Nobody Is a Stranger
Best known as the star of movies like "Bull Durham" and "Thelma and Louise," Susan Sarandon also plays a major role as an activist. From her 1993 Oscar-night plea to help AIDS sufferers in Haiti to her current advocacy for the homeless, Sarandon has kept humanitarian causes in the spotlight. She spoke with Beliefnet recently about her spiritual path, her work with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and what she hopes for her children.
How would you describe your spiritual path? Do you identify with a particular one, or it is mainly the activism you're involved in that fulfills you?
I try to live my life every day in the present, and try not to turn a blind eye to injustice and need. I wish I did more. I feel my family's needs are a priority. I'm not comfortable with the idea of serving the many and ignoring my family. In the bigger picture, I see myself getting more and more involved as they leave the nest and don't need the daily attention.
Which ethical and spiritual lessons do you most want your children to learn?
I want them to respect the divine in everyone. And understand that with privilege comes responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility towards this larger family of man, but especially if you're privileged, that increases your responsibility. I want them to understand the joy of empowerment, of service. I want them to understand that doing the right thing is a joyful experience, that it isn't a grind.
So volunteering -- like your work in soup kitchens -- has never been a grind for you?
Not at all. We have a tradition in our house. I was always envious of bar mitzvahs and people having really defined rites of passage and being able to mark that with some kind of community service. My kids were not particularly ready at thirteen, so we do it at sixteen. My daughter wanted to do something with kids, and she found a shelter and she and her friends and myself and our friends spent a few days and did over a huge room at a shelter.
To celebrate her coming of age?
Yes, and to have something to mark her passage into womanhood that was positive and creative and that she figured out herself.
[A] group I work with that's really fabulous is Habitat for Humanity. This year my son Jack was turning sixteen. We had about 22 people, half were kids and half of them adults, friends of mine who have known him forever. Everybody showed up at 8:30 in the morning and we put in all the drywall of a four-story brownstone in Harlem, working with people that knew what they were doing more than we did, obviously.
Just being there at 8:30 was tough for some of these boys. They were filthy; they worked so hard all day long. And they had something to show for it. They laughed, they carried on. I think it really was special for them, because it was very dramatic -- because sometimes you end up just painting or doing little things -- in this case, you actually took a skeleton of rooms and tuned them into [ones] with walls. Everyone was filthy and weary by the end of the day, but it was great.
It's so rewarding to know you're capable of doing that. I want my kids to understand the joy of that. Not the self-congratulatory "I'm such a good person" kind of thing, but just the sense of accomplishment. You're working with people who are going to live there. So I would hope they would develop some kind of habit that involves understanding that their life is so full they can afford to give in all kinds of ways to other people. I consider that to be baseline spirituality. The heart is a muscle like every other muscle. The more you use it... I think I'm an actor because I have very strong imagination and empathy. I never studied acting, but those two qualities are exactly the qualities that make for an activist.
When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you. As my little guy said when he first learned about the origins of man, he said, "So Mom, I guess there really isn't such a thing as a stranger, is there?"
It's a spirituality that's empowering and inclusive and gives you a world that's so large and full of possibilities and so full of rewards. That's joyful. The people you meet -- when I was down after [September] 11th at Ground Zero, I was running into people that I knew from the soup kitchens, from Habitat, that I remembered. They're just everywhere. It's great to see people who find joy in service and don't close their eyes and aren't afraid.
If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you're fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family. And that makes you at home in that world and not fearful. So really it's very self-serving.
You've worked with a lot of hunger-relief organizations in New York City. What prompted you to start working with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen?
My relationship with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen started years and years ago. They were one of the few safe havens for people living with AIDS way back when there was such a stigma with AIDS. They stepped into the breach with counseling. I think there were even times when doctors could approach people with drug trials -- well, not drug trials, but counseling them about other choices. No one was really up-front about anything to do with AIDS at that time. I had a lot of friends who were fighting not only the disease but, at that time, the humiliation and the secret of having the disease.
I'm a native New Yorker. Everything to do with New York feels like my family. Home means so much to me. Even before I had children, I was one of those people that always had an extended family of friends. You'd make big Thanksgiving Day dinners and big events on Christmas. I tended to love gatherings -- not parties necessarily, but celebrations of different kinds.
The dilemma of homelessness -- seeing people without a home, without their basic needs fulfilled -- things that people are entitled to -- shelter, safety, food -- always really affected me. It's always been very difficult for me to see people on the street. So I initially gravitated towards solving those problems in what I considered to be my extended family, which is my city.
People often burn out on soup kitchen work or humanitarian work like helping the homeless. What keeps you going given the magnitude of the problem?v
It can be discouraging whenever you're dealing with an ongoing problem. But as opposed to something like politics, where it's frustrating because there are so many lies involved and so much bureaucracy, when you're dealing one on one with people, you meet the most inspiring people. Other people who've been working in a much less dilettantish way than I do. People who've actually committed themselves -- retired schoolteachers, young people who form a community that goes fairly unnoticed until you dive into that pond.
You meet the most extraordinary people who are doing something that's very empowering. Not only that can make a difference in another's life, it makes a difference in your life to know the power of one. To know that once you decide to look at life outside of the narrow limits of just your world and start to understand that you can make a difference in very simple ways -- in volunteering and all the way up to bigger world problems.
At a time when everything seems so out of control and the people you've elected are bogus and there's so much random violence and hatred, it fills you with such hope and admiration to even be part for a short time in a community where people have connected to strangers to try to put out a hand. The last time I served down at Holy Apostles, what was really striking to me was how different the group of people were who were coming for food from even a year ago...
In that you have so many people out of work who've had jobs all their lives. You have so many young couples that cannot find a way to pay their rent, or there's been illness or whatever. It's so much easier these days to find yourself in a situation where you end up on the street or end up with not enough money to buy your food on a regular basis.
You've said how much you admire the people working for these causes. It sounds like what you've said about Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote "Dead Man Walking" -- that she had a kind of "practical spirituality."
Yes. My problem with the [Catholic] Church-I was brought up Catholic -- was that Jesus' life was a very hands-on spirituality. It wasn't about excluding people. It was exactly the opposite. He was a shepherd to those people who had been excluded already from the mainstream and who were needy. I always envisioned the Church more as they do in some Latin American countries, where they're involved in the plight of the poor and in justice -- all those things that politicize you once you start to open your eyes. You can't tend to somebody's soul and ignore their body. You can't talk in abstract terms.
Is that a problem you see with organized religion in general?
Any religion that is so black and white -- to me, that's like fanaticism. Religion is not black and white. It's much more complicated. Spirituality is much bigger than that. God is much bigger than that. I don't believe in a wrathful God. I believe he's much more forgiving and inclusive than some religions. The things that are done in her name or his name are horrible.
What would the world look like if Susan Sarandon were in charge -- if you were the head of the United Nations, say? What would a Susan Sarandon utopia look like?
First of all, there'd be much more peace because the whole underlying problem in the world now is this huge gap between rich and poor. Jimmy Carter's completely all over this and moving in the right direction.
We give so little in terms of aid compared to other nations, compared to our military budget, compared to everything else. Having gone to Africa and India for the U.N. as an ambassador, it takes so little effort and money to get rid of malaria, to bring in clean water, to give people a chance at an education. When you don't have hope, that's when people start to do weird, horrible, violent things. That's at the bottom of it. It's just a question of prioritizing. The funds are there. When you look at what other countries do, I was stunned by how little we contribute as the wealthiest nation.
Within this country, there shouldn't be hunger within the United States. People should have a chance or an education and decent housing and medical care. Those are just basic rights. A woman shouldn't have to fear for raising a child in this country, shouldn't have to be fearful that they can't pay simple medical expenses. That's obscene.
I would try to make it possible for kids of the United States to travel to other countries. They would be less afraid and more empowered. When kids start to meet other kids in places that seem so scary and different, they start to understand how much alike everyone is, and that our needs are so similar. Kids are kids no matter where you go.
I'd try to encourage more trips for student leaders from every high school around the U.S. It would make it so much more difficult to drop bombs and be known as this violent [nation] all over the world. We should start exporting some of the generosity that exists with the good people of the United States, who just need a chance to understand what can be done and what a wonderful experience that is.