As many of you know, Americans United hosted a series of concerts around the country in late September to boost awareness about church-state separation, raise money for AU and, well, have some fun.
My daughter Christina lives in Massachusetts. She sat down at the Voices United concert in Newton and began chatting with the man next to her, whom she did not know. He turned out to be Ellery Schempp, the plaintiff in the famous 1963 Supreme Court school prayer ruling Abington Township School District v. Schempp. I’ve known Ellery for years; I’m glad my daughter got to know him as well.
There are other great stories from what turned out to be a magical weekend. In Montgomery, Ala., Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center arranged a show in a local theater he owns featuring blues great Guy Davis. Greg Lipper, AU’s senior litigation counsel, went down for the show and told me he was blown away by Davis’ artistry.
In Rehoboth Beach, Del., AU Director of Communications Joe Conn arranged to rent the CAMP Rehoboth community center and hosted Anne Hills and David Roth. Roth drove across several states to play this gig.
Jackson, Miss., hosted Jenna Lindbo at the Julep Restaurant, a venue that often opens its doors to special events by the LGBT community. Jenna flew in for the show and came back raving about the energy there.
In New Orleans, a very special show took place in Ward 8 featuring poet Chuck Perkins and accompanying musicians, as Perkins performed his unique brand of slam poetry with a strong focus on social justice.
I even got in on the act. At my home in Maryland, I hosted folk singer Tom Pacheco, an artist I can never hear enough from. More than 100 friends crowded into my living room for this very special acoustic show.
The big finale was in Los Angeles. At the historic El Rey Theatre, Americans United played host to Sarah Silverman and Russell Brand, two edgy and thought-provoking comedians and actors.
Both Sarah and Russell were incredibly gracious, down to earth and highly professional. It was a joy to work with them.
So why did we do this? As a long-time fan of folk music, I am aware of the power of that medium for social protest. Folk music – the people’s music – provided the soundtrack to some of the great social justice struggles of our times. I wanted to tap into that spirit to increase awareness of Americans United’s mission.
I’m aware that not everyone shares my fondness for folk, so I made sure that we included other genres. When I asked Boston-area singer-songwriter Catie Curtis to head up this project, she agreed: The more music the better. The more styles the better. The more performers the better.
Then we thought: Why limit Voices United to music? When Catie said she had a connection to Sarah Silverman, I knew we had to pursue that. The next thing I knew, Russell Brand was on board too, and we had a great finale for Voices United. Catie and folk singer Mary Gauthier shared the stage with Sarah and Russell, providing the perfect combination of fun and folk. It was an evening that will not soon be forgotten by all who attended.
In recent weeks I’ve had numerous emails, letters and phone calls from people who wanted to thank Americans United for sponsoring this event. Some said they hadn’t thought much about church-state issues before. Some said they weren’t involved with Americans United. Now they wanted to be.
Some came for the music but left inspired to speak out. That’s just what we wanted. People made connections; they made commitments to get involved; they vowed to learn more.
We couldn’t have done this without Curtis. Catie’s energy never failed to amaze me. I thought we’d be lucky to land one show in every state. Catie did that and more – she gave us 74 shows in 50 states (and D.C.). And oh, by the way, she played at three of them!
I also have to give a shout out to Todd Stiefel of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation who provided a generous donation to get Voices United up and running. Some doubted this was possible; Todd’s generosity proved them wrong. (Todd’s band, Words Such As Burn, even played a gig for us in Durham, N.C.)
And this simply wouldn’t have happened without Sarah Stevenson, who works in AU’s Development Department. She handled the 10,000 unglamorous (but absolutely crucial) logistical details that make an event like this possible, engaged in a lifetime’s worth of troubleshooting, answered hundreds of phone calls – and kept smiling all along.
I can’t thank every performer by name here, but I have to salute the combination of artistry and activism each brought. What an incredible collection of true professionals!
There are some photos in this issue of Church & State, and we hope to have more online soon at au.org, so if you weren’t able to make it to a show, take a look to get a flavor of what went on. I couldn’t be more thankful for all of those, who, to tweak the Voices United slogan, took a seat to make a stand.