“So when were you born again, Lexi?” My interviewee asked after a rambly half an hour discussing her own religious journey over the past few decades.
My agnostic mind searched for the true meaning of this phrase. I’d gone to Catholic school for over a decade, for Christ’s sake (as you can see it instilled much of my lingo). I went to church on a consistent weekly basis through elementary school. My grandma, who had lived with us for the past six years, watched her church programs every sunday. Yet, the most my mind could settle on was that word “birth.”
“When I was pretty young, I think. Yeah.”
She asked for details. Now, details I simply couldn’t do. I was baptised when I was a toddler which in my religiously-ignorant mind, meant about the same thing. But I feared my own lack of faith would leave my interviewee to believe I couldn’t write about hers.
I frantically put the spotlight on my grandma, a heavily catholic, who did have as much of an influence as she could. Eventually, I turned the conversation around, back to her.
Now, in the few years of reporting I had under my belt, I’d experienced plenty of instances when me and my interviewee did not share similar points of view, whether it be politically or morally. Just within writing for this magazine I’d come across this in about half of my features, where subjects brought up reliance or resilience connected to their religion. But it’s safe to say I’d never been asked about these contrasting points.
Although this particular situation put my in a sticky situation, it reaffirmed an important lesson I hadn’t yet quite realized I was striving for.
My ultimate goal is as a journalist, is to strengthen and apply my sense of empathy and understanding to every subject I speak with, especially those who are fundamentally different from me in some way. Not only will this allow me to tell both sides of a story with better accuracy reporter, but more importantly, with fairness one.
I don’t need to share the same faith, skin tone or socioeconomic status to accurately understand one’s story. Would it help to understand the full picture? Of course, shared experiences create connections and context that no parachute journalist can compete with.
Unfortunately, I can not be agonistic and richly catholic or muslim or buddhist or atheist all at the same time. I cannot be both my middle eastern-american identity and african-american or asian and peruvian. I can not maintain my middle class status while also being in the top one percent and the bottom 10.
As wonderful as this complexity of identities would be for the sake of reporting, its simply not possible. I cannot change my background with the snap of a finger.
Thus, I’ve learned that not all understanding is built on similarities. Instead, I must reach this level of knowledge through human connection which starts with curious mind and a judgeless heart.
With these tools, I use my interviews to dissect in a way that best helps me understand.
Let me know how I did…
A Message beyond the Media
Tina Marie Griffin
Within the walls of the Oasis Church, a group of teenage girls gushed over Madonna’s newest video and Eminem’s latest lyrics. They connected with artists. They idolized them. They believed each word to be true.
Tina Marie Griffin knew this wasn’t the reality. Afterall, that was the world she worked in. She saw a different reality – one where those artists rewrote lyrics for their own kids, one where they didn’t believe in the practices their videos glamorized.
Griffin went from acting in Hollywood productions by day to mentoring this group of girls on Friday nights. Their reactions to the latest in pop culture never ceased to astound her.
“If anything I knew I was watching a movie that was real life,” Griffin said. “When I moved to LA I was shocked to see the kids take this entertainment as real life. They believed it, they wanted to do it.”
In the wake of this realization, she focused her mentorship on enlightenment. Each week she brought them the latest news behind the latest releases. Because she worked within the industry, she always seemed to have the first look.
But soon the contrast was too much. The entertainment aspect she loved became outweighed by the images the industry wanted her to put forth. So she carried on this mentorship in a new way – away from the stars.
A Farmer’s Daughter gone Hollywood
Before she was mentoring teens within the hills of hollywood, Griffin was instructing her younger siblings within the corn fields of her family’s farm. The dairy farm stood in Pulaski, Wisconsin where the phone book was all of ten names long and the school bus route took up 50 minutes.
Intertwined with reading under apple trees, tractor driving and a slew of slumber parties, was the family’s faith. Though Griffin regularly went to church and felt as if she knew who God was, she didn’t fully commit herself to a Christian life until she was 16. It was Sept 14th, 1994.
“I was in church and the pastor shared a message that really spoke to me and that’s when it moved me to go to the front…” Griffin said. “I physically and emotionally felt different when I walked out of church that day.”
From then on, she was committed to Christ and his mission. She carried one phrase particularly close to her heart. It was Ephesians 5:11 that reads “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” It was a saying she would take into college.
Her higher education journey began at the University of Wisconsin. There, she indulged in communications classes and sports reporting for the school paper. Griffin fell in love with the script writing and camera production sides of journalism. She also saw event planning as a catalyst for opportunity.
She served as the head of the good times programming board where Griffin and her team organized campus events with a $70,000 budget. Once the entertainers stepped on campus, she had the chance to meet and speak with them throughout their stay. The entire industry was oh-so exciting to her. She wanted to be a part of it.
“I always was a big dreamer, even when I was a kid,” Griffin said. “I always have the expectation that I have one life to life and I never let small town mindset get in the way…I know somehow someway God gave me these dreams and he won’t allow door to open until I’m fully prepared for it.”
That door opened at the end of her sophomore year. Griffin found a two-year exchange program that allowed her to study at numerous other universities. Without flinching, she knew where her sights were set.
She signed the paperwork to solidify a two-year stay in Los Angeles. Little did she know, she’d be there for ten.
Exposure and Experience in her admired Industry
Griffin scheduled her time at Cal State strategically – part time for school, full time for entertainment experience. That meant her Tuesdays and Thursdays were filled to the brim with courses and the rest of the week was open for business.
She began working on movie sets as a means to pay her way and connect what her classroom lessons to real life. When it came to acting, Griffin grew tough skin quickly. She became used to competing against girls that looked like her twin and understood that rejection was part of the process. It made parts she did earn, that much more rewarding.
Each day was different, but they all started before the sun. Luckily, her previous early morning farming helped with that.
Griffin skipped around from the sets of Days of Our Lives to Roswell to 90210, editing, scripting and taking on small roles. She even put the final touch on a world record.
After auditioning with thousands of people for the behind the scenes role, Griffin was chosen as one of five to build a set design that would break the dominoes world record. ABC flew her and her partners to Holland where they constructed project. After countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dotted plastic rectangles, Griffin set down the final one.
A few weeks later, she was recruited to Malcolm in the Middle to do an entire display all over.
As her time progressed in Hollywood, the glitz and the glam began to fade. The more stars Griffin met, the more she found they didn’t exactly believe in what they were doing. The fear of falling behind pushed them into behaviors on screen that they don’t do in their own life.
Yet, those Oasis church kids ate up every bit of their songs and videos.
“The message going to our kids is you should drink, drive, do drugs,” Griffin said. “Not seeing the consequences is the media really bothered me because I saw the consequences in the kids I was mentoring, then saw these celebrities sheltering their own kids.”
With her favorite verse in mind, she challenged the teens’ admiration and the celebrity’s’ actions. Then she modeled it with her own roles.
Griffin wasn’t against drinking or using drugs in a part. However, she wouldn’t accept a job if it didn’t show the negative effects of her actions. She began wagering with directors. To take these roles, consequences needed to be included, otherwise it was unrealistic in her eyes.
Not all directors accepted her suggestions. Soon the ones who did became few and far between. The shortage made leaving easier.
The Move Fueled by her Mission
They always say the best way to get over one love is to find another – the same reigned true for Griffin. Surprisingly enough, she discovered her love for new speaking through pageantry.
The Miss America system prompted her to nail down a platform and speak to it. She found comfort in a campaign countering the negative effects of the media.
Griffin fell so in love with speaking that she nearly left acting behind completely while still living in Los Angeles. It came to a point that she was passing up every offer due to content or conflict in scheduling that she gave herself a deadline. If she didn’t receive any major offers by the end of 2005, she was going to leave acting behind.
A few days before she left to pursue speaking in Nashville, she received an offer from Freedom Writers that she couldn’t pass up. Though she accepted the role, she continued with her move right after.
From then on she was developing her brand, her mission to raise awareness about the falsehoods the media produces about drugs, alcohol and other practices Griffin deems unsafe. She started as “Tina Marie Live,” but has renamed herself “Counterculture Mom.”
Griffin knows her message doesn’t affect everyone the way she wishes. She’s receives enough comments and cards to solidify that. But those aren’t the notes she keeps.
Tucked away in her office is a stack of momentos with words that make her mission worth it. Her earliest instance of affirmation dates back to the beginning.
A mother came to her asking for advice about her son who was solely listening to violent, negative music. Griffin urged her to talk to him, assuring her there was likely personal reasons behind his behavior. After three hours of questioning, the son opened up.
He had a suicide note written for the next day. Now, he is ten years older than he would’ve be had he not been consoled.
“That’s why I can’t shut up about because I know if I don’t go – there could be someone who’s literally, possibly not be alive tomorrow.”
The Missionary becomes a Mother
Griffin’s husband, Luke, came into her life at a peculiar time. She was transitioning to Nashville when they were first introduced by his brother, one of Griffin’s friends. They spoke on the phone.
His path was different from hers, the opposite you could say. He’d lived in the reality of sins she’d been fighting against. But he’d reached rock bottom and sought help. Now he was in recovery.
They spoke on the phone every day for sixth months. During their fourth time seeing each other in person, Luke asked for her hand in marriage.
After that, Griffin continued invited him to speak with her. The couple skipped all around the country until they landed in Missouri where they participated in a four-year bible school in Roach, Missouri. They decided to call it home.
Four more years brought four new gifts. Their names were Jacob, Levi, Eden And Stella. Griffin raised them just like her father raised her – to be close knit and close to God.
The parents decided early on to homeschool and Griffin still does to this day. Although it takes time away from her career opportunities, Griffin says the bond it’s grown between her and her kids is irreplaceable.
“I don’t want to look back and regret bonding with my kids because when I homeschool, I have a really good relationship with the kids.” Griffin said. “…I don’t want that to change if I don’t homeschool them.”
That connection keeps her going. She invests in them and their future in hopes they’ll carry on the way she taught them – just like her youth group on those Friday nights in Los Angeles.