Martin Sheen explores power of activism
Celebrated actor and activist Martin Sheen spent an evening in Claremont last week as the guest of honor at a sold out fundraiser for local nonprofit Crossroads, who work to help previously incarcerated women transition into mainstream life.
Mr. Sheen offered heartfelt testimony in defense of the power of activism at Claremont School of Theology’s Mudd Theater. He also touted the power of faith, and the immeasurable positivity that can be unleashed when one “cracks their heart open” to do good for the oppressed, voiceless and underserved.
He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, one of 10 children. His awakening as an activist came about at the unlikely age of nine, when he organized the country’s first golf caddy union. The pint-sized union boss eventually led a three-day work stoppage strike, galvanizing what would be a lifelong habit of standing up to injustice.
“I never forgot that 72-hour period and the affect it had on me, when you go on that other side,” Mr. Sheen said.
He spoke at length about his time on the beloved NBC television show The West Wing. Not surprisingly, politics were on the docket, though maybe less so than one might have expected given Mr. Sheen’s liberal activist history. He talked about actors he admires (Marlon Brando tops the list) and his favorite acting project, 2010’s The Way, a film written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez.
Speaking on acting, the 78-year-old said he was deeply affected by James Dean’s performance in the 1955 Elia Kazan masterpiece, East of Eden, which he saw shortly after graduating from high school.
“Even at that young age, I knew that everything had changed, and that this young man—and I only discovered shortly afterwards that he had been killed in a car accident a few weeks earlier—transcended acting from acting to behavior,” Mr. Sheen said. “You didn’t see him acting. It was a deeply personal evolution.”
He talked about art as a necessary function for artists, whether it be in one’s bedroom or on the world stage. “You do it for yourself, because you cannot not do it and be yourself,” he said.
But if one had to tease out the overall take-home message of the night, it was the need to lift up those around you.
“I believe the more the world changes, the more it stays the same,” Mr. Sheen said. “The important needs of every human being on earth are not only food, clothing and shelter, but equally the need for mercy, for healing, and for justice. And without the latter, the former are useless.”
He quoted Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle, whom he once heard say, “I went into the third world and they cracked open my heart” during an interview.
“And that phrase has stuck with me,” Mr. Sheen said. “And you don’t have to go to Central America or South America to see this; the third world is right outside your door. When you see someone living on the street, that’s third world America, and it’s growing. So, you have to allow the third world, wherever you are, to crack open your heart. And once that happens, you’re finished.”
His activism is well-documented, diverse and longstanding. His first foray was, of course, that trailblazing caddy union. A few years later, in 1965, he supported Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement. He’s been attached to mostly liberal causes since, including LGBTQ rights, women’s rights (though he has somewhat incongruously also aligned himself with anti-abortion causes), supporting Democratic political campaigns, pushing for gun control legislation, lending his help to environmental groups, and opposing the Iraq War, among many other pursuits.
He’s been among the celebrities marching and participating in demonstrations and walk-outs over the years, and was even once considered by Democrats as a viable candidate for one of Ohio’s US Senate seats (he turned it down).
“The area that I’m most focused on is peace and justice,” he said. In the United States, “We plan for wars, and we advocate for war. That’s our biggest overall problem, because that’s where most of our money goes.”
He went on to quote a particularly apt line from legendary singer-songwriter John Prine’s 1971 classic, Sam Stone: “’There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,’” he said. “That’s the Pentagon taking all the dough.”
Faith and Catholicism were also subjects of much discussion. Mr. Sheen was asked how he kept his faith robust in the face of all the world’s horrors. He laughed and took a breath.
“I am the luckiest guy I know. I look at my life and my family and that I’m still able to make a living at this age doing the thing I love the most, with this mug, it’s just a continuous miracle. But I had the good fortune of being reconverted in my faith in 1981,” referring to a time in his early 20s when he grew away from the church.
“I had a moment of clarity, and it was the smartest thing I ever did,” he said. “And the faith became a living, powerful energy in my life. And I got reacquainted with that wonderful, powerful spirit that I had first become aware of with consciousness.”
For Mr. Sheen, this consciousness derrived from an acutely simple phrase.
“My prayer is, ‘Thank you for choosing to love me,’” he said. “And once you realize you’re loved, everything changes. You begin to realize ‘Wait a minute…if I’m loved and it’s just a matter of accepting it, what about him and her and they and them?’ You can’t create an enemy if you see the same reflection that you yearn for and that you accept.”
The evening took a humorous turn when Mr. Sheen began talking about the power of the Christian rite the Eucharist.
“Whenever we’re asked to participate in the Eucharist, man, something has got to happen.” Just then, as if on cue, the lights went out onstage, eliciting a roar of laughter from the sold-out crowd at the 260-seat Mudd Theater. “See: don’t mess around with Christians,” Mr. Sheen quipped.
As the night wound down, interviewer and Crossroads Speaker Series Committee co-chair Dinny Rasmussen thanked Mr. Sheen for helping to raise funds for Crossroads, and for his service over many decades.
“I think that there’s something so compelling in kindness and decency, and I believe that we all know it when we see it,” she said. “And we see it in you.”
“Well, it takes one to know one,” Mr. Sheen replied.
For information about Crossroads’ mission to assist formerly incarcerated women re-enter mainstream society, visit crossroadswomen.org or call (909) 626-7847.