This is the prepared text for my speech at the Personal Democracy Forum on June 6th 2011. I stumbled in a place or two, so it's not exactly what I said, but it's pretty close. - Jim Gilliam
There are three pillars of a successful movement, stories, tools, and faith. We've heard incredible stories the last 24 hours, and many of us are building the tools for democracy... but what I want to share with you is about faith, my struggle with faith.
Growing up, I had two loves. Jesus and the internet.
My dad worked at IBM and my family moved out to Silicon Valley when I was very young. Our home happened to be right across the street from a church. But not just any church, this church had thousands of members and was ground zero for Jerry Falwell's new Moral Majority movement on the west coast.
I was born again when I was 8, I put my faith in Jesus and became quite the precocious young conservative. As a teenager, i developed a fiercely independent worldview. I called talk radio, went on mission trips, listened to Rush Limbaugh, while my mom homeschooled my two sisters and I, trying to protect us from the corrupting influences of the secular world.
Then one day my dad brought home a weird looking phone and plugged into his computer. It made a bizarre screeching noise like it was trying to mate with a rhinoceros or something. Instead it attracted me, and that's when I found out that computers could talk to each other.
That was it. From that point on, I would spend my mornings doing schoolwork, I'd go to church three times a week, and then i'd go online and meet all kinds of people..hackers, feminists, punks, Tori Amos fans...people far older than me who had no idea i was 12 years old. I was judged on my brain, not discounted because of my age. I loved it.
I went to college at Liberty University. This is where Dr. Falwell trained young soldiers to go out into every profession and win it for the kingdom of God. It is a massive operation, thousands of students on campus, tens of thousands off campus, all fed by a global network of churches and an infrastructure that dates back two thousand years. My role was in the computer lab, I spent all my time there. Brought the internet to campus, made Liberty's first website, and even fixed Dr. Falwell's computer.
But by spring break, I had run out of breath, literally I couldn't breathe. I had cancer. Lymphoma. I started chemo right away, with my church and my family by my side. but just two weeks into it, we found out my mom had cancer too.
After 9 rounds of chemo. I survived, my mom didn't, our family fell apart, and my faith in God was shattered.
It was the very beginning of the dot com boom, and my ticket out was this whole mess was at a startup in Boston. But just 6 months later, the cancer came back. This time it was in my blood. Now I was totally screwed. The only chance I had, and it was a long shot, was if the doctors could find a bone marrow donor. Then I'd have maybe a ten percent chance of surviving.
While they looked, I spent two months in the hospital getting hammered with chemo. I was in the ICU constantly, I almost died a couple times, I was in so much pain I had a button to push which would inject me with pharmaceutical grade heroine. Every time I pressed it, I felt defeated and broken. I just wanted it to end. God had forsaken me.
But the doctors hadn't.. they found a match. They baked me in an oven of radiation for a couple of weeks, and then early one morning, groggy from all the benadryl, I watched as a tiny little bag of marrow emptied into my arm. I walked out of the hospital two weeks later. My body replenished with the blood of a stranger.
I couldn't waste another second of my life, so I gave myself to the Internet, what I loved the most. I was an engineer at Lycos, one of the first search engines and then became the CTO at Business.com...all up until 9/11. Then the activist in me awoke. I had no illusions at all that I could change anything, but I knew this was a historic moment, and that if I didn't at least try, I would look back in 10 years and regret it.
Robert Greenwald was looking for someone to research the Iraq war for his first documentary. I sent him a link to my blog and the next day I was a movie producer.
Four crazy intense months later, I drove up to our very first screening at an indie theater in Santa Monica. The line was around the block. We added a second screening that night. And in a matter of weeks activists all over the world organized thousands of free screenings all coordinated through the website. And bit by bit the media changed the way they talked about the war.
Holy crap!!!! this works! My faith was restored, but it wasn't faith in God. It was faith in the internet.. or really.. it was faith in people connected through the internet.
We went on to start Brave New Films making several documentaries, crowd funding films, and actually changing things I never imagined were possible, all by telling stories and organizing people through the internet.
And then I ran out of breath. Again. All the radiation treatments that helped me survive cancer years before had scarred my lungs and now I could barely walk up the stairs. I had maybe a couple years left. My only option was to replace both of them. A double lung transplant. I needed someone to die so that I might be saved.
But first I had to get on the waiting list. The stats of every lung transplant program are posted online, and UCLA had the best on the west coast. But they took one look at my file and said forget it. The risk of dying in surgery was too high.
Come on! I was pissed. So I blogged about it. I called the surgeons at UCLA a few names which I probably shouldn't repeat here. But then something amazing happened. One of the volunteers from Brave New Films saw my post and wrote an email to the generic UCLA email address accusing them of only doing easy surgeries to inflate their survival rates. Then my sister wrote an email, then all my friends sent emails.
Two weeks later the scheduler from UCLA called to set up an appointment. I told her they had already rejected me, she said "I don't know, but I've got you on my list, you need an appointment."
When I met with the surgeon he said he had been forwarded the emails. My case had been rejected before it had even gotten to him. Lung transplant surgeons have many great qualities, but humility is certainly not one of them. No one was going to accuse him of being afraid of anything.
There were many more hurdles to jump, normally it takes a couple weeks to get on the list, it took me months. the insurance companies tried to weasel out of it, the transplant board kept coming up with excuses, more tests were ordered each week. but my family, friends, their friends, and a bunch of people from the internet fought every step of the way, and I got on the list.
A year later, my phone rang. Then my step mom's phone rang. Then my dad's phone rang. It was time.
As I was prepped for the surgery, I wasn't thinking about Jesus or whether my heart would start beating again after they stopped it, or whether I would go to heaven if it didn't.
I was thinking about all the people who had gotten me here. I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body. Three different DNAs, individually they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human. What an enormous debt to repay. Not of money, but of life. I didn’t deserve this, how could I ever repay it?
And that’s when I truly found God.
God is just what happens when humanity is connected.
Humanity connected is God.
There is no way I could ever repay this debt, it is only by the grace of God, your grace, that I might be saved.
The truth is, we all have this same cross to bear. I needed a couple extra DNAs to really get it. But everything we achieve is built on the sacrifices of others. Whether it's the freedom we enjoy because of the soldiers who fight for our country, or the scientists who invent the cures that keep us healthy. We are all connected, we are all in debt to each other, we all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet.
The internet gives us the opportunity to pay back a small part of that debt. As a child, I believed in Creationism, that the universe was created in 6 days. Now we are the creators. Every one of us has our own unique skills and talents to contribute to creating the kingdom of God. We serve God best when we do what we love for the greatest cause we can imagine.
What we do here. What the people in this room do is spiritual, it is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world.
Each one of us is a creator, but together we are The Creator.
All I know about the person whose lungs I now have is that he was twenty-two years old and six feet tall. I don't know anything about who he was as a person, but I do know something about his family. I know that in the height of loss, when all any family should have to do is grieve. As their son, as their brother, lay motionless in bed, they were asked to give up to seven strangers a chance to live.
And they said yes.
Today I breathe through someone else's lungs while another's blood flows through my veins.
I have faith in people.
I believe in God.
And the internet is my religion.