In my mind, the path to learn how to authentically connect a community started with an unexpected call one cold November night when I was 29 years old. It was about 8 pm and I was sitting in my bedroom in Queens, New York, when I felt a spiritual call to phone my then girlfriend Socheata. I felt surprised and curious about this.
In the traditions of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Franciscan monk Francis of Assisi, and Missionaries of Charity founder Teresa of Calcutta, there have been times in my life when I’ve felt called to do something unexpected. I’ve learned to be humble enough to follow seemingly innocuous, but strange, calls. That night, Socheata was sitting in a terminal at Newark Airport waiting to board a flight to Cambodia.
On Christmas Day the year before, in the back bedroom of her parents’ home in Dallas, TX, she had learned that for 25 years - all her life - her family had been hiding secrets from her. She discovered that her sisters were not really her natural sisters, her brother was only her half-brother, and her mother had lost her first husband and 30 family members during the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Socheata wondered what else remained hidden. She immediately envisioned her first trip to Cambodia to find out.
When Socheata picked up my phone call, I felt a second spiritual call to read the St. Francis of Assisi prayer with her.
St. Francis of Assisi Prayer Excerpt
Make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
When I finished, I felt the final part of the spiritual call that would change my life. “You will make a film about Love, Joy, and Pardon.” When I shared that with Socheata, it was such a startling and powerful idea that we were both moved to quiet tears.
We were about to embark on an intensely personal journey of discovery — discovering both a family’s hidden past and our own mettle. At the time, we were both in our 20s. I was a waiter working at a restaurant across from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and she was a TV production assistant who had just finished a contract with NBC News.
Although I had worked in Hollywood shuffling scripts between agencies and executives, I had never produced my own film before. I didn’t have a clue about hiring talented people, navigating international licensing rights, or setting up a company to handle documentary film finances, contracts, and a production schedule. I didn’t even have a video camera. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know! Even more concerning, I didn’t have a trust fund to pay for an international film production. In other words, I had to start learning everything I could about both creating a film and finding ways to fund it. It filled my life.
Over a year later, Socheata and I had assembled a small crew, completed two international shoots, and even received a small amount of PBS funding. But I had only raised tens of thousands of dollars, not the hundreds of thousands needed to finish the film - and this was well before “crowd-funding” was available for such a project. Without more resources, all our efforts and investment would be wasted because an unfinished film is worthless. So I was desperately working to learn more about fund-raising, film budgeting, and media law.
I wondered whether I could complete what I had started, or if I was destined to remain an idealistic, but ineffective, producer and leader.
Then, one May night in midtown Manhattan, a wise executive trainer gave me an insight that changed my life. In one simple lesson, he showed me that I was exhausting myself with a “superman strategy.” From fundraising to managing a crew to negotiating contracts, I was overwhelmed by trying to master so many vectors to success. Instead, the trainer explained, if I simply focused on one thing, I could exponentially grow my impact and my results. That one thing was the ability to inspire others to offer up their talent and resources.
I needed to generate inspiration, connection, and commitment in others. But I didn’t know how.
That’s when I began to cultivate a board of advisers for my life. This board included a veteran New York political organizer, a high-powered executive coach, award-winning filmmakers, and a wise Jesuit priest who all taught me about attracting the commitment, resources, and skills of others in a deeply authentic way. They coached me on how to build a community, how to connect with others longing to be invited, and importantly, how to share my own story and experience powerfully.
But I was afraid that sharing that the film actually began in prayer would make others think I was foolish, misguided, or just crazy. Sometimes I wondered if I was crazy. On the other hand, I also knew it was my authentic story.
At a fundraising event that summer, I stood in front of our supporters and volunteers in an upstairs chocolate gallery on New York’s Upper East Side and shared the truth about the prayer, my fears, and our intention to change the course of history. I was afraid people would laugh when I told them the truth about the scale of our ambition. Instead they expressed admiration. Authenticity is so rare in this world that when people hear it, they are touched. Not only did they want to know us better, but they wanted to help us in ways that would stun us. As my efforts and skills grew, the funding, resources, and talent came together. We beat all the odds against first-time documentary filmmakers.
In November of the following year, in an Amsterdam theater at the largest international documentary film festival in the world, our film, “New Year Baby,” won the Amnesty International - Movies That Matter Human Rights Award on its premiere. We cried again, this time with elation and pride and with our crew.
More importantly, that night began another journey of sharing the film across the world in order to create healing by unlocking a painful conversation. The film screened from Dubai to Tokyo and from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, collecting 7 international awards along the way. It was shown nationally on PBS and on a 30-city PBS outreach tour. High schools and universities from California to Massachusetts to Texas screened the film to start new conversations. The letters, invitations, and warm reception we received showed us that we were transforming conversations of shame and silence into conversations of honor and heroism. We made a difference for more families than we will ever know.
During a sweltering Southeast Asian July, two years after the PBS broadcast, the U.S. State Department screened the film as a special event in the largest theater in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After that Cambodian theatrical premiere, I watched the lobby fill with young Cambodians crowding around Socheata for photos, autographs, and hugs. I listened quietly as they told her that they were inspired to discover their own family’s truths after they witnessed how she discovered hers. Just a few years earlier, it was illegal even to teach about the genocide in school, much less uncover buried secrets. Now these young people wanted to display the same bravery that Socheata had exhibited and know their own families’ hidden stories.
I was once again reminded of the power of telling the truth and sharing our experience for others to invite connection. The world is waiting for us to step forward and inspire them.