Beliefnet
Inspiration Report

The National Geographic series “The Story of Us” will reveal the common humanity that lies inside each one of us like love, compassion, justice, peace and freedom. Morgan Freeman travels the globe in search for this answer. “I’ve always been curious, some people call it nosy. That is the driving force of wanting to do and loving to do this type of material,” Freeman said. “It puts you face-to-face “with people way outside of your experience,” he told reporters at the Television Critics Association summer tour.

Each of the 6 hour-long episodes will explore a single fundamental force or topic: freedom, peace, love, social division, power. “The Story of Us” follows the success of “The Story of God,” which Freeman hosted as well.

Executive produce James Younger said the mission of the show is understanding the commonalities we share as humans. “What we’re looking for is how we are linked together. In the history of humanity is always the story of us and the story them. We live in a time where people think that the ‘them’ is getting bigger and the ‘us’ is getting smaller. We felt like this is time to focus on what brings us together and see if we can open people’s eyes to how we can incorporate more of ‘them’ into ‘us.’”

Freeman will talk with people like former inmate Albert Woodfox who was one of the inmates put in solitary confinement 1972 after the killing of a corrections officer. Woodfox was kept in solitary confinement for more than 43 years until he was released in 2016. Joshua Coombes is a hairstylist from London who began a social movement called #DoSomethingForNothing to encourage people to perform random acts of kindness. Paul Kagame is the president of Rwanda. He was able to make peace the horrific civil war. Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church before leaving in 2012. “The show will share her journey as today she’s an advocate for people and ideas she was once taught to despise — especially the value of empathizing with people across ideological lines.”

The episodes will dig deeper into the heart of conflict and war. In the episode, “The Fight for Peace” Freeman will study the cycles of war and peace. From the ritualized combat of the sacred Tinku festival in Bolivia to Rwanda’s postgenocide reconciliation program, this episode deals with humanity’s enormous capacity for violence and the endless pursuit of harmony. “The March of Freedom” is an episode where Freeman travels around the world in search of a greater understanding of the concept of freedom. From solitary confinement and forced labor camps to social taboos and laws that hinder speech and expression, freedom seems to be a constant struggle.

“The Story of Us” with Morgan Freeman premieres Oct. 11 on National Geographic Channel.

Photo Credit: Mary C. Neal, M.D.

Photo Credit: Mary C. Neal, M.D.

Most of us wonder what our first glimpse of heaven will be like. Dr. Mary C. Neal lived it.

In her book, “7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life,” Neal shares her unforgettable account of the Chilean kayaking accident that took her to heaven and back, and changed her life forever.

In 1999, Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, was kayaking on a river in southern Chile when she got trapped under a waterfall. She knew she was in trouble. In that split second, she could see everything that was about to happen but knew it was too late to change a thing. She struggled to get free, but no matter how hard she tried, the powerful torrents and weight of the water above her kept her pinned face down on the front deck of her kayak. She felt this was the end. But what happened next surprised even her.

“Time slowed and despite knowledge of my predicament and the wild turbulence of the water above me, I felt relaxed, calm and strangely hopeful,” Neal said. “I prayed words that seemed to come from outside myself. God, Your will be done. Not mine, but Yours.”

It was at that moment, on the brink of death, that she was sent on an incredible journey to heaven. She was overcome by a physical sensation of being held, comforted and reassured. She felt like Jesus was holding her while she was drowning. She felt her spirit leave her body and when that happened, she was met by heavenly beings, overjoyed to see her.

They took her down a beautiful path to a great dome structure that she described as not only exploding with beauty and color, but exploding with this absolute love of God that was beyond anything she could ever truly explain. In that moment, she was overwhelmed with the sensation of being home. After feeling that comforting sense of home, Neal was told it wasn’t her time yet and that she had to go back to her body. She had more work to do.

Those involved estimated that Neal had been without oxygen for 30 minutes. Her recovery took months.
While Neal was in the hospital care units in Jackson, she had two more out-of-body experiences. In each, she returned to heaven. While the first experience was brief, she once again felt an overwhelming sense of being totally and unreservedly loved by an awesome and supernatural God. The second out-of-body experience was longer and more involved. During this encounter, Neal met Jesus face-to-face. Jesus’ words, in addition to what she witnessed there helped her to discover the truth of heaven and how that truth of heaven can make each day on earth so meaningful. As with her earlier experiences, these struck her as more real than real, she explained.

“Colors were more intense than found on Earth. Smells and sounds effortlessly filled my consciousness, and God’s pure love infused everything…I could see people joyfully twirling and playing at the far end of the field, although I could not tell if they were children or adults,” Neal said. “Yet, one person, who was sitting on a rock next to me, was utterly, inarguably known to me. He was Jesus.”

Neal has been asked by many people what Jesus looked like. Her answer: “Endless kindness and compassion.” While these aren’t words that are typically used to describe visual attributes, they best communicated the presence she overwhelmingly felt.

During her time, she asked Jesus a lot of questions, many of which are hard for her to recall now. What she does remember is that she received a complete understanding of the universe and our interconnectedness. Everything struck me as logical, interwoven and magnificent, she said.

Neal has also been asked countless times how she knew that she had encountered Jesus. Some assumed that she just imagined it because she wanted it to be Jesus. Others tried to convince her that the one she took the person to be with a name was just a collection of energy. But there was no doubt in Neal’s head that this was Jesus. She didn’t even need to ask His name.

In her first book, “To Heaven and Back,” Neal referred to the presence of Jesus quite vaguely, calling Him an “angel, messenger, Christ, or teacher.” Neal knew who He was without a doubt, but didn’t want to share the identity of the man next to her. In reflecting, she realizes it was because she was afraid.

The first reason Neal held back was because she feared that revealing too much would make it less special. The second reason was because she was afraid to confess was because she didn’t think she had earned the right to speak to Jesus. She felt she could never be good enough to bask in His love for her. What she learned from this encounter was that God doesn’t play favorites. None of us have earned what we have received – neither our perceived blessings nor perceived troubles.

“It was Job, the Bible’s poster child for suffering and unfair treatment who said, ‘[God] shows no partiality to princes, and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all of His hands,” Neal said.

Yes, there’s a ledger keeper in all of us. Some focus more on the good stuff. Others fixate on all the bad things. Yet, we are blessed to have had Jesus come to show us another way. For Neal, it was this intimate moment that showed her this. For us, it can be seen through Jesus’ love through death on a cross for our sins.

“You and I don’t ‘earn’ an intimate moment with God. I didn’t have to ‘deserve’ a seat next to Jesus in that beautiful field,” Neal said. “And I’m not required to earn His favor in order to spend an eternity enjoying God’s love. I know that now.”

Neal went to heaven and back, conversed with Jesus and experienced God’s encompassing love. She returned to Earth with some specific instructions for work she still needed to do and she is following that call by sharing her experience with others.

Her story is a testament to the miracles and intervention of God, and how transformative His power can be. Her story is one of hope and gives us reason to live by faith. For more powerful insights on heaven, read 7 Lessons from Heaven,” by Mary C. Neal.

Anna Leach

In 2014, the number of forcibly displaced people in the world numbered almost 60 million—that’s a 40 percent increase since 2011. The largest groups come from Syria, where civil war rages and explosions rip through the concrete walls of homes on a regular basis. Other refugees from all across the Middle East and Africa flee situations that are just as deadly.

Among these fleeing masses are the most vulnerable of us—children. These young ones have often known nothing but hardship in their short span of years, and the dangerous trek across war zones, through forests and swamps and dry, arid plains takes a massive toll on their helpless minds and bodies.

When these refugee families reach their destinations, their lot doesn’t always improve. They’re far away from their homes, sick, exhausted, and afraid. Often, they live in temporary camps, devoid of the amenities and comforts that we take for granted. Amongst these children, there are many tears and few smiles.

But that’s exactly what the members of The Flying Seagull Project are here to change.

These men and women are clowns, musicians, dancers, performers, playworkers, play specialists, and more, and they focus on working with refugee families who are living in the harshest environments, giving them one of the rarest of gifts: laughter.

“Happiness matters like food, like water, like warmth, like shelter,” said Flying Seagull actor Miriam Needham in an interview with The Guardian. “I’ve seen the change it can bring to people, how it can make people strong just to laugh. Happiness and joy are contagious—it goes from the children to the parents out to the whole community.”

This colorful troupe of circus-like performers travels all across Europe, partnering with local organizations to bring smiles to the disadvantaged. But they aren’t just fun—they’re also informed. Their organizational website lists the research-proven psychological and physical benefits of play, which include improved motor functions and immune systems, the development of a higher IQ, greater emotional resilience, and a reduction in anti-social behavior.

The development of a child is a complex thing. We often talk about fulfilling basic needs—things like food, water, and shelter—but play doesn’t normally come up in that conversation.

It should. Within a decade, these children are going to grow up, and without intervention, their childhood experiences may become psychological problems that will be far more difficult to work out in adulthood. The very tragedy they fled from can a deeply-embedded part of their consciousness.

Without the Flying Seagulls, these children might have missed out on these tangible benefits.

You might think that language barriers would keep these performers from meaningfully interacting with refugee populations, but words are impediment—smiles and laughter are a universal language that captivate and communicate.

A video hosted by the Facebook page of BBC Three shows exactly what the Flying Seagull performers do when they’re amongst the refugees. A bearded man in a top hat and striped stockings rides a bicycle through camp, calling to children as he passes. A woman plays the violin as she walks, a troupe of children following gaily behind. A dramatic, black-swathed magician performs for a group of excited kids in beneath a red-and-gold cloth tent.

And in all of these moments, these children are no longer refugees. For a while, they’re no longer caught between the crushing monoliths of opposing political systems or warring regimes. They’re not running away, afraid, or lonely.

They’re just children, laughing and smiling. As they should be.

These kids appreciate what the Flying Seagull performers do for them. “Before, the kids doesn’t have anything to do,” said one child. “Just they stay in the tent. When [the Flying Seagulls] come, you make something from nothing.”

In the midst of devastation, this is a much-needed introduction of passionate, creative humanitarianism that benefits not only refugee children, but their parents, as well. When their kids are happy, and start acting like children again for the first time in months or years, this is a huge relief for worried moms and dads.

This produces a ripple effect that reaches far into the future. In using play to help refugee children develop, both mentally and physically, the Flying Seagull performers are sowing seeds that will one day blossom into a new generation of healthy, happy people who aren’t defined by their pasts.

If you want to help them sow these seeds, you can easily donate to their cause—every bit helps in the quest to bring happiness to a child.

It might be hard to imagine a world in which silliness is as valuable as food and rare as gold, but for millions, this is reality. But the Flying Seagulls show us that wherever there is suffering, wherever there are tears and lowered heads, a merry few will take it upon themselves to reunite humanity with happiness.

And that is an inspiring thought.

downloadGeorge Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Matthew McConaughey and Kelly Rowland are just a few of the a-list, Hollywood stars that have signed up to participate in a Hurricane relief telethon.

The “Hand in Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Harvey Relief” will take place on September 12 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC, CBS and NBC and will be streamed live on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook. Country superstar George Strait will appear on the telecast in concert from the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas. The telecast will originate from the Universal Studios lot, Times Square and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

The telethon has been expanded to extend help to Hurricane Irma victims as well. Event organizers Scooter Braun and Bun B say that they are prepared to help in anyways that they can.

“Due to the impending possibility of Hurricane Irma, the Hand in Hand Hurricane benefit has now made arrangements and is prepared to expand its beneficiaries of the September 12th telethon to also include those who may be affected by Hurricane Irma in addition to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. We are prepared to help in any way we can,” organizers said in a statement, per Variety.

The death toll from Harvey has hit 63, according to CBS News. Tens of thousands of people in the southeast Texas region have been displaced from homes that were damaged or destroyed after days of torrential rain and winds.

The proceeds of the telethon will go to a range of charities that are currently helping with relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey including United Way of Greater Houston, Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children, Feeding Texas and the Mayor’s Fund for Hurricane Harvey Relief.

Local organizations are also gearing up to aid the victims of the hurricanes. Two local organizations joined forces in Houston, and donations have been plentiful but say the need is still great. St. Vincent de Paul Society and Humans with Purpose, a newly formed organization, discovered each other thought social media and are now a team in the Hurricane Harvey effort.

Humans with Purpose was formed by two friends, Joe Macklin of Boardman and Tom Sanders of Coaldale, Pa., after devastation of the hurricane became known.

“I told my friend Tom if he could get the truck, I will get the donations,” Macklin said. “Getting this accomplished is a real testament to the power of social media and the kindness of complete strangers.”

Social media has become a powerhouse in getting aid to those who need it most. Stars like Drake have already been pledging support for the people of Texas though social media, when Harvey first devastated the region.

Kevin Hart donated $50,000 and kicked off a campaign that encouraged his friends like Kim Kardashian, Steve Harvey, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Justin Timberlake to do the same for what he called the Hurricane Harvey Relief Challenge. Kardashian and her family announced in a tweet Tuesday they’d be donating $500,000 to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Johnson also announced a $25,000 donation in a social media post where he recalled his experience with Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
These Hollywood stars know that they have the influence to make a difference in the lives of these hurricane victims. If you want to donate, look for local or national charities around you.