Archive for April, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

We’ll be watching this weekend. In England, it’s about fifty-fifty. Half the nation will be glued to the television set or standing patiently along the streets hoping for a glimpse of the Royal Couple. The other half clicks their tongue, rolls their eyes in disgust and mumbles something about the irrelevancy of the Monarchy, the shameless, gaudy, tasteless consumerism, the fashion excess, the conspicuous consumption and the bumbling, fumbling Prince of Wales and his frumpy, wrinkled spouse. That half will be busy doing anything but gawking. Me? I’ll be tuned in along with the first half. High definition.

I can be as cynical as the best of them. But not this time. There are some personal reasons. My grandmother, on my father’s side, was born in London. It took me awhile to understand that much of Grandma Dorothy’s quirkiness and attention to detail came from her roots. She believed in manners. Protocol. Prim and proper. She introduced me to Prince Charles (well, not in person), who was, as she explained, my same age (we were both born in 1948). I remember him as a boy, imagining his life at Buckingham and Windsor, the ponies and the grand gardens and playrooms and staircases and a Queen for a Mum. I watched him grow up. We did it together. He was crowned Prince of Wales when we were ten. He became a Naval aviator – jets and helicopters, fulfilling yet another of my fantasies. I got married well before he did. But in 1981, I watched his wedding, trying to imagine a thirty-one year old Prince marrying a nanny aged nineteen. The notion of marital failure in the Royal family didn’t occur to me for a moment back in 1981. But what a story – the fairytale became a nightmare. The Queen introduced us to the Latin phrase, annus horribilis.

Carolyn and I traveled to London for business in August of 1997. We were scheduled to arrive on Tuesday, but on the Saturday night before our flight, we got the shocking news while dining with friends in California. Diana had been in a terrible accident in Paris. We switched on the television set. Within an hour, we knew she was gone.

So the week following Diana’s tragic, untimely death, we were there. We toured Buckingham. We watched as grieving Brits left candles and messages and flowers at the Palace gate. We roamed through Hyde Park, over to Kensington Palace where the heaped up bouquets formed an impassible mound at the entrance. We read the LONDON TIMES as the drama unfolded – speculation about a memorial (public or private?) and whether the Queen would even acknowledge her estranged former daughter in-law (she resisted resolutely until public pressure forced her to make a speech on Friday that week). We watched Saturday as Diana’s coffin made its way through the crowds to Westminster Abbey where her brother chided a stiff Royal family from that bully pulpit as the world watched, scolding the Paparazzi and the gossip mongering yellow journalists and Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind.” Then we joined the throngs on the parade route as Diana’s hearse passed by and the people wept under banners honoring the Queen of Hearts. Our hearts broke for William and Harry, then barely fifteen and thirteen. We wondered, like everyone else, if the Monarchy would survive.

When Prince Charles, still my age, later married Diana’s nemesis, Camilla, the future of the Royal family looked grim. I wince whenever I hear someone speak of Charles. Most consider him dreadfully inept, awkward, and singularly uninspiring. It’s hard not to take it personally. Grandma always spoke as though the good Prince was someone I ought to emulate, and here we are, a couple of geezers. Both of us. (I will say this: I am married to a much more attractive woman.)

And then came Kate Middleton. Kate the Great. (Our granddaughter Kate is also known as Kate the Great. She’s three.) It is difficult not to think that the unrealized promise of Lady Di, the promise that was extinguished in a Paris underpass, just might be fulfilled in this striking young “commoner” who brings charm and wit, poise and intelligence, glamour and simplicity to a nation eager for inspiration. And the young Prince, William (we have one of these, too; our spirited grandson, Wil – age five), seems to understand the nature of duty. He appears eager to rehabilitate his father’s image and to revitalize his birthmother’s legacy. There may well be hope for the Monarchy after all.

Several hundred years ago, Parliament trumped the Monarchy’s exclusive control over the nation. So HRH the Queen is largely a figurehead. Charles has waited a long time for the Crown. If he ever gets it, he won’t have it long. It will go to William. What a Coronation. And Kate will be beside him. That’s my prediction.

I grew up on “happily ever after.” Walt Disney put all those classics on the big screen in full color animation. It’s all still in the DNA. I trust William and Kate will fare better than Charles and Di; Andrew and Sarah. One can hope.

So on Friday, the DVR will be set.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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Monday, April 18, 2011

When Pastor Shawn put a television show on the overhead and encouraged us to tune in, I instinctively turned to my iPhone, which at the time was opened to the Bible.  I tapped another app’s icon and right there from the sanctuary remotely set my DVR to record the program.  Sunday night.  Eight PM.  ABC.  We were about a hundred miles from home.

Generally, I only look at the Bible on my mobile device while in church.  It took me awhile to do that even.  I worried that my fellow congregants might think I was Googling or texting or maybe playing a round of Angry Birds.  I’ll confess to a feeling of self-congratulatory pride when the app displayed the thinking animation as it went out to the Internet to find my house and then returned the message “your program is set to record.”  I wanted to high-five someone, but thought better of that.  It would be disruptive.

So I turned back to my online Bible (NIV), and resumed listening to the sermon.

That week, I noticed the program on our “recorded” list.  We decided to check it out.  I punched it up via remote.  I don’t know where they found Ali Brown.  They introduced her as a highly successful entrepreneur who on her own built a multi-million dollar business.  It had something to do with motivational training online, and from the looks of her house and her guarded gate life style, uptown wardrobe and afternoon Chardonnay, she seemed to be a casting agent’s dream.  The camera loved her; trim and fit and pampered.  She filled the bill for prime time.

“Reality television” isn’t my specialty, I’ll admit.  (When I have tuned in, it is so tightly scripted and highly edited that it doesn’t seem much like reality to me.)  But Pastor Shawn gave us the thumbs up on this one and he seems like a pretty savvy guy.

Soon, we got the point.  For a week, Ali would exit her upscale community of Marina del Rey and walk the streets of Venice Beach.  (Both of these neighborhoods I knew well years ago back when we lived on that side of town.  I served as an LAPD Chaplain in those days, working the late night shift in Venice.)  Ali scrubbed off the make-up, tied up her long hair in a ponytail, pulled down on the bill of a baseball cap, found some tattered clothes and for a few days pretended to be a starving student making a documentary film on street life.  (She had to have an excuse for the camera crew.)  They gave her seventy-five dollars cash and a one-room apartment near the waterfront and told her she would have to make do.  That would be her expense account for the week.

There was another secret in the set up.  Ali’s assignment was to find individuals or groups reaching out to this seedy beach community populated by lost, wandering, sometimes homeless people, many of whom come from all over the nation with a last-ditch California dream.  She would, in the end, open her personal checkbook and make a substantial contribution to her favorite non-profit enterprise.  Her true identity would be revealed and she would surprise the organization’s workers.

The camera made sure we understood the contrast between the cluttered boardwalk of Venice Beach and the posh fitness center and wine bar and dress shops of Marina del Rey.  Ali checked out her sparsely furnished apartment, counted her cash and hit the breezy palm tree lined sidewalk between storefront and sand.

At first, she was uncomfortable talking to the quirky street people of Venice.  She strolled by Muscle Beach.  She had stepped way out of her comfort zone.  But before long, dodging bicycles and skateboards and strollers and shopping carts, she settled at a park bench and opened up the conversation.  She listened.  She found real people, with real stories, folks who were more than happy to speak as the camera captured the conversation.  She asked one, “Where do you go to eat?”  She thus found an out-of-the-way shelter (Bread and Roses) providing free hot meals, restaurant style, for hungry folks.  She volunteered to serve.  The privileged forty-something entrepreneur in a baseball cap and zippered sweatshirt jumped right in to the systematic chaos.

All in all, limiting her costs to her budget, she stumbled across several unlikely organizations, one of them a group providing medical care and addiction rehabilitation treatment (Common Ground).  She spoke to several weathered young people who were rescued from sure calamity.  Later, she accompanied other new acquaintances in a van to drop in on folks afflicted with degenerative muscular disease, Lou Gehrig’s.  Their purpose: to provide “serenity, solace and smiles” with haircuts, manicures and facials for the ALS victims who were restricted to hospital beds in all but forgotten back bedrooms (Beauty Bus).

When Ali volunteered at Harvest House, she met Pastor Shawn’s friend, Jennifer Jensen.  (Now we understood why we got that Sunday morning recommendation to watch.)  Just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach, Jennifer takes in homeless, pregnant women.  Many young.  Some with infants.  She and her staff provide a home and delivery and infant care classes.  On Ali’s first day, she was asked to watch over a one-month-old little girl.  At first, the seasoned businesswoman balked.  But soon, she relaxed, and held the bundled up child close.  Then, she spoke with compassion to several frightened, young soon-to-be moms.  She held their babies.  She was overcome with emotion.

At the end of the week, she sat down with her “supervisor” at Harvest House, Jennifer, and confessed that the cameras were not for a documentary.  Rather, as a part of ABC’s Secret Millionaire, she had been on the hunt all week for a worthy charity.  She found it.  She produced a check for fifty thousand dollars.  Jennifer was stunned.

She wept.  Ali wept.  We wept.

Pastor Shawn was right.  Transformation happens.  Without warning, this reality show I set to record during a church service documented something I learned along time ago.  It was powerful.  Drop the pretense.  Step out.  Care.  Listen.  Touch.  Give.

You will be changed.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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Monday, April 11, 2011

To celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, the Reagan Library renovated its exhibits.  The press release quotes Nancy Reagan – “This renovation will be a wonderful birthday present for Ronnie,” said former first lady Nancy Reagan. “I am so pleased that the Library will remain open so that visitors can tour Air Force One, attend events, and see one of my favorite exhibits, The White House Miniature.”

It is a complete revamp and enhancement that brings the museum side of the library up to speed with the Air Force One Pavilion, home of the gleaming Boeing 707 set as though launched into the bright skies of Simi Valley.  The big jet transported the 40th President of the United States to strategic sites all over the world.  In the newly refurbished halls, you can stand at the Presidential Podium and read some of Reagan’s best speeches off a teleprompter if you dare.  The camera will catch you and the Presidential Seal, and you’ll look, well, Presidential.  Or, you can video record yourself at another teleprompter interviewing a young Ronald Reagan or calling a baseball game from a ticker tape as he did back in Iowa.

The White House Miniature, a sixty foot replica on a scale of one inch to one foot gives you an inside look at the First Family’s spectacular residence – from the private quarters upstairs, to the famed Lincoln Bedroom, to the Press Room, to the private theater and the Oval Office.  We had our own private docent (my sister-in-law), a history major, knowledgeable, articulate and charming, who walked us through the decades highlighting the most interesting and poignant exhibits, including the recreated Oval Office and the interior cabin of Air Force One.  In the foreign policy room, we heard the back-story of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the contentious but world-altering friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev.  She took us back to the years when Reagan was governor and I was a student at the University of California and the tumultuous days of student protest and assassinations.

Reagan had a lifelong habit of handwriting his letters.  We saw several originals, including a two pager to Gorbachev, a love letter to Nancy and another addressed to the American People, in which he told us all about the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  It would be a new chapter.  He wrote, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

Our first visit to the Presidential Library, located on the top of the hill in scenic Simi Valley, was when Reagan was still alive.  He did not appear publicly then.  But when he died in 2004 at the age of ninety-three, the outpouring of love and respect from every quarter captured the world’s attention.  The transport of the coffin from the Rotunda of the nation’s Capitol aboard a new and larger Air Force One from Washington D.C. to southern California was tracked by a grieving nation.  When it arrived on those hills he loved the images had that much more meaning, because we had walked those grounds.  As the sun set over the hills, with unmatched dignity, Rev. Michael Wenning, pastor of the Reagan’s home church, Bel Air Presbyterian, eulogized the President.  For one last time, Ronnie, Patty and Michael held their mother as she stroked the red and white strips of the flag draped coffin with her aging hand.  We all bid him farewell.  In the orange glow over his shoulder, their son Ronnie said it best.  “The sun has set.  He is home.”

Back in Washington, just a few days before, well over a hundred thousand people came to pay their respects first at the Capitol, then at the National Cathedral.  Dignitaries from all over the world joined regular folks to walk past the coffin in a ritual as old as the nation.

The videotape of that memorable day ran in the halls of the new exhibit.  I stood and watched the images that still linger from June of 2004.  Margaret Thatcher, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain the same years that Reagan served as President, a fellow conservative who shared Reagan’s conviction about a strong defense, the threat of the Soviet Union, the harm of dictatorships that rob the people of fundamental freedoms, the value of open markets, low taxes and limited governmental interference.  They were kindred spirits, the “Great Communicator” and the “Iron Lady.”

As Mrs. Thatcher approached the President’s coffin at the center of the great Rotunda of the Capital, under the massive dome, she was aging, too.  Dressed appropriately in black, under a perfectly British black felt brimmed hat, the camera caught the sense of loss in her eyes and like all the others, her gaze fixed on the box that held what was left of her good friend and colleague on the global stage.  And then, she curtseyed.  Most people missed it, I’m sure.  But not the camera.  It was simple, short, and thoroughly understated.  But it was a sweet, magnificent gesture, with implications of royalty.

This was the first woman Prime Minister in history.  She led Great Britain in the shadow of Winston Churchill; resolute, fierce and compelling.  In her world, the curtsey is reserved for the Palace, a show of deference to the Monarchy.

We don’t have royalty in this country.  The Constitution took pains to prevent it.  But for that one simple moment in time, we did.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011



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Monday, April 3, 2011

Vy Higginson grew up on the mean streets of Harlem in the turbulent sixties, the daughter of a fiery preacher, a Barbados immigrant who died before she was old enough to know him. Her home and church was a block away from the Apollo Theater. Her ambitions took her a long way away from those Harlem streets. She became a popular prime time radio voice in New York City on giant WBLS and then she broke ground as the first female African American morning show host on WWRL. Her gregarious style and big voice opened new doors. She developed talent in the arts and wrote a stage play that became “the longest running Off-Broadway production in American Theater” – Mama I Want To Sing.

As her career matured and the success accumulated, she developed a conviction about music and the arts. She believed that the Gospel music she learned as a little girl prepared her in ways that most people miss. She discovered her own voice in those early years. In worship and praise, she developed a hopeful, energetic, soulful, steadfast belief that she had a place in a world that could be cruel. She had a name. The God of the Universe knew that name. Nothing could stand in the way of her purpose. She knew what joy felt like. She understood the value of harmony. She learned to love the company of a troop of like-minded musicians who could rattle the windows and shake the foundations and fill a room with jubilation. It all spilled over onto her professional career, like showers of blessing.

So she studied the history of Gospel music, focusing on what was once called the Negro Spiritual. In many quarters, African slaves were forbidden to speak their native language or to practice native religion. “The slaves didn’t have freedom,” Vy explains, “except for one – the freedom to sing.” This music, these lyrics, the deep longing and expression of hope run deep. “Go down, Moses, a way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old, Pharoah, ‘Let my people go!’” These melodies made a deep impression on her as a child. She feared that a new generation of troubled kids from her home down, caught up in hip-hop and rap and street life, would know nothing of the rich melodies and heartening lyrics of Gospel.

So she devoted her life to an initiative called Gospel for Teens in the heart of Harlem. Her purpose: to bring neglected youngsters into the experience of the old Gospel music. She believes in its transforming power.

The response overwhelmed her. In the limited space she had, Vy and her daughter soon were forced to run auditions and individually select the teenagers who would be their thirty participants for two semesters. The only criterion was that the young person could demonstrate the ability to hear pitch. Many of the kids came from public housing, tough schools and little parenting. In a year’s time, she would prepare them for competition in Gospel sing-offs.

This week, Leslie Stahl presented two full segments on 60 Minutes, following Vy Higginsen and her students from audition to competition. Bring your handkerchief. This is no American Idol, but the kids take to the microphone and give it a shot. Vy and her team coach and cajole, on the hunt for a voice seeking release from hiding. Michelangelo spoke of the human form breaking free from a block of marble as he chiseled away. Higginsen is a master sculptor, too. But her masterpiece is the uncovering of a human voice, unshackled, free to soar. Gospel music has that effect.

Stahl captured Higginsen’s orientation speech to a crowd of nervous, tentative teens on camera. “While we are here, we leave our baggage outside that door,” she declares as she points to the entrance to her makeshift studio. “All the fightin’ and the gangs, the problems with your mommy and your daddy and your sisters and your brothers and your neighbors, all the struggles in school and in the ‘hood – leave ‘em out there. In here, we are safe. In here, we’re just gunna sing! That’s it.”

And as Leslie Stahl explained, from the start, that was Higginsen’s intent – to create a safe, protected place for music to flourish. The turning point came when she coached the kids to introduce themselves. This would be a critical segment in concerts and competitions to come. Each young person would simply state their name and their hometown for all to hear. Vy wanted each to hold their head up, speak with enthusiasm and zest as they addressed the crowd. But she found something disturbing – many, if not most all of these challenged young people could barely say their own names into a microphone. It was as though they were ashamed, embarrassed, filled with reticence. Higginsen looked for eye-contact, and found little.

That’s when she changed her rule. She invited the kids to go ahead and bring in the baggage. In one night of transformation, these young people who by now experienced singing Gospel together, in harmony, opened up about their pain. Their loss. It was uncomfortable. But powerful.

It’s rare for 60 Minutes to devote two of their traditional three segments to one story. This one merited both. At the outset, Ms. Higginsen, Rev. Higginsen (she is also an ordained minister), predicted that the old Gospel music possesses transforming power. At the end of the segment, as these formerly reserved, apprehensive, faint-hearted kids cut loose in performance, you get the idea that their mentor and coach is also a prophet.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve listened in as teachers lament a perspective on education that is all about test scores and documenting progress. It seems to permeate our schools these days. The very program that is designed to produce results is doing the exact opposite. Rather than enhance the joy of discovery, it robs our kids of motivation to learn. Music and the arts have gone the way of slashed budgets. Something really important is missing.

But not in Harlem.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

More on Gospel for Teens – see CBS 60 MINUTES

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