Nazis in Charlottesville, Howard Thurman, and Steven Universe

Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman

This blog entry was motivated by a post I read from a friend on Facebook. Savannah is part of the band The Shake Ups in Ponyville – a fun and talented band that plays pop and rock songs written around themes found in the “My Little Pony” TV series. Lisa and I have been fans of theirs for a long time and have logged a lot of miles driving to Indianapolis to hear them.

This summer, the band – in their current configuration as The Shake Ups in Beach City – played at Ann Arbor’s Top of the Park. Before the show, we had a chance to sit down over a meal and chat. At one point, someone asked why they used shows like Steven Universe and My Little Pony to inspire their music. Her husband P.J., who writes most of the band’s material, deferred the question to Savannah. She said that they were a pretty stable couple with a pretty happy life and that to really write, you had to have conflict and pain to write from. That really stuck with me.

Earlier today, Savannah posted this about what happened in Charlottesville this week:

Am I actually still in high school reading a piece of dystopian fiction or is this life? Nazis and the KKK are big bads again? The people in charge of our government are ok with this? What happened to the world while I was on a magical pony adventure?!

I re-read the last sentence then re-read it again. It brought a lot of things to mind because I’ve had similar thoughts over the last several years. How could I be trying to write a show about ADHD while Ferguson was happening? How could I be in the park playing with my kids while someone else’s kids were being killed in Columbine?

More recently, how can I be teaching improv classes while the Flint water crisis is going on and we have a man in the White House who’s intent on taking away millions of families’ health care (including mine), who ignores the overwhelming consensus on climate change, and who handles international diplomacy like a second grade bully on the school playground?

What helped me with these questions was thinking about Howard Thurman.

Thurman (along with Albert Fisk) was the founder of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. One thing I learned while I was working in the office there was that Thurman enjoyed painting (specificially, penguins).


Another thing I learned was that he had been challenged by some activists in the 60s for not being engaged enough, for not being visible enough. He might have wondered “what happened to the world while I was busy painting my pictures?”

I think the answer is this: there are people who are visible and active and out there in the world, bringing things to people’s attention that need to be that need to be exposed, and there are the people who maintain the conceptual and spiritual world in which those people grow, in which they grow and are energized.

Another thing I learned about Howard Thurman was that he was an inspiration and a spiritual grounding point for many of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

Dr. Thurman was a teacher of teachers, a leader of leaders, a preacher of preachers. No small wonder, then, that Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, Samuel Proctor, Vernon Jordan, Otis Moss, and I sat at his feet. – Rev. Jesse Jackson

Kim Lawton, in a piece about Thurman in Religion and Ethics Weekly, points out that Thurman was working at a different level than these others: “Thurman believed social change would only come through personal transformation and spiritual disciplines such as meditation.”

Thurman made his contribution by promoting and supporting that transformation, by keeping the world of Meaning alive, by outlining (in his writing and sermons) ways to be in the world that transcend our individual and group differences and promote what is best in all of us.

Shows like Steven Universe and My Little Pony – and a lot of others in both the fantasy and sci-fi genres – consciously try to model a world in which the connections and relationships between people are what’s important, not what they look like or where they came from. What they have in common is that their characters each have their own strengths and quirks and work together to bring out the best in each other. Nobody is showing off, nobody is trying to “one-up” (unless it’s part of the plot…) – they each bring their best to whatever situation they are facing and work together to resolve it. In my day, this was part of Gene Roddenberry’s dream with his Star Trek series, and it’s still going strong.

The writers and producers of those shows, the animators and voice-over talent, and bands like the Shake-Ups in Ponyville, Harry and the Potters, Five Year Mission, and others bring that world to their fans in a different way, inviting them into this bigger vision of what the world could be. They are maintaining and cultivating that same space of Meaning for the next generation.

Later in that same Facebook thread, Savannah posted:

I am much more afraid of people who almost burned down the world once than those we have only just met and may yet live at peace with.

This is the hope that lives on in the fantasy worlds of Gene Roddenberry, Rebecca Sugar, J.K. Rowling, and the others who try to model a world where we come together despite our differences in the face of larger challenges (climate change, anyone?).

This is the hope that musicians, artists, and other performers can create for their audience through their art. I’m not sure how effective it is, but even Pete Seeger wasn’t sure and he’s got a lot more experience at this than most of us.

So – “What happened to the world while I was on a magical pony adventure?!”

A lot.

A lot of kids hung out with new kids they might not have otherwise met.

A lot of parents who brought those kids to a Shake Ups show saw them surrounded by love and enthusiasm, regardless of who they were standing next to.

A lot of adults who walked by the Rackham Stage on June 18th saw Savvy Shy come offstage and dance with a group of kids, and some of them even joined in, maybe rekindling something inside of them.

A lot happened. And it happened with joy and love.

Each of us has our own part in this mosaic. Not all of us are called to be on the front lines, directly confronting the various problems we all face. Some of us are in the background, hopefully modeling a better world and hopefully offering a place for our more visible peers to refresh and recharge, hopefully keeping joy and love alive. And hope.

To come full circle to Dr. Thurman’s quote at the top of this entry: I think Savannah and P.J. and others like them have found what makes them come alive.

And that’s what we need the most.


The Shake Ups

Kim Lawton’s Article about the Legacy of Howard Thurman

A good biography of Howard Thurman

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Pete Seeger Full Quote by Harry Chapin:

You know Harry, my involvement in any cause, benefit, march or demonstration, I’m not sure it’s made a difference (and here’s a guy who’s being very modest cuz for forty years he’s stood up for every major issue of our times, he was fighting fascism in the early 40s, late 30s) but he says I can tell you one thing, that involvement with these issues means you’re involved with the good people, the people with alive hearts, alive eyes, alive heads.

Well, who are the people who are your best friends? who are the people you keep coming back to? who are the people that make your life worthwhile? Usually, people who are committed to something.

So, in the final analysis, commitment, in and of itself, irrespective or whether you win or not, is something that truly makes your life more worthwhile.