New Gandhi | - January 9, 2012

"He’s done more than 90 portrayals and presentations of Gandhi’s ideas both in this country and internationally"

Let’s say you wake up one day and decide to impersonate someone you admire. No, not Elvis, but say Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi. Is that a good idea? Is that even good karma?

Well, it wasn’t exactly that way. What happened was that mild-mannered, 50-something Don McAvinchey, a social worker by trade and father of four, was merely interested in Gandhi and his work. So when the 100th anniversary of Satyagraha, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement, rolled around, on Sept. 11, 2006, McAvinchey decided to join the devoted believers worldwide to celebrate the event by showing films of Gandhi’s life and giving talks.

McAvinchey, who had moved to Santa Fe from Michigan that same year, put together a celebration to be held at the Unitarian church. It went so well that he was asked to do a second event. 

When the third request came, the balding McAvinchey kiddingly said, “Since Mr. Gandhi and I share the same hairstylist, I’ll just come as him.”

The comment was meant as a joke, but since it was four months until the speaking date, McAvinchey had some time for pondering. “I thought, `Why not? Why not portray Gandhi and do an interview, and have someone interview Mr. Gandhi about his principles and how they apply today and then open up to questions from the audience?”

Over the four months, the idea grew. McAvinchey asked his friend, Doug Stewart, a playwright and local activist, to help him, and the two came up with questions. Stewart brought his old 1930s-style microphone to the stage. The interview was about 20 minutes, but the questions were another story. “I just kept rolling with it,” McAvinchey recalled. “People were crying, calling me Gandhiji and Bapu, and everyone got into it in such a sweet way. I’m not an actor, I’m a therapist, but those skills about how to be present with people for sure guided me. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was shapeshifting, literally and metaphorically.”

McAvinchey’s bent as a therapist is toward narrative therapy, which helps explain his devotion to the Gandhi story in his life. “It’s a therapy based in the idea that people live according to the stories they tell about their lives,” said McAvinchey, in a recent interview at his Eldorado home. He was looking rather unGandhilike in his Michigan sweatshirt, sipping tea and eating chocolates. “So the therapeutic relationship is based in finding and enhancing empowering stories.”

It’s not that McAvinchey thinks he can channel Gandhi. “But one of the things Gandhi pointed out to us is that … each of us has the ability to access a level of love and connection so strongly that we can love and connect with people who want to kill us,” McAvinchey said. “I think all of us have that. When I do these portrayals, I tap the surface of that capacity that I have, that we all have, and I speak from that.”

While McAvinchey has not given up his private therapy practice or his supervisor gig at the Sky Center (a project of the New Mexico Suicide Intervention Project), his passport has definitely taken on a new life. He’s done more than 90 portrayals and presentations of Gandhi’s ideas both in this country and internationally.

A few years ago, McAvinchey contacted an organization that sponsors the yearly International Youth Peace Festival in Chandigarh, India, about his Gandhi portrayals. He has since traveled to the festival three times to portray Gandhi and give workshops on subjects like feminism and a barrier-free border between India and Pakistan. This past fall, he launched a project called Peace-U, a Facebook-based network for global and local activists “to connect, share, inspire and be inspired.” And organizations in five countries – Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – have invited him to speak in their countries.

But McAvinchey is not exactly making money being Gandhi. “I’ve so far cleared about 60 bucks, if you don’t count all the travel in India,” he said. His costume costs are minimal: “I wear a dhoti – a diaperlike wrap around my waist and it comes down through your legs – and a cloth shawl of some sort, and circular glasses.” He grows a moustache, which takes about four weeks, wears leather or rope sandals, and carries a walking stick.

But … what about the legal aspects? After all, if McAvinchey had decided to portray, say, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the family might have decided to file suit again him.

“That’s an interesting thing,” said McAvinchey. During the World Peace Conference in Santa Fe in 2006, Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, was here to speak. McAvinchey waited in line, not dressed as Gandhi but holding a flyer with a photo of himself dressed as Gandhi. He shook Arun Gandhi’s hand and showed him the flyer and explained what he had been doing: “He reaches into his vest pocket and pulls out his business card and says, `This is my home phone, call me any time.’ ”

McAvinchey said it took him three or four weeks to get up the courage to make the call, but he finally did. When the two spoke, McAvinchey said, “He told me: Don’t worry about getting the accent right because you won’t. And don’t worry about looking like him too much because you don’t. Just worry about peace and harmony because that will carry you.”

In fact, the only negative reaction McAvinchey has encountered came from one of his sons, then in high school. “I used to go to his school, Monte del Sol, and play Gandhi and he asked me not to come anymore…. His point was, `Why the heck are you doing this, showing up and embarrassing me?’ I just said, `I don’t know why I’m doing it. I just feel kind of compelled about it at some level.’ But he eventually became OK with it.”

Good thing, because the number of portrayals keeps growing. “There’s sort of an intuitive quality to it that continues to just kind of alert me when there’s an opportunity and I’ll say, `What do you think about Mr. Gandhi coming to that?’ And if I’m asked, I always say yes,” McAvinchey said.

McAvinchey is considering going on the college circuit with his presentations. Any money he raises, he plans to donate to Peace-U to hold peace conferences and further the promotion of peace in the world. In the meantime, he’s working on a book about “finding your inner Gandhi.”

To contact McAvincy, email him at: