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A film honors parish life

The film All Saints tells the story of a newly ordained Episcopal priest, the Rev. Michael Spurlock (played by John Corbett), who is sent with his family to wind down a small and struggling church. His parishioners are prickly, remembering their past history and uncertain about their precarious future.

As he begins his ministry, however, he is contacted by members of the Karen people, refugees from the civil war in Myanmar resettled in Middle Tennessee and living in Smyrna. They are Anglican Christians, farmers mostly, some of whom had been soldiers fighting the central government. After being caught up in the war, the refugees have spent years in resettlement camps in Thailand before coming to the United States. Led by Ye Win (actor Nelson Lee), the Karen refugees have sought out the church.

Fr. Spurlock and his congregation discover a new ministry as they respond to the Karen refugees. The two communities begin to come together across the cultural divide separating Southeast Asia from Rutherford County, Tennessee. Looming over all of this, however, is the indebtedness of the church, which requires the sale of the property. Spurlock’s bishop keeps this issue before him.

In a moment of divine guidance, Spurlock connects the many farmers within the Karen community with the rich bottomland on which the church was built. With the blessing of the diocesan authorities, Spurlock’s old and new parishioners begin farming in order to pay the mortgage and to provide food for the refugee community.

I occupy a somewhat unique place as a reviewer, for these events at All Saints’ Church took place in the early days of my episcopate in the Diocese of Tennessee. Michael Spurlock was the newly ordained deacon sent by me in 2007 to revitalize a church that had suffered division in the previous year. His vision of what might be possible for this small and struggling church was an inspired one. Sometimes God makes things clear by sending to a small and struggling church, casting about for a mission, persons who are in even greater need.

The Diocese of Tennessee responded with support, financial and otherwise, understanding instinctively that here was a mission the whole diocese could embrace. The bishop in the film is a fictional character (“Eldon Thompson,” played by Gregory Alan Williams), but one can only be thankful that he’s not the villain. Unlike the morally conflicted bishop in The Mission (1986), who comes to shut down the Jesuit missions on the border between Argentina and Brazil, Bishop Thompson resolves the conflict between his institutional responsibilities and his missionary call by supporting the mission at All Saints’.

This is a good film, many years in development. Director Steve Gomer heard the story early on and first developed the project, even moving to Nashville in order to get to know the community at All Saints’. The project was eventually taken up by Sony. The film is fiction but keeps fairly close to what actually took place. Many of the scenes were shot at the church in Smyrna and at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.

We little imagined when we took up this work with the refugee community that a movie about All Saints’ Church would open eventually in more than 800 theaters. The prospect that the film would even be made seemed far-fetched when the idea was first brought up in 2009.

The film is commendable in presenting the parish church as a positive good, the irreplaceable Christian community. The Karen in the film are seeking a church, a community, not a program or a set of services. The parishioners who are there when their new priest arrives are mourning the community that existed in the past, but they are also those who are able to respond in the present as a community of faith. Even within the church, there are many voices that challenge the usefulness of the parish community, or who are discouraged by its inadequacies. There are not too many movies being made today that show the parish in a positive light, and it ought to encourage those of us who see its continuing value. There isn’t really anything that can substitute for it.

We should also note that in the time between the events at All Saints’ Church and the making of the movie, refugees have become a topic of political discourse and a contentious subject. The film is graceful in showing refugees as people in need, but also as those who are becoming members of the community in a time-honored fashion and making their way in the world. The film tells a human story, not a political one, but it has implications for how we approach the subject of refugees. The story could be told politically, but the film chooses not to, instead relying on the narrative of welcome and aid that represents the church’s best and most instinctive approach to the subject.

I recommend All Saints to you. It’s a story that lives on in the work of All Saints’ Church, Smyrna. The movie project is a wrap but the work continues. The worship and service taking place there are an example of what can be accomplished by a parish community, with leadership that is paying attention to the community around it. It’s also led us in the Diocese of Tennessee to realize that when we talk about refugees in our diocese, we are not talking about them and us but about all of us together.


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