Judy Dench as Philomena was nominated for an Oscar. Religion News Service has an interview with the real Philomena with PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly about her journey:
Judy Dench as Philomena was nominated for an Oscar. Religion News Service has an interview with the real Philomena with PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly about her journey:
by Andrew Gerns
Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.
My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.
My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”
Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.
But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.
I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.
I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”
So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'
When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.
On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”
The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.
Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.
Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.
Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.
So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.
During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.
For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.
Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.
And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.
All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.
In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.
Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.
Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.
But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.
Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.
The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.
by Maria L. Evans
Psalm 91 (Tanakh translation:)
He who dwells in the covert of the Most High
will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty.
I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress,
my God in Whom I trust.
For He will save you from the snare
that traps from the devastating pestilence.
With His wing He will cover you, and under His wings you will take refuge;
His truth is an encompassing shield.
You will not fear the fright of night,
the arrow that flies by day;
Pestilence that prowls in darkness,
destruction that ravages at noon.
A thousand will be stationed at your side,
and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you.
You will but gaze with your eyes,
and you will see the annihilation of the wicked.
For you [said], "The Lord is my refuge";
the Most High you made your dwelling.
No harm will befall you,
nor will a plague draw near to your tent.
For He will command His angels on your behalf
to guard you in all your ways.
On [their] hands they will bear you,
lest your foot stumble on a stone.
On a young lion and a cobra you will tread;
you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
For he yearns for Me, and I shall rescue him;
I shall fortify him because he knows My name.
He will call Me and I shall answer him;
I am with him in distress; I shall rescue him and I shall honor him.
With length of days I shall satiate him,
and I shall show him My salvation.
One of the more interesting happenings of late in northeast Missouri is the debut of the movie, "The Possession." In that typical Hollywood way, when they say "based on a true story," the story is actually based on three stories, one of them the book, "The Dibbuk Box." I have known the author of the book ever since he was a college student at Truman State University. The premiere of "The Possession" has been one of the more interesting happenings around here, and it's been fun to watch someone I know get a bit of notoriety for his work.
In the movie, the Psalm above is used to help get the evil spirit back in the dibbuk box, after it has possessed a little girl. Episcopalians would recognize it as one of the Psalms we often do at Compline. In fact, when I went to see the movie, I immediately recognized it as one of the Compline Psalms, even though it wasn't quite the same translation--which, oddly, took the wind out of the movie being "scary" for me. I'm sure my mind was going, "Well, nothing evil can stand up to THAT."
Perhaps what makes this movie intriguing--this whole concept of "possession by an evil spirit"--is that, ultimately, we recognize that each of us has our own dibbuk box inside of us, as well as our own Ark of the Covenant. Movies about "possession" grab our psyche because we are already possessed by not just one, but two mindsets. Our internal Ark of the Covenant strives to unite that God-box inside of us with the totality of God, but at the same time, that dibbuk box inside us works overtime to instead, get us to unite it with the false god of self. Our own dibbuk boxes whisper just as mysteriously as the box in the movie did, telling us that we're special, that it really IS all about us. The possessed girl in the movie displayed a ravenous appetite--the evil spirit inside of her needed to be fed, and several scenes show her wolfing down her food and tearing into the refrigerator. Anyone who has ever struggled with addiction or substance abuse knows first-hand an equally desperate hunger caused by the substance or behavior of choice.
Part of the process of subduing the dibbuk in the movie is that it has to be called back into the box by name. Interestingly, the name of the dibbuk in "The Possession" was discovered by breaking the mirror in the inside lid of the box--by shattering the thing that, when we look at it, simply reflects a backwards self into our eyes. Calling our own dibbuks by name is an important part of the process of moving from thinking "it's all about me," to "it's all about God."
What does it take for each of us to, instead, open the lid of the Ark of the Covenant inside ourselves and gaze back at our true reflections, rather than false ones?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid
by Michael Russell
Just after the first Persian Gulf War began we took a family trip to Antietam to show our children, then aged 10 and 13 the place where the bloodiest since day battle of the Civil War as fought. We wanted them to understand, as best they could what the real dimensions of war were like, the close quarters and how it was possible for 23,000 people to die in them. But I did not know how well the lesson sank in until two years later when we sat having pizza after seeing “The Last of the Mohicans”. My daughters were visibly shaken. Both had seen horror films and sci-fi films, so I inquired about why they were particularly affected by this film. One of them replied, “Oh, Poppa, those are just made up stories, this was real.”
I suspect that “The Hunger Games” touches the “this is real” button in teens not because the violence in it is real, but because it is a powerful metaphorical narrative for their middle and high school experiences. There are adults who are either distant and clueless or manipulative and malevolent; social straitjackets in which they feel trapped; and, in the arena, the very embodiment of school cliques. There are the strong, good looking, popular and privileged who join forces to lord it over and inflict a variety of emotional or physical injuries or indignities on nearly everyone else. Bullying and intimidation are the order of the day.
The emotional work of teen years is to differentiate from parents and find their own voice. Peeta’s challenge to the games comes the night before when he tells Katniss he does not want to let the Capitol people win by making him someone he is not. The moral challenge of the film is the moral challenge all teens face, to find a self to be true to and to survive.
In that world, whether we like to hear it or not, parents and most adults are as Mark Twain characterized his father, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Those who are asking the question about their own parental role as moral guides are asking a question about a cohort of humans for whom peers and culture are vastly more important than parents. Moreover, just as Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Rue see the injustice and horror of these games, they see the adults’ acquiescence to its horrors. Teens are hypocrisy meters and these young people identify it as they proceed through the appalling adults they encounter along the journey.
Thus the moral question the movie poses for parents and other adults is, “How are we not like the adults in the movie?” We think we are there to guide the teens, but perhaps we would do better to examine our quietism in a world of injustices. Because, you see, we already live in Panam’s Capitol.
Every three seconds a child dies from totally preventable poverty related causes. Ten million children a year since the mid 1960’s when they started keeping count. Tens of millions more have their brains stunted, hobbling their capacities because they do not receive adequate nutrition between birth and age five. We in the US routinely spend in excess of $450 BILLION dollars in retail sales between November 1 and December 31 on holiday sales: $465bn in 2011, $453bn in 2010. Each year we spend on the holidays for the Prince of Peace more than we spent on the first three years of the Iraq war. To make it real, Jeffrey Sachs in his 2005 article on ending poverty asked the world to increase its assistance from $80bn a year to $160bn a year for ten years. The U.S. was asked for $25bn a year but said it could not afford it. We spend 18 times that much each year on Christmas alone, yet could not afford $25bn a year to end poverty.
Just these past months the Kony 2012 / Invisible Children campaign emerged and sparked remarkable attention to the use of children in fighting civil wars. It used Kony as a focal point to capture the imagination of 85 million viewers on behalf of all the children who were hurt and killed. But then Jason Russell and his colleagues found themselves severely critiqued by adult news media because the LRA had been driven from Sudan in 2005. The adults blistering the film and the foundation missed the point entirely, parsing journalistic issues into what was an exposé of the subjugation of children for war. And of course the journalists themselves had not the same success in rousing the conscience of a society as Mr. Russell had with his movie. We could go on to look at the trafficking of young men and women, honor killings and acid attacks on young Muslim girls, the bombing of schools in Nigeria; on and on go the attacks on children
We are, at the moment, in a broad discussion of when and where governments should intervene in the affairs of other governments. We are as a society exploring the boundary between individual rights and the rights of nations to govern as they please. But so far we have not seen fit to exert moral or military force on governments which simply exploit their citizens to death to enrich the oligarchs. Cell phones and Coca-cola have deeper penetration into Africa than clean water or mosquito eradication. That, too, is a moral issue for those of us in Panam’s Capitol. What moral obligation do we have to the children of other nations?
The Capitol exists in parallel with our other districts, intermingled and international, but it is there none the less. This nearby coexistence is perhaps more cruel than segregating people into districts because every day those whose lives are being sacrificed get to see the Capitol people flout economic and political fairness as they flaunt their wealth.
So the “Hunger Games” is not posing a question for how we as adults oversee the moral formation of our teens. It is our teens who, in seeing this, pose the issue of the moral formation of us adults. We are the ones who are quiescent in the face of the holocaust of children worldwide; we are presumably the ones with the power and wisdom to make a difference and who choose not to take to the streets, the churches or the ballot boxes to demand it stop. We dither over a thousand other issues because to really look at what is happening about us is so painful, so horrendous that it might well drive us mad, as it does to some of the Tribute Victors. And yet, if we hope to be a moral influence we could start in no better place than demanding an end to all the holocausts of children everywhere.
The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls', Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker's Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a third time Deputy to General Convention, early adopter of technologies and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.
See also film review at The Lead.
By Lauren R. Stanley
Finally, finally, FINALLY, I went to see The King’s Speech.
I did not see this movie because of the cast – although Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush all do magnificent jobs.
I did not see it because it is nominated for awards everywhere.
I saw this movie because as a child, I, too, had a speech impediment, and from one line I head in an NPR interview with director Tom Hooper – the King yelling, in Westminster Abbey, “I have a voice!” – I knew this movie was telling part of my story as well.
Unlike King George VI, I did not stutter. I had a lisp. It was an awful lisp some days, which I had until I was in seventh grade, and for which I was made fun of by classmates and playmates and even my siblings at times.
When the NPR interview last November began, I wondered: “A movie about the King of England during World War II? He had a speech impediment? Really? I thought he lifted up his people with all kinds of speeches on the radio?” I knew that George VI wasn’t supposed to be king, that his brother David abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, and that as king, George inspired his people.
He had a stutter?
And then I heard that powerful line – “I have a voice!” – and shivers went down my spine and I thought, “I HAVE to see this movie!”
I had to see it because I remember thinking, in my childhood, when people where making fun of me, “Just because I lisp doesn’t mean I can’t speak. Listen to me!”
The lisp was the result of losing my two front teeth when I was 2. I was in a car accident, caused, I’m told, by a drunken driver who ran a red light and plowed into our station wagon. It was back in the early ‘60s, when no one thought to put their children in car seats, and seat belts weren’t a huge priority. I was, I’m told, standing on the back seat, clinging to the front bench seat and doing what 2-year-olds do: goofing off. When our car was hit, my mother told me, I flew into the nice metal strip that was on the back of all bench seats in station wagons in those days (don’t ask me why they were there … they just were).
Now these were my baby teeth that I lost; my adult teeth weren’t due in for years. We didn’t do implants in those days (again, don’t ask me why) or spacers. So what happened?
I spent the next four years without my front teeth. Which meant that I had problems whistling (this was huge in my family), and I developed a nice, pronounced lisp. It was so pronounced that at times, my stepfather would joke about taking me down to the woodshop in the basement and fitting me with wooden teeth, like George Washington supposedly had (I learned later that his teeth were made from hippopotamus ivory). That threat used to scare the bejesus out of me.
And then there was the jealousy factor: one of my older brothers got to sing All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth when he was in first grade. But he HAD his front teeth, so it had no meaning for him. Me? I was soooo excited about getting to sing that as well … until my front teeth finally came in just weeks before it was my turn, and the song lost its significance.
But the coming of new teeth did not end the lisp. It hung in there for years, until at last, my mother put me in speech therapy. I had to do “exercises” involving strings and small weights, and others pronouncing letters and sounds, and every day, I literally had think about my tongue and where it was positioned in my mouth, not just when I was speaking but also when I first woke up … when I was watching TV … when I was sitting in class. I had a little notebook and had to record, with smiley faces and frowns, where I found my tongue at any given moment. (To this day, I still catch myself checking my tongue placement.)
When my friends found out what I was doing, they made even more fun of me. I was mortified on the playground at school when I found some of them imitating my therapy exercises. I’ll never get over this, I used to think. Never!
But all those exercises paid off. Within a year, I was lisp-free. And when I conquered that lisp, I truly found my voice. I no longer had to worry about what I would sound like when I was speaking. Instead, I could concentrate on what I was saying.
Now, to be honest, I haven’t thought about the days of my lisp in years. I’m a public speaker now; anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ll preach the Gospel at the drop of a hat, and that getting me to shut up can be very hard indeed. For me, my lisp was a thing of the long-ago and forgotten past.
Until I heard that one line – that powerful, spine-tingling scream from the movie – and all of my frustrations and fears and tears came back, and I realized: I have to see this movie!
Not to relive those frustrations and fears and tears, but to see this message that yes, we DO each have a voice, and yes, our voices, individually and corporately, ARE important.
God gives each of us that voice, and God wants to hear it. God wants us to raise our voices to the heavens, to proclaim God’s love and glorify God’s name and strengthen and inspire God’s people and, yes, to tell our stories.
Even when we stutter.
Even when we lisp.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is a priest of the Diocese of Virginia and church consultant who served for five years as an overseas missionary.
Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.
By Leo Campos
There are few religious spectacles more important, more poignant, more powerful than the World Cup. For those of you who might be following my advice from earlier notes and staying away from TV you may not know that the World Cup Finals are being held in South Africa. Furthermore you may not know that "World Cup" is the shorthand for the only truly global sport - soccer/futbol/football
I was thinking about a couple of movies which might help those who need a little extra to get them in the mood. For a game that is so appealing and so dramatic it is sad to note that there have been very few movies which actually did any justice to either the sport or to the passions it arouses. There was Victory with Pele, a pastiche from The Great Escape, and not really that good.
When I do a quick search of Netflix and IMDB for movies with the word "soccer" and "football" I get things like Soccer Buddy, about a soccer playing dog, and other inanities. But of the many movies out there I do see two which I find actually seem to bring across something of value. The first is La Gran Final (The Great Match) by the Spanish director Gerardo Olivares. It is a tale spread across the globe as people from different countries gather to watch a World Cup game: from a tribe of Amazonian indios, a family of Mongolian nomads and a caravan of Tuareg people in the Sahara Desert. It has many funny moments, and it much subtle social commentary. Overall it tries to show how, for just a little while, there is a peace, well a truce, across the globe.
It reminded me of the story from World War I, though the events have been repeated more than once, where Germans and British climbed out of their foxholes to play a game on Christmas Day 1915 to play a match, declaring a temporary truce.
But my absolute favorite movie has to be The Cup by the Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu. I am slightly biased, since the director is also a monk. It is full of richly drawn characters, with masterful performances by its young main protagonist. The story centers on a young Tibetan refugee and their misadventures at a monastery/boarding school in exile in India. While undergoing Buddhist training the young boy's mind is filled with news about the World Cup. He attempts to explain its importance and its appeal to other monks who are confused, bemused, or downright annoyed at his constant conversations about soccer players. This boy's meditation is constantly on the game.
What is the attraction of this sport, which seems to be unlike any other? Surely when you compare sport by sport it does not stand out as requiring anything special. It is not the fastest, or the most violent, or even the one that requires the most coordination or skill. There is the counter-intuitive requirement of moving a ball only using your feet, but that hardly seems to justify the strong passions it arouses.
I am content with the mystery of soccer/football. There may be no particularly logical reason for its appeal. It is more akin to falling in love – why are we attracted to some people and not others?
So there it is - I do hope you will take this opportunity during this most holy month to catch a couple of these movies - they are well worth the watch!
Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).
By Margaret Treadwell
Departures takes on the tricky subject of death and won the 2009 Academy Award for best foreign film. Masahiro Motoki plays the protagonist who suffers a startling job loss after which he decides to learn the Japanese trade of being an encoffineer – one who prepares bodies for burial. The various families who gather to watch the beautiful ritual he creates for their departed loved ones are in various stages of acceptance, denial, anger or sadness, reminding viewers that when a person has unfinished business with the deceased he or she will struggle longer and more intensely with grief.
We often think of only one response at the time of death – grief, but it’s much more complicated than that. While director Yojito Takita focuses the eye of the camera on death, Departures paradoxically becomes a movie about the value of life and how we confront our own lives. It made me ask, “How can human beings prepare for the death of a parent, husband, wife, child or beloved friend in ways that add value to our lives as well as to the lives of our family members?” I think the film’s response is:
• Honor your own life and develop your passions
• Create the best possible relationships, especially in your family
• Believe in a Power greater than self
• Seek satisfying work that contributes to the well being of others, and learn to do it well
• Understand that all of the above actions will benefit future generations beyond your own
Four months after my mother’s death at age 99, I know that my years spent developing relationships with extended family have been an invaluable preparation for the loss of both my parents. In 1996, the year my father died, 18 of my first cousins from his family had never met or had only passing acquaintance with each other. Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother explained it, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.” Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.
In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” But now our fathers were dying and when a childless uncle’s bequests made it necessary to locate all of us, we began to bridge those distances out of legal requirement. My cousin Betty and I decided the fun way to fulfill this duty was to create the first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event now since 1996.
For 14 years we have developed our friendships through sharing play, secrets, laughter, and celebration of joyous life events – new marriages, babies, personal successes and yes, death. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. We’ve mourned the loss of our cousin Barbara through a tragic death and now my extended family has sustained my nuclear family during this tender time of my mother’s death. During these last fragile years, three beloved cousins from her side were consistent companions by telephone, and as my cousins from Dad’s family grew to know and admire “Aunt Flo,” she also developed an interest in them. They reciprocated with calls, notes and visits. Expanding the circle was life giving for both Mother and me.
Only children are especially susceptible to feeling like orphans when both parents have died, but on Mom’s Nov. 14 funeral day, cousins surprised me by coming from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and south Alabama and sending notes from Guatemala, Vermont, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Florida. Their presence meant the world, and their continued involvement has prevented the orphan perception from taking hold.
As intimated in Departures, we can never really prepare for death, but we can prepare our lives to accept death as a further step in making important connections. When the going gets tough, one conversation with an extended family member can work wonders to give perspective, a smile and a sense of calm. How fortunate that this is the year for Reunion 2010 on Mobile Bay.
Margaret M “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.
By Carol E. Barnwell
"I told Denzel Washington he should play the part," Henrietta Bell Wells said, when we spoke recently at the Houston facility where the 95-year old now resides. Wells, a longtime member of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Houston, was seated in her wheelchair, wrapped in a soft white sweater, the same snow white as her perfectly coiffed hair. Her manicured hands rest in her lap and periodically dance to punctuate a vivid memory of Wiley College debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, a character in the Christmas release, The Great Debaters.
Wells was the only female member of the debate team from Wiley College in Marshall, TX that Tolson coached to national attention. Washington directed the movie, produced by Oprah Winfrey, and took the story to the big screen this Christmas. It’s a good thing that Washington took Wells’ advice. The movie has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and may also receive an Oscar nod.
"He just wanted to direct the movie," Wells said, "But I told him he was perfect for the part of Mr. Tolson and if he wasn’t the star, he would lose a lot of people." Wells met Washington at Wiley College during the planning stages of the movie. She looked through old yearbooks and found texts she used nearly 80 years ago to help with the research, she said.
Wells has done television and newspaper interviews and has turned down a number of others. "I never expected the movie to cause so much interest, so much attention to my inner life," she said. It has been exciting and stressful all at the same time, but bring up "Denzel" and a smile lights up her face. "He is a jewel and a gentleman. The first time he saw me, he said, ‘Well, I’ve got another grandma.’ I felt so proud," Wells beamed.
Although growing up during the Jim Crow era was a challenge, Wells said she encouraged Denzel Washington to play down the racial prejudice in The Great Debaters. She remembers state troopers raiding her home in 1917 to look for black soldiers during race riots in Houston, but said the debate team was more motivated to please their coach, "rather than a race issue."
"We worked hard and we weren’t intimidated," she said.
Jurnee Smollett, the actress who plays Samantha Booke, the character based on Wells, visited Wells and practiced with the Texas Southern University debate team in Houston to prepare for the part.
Wells was born in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1912. "Church has always been a large part of my life," she said. Her maternal grandfather was a "strong Episcopalian" in the West Indies and her mother Octavia made sure it was part of their life in Houston. In 1923, Wells was the first African American child baptized at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church (re-chartered as St. Luke the Evangelist in 1927) by Bishop Clinton Quin and was later confirmed at Trinity, Houston.
Wells graduated valedictorian from Houston’s Phyllis Wheatley High School and attended the all black Wiley College on a modest scholarship from the YMCA. She worked three jobs to make ends meet and said, when her English professor asked her to try out for the debate team, she wasn’t sure what it was. "We didn’t have debates in high school," she said. "I guess I did alright. He stood at the back of the chapel and I read from the front. That was his test."
"Bell," as Tolson called her, made the team, the only freshman and the only woman.
The team practiced at Tolson’s home several times a week during debating season and since she was the only female on the team, the college’s president arranged for a chaperone during tournaments. Friends filled in for her at work.
"We would sit on the floor in the Tolson’s living room and discuss topics," Wells said. "Mr. Tolson was very serious and very strict," she said, adding, "There were no frills, everything had to be correct. It was fun being the only girl on the team, but it was a lot of hard work." Wells said Tolson remained her role model all through college.
The Wiley team first beat almost every black college, and eventually broke the color line, facing white law students from the University of Michigan. The team, Henry Heights, Hobart Jarrett and Henrietta Bell Wells lost only one debate out of 75 leading to the national 1935 championship. They triumphed against the national champions, the University of Southern California, with topics of civil rights and freedom of speech at a time when lynching was frequent in the deep South.
Wells returned to Houston after graduation where she met and later married Wallace Wells, the brother of one of her high school teachers. Wallace, who received his masters in music from the University of Southern California, added his rich baritone to St. Clement’s church choir after the couple first met. When they married and moved to Gary, Indiana, Wallace worked as a church organist at St. Augustine’s. Henrietta worked as a caseworker and later, as a case supervisor for the welfare department. "I always wanted to be a social worker, and I turned out to be a pretty good one," she said.
Wallace’s musical career was interrupted by World War II, but he attended seminary at Seabury Western after returning from his tour of duty, was ordained and served churches in Indiana for the following 25 years. In 1963, the couple moved to New Orleans where Wallace was dean of chapel at Dillard University and Henrietta served as dean of women. In 1967, the Wells returned to Houston where Henrietta became the first African American teacher at Bonner Elementary School.
What’s her advice for college students today? "Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively," she said. Her training as one of the "Great Debaters" carried Wells through a successful life and career and, at 95, continues to serve her well as the interviewers line up at her door.
Carol E. Barnwell is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
"Steve Saint was only 5 when his father, Nate, a Christian missionary working in Ecuador, was killed by a group of Waodani tribesmen, who speared him and his four colleagues as the Americans prepared to bring the message of Jesus to the inhabitants of the remote Amazon jungle, whose endless cycle of revenge killings had brought them to the brink of extinction. It was 50 years ago this month, but despite his youth, he remembers it vividly."
So begins Michael O'Sullivan's story on Saint, and the saga of forgiveness that inspired the movie End of the Spear.
"I had no way of knowing," Saint says during a phone interview with O'Sullivan, "that the feeling, the yearning I had for my dad -- that bond that was yanked out of my heart -- that those same feelings I had for my dad I would one day have for the man who's half asleep here on the other bed in my hotel room: Mincaye, who is the man who killed my father."
I have to admit that I can't comprehend forgiveness for a loss of such depth. If I am honest with myself, I must admit that I am not even sure that I admire it. No doubt this indicates unflattering things about my character, but I ask you, could you do what the Saints have done?