Extraordinary Ordinary People: Interview with Senior Fulbright Scholar, Naj Wikoff

Extraordinary Ordinary People
Interview with Senior Fulbright Scholar, Naj Wikoff
by Elissa Melaragno

Naj Wikoff

Naj Wikoff

Naj Wikoff is an author, activist, and artist. He is a leader in the field of global community, arts, and healing, bringing workshops and programs to Israel, Palestine, Russia, and around the world. In our August 2014 interview, he shared with me some of what motivates him to bring his creative vision into so many different communities for healing. “We celebrate extraordinary people,” he said, “yet, often it is the ordinary people who do the extraordinary who really deserves our praise the most. And, sometimes, they are the most ordinary of ordinary people.”


EM: Naj, I see you standing at that crossroads of social justice and spirituality—the same crossroads we explore here at Anchor. At that nexus, one often stands on a sharp edge between two chasms of conflicting ideologies. Such a stance, it seems to me, can either break up collective movements for change or create new opportunities for individual and collective growth. I am sure that you have many stories that could highlight this challenge. Does any one in particular come to mind now?

NW: Well, yes, the outstanding circumstances and experience of my meeting Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and prelate of New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 comes to mind. I was serving as director of Arts and Productions at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, also in New York City. In that capacity, the manager of Diamanda Galás had approached me, asking if we were willing to host Plague Mass, her artistic response to the then growing AIDS epidemic. 

Diamanda had quite a cult following of people who, like her, dressed in gothic black. She was a very gifted pianist and singer with a four-octave range. Her voice was capable of sounding as breathtaking as any operatic diva one moment and like a teakettle the next—a voice, as one critic described it, “capable of the most unnerving vocal terror.” She was a just a slip of a woman. Hard to believe that such a slender person could wrench the heart out of a person sitting in the furthest back row.

Her debut was at the Festival d’Avignon in 1978 in France, performing the lead in Un Jour Comme un Autre, an opera by composer Vinko Globokar based on Amnesty International’s documentation of the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for alleged treason. You might say that taking on difficult topics was her passion. She was in the midst of gaining considerable attention for The Masque of the Red Death, her operatic trilogy about people suffering with AIDS, when I met her. Her proposal was to present a new work, her summary statement on the issue, to be called Plague Mass. Her brother, playwright Phillip-Dimitri Galás, had died of AIDS only a few years earlier, and her artistic anguish was personal.

The Cathedral was the first church to install a memorial to those struck down by AIDS. We had a close working relationship with The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Actor’s Equity Fights AIDS, and others supporting those living with AIDS and raising money to find a cure. Thus I was not surprised that she approached us as a venue. I listened to a recording of The Masque of Red Death, discussed the idea with the Dean and Sub-Dean of the Cathedral, getting their permission to go forward, and booked a date for two back-to-back performances. 

I was a bit alarmed a few months later to read in the papers that Diamanda and 52 other members of ACT UP had padlocked themselves to pews in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in protest of the Cardinal’s then-opposition to safe-sex education and the distribution of condoms in schools. The protesters were arrested and hauled off to jail a few weeks before Diamanda’s scheduled performance. At the time, ACT UP’s protest was the largest demonstration against the Catholic Church ever in history (4,500 people demonstrated outside the Cathedral).

“Great!” I thought. “Now what?”

Diamanda was released after spending three days in jail. I was able to put that incident out of my mind, and rehearsals took place on schedule. I have to say, the staging was quite impressive—a regular ziggurat of stacked platforms bearing elaborate drum sets, amps, electronic this-and-that, candles, and other effects. The dramatic finish to the performance featured Diamanda’s bare chest dripping with stage blood. She used my apartment on the church grounds to clean up, leaving the impression that Anthony Hopkins had killed Janet Leigh in my shower.

Just before 8:00 AM on the Friday of opening night, I arrived at my office, made a cup of tea, opened the New York Times and, flipping to the Arts Section, saw the headline, “Arrested at St. Patrick’s, Now Performing at St. John the Divine, Diamanda Galás!” My heart sank. At that moment the phone rang. It was The Very Reverend Richard Grein, Bishop of New York, head of our Episcopal diocese. 

“Naj, have you seen today’s paper?” he said, not in a friendly tone.

“Yes Bishop, I just opened the paper.”

“How do you think Cardinal O’Connor would feel seeing that headline?”

“Not too pleased. I am sure it would cause him great concern.”

“Do you think that he might take this as an attack on his policies by us?”

“Yes, he might. But that is not at all the case,” I said.

“Would you be willing to explain that to him?” 

“Yes,” I said.

“Good, you can please do that right now because he is on the line, has already shared his concerns with me, and we await your answer along with Dean Morton, who is also on the line.” Such was my first introduction to Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop to the Archdiocese of New York’s 2.37 million Catholics.

I explained to the Cardinal that this was an artistic expression of grief, of loss, tearing of hair and lament by all who have lost and were losing loved ones to AIDS. I shared that this was a very personal performance for Diamanda—that her brother had died of AIDS. I concluded along the lines of: “We are allowing this heart wrenching performance to take place here, because where better than in a church? Where better than in the house of God to extend to all living with AIDS, all who have died of AIDS, and their families, the healing embrace of God’s love? We are offering to Diamanda, and all those she represents, and all those touched by this performance, a safe place to share their anguish. We are saying that not only is this church a place for joy, sacred vows, and renewal, but it is also a place where our most heartbreaking grief may be shared.”

There was stillness on the line for a moment. Then the Bishop said, “Well, Your Eminence? What do you think?”

“He is right. You are right to hold this performance. Do so with my blessings. Please convey them to Diamanda and to those present.”

So we did. Both shows were standing room only and marked an important moment of healing in the journey of our city as we confronted AIDS. 

EM: What a powerful example of holding the space open and leading through chaos with truth. Did you have any idea what you were going to say to the Cardinal before you heard his voice? Was this a moment when you had to check your ego and rely on your “heart” or the sense of purpose that had originally led you into that job?

NW: I felt the best answer was to be straight with him. When the Cathedral’s Dean, The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, hired me, he told me that my job was to “uplift the human spirit through the arts.” The Cathedral was one of those places, as our Sub-Dean, Joel Gibson, had said, “where the rubber hits the road.” We provided a safe place for people from all walks of life, addressing all the ups and downs of life. I had time and time again witnessed the healing power of a priest laying his or her hands on a parishioner. Thus, to me, providing Diamanda a place to express the anguish she and so many felt was no different than that simple act of grace that is at the core of what the church does day in and day out.

Diamanda Galás: Plague Mass , Promotion Card

Diamanda Galás: Plague Mass, Promotion Card

I had time and time again witnessed the healing power of a priest laying his or her hands on a parishioner. Thus, to me, providing Diamanda a place to express the anguish she and so many felt was no different than that simple act of grace that is at the core of what the church does day in and day out.

EM: That idea of providing a safe place for people to come and to experience grace seems to be a theme in your work, particularly with Creative Healing Connections, which is an organization you founded to support women dealing with cancer and other chronic illnesses. How did that work begin? 

NW: Back when I was 45, I had three women friends living with cancer—Robin, Wendy, and Anne.

Robin was a widow with two preteen children. She knew that when she died her children would be orphans. She volunteered for experimental programs like bone marrow transplants—anything that might help her stay alive longer for her children. She had been a tall, slender, elegant woman. Her body was radically transformed by the disease, but she made sure I knew she was still that same person. I learned from her the importance of having a safe place, a group of people with whom she could share her thoughts, feelings, humor, and strength. She didn’t want to be treated like a piece of china. 

Wendy was an environmentalist. Nature was her most important source of peace, inspiration, and healing. She also needed time alone with just women—that time, to her, was of vital importance. I’ll never forget seeing her one March morning at her small house surrounded by a circle of women singing to her. 

And Anne was an artist. She could not talk about her emotions directly, but she could create a drawing and explain those emotions through the drawing. Drawing gave her power over the disease so that it no longer controlled her. 

I was at an event with Wendy where Anne was being honored for her artistic contributions to the Adirondack Council and the Nature Conservancy. The event was held at a private Adirondack Great Camp, and I thought, “what a great place to bring together women living with cancer.” I pitched the owner on the idea of hosting a healing retreat for women. Her neighbor, Beverly Bridger, overheard me and offered her place, Great Camp Sagamore. 

Storyteller Fran Yardley and Musician Peggy Lynn at a Creative Healing Connections retreat.

Storyteller Fran Yardley and Musician Peggy Lynn at a Creative Healing Connections retreat.

With that, the question was who would lead the retreat. So, I called the storyteller Fran Yardley, and Beverly called the musician Peggy Lynn. They both agreed, and that’s how our healing retreats started nineteen years ago under the banner of Creative Healing Connections. I drew on what I learned from Robin, Wendy, and Anne to structure the programs, which is one reason why only women have led our retreats for women. I have led programs for men, and helped lead programs for military families and now first responders. Six years ago, we expanded the program to include retreats for women veterans, all of whom are living with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), many from military sexual trauma and other outcomes of service.

These retreats simply help some people find strengths they may not know they had. They learn that they are not alone—that each of them can be of inspiration and help to others. They also learn many practical things to enhance their quality of life. They learn that each of them can be the answer to another person’s prayer, as indeed we all are when we give another person a break from pain or when we help another feel heard and know that she is not alone. They help one another leave a legacy without leaving anything unsaid. 

These retreats simply help some people find strengths they may not know they had. They learn that they are not alone—that each of them can be of inspiration and help to others.

EM: Beautiful. It is great to hear of the many ways that you are living out your sense of purpose. That idea of legacy makes me think of the legacy that you are living out in your own life. The eradication of human trafficking and slavery has been a cause very close to your heart. As I understand it, there is a bit of a personal connection you feel to the cause. Can you explain the road that brought you to this issue?

NW: In the 1950’s, my parents opened a ski lodge and motel in Lake Placid, NY that was filled each May by busloads of African-American men and women, mostly organized by the NAACP of Philadelphia and elsewhere. The groups came up to honor John Brown—the nineteenth-century abolitionist who famously took up arms and died in the attempt to end slavery—on the anniversary of his birth. Later on, many of these people would travel from John Brown’s grave down south to march with Dr. King and others. As a child, I learned about slavery from the people who stayed in my parents’ hotel. I learned from them that Jim Crow was slavery in another form.

Many years later, in April of 2009, I was asked to join a delegation organized by the Lake Placid Visitor’s Bureau to travel to Harpers Ferry and learn about plans for commemorating the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid, trial, and death. The grave sites for Brown and most of the raiders who fought with him are at his North Elba Farm in Lake Placid. So, we wondered if there was anything we from Lake Placid could do for the anniversary. 

We learned that four states, along with Yale University and the National Parks Service, had all been working on their plans for four years. We had six months. We had no plans. So, after we met with about 40 members of the planning team, they turned to us to give them an outline of our activities. The question was passed to me, and I replied with an idea immediately that came to mind, that our event was called, John Brown Coming Home, and we intended to reenact the cortege home—John Brown’s body lying in state at the Essex County Courthouse, his funeral, and his burial. Basically, with that, I moved the final act of this national commemoration from Harpers Ferry to Lake Placid and from a hanging to a burial. They were not initially too thrilled, but, as historians, they understood the logic and provided great assistance.

A benefit of starting so late was that I could review everyone else’s plans. I put together a planning team. We noted that few, if any, gave credit to the critical role African-Americans played in the abolitionist movement, both as abolitionists themselves and with the courage it took to attempt to leave slavery and to join the Underground Railroad. We noted that there were too few black scholars involved, so I recruited a historian, Margaret Washington, from Cornell University. 

Russell Banks reading John Brown’s last statement at the courtroom in front of John Brown’s grave.

Russell Banks reading John Brown’s last statement at the courtroom in front of John Brown’s grave.

We wanted people to understand why Brown hated slavery. We wanted people to get in their gut what a terrible scourge it was and remains to this day. Since John Brown inspired people ranging from Emerson and Du Bois to the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, we brought people from both sides of that equation to participate in our presentations. In the end, John Brown Coming Home was a big success. 

Since this event, my colleague, Martha Swan, through her organization John Brown Lives!, has revived the annual pilgrimages to the John Brown Farm that had died out after President Johnson passed civil rights legislation. I have been assisting Martha in a variety of ways.

EM: You opened your article, “Extraordinary Ordinary People,” published in the Lake Placid News this past May 15, with a quotation by Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schulz. Dr.   Laughlin-Schulz is an educator who led a workshop at the John Brown Lives! event on how to use some original source materials about John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry with students. I want to share her words with our readers:

“I [Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schulz] brought letters from raiders found in archives over the years that provided a new perspective as to why these young men were willing to make such a sacrifice. They were true believers. They wrote these eloquent letters before and after the raid; those who were captured and those who escaped, talking about their willingness to make the sacrifice for liberty. Only one of them is above the age of thirty, besides John Brown. They are from a variety of places, Iowa, Kansas, New England, and here in Lake Placid. The most moving part of the John Brown story is that these young men knew what they were doing. They write how they were willing to sacrifice themselves. They used words like duty, and they mean it in a way that we do not—that we find hard to accept. I have to do this. I cannot live in a world where slavery exists unless I do something about it. John Brown would say everybody is the same. He would say that he would make the same sacrifice for the person he doesn’t know who is in the cotton fields in the deep south as for his own child. That is an interesting and mind boggling thought, and he acted on those beliefs.”

EM: I also want to share an excerpt of your writing from that same article:

At the laying of wreaths, Larry Lawrence, president of the John Brown Society said, “John Brown and the men who lie with him at this precious spot covered themselves in honor and glory at Harpers Ferry. They are the yardstick by which we can measure commitment to the cause of justice to the poor. They placed a value on the slave that was above gold and they lifted high the lamp of racial equality to light the pathway of mankind.”

“We are really trying to bring out the importance of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and indeed, the raiders were ordinary people,” said Cornell professor and author Margaret Washington. “These were not people like Wendell Phillips, who for all his contributions was the son of a former mayor of Boston. These were ordinary people who were farmers, laborers, and artisans who rose to the occasion and their stories are often forgotten or never told.”

“It is inspiring for today,” I replied. “People need to understand that they shouldn’t sit and wait for our president or somebody else to make a difference.”

“Yes, you are the person that you are waiting for,” said Washington.

EM: There is a profound simplicity and inspiration in this idea that “we are the people we have been waiting for.” I hear it throughout the stories you have shared. With the number of causes you advocate for through your work and with the amount of time you spend with individuals and communities in deep need of inspiration and healing, are there times when you feel overwhelmed by the number of important issues you would like to address? What do you do to replenish your own inner resources? 

NW: I do what I can. At times, I do despair for the future of humanity. Human trafficking and slavery still exist today as a result of the combination of poverty and greed. We recently screened the documentary film, The Dark Side of Chocolate, by Miki Mistrati and Roberto Romano, which reveals how children are lured away from their homes by the promise of earning money, getting an education, and being provided decent housing. Traffickers sell children for about 200 euros each to cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) where they are given no access to education, fed poorly, work for long hours using sharp machetes in an environment often heavily laced with pesticides, and stay until they either die, are found wanting and cast aside, or, in a few cases, manage to escape. 

The conditions we are fighting are devastating. That said, I am optimistic. I feel that the readers of Anchor and others like them throughout the world are our best hope. I feel that each of us needs to connect with other like-minded positive people and to keep moving forward. Great progress has been made, and together we need to keep working. 

EM: Naj, thank you for your time. One final question: what words of inspiration would you have for people today who might feel overwhelmed by the many issues plaguing our world? 

NW: Focus on what you can do and take care of yourself—don’t burn yourself out on the journey. There is great personal satisfaction in making a difference in some way, and these differences, large or small, do add up. Truly enjoy the people you meet. Become aligned with people who put their values and life on the line for others and for this planet. People are not perfect; they have their strengths and weaknesses as we all do. But, by being with others who value life, it really feels possible to walk in the light. Your actions do matter. As Margaret Washington has said, the combined actions of ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. §

Truly enjoy the people you meet.

As a professional visual artist for thirty years, Elissa’s work, though held in many private collections, has been focused on public arts, especially in healthcare settings. Her training in several holistic healing modalities and as a spiritual director has informed her work as an art instructor to include creativity, the mandala, and inner exploration as a source of growth, healing, and vocational enrichment.