Next Stop | Full Episode | Stories from the Stage

♪ ♪ ANGIE CHATMAN: I was really
into flying because I was
finally making money and I had
the company credit card. (laughter) KELLI DUNHAM: The motto of the
Lord’s Boot Camp was, “Get dirty for God!
Go lay a brick!” So we learned
lots of construction, as well. (laughter) And no matter
which direction I look into, all I see are
the Andes Mountains. They are enormous
and truly majestic. THERESA OKOKON: Tonight’s theme
is “Next Stop.” ♪ ANNOUNCER: This program is made
possible in part by contributions from viewers
like you– thank you. There is a saying that the only way to is through. And that is exactly
what travel can do for us. By foot, by car, by train,
by airplane, you can reach a new destination
with a brand-new perspective. You can literally change
your own life. ♪ LORENA LEONARD:
My name is Lorena Leonard, and I’m originally
from Colombia. I migrated to the States
30 years ago. I have been
in the communications field for almost two decades now. And you write a blog,
I understand? Can you tell me
a bit more about that? I do, yeah,
so, a little over a year ago, I decided to tell my story. It’s been a burning desire that
I’ve had for a long, long time, and so I finally made up my mind and started a blog
called “Gritty Girl.” And in it, I tell stories
about my upbringings, you know, growing up in adversity and
how I overcame that adversity through grit and resilience. What made you decide to start
telling stories on stage? It was the same desire, that I think I want to reach
women and young girls who may need to hear that others have been
in their similar situations, that they can overcome
their circumstances, and so that desire led me
to seek out an audience. Tonight’s theme is “Next Stop.”
LEONARD: Mm-hmm. OKOKON: What does that theme
mean for you? Whoa, for me,
that’s a very heavy theme, because as an immigrant, the next stop for me
was the United States. You know, it was a long journey, but it, it was an opportunity
for me to become the person
that I am today. A decade after buying our home,
my husband and I finally decide to remodel
our 1970s bathroom. Now, I’ve just given birth
to our second child, and, as if I didn’t already have
enough on my plate, I eagerly volunteered to manage
the entire project. Besides, the contractor
assures us the whole thing will only take
four weeks to complete. Well, four weeks turned
into nine very long weeks, but in the end, we got the
beautiful bathroom we wanted. So here I am, standing
in my newly remodeled bathroom, admiring the genius
of my design: the eye-catching
sapphire-blue tile, the elegant waterfall faucet, the ultra-modern
dual-flush toilet. But my favorite
is the medicine cabinet, which is covered in mirrors
inside and out– this thing is stunning. Looking in the mirrors,
I’m surprised to find myself overcome with emotion. My throat tightens,
my heart beats faster, and I’m welling up with tears as memories transport me back
to my childhood. It is the 1980s
in Medellin, Colombia. Medellin is a large city
nestled in a valley within the Andes Mountains. And I live in a suburb
of the city in what feels like a pigeon coop with my parents
and two younger sisters. The living conditions in our
tiny apartment are dire. For instance,
our electrical wiring is a catastrophe
just waiting to happen. We have exposed live wires
that hang from the ceilings and creep down the walls
like vines of poison ivy. Our semi-functional bathroom has no door, no sink,
and no medicine cabinet. And our toilet has no tank, which means we have to fill up
a big bucket of water to flush it. And hot water is a luxury
we can’t afford, so I take icy-cold showers
every morning before school. The place is also infested
with vermin. We have a mouse nest
in the closet, but the baby mice
are actually really cute, so I beg my mom to keep them,
but she doesn’t. (laughter) And at night, I am creeped out
by the cockroaches I hear flying above my head–
yes, they fly. Since we’re on the top floor,
we have a terrace where I spend a lot of time
hanging out, just staring into the distance. And no matter which direction
I look into, all I see
are the Andes Mountains. They are enormous
and truly majestic. Strangely, the view makes me
feel claustrophobic. I am surrounded,
and I can’t escape. There’s unspeakable violence
happening outside my door. The infamous drug lord
Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels are spilling blood everywhere. But there’s no one to turn to because there’s corruption
at every level. Crimes against human rights
are taking place every day. Children are recruited
to become killers. People are displaced,
some are disappeared. Many are tortured. And the murder rate
keeps climbing. One afternoon, while I was
outside riding bicycles with my younger sister
and our friends, we heard gunshots. We ran as fast as we could, and we hid at the entryway
to my apartment and shut the door behind us. But I quickly realized
that my sister wasn’t with us. I felt tremendous pressure
on my chest, as if I were being crushed
with stones. And I could hear the blood
pulsating in my head. Instinctively, I pushed the door
open and I ran out to find her. She was standing
in the middle of the street, straddling her bike. She was all alone
and looked absolutely terrified. When I got to her, I wrapped my scrawny arms
around her as if I could somehow shield her
from what was happening. A man with a gun
came running toward us. He was so close, I felt a breeze
as he sped past us. Not long after this incident, I’m woken up
by a deafening sound. The blast was so loud, it shattered the window
of my bedroom. I was really scared, but I ran out to the terrace
anyway, with my parents, to find out what was going on. The sun hadn’t even come up yet, but all of our neighbors
were outside, too, and they looked just as
distressed as we were. Later that day, I learned
that a car bomb had exploded in a very wealthy neighborhood
not very far from where I live. The bomb, which was an attempt
against Pablo Escobar, was so powerful, it was felt
within a three-mile radius and it left a huge crater
on the ground. This bombing set into motion the most violent time
Colombia has ever seen. Around the same time,
I also learned that my grandfather
was trying to help my family
migrate to the States. You see, my grandfather
fought in the Korean War for the American Army, and as a veteran, he was granted
U.S. citizenship and had been living
in the States for many years. His status would help us apply
for residency. So to cover the cost
of the visa applications and to make the trip
from Medellin to Bogota, where the U.S. Embassy
is located, my grandfather sent us
a few hundred dollars, which my mom kept hidden
in an armoire. One day, we came home and found
the place a complete mess. Somebody had broken
into the apartment and had taken many items, including the money
we were saving for our visa applications. But miracles do happen. Somehow, we raise the money
again and we are all granted
U.S. visas. It is now 30 years later, and I am back in my
beautifully remodeled bathroom, and I realize I’ve been crying. But my daughter doesn’t notice. She’s been sick with a cold, and is now complaining
about a headache. So I quickly compose myself and I reach
inside the medicine cabinet to find
the children’s ibuprofen. I take her into her bedroom,
and I cuddle her to sleep. And in this moment,
I feel immense gratitude that my daughters are growing up
in a very different world. But I question whether I’m being
too overprotective. I’m constantly shielding them from the dangers
that lurk every day. You know, scraped knees,
hurt feelings, catching a cold. Not from shootings, as I once
did with my younger sister. I think about their future–
when the time will come for me to tell them
these stories, and how our family finally
broke free from the violence. And no matter how much
I try to shield them, the world’s hardships
will find them. I wonder, what will my daughters
see in this mirror when they are all grown up? Thank you. (applause and cheering) Coming to the States, you know, as an immigrant– really as a refugee
escaping war– and we had nothing,
we came with nothing. And to go through this journey where I had to fight
with tooth and nail to get to where I am today, to be able to be in the
beautiful home that I am today and have the opportunity
to remodel my bathroom, and choose this
gorgeous medicine cabinet, it speaks to that fight
and the struggle and how resilient I had to be, and the grittiness
that I had to build to acquire, um, a better life. ♪ DUNHAM:
My name is Kelli Dunham, I live in Brooklyn, New York. I’m originally
from rural Wisconsin, and I’m a nurse, and I work in the New York City
public school system. So I understand that in 2015,
you were a nominee for the White House
Champion of Change award, and that that came
from your work with a program
called Queer Memoir, which you founded
and you’re the co-producer of. So yeah, Queer Memoir,
we started it in 2010, January 2010, myself and Genne
Murphy, who’s a playwright. And we’re, like, “You know what? “Let’s just bring together
some people, some people who are performers
and some people aren’t.” And we had it in this very
underground performance space. And, like, 115 people came,
and there wasn’t even any room! It was literally
somebody’s apartment, and people were just so hungry
for those kind of stories. It was just
when there was starting to be more LGBT stories
in the mainstream and they weren’t told by us,
right? They were told by other people, and, you know, if you let
somebody else tell your story, they repackage it
in some, you know, messed-up way and sell it back to you.
OKOKON: Mm-hmm. DUNHAM: But we just wanted
to have LGBT folks telling their own stories
in their own words. And one of the most amazing
things about it is that most people, when they are
working on their story, they come to a conclusion
that maybe they wouldn’t have if they weren’t going
to tell that story, right? It adds meaning to whatever
it is that they went through. And then that’s, like, you know, doesn’t get any better
than that. ♪ When I was a teenager, and other folks my age
were drinking wine coolers– it was the ’80s. (laughter) And making out in the back of
their friend’s borrowed Camaro, I was going to church
three times a week and asking complete strangers,
“Um, excuse me, have you accepted Jesus Christ
as your personal savior?” I was a very fervent
born-again Christian, which made my very fervent
born-again Christian mom very happy. But I was also, as you can see,
a lifelong tomboy. And that made my fervent
born-again Christian mom… very sad, or… At the very least,
super-worried. I came home from school– it was a spring day my sophomore
year of high school– and I found on the kitchen table
a folded piece of paper. My mom had written on it, “This looks like something
you’d love!” Exclamation point. And I opened it up, and it was for
the Lord’s Boot Camp missionary training program. And it was full
of these smiling teenagers, and they were physically
building churches and they were asking
total strangers, “Excuse me, have you accepted
Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” And I thought… “This does sound
like something I’d love.” (laughter) Once I’d made the decision
to do it, I only had three months
to raise the $1,200 that was the participation fee. At first, that seemed
really daunting, but then, somewhat inexplicably, all the adults at church
really got behind me. And they let me do a car wash
on Sunday mornings, and sell popcorn after
Wednesday night Bible study, and they even made me cookies
to sell at a weekly bake sale. In the brochure, it
said that the Lord’s Boot Camp was, quote, “No pamper camp.” (clicks mouth) When we arrived
at the Lord’s Boot Camp, we found that boy howdy,
they were not kidding. It was essentially
an unchanged Florida wetland. We slept
in these tiny little tents that were so covered in mildew they looked like the side
of, like, a Guernsey cow. (laughter) We were supposed to clean up in this kind of
swampy pond thing that they completely
unironically called “God’s bathtub.”
(laughter) It was attached
to a drainage ditch where two alligators lived. (laughter) Now, when we asked our leaders
about it, their response was,
“Now, do you really think… “Do you really think
that an alligator is gonna eat 500 teenagers?” (laughter) I mean, I don’t think any of us
thought 500. (laughter) But, isn’t even one
kind of a lot? (laughter) Every morning at 5:00, we ran the Lord’s Boot Camp
obstacle training course. And it was a bunch of biblically named
physical challenges that our leader said
would help us develop the personality
characteristics that it would take
to survive as a missionary. The first obstacle was called the Children of Israel’s
Luggage. (laughter) And it was a whole bunch of decommissioned
wooden artillery boxes that were filled with sand,
nailed shut, and then they had painted
the name of a book of a Bible on the side of each box. We approached them,
they’d be all in a heap, and then somebody from your team
would go, “Genesis! Exodus! Leviticus!
Numbers!” And everyone would scramble
to put them in the order found in the books of the Bible. (laughter) The last obstacle was a series
of six-foot walls that were painted
with the names of sins that we would have
to get over… (laughter) In order to serve Jesus. (laughter) It went pride, gluttony, greed, and then the last wall
was named “confusion.” So, the motto of
the Lord’s Boot Camp was, “Get dirty for God!
Go lay a brick!” So, we learned
lots of construction, as well. (laughter) I learned how to hammer nails
without hitting my thumb, and saw a straight line, and I learned how to tie rebar, and lay bricks,
and mix cement by hand. So, obviously, I was kind of having
a great summer. (laughter) I mean, it was a whole summer
of being a tomboy. Now, the only thing
that I didn’t super-love– it just seemed kind of random– was, every afternoon,
they split us up by genders, and the boys went to a class
called God’s Gentlemen. And, according to the boys,
what they learned was mostly about how to attract
a Christian spouse. Mostly, that was choosing
the right activities. Like, sports were a good idea,
and theater, not so much. The girls’ group was called
From Grubby to Grace. And it was mostly about being
ladylike and grooming. There was a whole section
on makeup, and it started with a quote from the Lord’s Boot Camp
founder. It said, “If the barn looks
better painted, why not paint the barn?” (laughter) So except
for that kind of random and somewhat, I guess–
now that I think about it– misogynistic…
(laughter) afternoon class, I, I had a great summer. And I returned home
with this newfound zeal. I also had a new haircut. So I had a spiral perm that I tried to bleach blonde
with actual bleach. And after six weeks
of washing it in swamp water, it was so matted, I couldn’t
even get a comb through it. So one of my team members kindly offered
to shave off everything but a little bit on top
and on the sides. But she left me with
a four-inch rat tail in back, because it was the ’80s
and I looked great. (laughter, applause) I also had
all these newfound muscles from all our hard physical labor
building God’s kingdom. So I dragged,
as you can imagine, my extremely smelly backpack onto my mom’s front porch, and I said, “Mom! Don’t I look
like a new creature in Christ?” And she said… (sniffles):
“You look a lot the same.” And she had a little tear
coming out of her eye, and I thought,
“Oh, my God, that’s so sweet, she really missed me.” I’ve been an out queer person
for 20 years, and I’ve been telling this story
socially to illustrate what it is to be
a born-again Christian teenager. I did not know
until last summer, when I was Googling
the Lord’s Boot Camp– I wanted to show my girlfriend a picture
of the obstacle course– I didn’t know what you guys already
probably have an idea. So I haven’t confronted my mom
about this. And it’s not just
’cause she’s 86 and she has realized that my tomboy swagger and my
girlfriend are here to stay, even though that’s true. (applause) And the final reason I don’t
bring it up with my mom is because I spent
an entire summer learning how to use power tools. (applause) So the summer that was supposed
to make me less of a lesbian just made me great
at picking up other lesbians. (cheering and laughing) Thank you. (applause) ♪ CHATMAN:
My name is Angie Chatman, and I’m originally from Chicago.
OKOKON: Mm-hmm. CHATMAN: But I live now
in Watertown, Massachusetts, which is a town
outside of Boston. And I’m a writer and editor. And I guess I can now
call myself a storyteller. Can you tell me
about how you got started with telling stories? Yeah, so a friend tricked me into taking a class
called Pitching Stories. And I knew that as a writer,
I would need to pitch my stories if I wanted to get published.
And so I went to the class and it was fun,
and really, um, enlightening. Does it take a lot of courage
for you to get on stage? And does it make you scared? Oh, heck, yeah,
I’m nervous as all get-out. But I was telling somebody else
who had never told stories, it gets addictive,
and what gets addictive is not the telling so much,
but being in a crowd where everybody’s listening
to your every word. OKOKON: Mmm.
CHATMAN: It’s such a rush. So, are there any themes
that you tend to find, um, come out in most of the stories
that you’re telling? Oh, yeah. And, and that’s really funny
how it’s recurring, because I didn’t expect that. But, yeah, always,
it, it comes back to race. Mmm. Um, I grew up
in the ’60s and the ’70s, and so that was
the defining issue for my time growing up. I mean, and I grew up
in Chicago, too, so one of the things that I continually heard
in my household, I mean, one of my uncles was
the same age as Emmett Till. Hmm.
CHATMAN: You know, so… And then… Chicago’s so segregated, and… It’s just all those things,
so it, it comes back to race. Remember the days
when traveling was fun? Before you could only carry
three ounces of liquid in your carry-on? Before you had
to take your shoes off and put them
in that gray plastic bin? Before you had to hold your arms
up in the diamond shape to be scanned, and pray that you didn’t also
have to be felt up by TSA agents? (laughter) When I graduated
from graduate school, I was really into flying, because
I was finally making money and I had
the company credit card. (laughter) I volunteered for every
necessary business trip I could. “Does anybody want to staff
a trade show in Las Vegas?” “I do!” “Angie, we need somebody
to go talk to the client in Los Angeles.”
“Okay, I’ll go!” “And how about
a training session in the new software upgrade
in Phoenix?” “Yes, just tell me when.” The problem was, is that I was
based in upstate New York. And the good news is
that I had to connect through Chicago’s
O’Hare Airport, because that’s my hometown. And pre-9/11, you can actually
leave the airport in between layovers, and so I would leave, and my mother would drive up
from the South Side and her home and pick me up, and we’d go out
to breakfast for pancakes. So I’m on my favorite flight
one time, um, the red-eye from L.A.
that leaves at 11:30 and gets into Chicago
at 6:00 a.m. And I’m curled up under the
blanket with my book, you know, just chilling
with the overhead light, and the seatbelt light goes on,
and the pilot comes on and says, “We expect turbulence.” And I’m, like, “No big deal,”
I’ve taken this flight before, but you know how you can smell
somebody else’s fear? And it’s not Chanel?
(laughter) That’s what I was sensing
from the woman next to me, and I look over,
and she’s a white girl, and she has
a nice red ponytail, and she has freckles sprinkled
all over her nose, and the reason why I could tell is because her face
was so pale with fear. And so I look over to her
and I said, “Are you okay?” And she says, “We’re all
gonna die, aren’t we?” (laughter) And I’m, like,
“No, we’re not gonna die.” And she looks back at me
and she’s, like, “How do you know?” I said, “Because when
we land safely, I’m meeting my mother
for pancakes.” (laughter) And she laughed, too, and it
gave me that warm feeling, like when you see a baby crying, and so you make funny faces
till it stops. (laughter) (laughs) So I go back to my book,
and the plane bounces again. And now she’s gripping
the armrest really, really tight and doing
those deep breathing exercises. (breathing deeply) So I put my hand over hers
on the armrest and I say, “What’s your name?” And she says, “Amanda.” And I say, “Oh, Mandy,”
and she says, “It’s Amanda!” (laughter) I’m, like, “Okay– Amanda. Where are you from?” “I’m from Appleton.”
“Where is that?” She says, “It’s in Wisconsin.” I said, “I know
it’s in Wisconsin, but is that near Milwaukee
or Madison?” And she says,
“It’s up by Green Bay,” and I said, “Oh, dear.” She’s, like, “What?” And I said, “I’m a Bears fan.”
(laughter) And again I got that laugh,
like the baby stopped crying. And I’m, like,
“This really feels good.” I go back to my book, though, but this time
when the plane hits turbulence, it’s so bad, I feel it. And so what happens, instead of
laying my hand on hers on the armrest, I actually intertwine my fingers
with hers. And I just continued to ask her
inane questions to keep her talking. And while she’s doing that, I’m looking at our hands
intertwined like a Benetton commercial for black and white unity
and understanding. (laughter) And I realize
that I have never held hands with a white person before. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and so even though
my school was not segregated, the nuns had us line up
on opposite sides of the wall, and we were not allowed
to touch. And even though
the Loving decision made interracial marriage legal
across all 50 of our states, laws may change,
but customs do not. So I never had a white boyfriend walk me from the library
to the dining hall in college. I wonder if the same happened
with Amanda. But I didn’t ask her. Instead, I kept on
the inane conversation until we landed safely. And when we did,
Amanda grabbed her carry-on from underneath the seat
in front of her and ran down the aisle
without even saying goodbye. I took my time
getting my carry-on out of the overhead compartment and I walked down the aisle,
and then to the jetaway, and when I got out
into the waiting area, there was Amanda, her hand outstretched. And so I walked up to her
and I shook it, and she said, “Thank you.” And I said, “Go Bears.” (laughter) And she said,
“Always a Cheesehead.” (laughter) And we went our separate ways. I don’t know where Amanda went,
I never saw her again. I went to go get a stack
of pancakes. Thank you. (applause) ANNOUNCER: This program
is made possible in part by contributions from
viewers like you– thank you. ♪

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