Sunday, August 05, 2007

Let The Church Say Amen

Before I start, I think it's only fair to you that I make something clear. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I am aggressively not religious. It's not just that I don't go to church, it's that I'm inclined to treat most organized religion with a little wariness and disdain. It's not that I'm not spiritual; I have my own belief and faith, and have no problem with anyone else believing in whatever god they want, it's just that I don't exactly want to hear about it, and I think religion has done at least as much bad as good in our world. And so, with that in mind, you'd probably expect me to jump to an exasperated conclusion about the movie I pulled out of the mail the other day; a documentary about a small church in Washington D.C. You'd be wrong. I tell you this because it's going to be impossible to divorce myself from my beliefs while I review Let The Church Say Amen. As much as I try to clear the slate and watch it with an open mind, and as much as I try to think about this without judging it too harshly, my views are still going to come through. And I realize that most people would probably be more open to the messages in this film than I am.

Washington, D.C., the political heart of our nation, is a decaying, dangerous place. With one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, and a horrific class separation. On one end of the spectrum we have the wealthy politicians and lobbyists, and on the other end is everyone else, struggling not to drown beneath the poverty line. In the midst of this is the World Missions for Christ Church, on an inner-city street corner, in a tiny storefront, with a small but enthusiastic congregation. The members that the documentary follows are people with hard lives and hard luck. There's 'Brother C' who struggles to record a gospel record with himself and his 10 year old son on drums. David Surles who works at a homeless shelter and dreams of owning a house with a yard and a tree, and Darlene Duncan, a single mother with 8 children.

As interesting, nice, and decent as these people are, as noble as their quests may be, I don't think I'd actually like any of them. They belong to that segment of the church-going population that preaches on sidewalks and in subways, that rush up to cars at stoplights and preach into the open windows, and can't seem to put a sentence together without mentioning God or Jesus. These types of people, in person, make me deeply uncomfortable. But then, these are people who have gone through things I couldn't imagine, and faced with joining the homeless and drug addicts that crowd the streets, they have reached out and grasped onto one of the few places that will accept, embrace and encourage them; their church.

When Brother C's oldest son is stabbed to death during the course of this documentary, he begins to drive the streets of Washington, watching the men he holds responsible. Church before this tragic murder was a jubilant place, music and dancing, shouting and testifying, with everyone drenched in sweat. Following this event, World Missions for Christ Church became a twisted mirror version of itself. The shouting, testifying and music were there, but the tone was different. So overcome with their grief that they screamed, wailed, and fell to the floor in convulsions. It was a hard thing to watch.

Brother C finds no support from the police, who respond to his numerous requests for information with a rote 'we're still searching for the suspect, but we'll get him soon.' Indeed, he goes uncaught despite their claims to having a warrant for his arrest until the suspect turns himself in. Where I viewed this as proof of an uncaring police force, Brother C smiled and saw it as the killer giving in to the power of God. In this neighborhood, the citizens are all but ignored by the police and politicians. Darlene Duncan, single mother to 8 children, reacts to our uncaring health care system by going to nursing school and treating her children herself. All this despite having an education level below elementary school. Clearly these are better people than I.

Facing the rampant problems of homelessness, gangs and drugs, with a system that largely ignores these people, World Missions for Christ Church makes an aggressive front. Sponsoring 70 annual events such as food and clothing drives, and free health screenings, this is a group of people living in one of the worst places in our nation, who have banded together and chosen to believe and try to help those around them. That's something I can respect, even if I don't believe.

Had I written this review immediately upon watching the film, it probably would not have sounded quite so positive. But now, with reflection, I find that I wouldn't mind a follow up, to see what happened with Brother C's music career, or how Darlene Duncan is doing with nursing. The movie is a bit hard to watch at times, particularly if your of the mindset that I happen to be in. This isn't one of those crowd-pleasing, populist documentaries that make it to your multiplex, this is strictly for the PBS, NPR crowd. But if you make it through, you'll find that it's messages stick with you.

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