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New column: Must-see film on young people responding to religious calling

December 4, 2010

Latest faith column on new documentary airing on PBS this month (Dec. 20 and 21). This is top-notch filmmaking and storytelling, and I know I’m gushing here, but I can’t stress enough how good “The Calling” is.  The film uses four directors to explore the lives of seven people pursuing leadership roles in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. I found the Muslim stories particularly compelling … and necessary. And for some silly reason, the portion of the column quoting the Muslim director Musa Syeed got cut (OK, the silly reason was actually my editor’s need to trim the copy). In any case, I’m restoring Musa’s comments below.

The thing is we in America need to hear from Muslim feminists like Tahera (not sure if she would call herself a feminist …. if she actually did in the film, I missed it. But the point is, she’s a strong, educated women who’s helping to shape the next generation of women. To me, that’s feminism).

And we need to see the struggles and triumphs of a man like Bilal, an African-American convert to Islam who works in the Connecticut prison system. To see this man change the lives of inmates is amazing. Whether you believe in one religion or another or no religion, there’s something very powerful about watching convicted criminals embrace a belief and discipline that will help them persevere and likely keep them out of trouble.

I was also VERY impressed with Fr. Steven of San Antonio. I think he’s going to be a good priest.

Here’s the column in full:

Documentary explores journey from ‘Calling’ to religious leadership

Documentary film director and producer Danny Alpert considered the rabbinate as a young man. Eventually, he determined that God was not calling him to lead a congregation, but the “what if” question has always lingered. So Alpert decided to explore that question by filming the lives of seven young people pursuing leadership roles in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.

The result is the compelling two-part documentary, “The Calling,” which airs on the local PBS affiliate KLRU on Dec. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. KLRU will also hold a free screening at the Windsor Park Branch Library, 5833 Westminster Drive, at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Alpert, the film’s executive producer, and four directors spent years with their subjects and whittled 1,400 hours of material into a four-hour film.

You don’t have to be religious to identify with the film’s subjects, one of whom is a San Antonio priest. Theirs are basic human stories that reflect all of us in one way or another. Their journeys expose their frailties and flaws and as well as their strength and perseverance, moments of naivete and self-serving idealism as well as moments of wisdom and compassion. You can’t help but feel that if these seven are representative of the next generation of American religious leaders, then we are in good hands.

The film offers a peek inside the spiritual discernment process, which is fascinating in its own right. We see the subjects deep in prayer, confiding their personal struggles to mentors, wondering aloud if they have what it takes.

But what makes “The Calling” more relevant is the way it brings to light political and social issues.

An African American convert to Islam, Bilal Ansari, who ministers to prison inmates in Connecticut, finds his computer confiscated and his office cordoned off by police tape after a co-worker sees the words “jihad” and “terrorism” in a computer file. (Ansari explains that the file was a lecture he was giving to inmates to emphasize the difference between the two ideas.)

Convinced that rabbis shouldn’t “just sit and teach,” Shmuly Yanklowitz travels to Iowa to investigate labor violations and mistreatment of cattle at a kosher slaughterhouse. He then delivers an emotional appeal to his Orthodox brethren to adopt stricter standards to protect workers.

And in a particularly gripping scene, the Rev. Steven Gamez in San Antonio counsels a family dealing with allegations by a sister against her brother. In a post-sex abuse scandal Catholic Church, the priest makes it clear that the era of cover-up is over. He alerts both church authorities and the police.

The film also touches on the challenges of balancing family obligations with the demands of ministry. New Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro strives to be the primary caregiver to his new baby when his wife returns to work. Jeneen Robinson, a single mother in Los Angeles, must find temporary sources of income while she searches for a full-time pulpit in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Tahera Ahmad, well aware of her family’s South Asian cultural expectations, realizes she must seize the opportunity to travel and study Islam before settling into married life.

For Gamez, there is no balance. As a celibate priest, he won’t have a wife or children competing for his attention, a reality he ultimately embraces but not without obvious struggle.

“If I could have my cake and eat it, too,” he says in the film, “I would love to be a married priest.” But, he adds with a sigh, “It’s not going to happen.”

As we follow these seven people through their journey, we get the sense that they won’t simply be leading their particular faith communities but will help shape national discussions on faith, social justice, politics and other issues of serious import.

That might be why the Muslim stories struck me as particularly crucial. Ansari, who now serves in the federal prison system in Connecticut and is an interfaith clergy organizer for Universal Health Care, will continue to raise his voice against racism and Islamophobia and serve as a bridge between the Christian world he was raised in and the Muslim life he chose.

I suspect we will hear more, too, from Ahmad, the scholar and chaplain who upholds traditional Islam while demonstrating a tough-as-nails feminism that will turn the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman on its head.

Musa Syeed, the New York-based director of both Muslim stories, said Ahmad isn’t trying to “throw away all the legal frameworks … but showing that within Islam there is a place for her and for women who want to take on leadership and scholarship.”

Alpert said he wanted to show the American religious experience.

“It’s about faith in the United States,” he said, adding that American Islam is developing its own identity within world Islam. “American Muslims are a … very fascinating experiment of what happens to Islam in this melting pot, in this multicultural society.”

But ultimately, for Alpert, the film transcends religion.

“We didn’t want to make a film that was preaching to the converted,” he said. “We wanted to make a film that could speak to secular audiences. … I think it’s about people and, in my mind, beyond denomination.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 12:56 pm

    If you found this interesting come look at the companion site for The Calling at http://wha­tsyourcall­ing.org/ We have and we are doing interviews with people around the country to explore religious and secular ideas of ‘calling’ and also what people feel most passionate about doing with their lives and why.

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