love, justice and worship of God (Micah 6:8), despite how often I can and will fail. I am not looking to be perfect, by any means.
I have had many conversations with friends lately about the possibility of change. It is easy to look all of these issues squarely in the face and feel terrified of the weight of responsibility, at the seeming impossibility of change, especially when we so consistently fail at changing even ourselves. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton proposes the idea of an irrational optimist, as opposed to the pessimist or the optimist. According to Chesterton, the pessimist sees only evil and endlessly chastises the world, “but he does not love what he chastises.” On the other hand, the optimist will see only good and endlessly excuse the world, leading to complacency: “he will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.”
The irrational optimist, however, is somewhat of a paradox in regard to his view of the world: “Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?… He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.”
One thing that keeps me convinced that change is possible is simply this: I see it. I see my friends and family grow and change, I see myself change. I see redemption. I see hope. The very foundation and premise of Christianity is rooted in the possibility of change, of something being renewed, transformed, made new.
A story that began in a Garden shall end in a City.
So maybe I AM an irrational optimist.