I snatched up my rifle, ready to shoot, but the man urgently held his hands up and greeted me. I frantically scanned him with my eyes, searching for any suspicious bulges—any signs of a bomb. I found nothing, and finally returned his greeting: “Wa alaykum asalaam" (And peace be upon you). This was Baghdad in 2008.
Everything about this man’s appearance was commonplace. He was a gray-bearded Iraqi man named Abu Ali. However, his delicate smile disarmed me and he spoke to me in fluent English. I gave him some of my water to drink and a snack pack of Oreos, and offered him a nearby seat in the shade. He shared about himself and his past. He had been an elite member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and had made a wonderful life for his children and grandchildren, until everything fell apart. He asked me, “Why did you come to Iraq?”
I gave him an answer George W. would have been proud of: “I came to make life better for the Iraqi people and rid this place of terrorism.”
With tired hopelessness, he remarked—and I’ll never forget this—“With Saddam, I could see a future for Iraq. Now, I cannot see five years. I cannot see next year.”
Abu Ali not only changed my understanding of war, he changed my understanding of humanity. I realized how little geopolitics mattered compared to the universal desire to provide basic needs for loved ones. I had been trained to dehumanize Iraqis to make it easier for me to pull my trigger. Yet, a chance exchange over Oreos and a simple story from someone on the fringes changed everything about how I saw people. His story gave me a deeper taste of his struggles and helped me to embrace him as a brother.
Ellis Chang pictured with Abu Ali (Baghdad, Iraq circa 2008)
Years later, Michael Villalas felt compelled to pursue his passion for acting and media production. Meanwhile, I had started getting more serious about honing my filmmaking skills. Michael and I met during a time in our lives when God was challenging us to use our talents to make an impact. After recognizing our shared passions, we kicked off several collaborative sessions to create short films for church. With God’s perfect timing, the 9To5 Ministry announced its Entrepreneurship Initiative to incentivize and support ODPC entrepreneurs who have a bold vision for ventures that promote Gospel-centered renewal in Open Door, Herndon, and beyond. We applied with a vision to utilize our gifts and talents to address the brokenness in our communities by promoting storytelling about human experiences that connect us all. By God’s grace and the visionary support of the 9To5 Ministry team, we secured some seed money to get started on our endeavor.
L-R: Mike Villalas, Batman & Superman, and Ellis Chang & Mike Villalas
As we debuted our films, we began to see our work inspire people to have compassion for others and to live out their faith. One of our productions reminded the congregation of the importance of contributing to the 2018 Missions Auction. By telling the story of distant places in need of love, support, and prayer, and by identifying the specific projects being funded, we helped inspire our church to action. The auction raised a record amount, beating expectations by more than $10,000. It was a confirmation of the significance and power of storytelling.
Cinemagraphs of "People and Oreos" and Ellis Chang with flying camera drone
Through our boutique agency, Story Media Labs, Michael and I aim to create authentic film and marketing content that breaks through the superficial and invites people to embrace local businesses, non-profits, and government for what’s on the inside. Much like how Abu Ali’s story helped me to understand our common humanity, we hope to build a relationally connected community in Northern Virginia, as we invite others to experience the stories of our clients.
God gives us endless opportunities to exercise our faith. Dr. Amy Sherman, who spoke to Open Door about faith and work, has described work as a way to bring a foretaste of the Kingdom. That kind of work involves an entrepreneurial spirit and an appetite for risk—it requires faith-driven action to model divine love, community, justice, service, and artistry among our co-workers and clients. The biggest lesson is that we can all take action, wherever we are in life.
Cinemagraphs of Story Media Labs and the intersection of Centreville Rd. and Sunrise Valley Drive in Herndon, Virginia
Story Media Labs aspires to serve as a Business-As-Mission (BAM) by giving Mike and myself a natural bridge to have Gospel-centered, meaningful interaction with our local community members. As we hear and share stories, the work will help us dig past the exterior layers of local businesses, non-profits, and government, and enable cross-community relationships.
I think back often to that conversation in Iraq with Abu Ali over Oreos. People and Oreos have a lot in common—the best stuff is on the inside. Stories bring the best stuff out.
Follow Story Media Labs on social media and check out their website at www.storymedialabs.com.