By Lillian Newbery
A rural Anglican congregation dwindles to a dozen discouraged members. The diocese decides to sell the church and surrounding land to a developer. A newly ordained priest arrives to supervise the inventory and close the church.
Enter a group of Anglican Karen (pronounced Kuh-REN) refugees, subsistence farmers from Burma. With an extraordinary lay leader, Ye Win, they fought in the jungles against an oppressive regime, survived a refugee camp in Thailand and now find themselves in 2007 in the tiny community of Smyrna, Tennessee.
All Saints, a Sony movie filmed in that parish, is based on the true story of Episcopalian priest the Rev. Michael Spurlock, played by John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Northern Exposure, Sex and the City). After Ye Win (Nelson Lee) proposes that the refugees plant crops on church land, Mr. Spurlock has a vision. He believes God spoke to him – “The God?” asks his astounded wife Aimee (Cara Buono) – directing him to start a farm to feed the refugees and pay the mortgage. His bishop and a cranky congregant question whether this scheme is God’s will or his own.
Mr. Spurlock, the Karen families, who are played by themselves in the film, and the other parishioners work their fingers bloody while community members begin to offer material help. Like the plagues sent to the Egyptians, one disaster after another afflicts the All Saints farm: a summer-long drought, a flood and finally seizure of the truck carrying their last hope, a tender crop of an Asian delicacy called sour leaf.
Anglicans will recognize from the unexpected ending many familiar lessons about welcoming strangers, especially refugees, keeping eyes open for “God-incidences,” recognizing and using talents and the nature of prayer.
Probably to appeal to a wider audience, the filmmakers eliminated some Episcopalian mainstays. The priest is always called “pastor” and no sacrament of Eucharist is shown, although we know from news reports that the 2007 Christmas Eucharist at All Saints was celebrated in English and Karen.
In any case, the revitalization of a dying church by opening it to the community beyond the building resonates regardless of denomination.
The film has a Canadian connection: The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) has been supporting Karen refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burmese border for 17 years through DARE, an addiction recovery program, and was one of a handful of national faith-based organizations to sponsor the film’s sneak previews.
All Saints will open in 27 Canadian cities on Aug. 25. It will be playing in the Diocese of Toronto in the following theatres: Galaxy 12 in Barrie, Cineplex Cinemas in Vaughan, IMAX + AVX Silvercity 16 in Brampton, Queensway 20 AVX + VIP in Etobicoke, Cineplex Odeon Winston Churchill Cinemas in Oakville, Landmark 24 in Whitby and the Eglinton Towne Centre in Scarborough. Parish and youth resources are available. For more information, contact Janice Biehn at PWRDF, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lillian Newbery is a member of PWRDF’s board of directors.