Visual and Creative Arts as Ministry: The High Calling Talks with Forest Whitaker

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Few actors inhabit a character like Forest Whitaker. For his most recent film, Black Nativity, Whitaker drew upon a wealth of personal experience in playing the part of a flawed preacher coming to grips with his failures as a parent. At a Los Angeles press junket for the film in November, Whitaker said he grew up in “bible-belt Texas" in a family full of Southern Baptist pastors. Their influence has been significant, and yet, he said he adheres to a more "comprehensive" spirituality, one that emphasizes love and forgiveness.

Thus, Whitaker’s humanitarian work should not surprise, but it does surprise me when someone of his wealth and fame chooses to use those gifts for good. In answering reporters' questions about whether or not 2013 was the “year of the Black film,” Whitaker launched into a monologue about the broader implications of the black struggle, saying his community’s fight for human rights and personal rights translates itself to other communities and continues to march forward.

There are stages to this spiritual struggle, he said, beginning with acknowledgement, moving into growth and forgiveness--where strides are made and recompense happens. "And then we can just move to what I consider the love phase, where we’re connected together and we realize that it’s all one thing that’s going on. We’re going through that progression of healing. It’s a progression of healing that has to occur and it’s actively happening. We’re all seeing it … I think that everything is shifting, awareness is coming and it’s part of this new movement of oneness, of us recognizing that we’re in this together, that we’re universal citizens, citizens of the world," Whitaker said.

These comments are indicative of a common theme that ran through his conversations with me and other journalists. That theme is his desire to connect with other human beings, to touch them and to be touched by them.

I’ve interviewed other famous people, but few have been as open, warm, patient, and gracious as Forest Whitaker. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christine A. Scheller: At the Black Nativity press junket, you talked about your grandfather being a Southern Baptist preacher and said if you had a family reunion, one-out-of ten people would be preachers. You’ve also studied yoga, martial arts, and Eastern meditation. Are you like a lot of artists in that you draw from different spiritual traditions personally and artistically, or is there one particular religion that resonates most with you?

Forest Whitaker: I was raised in the Christian faith, but as I’ve grown in my life, I look at myself as more of a spiritual person. In that way, I feel very comfortable studying meditation. For myself, it’s more my personal relationship with God. I don’t want to say it doesn’t exist with dogma, because I find a lot of truths in the Word, but it’s expanded. It’s more about my connection with other human beings, my connection with God. It is a motivating factor in my work. It is what I do in my acting. The way I try to explore a character is a spiritual journey for me. It’s not an academic or theatrical journey. It’s a journey to try to get to an understanding of my connection with another human being who is also divine in their connection with God.

CAS: Looking at the roles you’ve chosen over the course of your career, it seems like you have a lot of integrity in your choices. How have you maintained your artistic integrity?

FW: I try to stay true to my beliefs. I’ve probably moved to the right or to the left at some time, but the goal is for me to continue to grow as a human being. And by doing that, it guides me in my choices, because, as I said, I’m trying to explore the connection I have with the other individual and I’m pulling away these layers to be able to find that thing that connects us. I’m not saying I don’t have doubts, but on a whole, it keeps me pretty steadfast in where I’m going.

CAS: Does that perspective inform your work with JuntoBox Films—wanting to help others do the same thing?

FW: When I look at film, I want to give people the opportunity for their voices to be heard. I think being heard is very important, so most of the time when I’m producing, it’s generally a first-time filmmaker. When I produced Fruitvale Station, it was Ryan Coogler’s first feature film. JuntoBox, pretty much all the filmmakers, it’s their first feature film. A lot of the films I’ve produced in the past, it’s the same. I just try to afford others the opportunity to speak.

CAS: Fruitvale Station slayed me. How do you leave that behind, a story that’s so intense and painful?

FW: It’s difficult. I think it’s important though to put the human face on individuals, and for everybody to start to see their connection. One of the biggest perpetrators of the problems in the world is fear, and I think we can overcome our fears by understanding each other, recognizing our connection or our similarities. And so, telling these stories is important in that way.

CAS: And yet, when you were filming Black Nativity, you were essentially the victim of a racial profiling incident in New York City. What do you do with that? Here you are an Oscar-winning actor buying a sandwich or something and you’re profiled.

FW: I think it’s important. It’s good, because it brings a light to something that we’re still trying to work through, that the country is still trying to work through.

CAS: It highlights the problem?

FW: It doesn’t mean I’m not upset myself, personally. I just mean it makes the dialogue more present and makes it continue. It invoked me to do some other things. I have a program in Mexico, a program in Uganda, and I also have a program here. The program is in colleges for the ‘tweens,’ but we’re also about to do some police work, training police officers in empathy. It sparked me to recognize that I know these things exist, but I need to take an active participatory position inside of it. And then, also, it allowed other people to use it as an example, to discuss it and talk about it. To say, “Hey look, even with Forest Whitaker this is occurring. This is occurring to all of our youth. The Stop and Frisk law in New York City is predominantly amongst young black males, 18-24.

CAS: My father was a gang leader in Newark, New Jersey, and got free of that life through the work of a minister there. So the International Institute for Peace that you founded at Rutgers Newark is both personally and professionally interesting to me. How did you come to be involved with that?

FW: About 10 years ago, I was working on domestic violence and with gang members. And then about seven or eight years ago, I started working with child soldiers overseas, and started working to build a facility in the north of Uganda, in Masindi. I started to build dormitories there and schools. And then, because of the work I’d been doing, the U.N. and UNESCO asked me to be on a number of peace panels. And then, UNESCO asked me if I would be an ambassador for peace and reconciliation, so I started working with them. During that period, I founded this institute at Rutgers.

We have our first class, five people who are in the master’s program. I’m really excited that it’s five for the first year, so I can focus and get them all working in the field. We have started a program in four countries. I was in South Sudan recently hiring more staff, because we’re commissioned to train youths in the ten states of that country. Now we’re about to train the second group in conflict transformation, in life skills, which also includes trauma relief, meditation skills, and life coaching. We also do computer technologies and we have them develop action plans for building peace in their communities, and then we support them in that.

CAS: What role do you see for different faith communities in being able to help with these kinds of issues--youth violence, etc.?

FW: It’s very important to the process, because a lot of the conflicts are quietly caused by that in some ways. When I was in Cape Town, I met with the Islamic and the Jewish community. I was doing facilitations and mediations around South Africa. I’ll be going back there to do a mediation between the communities to ease the ground. I think more likely we’ll direct them towards a particular project in a township that they can work on together and from that working together, I think maybe something might happen.

CAS: Is your passion for all the different kinds of humanitarian work you do connected in any way with your Southern Baptist family heritage? Is it a mantle in some sense, passed down through the family, to do good work in the world?

FW: I have a deep connection to that with my family. My father is an elder in the church. He’s a minister, so it’s something that I know. I understand and I think it’s influenced the way I make all my choices.

Editor's Note: The DVD version of Black Nativity released April 15, 2014.

Visual and Creative Arts as Ministry

This article is part of The High Calling series, Visual and Creative Arts as Ministry. At The High Calling, we believe that art creates a space where people may encounter God, opening a door for transformation. Have you felt it? It’s the way the light ripples across water; it’s the way a good story names something within you; it’s the music you dream in the middle of the night that haunts you in the day. God uses beauty to touch us in the deepest places. As image-bearers of the one true God, we are also co-creators with him, made to impact our culture and each other through the art we bring to life. Does this resonate with you? If so, consider sharing these stories via email, Facebook, Twitter, or through your other social media and friendship networks.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.