By Rebecca Terhune
The story of a little church about 20 miles southeast of Nashville reaches the big screen on Aug. 25. Since 2005, All Saints’ Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, has ministered to Karen refugees, a people of eastern and southern Myanmar (formerly Burma). Nine years ago, both The Tennessean and USA Today told the story of their arrival at the church.
The Rev. Michael Spurlock, his wife, Aimee, his family, and All Saints’ welcomed the refugees and gave them a portion of land to garden, which proved important to the survival of the newcomers and the church.
At the time this mission church in the Diocese of Tennessee was struggling financially. The garden assisted both the Karen people, who had farmed in their home country and needed food, and the church, which needed revenue to pay its mortgage and bills.
Director Steve Gomer (of TV’s Blue Bloods and Private Practice) read the dramatic story and contacted Spurlock to inquire about making it into a movie. Recently a team from Affirm Films has been working on locations with All Saints’ and its current vicar, the Rev. Robert Rhea, to bring this story to the screen.
“God has given us at All Saints’ a wonderful story about loss and redemption, hospitality and welcome, diversity and unity,” Rhea said. “We are excited to share our story through the medium of film, and trust that God will inspire other churches and faith communities to reach out to the strangers, refugees, and immigrants in our midst to welcome them with the love of Jesus.”
The film All Saints, shorn of the possessive apostrophe and arriving in 2017, will explore the Karen people acclimating to their new life while still farming. The mission works to turn its land into a working farm to pay the church’s bills and to feed the people. Rhea said that during the Spurlocks’ tenure, All Saints’ encouraged members to plant family gardens on the church property, which includes 12 acres of arable land. Today 12 families farm 1.5 acres and feed more than 100 people.
The movie also tells the story of how Spurlock, the church, and the Karen newcomers taught one another about how to worship together.
The first Karen people came to All Saints’ when World Relief asked the Rev. Raymond Kasch about sponsoring a refugee couple. Spurlock, who now serves at St. Thomas’ Church Fifth Avenue and is a member of an Over My Shoulder mentoring group, became integral in working with the Karen people.
“Fr. Spurlock and his wife, Aimee, and the people of All Saints’ were open to living out the gospel by welcoming the stranger,” Rhea said. “Israel was once the stranger, and those among us are to be protected and honored. This story is about cooperation, redemption, and love’s response in action. Steve Gomer has sought to bring a story of survival, hope, and the cultural challenges that people face when beginning their new home.”
In 2007, other Karen people sent a representative to ask if they could worship at All Saints’ and the church began to grow. The early arrivals lived near the church, where they walked in their traditional flip-flops, even in winter, to worship in a language that they did not yet understand.
As the church grew, services became standing room only and a nursery served nearly 60 children. In time, All Saints’ had two Sunday services, in English and Karen. The Rev. Thomas Bu Christ was the celebrant at the Karen service. The Rev. Randy Hoover-Dempsey oversaw the growth of All Saints’ to nearly 300 members.
In the years since the relationship between All Saints’ and the Karen families first took root, the community’s cast of characters has steadily grown, and includes Karen people in key leadership roles.
Ye Win has been a leader of the Karen since 2006. He is vital to the settlement of new Karen arrivals and assisting Karen with their needs. Ye Win performs duties similar to a social worker and translates the Sunday sermon. Beginning in November 2014, Kathy Short became Ye Win’s assistant. She provides transportation to doctor appointments, helps people apply for benefits, and keeps a long list of tasks to assist members. She also helps with tutoring. Christ Paw was hired as All Saints’ farm manager in May 2011. He became sexton in August 2012.
Likewise, the team at All Saints’ has continued to grow as the church has. Paul Adams has led an English as a Second Language program since 2007, with the help of many volunteers. The program has evolved to meet the needs of the students, currently providing homework assistance and teaching citizenship classes. Merry Adams became treasurer in 2009. She helps the Karen apply for TennCare and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as applying for green cards and citizenship.
David McGee is the current farm manager and maintains the equipment, prepares the ground for planting, runs Bush Hog equipment, and does the numerous other jobs needed to make farming successful. Landra Orr does counseling (mostly of non-members) at the church and estab- lished a family and children’s ministry that helps new mothers. About 70 children now attend the congregation.
The Karen are predominantly Christian and many seek to be resettled in Australia and the United States because of political and religious persecution in Myanmar. Since 2005, the Karen have lived in refugee camps administered by the United Nations. Several dioceses assist the Karen in various areas of the United States, including the Diocese of Albany, the Diocese of Nebraska, and the Diocese of Quincy (ACNA). In this quiet corner of Tennessee, the love of Christ is being worked out in daily acts: in gardening, in worship, and now in filmmaking.
Principal photography on All Saints, which had a $4 million budget, continued through October in Nashville and Smyrna. The movie stars John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Northern Exposure), Cara Buono (Stranger Things and Mad Men), comedian Chonda Pierce (Laughing in the Dark and This Ain’t Prettyville), and Nelson Lee (Law & Order and Oz). Steve Armour (Losing Gracie) wrote the screenplay.
Rebecca Terhune is a graduate of Nashotah House and a lay person in the Diocese of Tennessee. Her husband, the Rev. Jason S. Terhune, is priest-in- charge at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Fayetteville.