Friday, December 20, 2013

A Holiday Movie You Must See!

This piece appeared first in the Huffington Post.

“White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life, “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Carol,” "Home Alone." 

Chances are, you’ve seen them all, and some of them over and over again.

But now comes along a marvelous Christmas movie you haven’t seen but should.

Called “The Child King,” this feature-length film stars a young man named Peter Johnson, a charismatic actor who happens to have Down Syndrome. The movie isn’t new, but it’s had a limited circulation since it was made in 2007.

Johnson (as Jeremy West) plays the older of two brothers in the film. After the younger brother Jarret (played by Will Kellem) claims that there is no Santa Claus, the older brother steals the family van and the two boys set off on a quest to find the North Pole.  With Johnson at the steering wheel, the boys are aided along their way by none other than Santa himself, who appears in various guises at those moments when the boys are in danger.

The title comes from a fairy tale that Jeremy’s and Jarrett’s mother adored before she died. In that inner tale, a king decides to switch his infant son, who is abnormal, with another baby. The two intertwined stories come together with classic fairy-tale endings.

Filmed on a shoestring, the movie is the work of two brothers, Jeff and Frank Kerr.  Jeff wrote the screenplay and after considerable hounding he convinced brother Frank, a professional filmmaker, to direct and co-produce the film.
Jeff admits that they were taking a chance casting Johnson in the film’s lead role. But he says he wrote the screenplay after meeting a friend’s young child with Down Syndrome. He was convinced that he wanted the hero of the story be someone with special needs.

At the start, Jeff  -- who dug into his own pocket to make the film -- admits that using an untrained actor in the lead role was a gamble. Both of the Kerr brothers wondered if Peter would remember his lines, take cues and interact appropriately with other actors.  
The day that Jeff and Frank visited Peter at his home (he lives with parents Jane and Charlie near Boston) to discuss the movie, Peter “was extremely "shy,” Jeff says. “And a week before filming was set to begin, Peter was in rehearsal and he froze up. Things didn’t look promising.” But lo and behold, when filming began, Peter turned it around. “Now he’s a little movie star,” Jeff says.

For his part, Johnson is proud of the fact that his performance highlights the capabilities of individuals with developmental disabilities.  “It’s a shout out to people with special needs, ” Peter says. My conversation with Peter over coffee last week left no doubt that he can easily turn on the charm and become Mr. Personality.

Apart from the movie, Johnson has a full plate of activities. He attends a day program near his home and has three jobs – one as host at a local Irish pub, the second as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant.  In the third, he works with young kids at the local YMCA. He participates in all of the Special Olympics, and this year he is scheduled to represent Massachusetts in tennis (he’s on the board for the Massachusetts Special Olympics.)

Peter, who is now 26, is also an avid Red Sox fan; he has a photo of him side by side with David Ortiz. He also finds time to deliver inspirational lectures to businesses and other groups in Boston.
Being as busy as he is, it’s understandable that Peter has not had any roles in other movies. But he says he would be delighted to act again.

“The Child King” is available on DVD for purchase at All proceeds from sales of the film are donated to a foundation that makes grants to organizations serving people with special needs.

The film has been shown to several audiences to people with special needs. One of those recent showings was at Riverbrook, a residential facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that serves 21 women with special needs.

The crowd was hushed as they watched, and afterwards, they thronged around Peter. Several of the women wanted photos with him, and he was more than happy to accommodate the requests.
“All I can say is ‘Wow,” Peter says.

And when I told him that I liked “The Child King” as much as “Home Alone,” Peter was ecstatic. “Home Alone” happens to be one of his all time favorite movies; he watches that and the sequels over and over again. 

“Wow, to have it compared to “Home Alone” he says, beaming. “What can I say, Wow!”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fasting Vigils Push for Immigration Reform

This post appeared first in the Huffington Post

It's a cold December evening on the Capitol Mall, but several dozen activists are staying warm in a large white tent set up to house the ever-growing number of activists calling for passage of the immigration bill. Dozens of these activists are demonstrating their support by fasting.

The fasting protest comes in the same week as the world is honoring the spirit and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Protesters say they are emboldened by Mandela's lifelong commitment to human rights.

President and Michelle Obama visited the protesters on Thanksgiving Day to show their support for the fasting vigil.
The target of the immigration protest is legislators in the U. S. House of Representatives, specifically Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is sitting on the immigration bill, refusing to let it come to a vote. The Senate passed their version of the bill earlier this year.

"It's been 28 days, four weeks, and the number of people fasting just keeps growing," says Scott Washburn, an SEIU organizer from Arizona, who is coordinating the evening's activities.  Washburn says that initially there were only five or six people fasting on the mall, but now, the number has grown to 175, some of whom have fasted for 22 or more days.

The protest on the mall culminated on Thursday, December 12th, when activists brought their cause to legislative offices in the Capitol. Meanwhile, groups around the nation will be staging fasting protests in support of the immigration cause. In my legislative district, fasting protests took place in six of Congressman Chris Wilson's offices. I joined protesters on Thursday afternoon in Wilson's Kinderhook, New York office to show my support for the protest.

For more information on the national and local protests, visit the website, 
On the Capitol mall, activists gather every night from 6 to 7 p.m. to stoke up the ever-growing focus immigration reform. The fasters - wearing chocolate brown sweatshirts with the words "ACT: FAST" on the front and "FAST FOR FAMILIES" in white letters on the back - are joined by dozens of supporters.
The daily meetings, which build the activists' spirits consist of rousing speeches by local, national and international participants, a review of the fasting efforts as well as slam poetry, syncopated hand clapping, and a concluding prayer.
"There's a spirit here that we really feel," says Washburn. "There's a spirit that draws together all sorts of different people united to call for immigration reform." At one point during the meeting, the group shouts out, "Si se puede," and applauds efforts to reform.
Slam poet and high school teacher Clint Smith performs a piece about the dreamers whose lives and families are torn apart by immigration issues. He gets a standing ovation for a second poem that focuses in on the poverty and frustration experienced by young students in his classroom.
A mother and daughter take the microphone to address the group in Spanish - with a minister translating - saying that undocumented immigrants, many of whom are parents, should not be deported and separated from their children. The daughter holds up a stack of white envelopes containing the pleas of children, begging Boehner and President Obama to pass the immigration bill.
At one point, someone hears that Boehner is attending a meeting nearby the Capitol; three activists head outdoors to see if they can get two minutes of the Speaker's time to plead their cause.
They are successful in finding the Speaker, but he ducked their pleas, driving off in his black SUV, his head down. The activists return to the white tent, triumphant about the fact that  "they spoiled Boehner's evening."

 The activists are ever more committed to bringing public support and attention to the immigration cause. Nationwide, there are some 6,000 people fasting as a way of calling on House members to vote on the bill.
After a dozen or more speeches, fasting activity is reviewed. All the fasters sit side by side in the front row and are applauded for their efforts. New fasters are adorned with small crucifixes that are made out of twigs and string.
There is no way you could sit in this tent without being swept up by the spirit of the event.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

After the Metro North Disaster: Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

This piece appeared first on December 2, 2013, in The Huffington Post.

As the National Transportation Safety Board launches its investigation into Sunday’s Metro North accident, which killed four and injured more than 60, I am reminded of countless classroom discussions on the subject of disasters. They always came down to the same question, does everything happen for a reason?
Whether it was a natural disaster – a hurricane wipes out the Phillipines, a tsunami crashes into Indonesia – or a nightmarish mass murder caused by deranged people armed with guns or bombs, the majority of the class would decide that indeed,  “everything does happen for a reason.”
“OK,” I would ask the students, “ so then what is that reason?”
No one in the class could ever come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, but that wouldn’t matter. Even in the face of monumental death and destruction, the college-aged students would stubbornly stick to their belief that there was some kind of overarching logic, some sort of rational explanation.
The discussion would inevitably turn back to their own lives.  Students clung to the notion that no matter how severe their life circumstances were, there was always some logic, an ultimate explanation. This explanation usually resolved into personal or even heroic triumph over difficult life issues.
For some students, it simply came down to religious beliefs.  An all-powerful God would never permit a personal disaster, no matter that the reason remained obscure. Your mom abandoned you? Your dad was in jail for murder? Your family ends up homeless? No matter, the situation ultimately forced the student to step up, to work harder, to make sure the choices they made in their own lives were consistent with a God who is good.
Of course, it isn’t just students who grapple with these issues. In the face of excruciating loss, all of us are puzzled by the questions why and how? No matter what your religious affiliation, death and destruction always bring us face to face with an age-old question that philosophers through the ages have wrestled with: the notion of evil.
One of the most popular novels we have read in the classroom, Sula, by Toni Morrison, presented an easy rationale. God, she posited, had not three faces in the form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has a fourth face, Morrison contends,  the one that embodies the devil, all the bad or evil things that happen in our lives.
 I would try to force the students to widen their thinking by taking into account this notion of a God who wasn’t all good or all kind. I would suggest they embrace the notion that “stuff happens,” and we are forced to live with that stuff.
I would ask them to consider a different idea about God, one that goes far beyond human love and logic. A God that is some kind of energy, some force that no one will ever be able to explain.
We build our religions to conform to human logic, I’d tell then, but isn’t everything about the universe a marvel that cannot be fathomed? I would ask them to explain wondrous miracles: flowers blooming, babies who emerge out of two cells? I would ask them to explain human consciousness or the fact that I could stand in front of the class saying words that students could hear and understand. Or I’d tell them to go home some night and just lay down under a sky full of stars, and ask yourself, how far does the sky go? And what lies beyond that ultimate border?
Whatever transpired inside the classroom, students would emerge from the discussion thinking about questions in ways that they hadn’t really considered before.
Perhaps, I would say, the notion of God in human terms misses the mark. Maybe disasters force all of us to go well beyond human knowing to fathom an energy, a powerful force the source of which we cannot comprehend in human terms.
In the end, I left the students asking big questions for which there are ultimately no answers. Questions that make all of us stop and wonder every time we confront a disaster like Metro North or personal disasters that occur every day in our lives. As long as we live, we will continue to ask “why?”