Known as America's "Acting President," Martin Sheen, who plays the President in NBC's "West Wing", has my vote. Aside from being a talented actor, Sheen is also an outspoken and tireless crusader for causes ranging from farm workers' rights to nuclear disarmament to poverty around the world. Activist Sheen has never been afraid to "take a stand" and has been arrested more than 60 times.
When he heard from his son, Emilio Estevez, that we planned to shoot an episode of GlobalTribe in Manila, he promptly picked up the phone and called us.
He told us about his visit in 1997 to a garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila and said we had to meet Mr. and Mrs. Bill Keyes, a husband and wife team that is trying to help the people who live at Payatas. With funding from Sheen, they were able to help the community build a bathhouse, a place where people could restore their dignity after a day's work of collecting garbage. When we visited bathhouse, dubbed the Water for Dignity project, we saw that it had become the heart and soul of the community.
In a recent interview, I spoke with Martin Sheen about poverty, his faith, and his social activism. - Amy Eldon
MARTIN SHEEN: Well, you know, it doesn't take long in that environment to realize that there's a very great need right in front of you. I remember the closer we got to the dump the smell was so overwhelming that I began to retch, and I had to stifle and try and get beyond that. And I remember I was walking along the entrance with Father Shay and I said to him, "We're going to have to pay for this." And what I meant was that the first world is going to have to account for this sort of horrible poverty in our midst. We have to, first of all, become aware of it. We have to take responsibility for it. And then we have to do something about it for our own freedom, for our own salvation, for our own humanity.
I just think that the only way we come to ourselves is through each other. And there are so many people in the third world suffering so horribly right now, and we are so focused on ourselves and our culture that a lot of things are showing up in our culture that are making it impossible for us to focus on others. We're so self-focused.
MS: Yes, they would. Absolutely, they would. I don't think that people in America are really given enough information about the Third World. I remember Gandhi said something so profound about violence and non-violence. He said, "The greatest form of violence is poverty."
And that's something we don't often think about. We think of violence as being conflict and fighting and wars and so forth, but the most ongoing horrific measure of violence is in the horrible poverty of the Third World
and the poverty in the United States as well. We have our own Third World here. And we have to first become aware of that and how to help and solve that.
You know, the Western culture projects the good life -- security and comfort -- as if that were a reality, you know. But I think that you also have to gauge how much happiness or joy, or how many contented people there are in the West. I mean we have the highest drug addiction. We have the highest divorce rate, the highest child abuse. We have the highest child pornography business going on in this country. We have so much juvenile delinquency, so much gun violence, so much family violence that these are all a projection of how confused and how self-involved we are. And it's hard for us to realize someone else's pain when we're so involved in our self-inflicted pain. But once you experience Third World poverty, you're really changed forever, if you're at all open to it, because we're all united in our common humanity. And we are so made as to feel something for people who are in pain. It's not possible to be human and to be unaffected by what you see in the third world.
MS: The moment that I saw Payatas, I was overwhelmed emotionally, spiritually, and physically. As I mentioned, it was so hard to get beyond the stench of the place. And this particular garbage dump is much different than other garbage dumps in the third word because this one accepts everything. And the scavengers, and that's what they're called, are like the untouchables of India in the Philippines. They're not considered on any social level whatsoever. They're just scavengers.
Little children from barely toddler ages are in this horrible place, and when the garbage trucks come in, they go along a particular path, and they're followed by these children--these scavengers--who climb up on the trucks and throw garbage off that they think might be useful: plastics, any kinds of trinkets or anything to eat, anything useful. And as you follow these children along, you realize they are walking in sludge, this horrific contaminated sludge that sometimes measures a foot deep and sometimes a few inches.
And I began to realize the difference between this dump and other dumps that I had visited in third world. The difference is over the years, they had begun to introduce disposable diapers into the Third World, which is something entirely new. And this is in the last 15-20 years. And so those diapers are included in the trash, and they have contaminated this entire plot of land. All these acres of land are contaminated with human feces. And the smell is horrific.
And I thought to myself after the tour, I thought: My God, if I lived here, if I was confined to this hell what is the one thing that I might look forward to at the end of a day of scavenging through this mountain of hell? And I thought: Well, it might just be simply to take a bath. And so that's when I contacted Bill Keyes, and I asked him if we could build a bathhouse there.
MS: Yeah. So it's become a community center, which is what we had hoped it would be. And it's very interesting because the people in the community came up with their own idea of how they wanted to run this place once it was built. And that was to make it a private club. It wasn't just open and free to the public. You had to buy a membership. Now, mind you, a membership was like one peso a year, which is less than eight cents American.
And the reason they did that was so that they would have a sense of ownership, hence, responsibility for the place and all the activity that went on there. And they were very wise in doing that because that way they maintained their dignity. The point is that they own it. They run it. It belongs to them. It is not a charitable thing.
MARTIN SHEEN: Well, I think that Catholicism's basic foundation of faith is personal conscience. I think it's between you and God, not you and the Church. I think the Church is a conduit to God. The Church is not God. And I think that from the very beginning Jesus taught us that. He taught that God is worshipped in the truth. You can't just go about your life with a set of rules set down by any organization. You have to be governed by your conscience. And so this is, above all, the foundation of Catholicism, so people have to make their own personal choice. That said, it's obvious that the Catholic Church has a very powerful and very profound influence on the people. But their job is also to serve the poor and to do justice.
We are commanded by the Gospel of our Church to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless. It doesn't really matter how much of the rules or the dogma we accepted and lived by if we're not really living by the fundamental creed of the Catholic Church, which is service to others and finding God in ourselves and then seeing God in everyone--including our enemies. So that presents a bit of a dichotomy, I guess you can say. And that's fine. People have to grow where they're planted. And you can't impose on anyone a set of dogma that prevents them from being able to grow where they're planted. That's my take on it.
Now, I believe the Church is the key to a lot of the poverty in the world, because they're present in every Third World country. And they have great credibility. And they have many great servants who serve the poor, and one of them is right there in Payatas, Father Joel -- you met him -- the young priest who serves the community there. That's the real Church.
And Jesus in all of his teaching was very clear about the heart of the law, not the letter. And I think we have to remember that we are human first. And in that humanity is where the genius of God chooses to dwell, where we are least inclined to find him. God is present in ourselves
in our darkness, in our failure, in our basic humanity. And when we begin to realize that, then we begin to see it in others. And then we see God's presence everywhere.
And that's what really changes the world. This is basically what Mother Teresa did. She saw something and she acted. She saw Christ in the people. And she served Christ through the people. And that very commitment, that fundamental has basically changed the world. You can't deny that Mother Teresa was here. And she's still here. That's the real Church.
MARTIN SHEEN: I guess it's a lifelong kind of evolution for me. I was born into a very large, immigrant family in Ohio. Both my parents were immigrants. My father was from Spain, my mother from Ireland. They were both devout Catholics and raised us in a Catholic home with Catholic school. And all of my friends, all of my classmates growing up were all from these middle class and largely poor families--very large and poor families. And there was a great sense of humanity that I was naturally born into and grew with.
I started caddying when I was nine years old at a very exclusive country club in Dayton, Ohio. And I saw how the other half lived, if you will. And it was nine years of my life, a very formative part of my life from the time I was nine until I was 18 and left home to go to New York and begin my acting career. But I saw very clearly basically how I wanted to develop. There were very few people in that club that I wanted to be like. They were not heroic to me, but the nuns who taught us in the school, the brothers in high school--they were heroic. They came from mostly middle class poor families, and they were dedicated to service to others. And they were filled with great energy and love and freedom and compassion. And that was basically what formed me. I had all these examples of teachers and friends and mentors growing up along the way.
When I reached adulthood, even now, I could afford to belong to a country club. But I could never belong to a private club because of my experience as a child, because it would isolate me from the whole of humanity. I would be narrowed to a small group of the over-privileged and I saw how that stunted the growth of people so horribly. They became self-involved and self-destructive in so many ways. And so they were not the people that I wanted to be like. They were not an inspiration to me. But my fellow caddies were, my fellow students were, my teachers, my mentors, my parents, my brothers and my sister--these were my heroes growing up. And they were a lot happier than these people who lived exclusive lives.
You know, I remember I began a caddy strike when I was 13 or 14 years old.
Martin Sheen: Yeah, I did, and I got fired for it. And I was brought back because I was a really good caddy. They didn't want to lose me. But I had a sense of what was right. Lincoln was once asked what his religion was and he said, "Well, it's basically that I never feel good about doing anything bad, and I never feel bad about doing anything good." And that's natural instinct. It's also a moral frame of reference to work from. And so we've got to be aware that by stepping on someone else to improve our own economic or social position is wrong and detrimental to our character. It diminishes us as human beings. And so I have tried to project that sense - that guide, if you will - in all of my affairs. And naturally I've failed miserably on many occasions, and I will continue to fail, I promise you, as long as I'm alive.
MS: Yeah. I'm not expected to be perfect. You know, Mother Teresa told us, "You're not asked to succeed. You're only asked to be faithful." And that's the key, I think, is just to be faithful to your conscience.
MS: Well, sometimes that happens. You know, there are traumatic events that turn us around, but by and large it's an evolution of the growth of the individual. And it begins with parents. The bottom line: if you have compassionate, loving parents who are themselves concerned about the larger community and are living a compassionate life, that's going to be
they don't have to preach it if they're living it. It becomes part of the children's outlook and view of things and a view of themselves. I think service to others is the real key to winning our own personal freedom and the road to our own happiness, our own personal contentment and fulfillment.
MS: Well, I don't know if I'm helping anyone, that's the bottom line, you know. I was speaking to a group of young people not too long ago, and I was trying to encourage them to become involved in issues of social justice and peace. And I kind of gave them the two roads they could follow. They could go the road most traveled, which was conservative and somewhat acceptable - that you would get paid for what you did and you might leave a big inheritance. But you might not be fully content at the end of your life. And I said the road less traveled is one that you basically construct on your own accord to your own personal needs. And that this is the road to freedom. And I try to explain that it's not called the road less traveled for nothing. But then you don't really come to expect success in the way that term is used in our culture.
MS: I would basically define success in the personal contentment of having united the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. I think we're so made that we can't separate those two. And we tried, but I think the people that have been most effective in the world are people who have truly united the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. And I would say Martin Luther King did that all of his life. I would say Gandhi did it. Bobby Kennedy did it. Dorothy Day did it. Certainly, Mother Teresa did it. Pope John the 23rd--all the people that have had this profound effect on all of us over the last 100 years, really, are people who were striving, whether consciously or unconsciously for that unity.
And when we are out of balance, when we are so self-involved, when we are so greedy -- which is really a projection of fear and despair -- of hoarding stuff. It's fear of not having enough but by doing so we deprive people who have nothing.
You know if you look at the statistics across the world, the world is six billion people now. The United States is six percent of that population, though we represent all cultures of the world and all peoples are represented in our culture. Still, we are six percent of the world's population in this country and we use 59 percent of what the world produces. And 94 percent of the six billion are left with 41 percent of the world's resources.
MS: Well, I would focus on that from the get go, you know. Mind you, it's a fantasy. My involvement in the "West Wing," we're a parallel universe. We're not reality but we may be, can be a source of inspiration.
But President Bartlett is, you know, a creation of Aaron Sorkin, our wonderful writer. I would even be far more liberal and progressive if I were President, which would never ever happen, Thank God. But if in some fantasy, I was to be the President, I would have started from the very beginning, I would have reached out to--just one example--I would have continued the Clinton-Gore effort to bring harmony and peace and a statehood in Palestine with the Israelis. They were so close. They were so close, but the Bush administration dropped the ball there because they didn't want anything to do with Clinton-Gore policy. And we see what happened. I would have been absolutely relentless about bringing in the best possible people, the most intelligent, most committed, most humane human beings I possibly could to serve in Cabinet posts for the environment. That would have been a principle concern of mine, not just in the United States, but in the world. And I have would begun a effort of diplomacy so that things like Iran, Iraq would never have gotten to where they are now.
MS: Well, I don't have a cause per se. I have a conscience. And I feel moved to be present at various sites to call attention to peace and justice issues. And so I kind of blame it on the Holy Spirit for the route I've taken to these places and asked to just stand to be a presence to the marginal and a voice to the voiceless. And sometimes it's very costly. But it's also very freeing because in every one of the arrests I've been involved in, I have been satisfied in my conscience that I did everything I possibly could, and I did it nonviolently, and I tried to do it humanely and even joyfully. So that's the major criteria I use for involvement.
I never know where I'm going to go. And when I go to places, I never know what I'm going to do. I only know two things: That I'm going to pray, and I'm going to be nonviolent. And that has been my guide and I have never gone to prison. I don't know whether that will change or not. I never know what's coming down. I don't have any desire to be in prison, nor do I have any desire ever to be arrested again for anything, believe me. But I try to be open and receptive to the need to call attention to some of the major injustices and violence that the world is so unjustly suffering through and just to try and call attention to these issues.
I'm not going to solve anything. I'm not going to change the world. Things have gotten worse since my involvement, you know, 20 years ago or whatever. If I use that as a criteria, I would have given up a long time ago. But that's not the point. I do it for myself, for my own personal freedom. I have no illusions about changing the world. I don't even have any illusions about changing another human being except myself. And the bottom line is that's the only one that I have a power to change and all of us are only required to change ourselves. In so doing the world has changed.