Oh, when them ALL SAINTS in Tennessee go marchin’ in!
I am generally suspicious when one puts a ‘Christian’ or any other religious tag onto a film.
But I sat up and took notice of All Saints because the lead role is played by John Corbett from The Wonder Years, Sex and the City and that hilarious hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
I was not disappointed. This was not some blase, Evangelical-backed propaganda film packed with proof texts with the standard we-know-it-all and y’all-better-buy-what-we-are-selling preachy drift to the heathen..
All Saints, based on a true life story, was the real thing. The treatment was gentle in its affirmation of the mysterious ways in which G-d works to bring about acceptance and love in community in the face of a catastrophic dissolution of hope.
Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) is a salesman, with an anti-authoritarian streak in him, turned Episcopalian priest. He is sent to Smyrna in Tennessee to oversee the sale of a church which has a congregation of about a dozen, all of whom are unhappy and upset about the decision of the denomination’s heads to sell their heritage.
A large group of Karen refugees, led by Ye Win (Nelson Lee), allowed entry into the United States from Burma following their persecution by the Buddhist government and asked to resettle in Tennessee, enter the scene. After an epiphany, Spurlock sees an opportunity to build up the congregation together and prevent the sale of the church.
“G-d spoke to me,” he tells his skeptical wife and son, who wonder if it was really G-d who spoke to him or his own ego. Energised by faith and hope, he proceeds to get the denominational heads to agree that his Karen farmers can till the land around the church to bring in funds for their own living and to save the church.
Disaster strikes just when the fields are ripe with corn, tomatoes, spinach and sour leaf in the form of a storm. Much of the produce is wiped out and Spurlock is filled with self-doubt. But then, his wife points out that a community of faith has now been forged as the Karen and the others in the congregation return to clean up the muddy farmland.
The denominational heads, seeing what has been achieved, step in. They demarcate All Saints as a mission church and bring in funds to keep it alive and kicking. Ye Win is taken in as a lay worker. In his usual roundabout manner, G-d uses people in unexpected ways and resorts to tactics unimaginable so that He can be exalted as the ‘help of the helpless’.
The film is an example of how a faith-based story can actually be uplifting without resorting to religious gobbledygook or aggressive doctrinal and dogmatic assertions in the hands of a resolute director like Steve Gomer who, it is said, took nine years to get this story to the screen.
Spurlock is an example of any ordinary person who takes G-d at His word and allows himself to be used by G-d despite his own doubts and frailties to bring the light of faith, hope and charity to others. For instance, he is instrumental in bringing his Bishop back to his ‘first love’, the excitement of serving G-d in the mission field. And, in spite of his epiphany, he is truly surprised when G-d brings in a couple of miracles to egg him on in his journey of faith.
The integration of the Karen refugees into a traditional, White community in the Bible Belt without too many racist hiccups is another interesting aspect of the film. It informs Americans that their nation can continue to remain a melting pot of peoples seeking refuge from all over the world and give them a ‘fair deal’.
Which is precisely why I consider the take-home from this excellent film to be a text from Exodus 22: 20 (21) “You must neither wrong nor oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt.