Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Saving a Church on Screen and Saving the Church in Real Life

The film All Saints tells the true story of Rev. Michael Spurlock (okayed by John Corbett) and of his first assignment at All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee.. The real Michael Spurlock was born right here in Knoxville in 1968 and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1993. In the late 1990s, he worked in editing and publishing in New York City, where he met his wife in Central Park. In 1999 they moved from New York to Tennessee where Michael worked as a salesman. In 2004 Michael entered Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2007. He was sent to All Saints by his Bishop with the expectation that the church and its property would soon be sold. As with too many churches today, the church was broke and its membership dwindling. At the time, the church had only 25 members and a mortgage it couldn't afford. As pastor he was sent there to inventory the property and oversee its sale to make way for that great job-creator, a big-box store.

But then, a group of refugees from war-torn Burma arrived - Karen farmers, led Ye Win (Nelson Lee). Despite opposition and all the ordinary practical difficulties, Michael decided to them stay and farm the land surrounding the church, thus providing them with food and shelter and hopefully creating much-needed income for the church. the film effectively and movingly retells this story - was shot at the actual All Saints church in Smyrna, with several real-life parishioners playing themselves. It highlights the challenges and conflicts that the pastor experienced - above all within himself as he struggled to discern what was God's will and what was his, and how to tell the difference. That, of course, is always a challenge in pastoral ministry, even in less dire circumstances.

The movie shows how, despite all the combined efforts and hard work of the Spurlocks (pastor, wife, and son Atticus), the Burmese Karen refugees (so ably led by Ye Win), the remaining parishioners, others who came to their aid, the whole project seemed on the brink of failure; but., almost miraculously it seemed, the church was saved and survives to this day as a successful mission. Spurlock himself is now Curate at New York City's esteemed Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue.

Since it is a true story, and we know it is going to end well, we are relieved of some of the tension and so can focus on the interpersonal relationships and struggles as well as the inner struggles of Spurlock and others and appreciate the creation of an authentically Christian community in a traumatized world

The on-screen retelling of this inspiring story is also a welcome and much-needed corrective to the corrosive but all too prevalent mentality which judges the viability of churches and parishes in primarily economic terms – a mentality within the Church itself that could actually countenance a church being replaced by a big-box store. It also has  the added plus – so salient in this era of anti-immigrant xenophobia in our country - of reminding us that welcoming the stranger remains one of the purposes of the Church and that, in the end, nothing may be better for the Church’s survival than devotion to its purpose. 

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