New Film Explores Challenges Faced By Religious Leaders

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What does it take to become a spiritual leader? A new two-part documentary, airing on PBS next week, explores the journeys of seven people from different religious backgrounds, to become leaders within their faiths. Host Michel Martin speaks with Daniel Alpert, director of "The Calling" and Jeneen Robinson, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, who is featured in the film.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We'll hear what stories caught your ear this week in our Backtalk segment. That's just ahead.

But, first, Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today we want to talk about the people most people rely upon, even in this increasingly secular country to sanctify marriages, welcome children and memorialize those who've passed away. They are faith leaders, members of the clergy. And it's a job that can have them on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

And usually, despite what you may have seen and heard about the various scandals, for pretty modest pay. How do you get there, though? How does it happen that people choose this way of life? A new two-part documentary that premieres on PBS on Monday night tells the story of seven young people, both men and women, and how they found and pursued their calling. It is called "The Calling." It's part of the PBS series "Independent Lens."

Joining us to talk more about it executive producer Daniel Alpert. Also with us is one of the seven people profiled in the film. She is Jeneen Robinson, a newly ordained minister in Los Angeles for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. JENEEN ROBINSON (Minister, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. DANIEL ALPERT (Executive Producer, "The Calling"): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, I have to ask you, first, what drew you to this story?

Mr. ALPERT: Well, I think my history with this project goes back a long, long way. When I was a young man, I did consider becoming a rabbi. I woke up about four months before I was to enter a pre-rabbinical program, sitting up - I don't know if this has ever happened to you before - you actually open your eyes, you're sitting up, realizing that that wasn't the path for me. But it certainly always left me with that what if question.

And as I went out into the world and I spent time, I lived many years abroad, and when I returned to the United States, I was struck by the tension between modernity and faith.

MARTIN: I was interested in a couple things. One is that the film makes the point that these are not easy roads to take. And Jeneen, that's a good place to turn to you because the film found you at a point where you were really struggling with two very different jobs - job as a single mom and your calling to preach. So, the first thing I want to ask you is, what is your calling? How did you experience your calling?

Ms. ROBINSON: It was kind of a process and I had a lot of events that occurred and some mystical, mysterious things to happen that at the end of that process, it became clear to me through scripture, and there's a scripture in Isaiah 50:4, that God had called me to know the words that sustain the weary. So I felt that my calling, my purpose was to preach and teach God's words.

MARTIN: Jeneen, I want to pick up on the theme of challenge and how the sacrifices that many people make to choose this way of life, I just want to play a short clip from the film, where a pastor you were working with pulls you aside to talk about your commitment to the work. I just want to play that. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "The Calling)

Unidentified Man: The hard decisions about this life is that you have to sometimes cut off other stuff. That's why preachers' kids always go through struggles. You're an ordained preacher, what you want to do? Just kind of read the scripture on Sunday when called upon? And that's why you went and got a master's degree? Do you believe you can make this work?

MARTIN: That was a tough moment. And you're not the only person who experienced some very pointed feedback. But, Jeneen, I did want to ask, was there ever a point at which you thought, maybe I can't do this? Maybe I can't be the kind of parent I want to be, and be the preacher I want to be at the same time?

Ms. ROBINSON: Absolutely, Michel. At that particular point, I was working with a pastor where we had a major split philosophically and practically about how to approach ministry and carry out my calling. As a single parent, I guess it was sort of viewed that I was supposed to sacrifice my commitment to being a mother. Some of the other activities that I did in terms of some acting on the side, some theater, commercials. And it was sort of viewed that I was supposed to sacrifice those things just to do the ministry of the church, which financially I was not able to support myself just by the church.

And I think that's one of the sins that a lot of ministers commit is that they emotionally and physically abandon even their own children in the name of serving God in the church.

MARTIN: But it's interesting. It opens the door to conversations that I'm not sure necessarily everybody in congregations know that there is often that struggle with a faith leader that I'm not sure everybody knows entirely. But the other thing, though, Danny, is that you point out that I think a lot of people are used to thinking about faith leaders as being people on a pedestal.

One of the things you point out in the film is these folks are getting a lot of very pointed feedback, which I'm not sure is present in every faith tradition. But there's one scene I do want to play with one of the Jewish men whom you follow, Yerachmiel Shapiro. He's a young orthodox rabbi. We meet him when he is in training. He's approached by a woman after a marriage ceremony that he has just performed. I just want to want play that short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "The Calling")

Unidentified Woman: I enjoyed the ceremony so much. It was so beautiful. I just have to criticize just one thing, if you don't mind.

Mr. YERACHMIEL SHAPIRO (Rabbi): Yes.

Unidentified Woman: Your explanation of the breaking of the glass, it didn't work. If the marriage is fragile, that's not

Mr. SHAPIRO: Why should you break the glass?

Unidentified Woman: why should you break the glass?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yes.

Unidentified Woman: And I just wanted to share that. It was so beautiful.

Mr. SHAPIRO: I appreciate it so much that you're teaching me how to be a rabbi.

Unidentified Woman: But that's at least 99.9 percent. That's the little thing

Mr. SHAPIRO: I appreciate the critique so much, you don't know. More than all the

Unidentified Woman: Thank you. Lots of good luck to you.

MARTIN: This was not the only time. I mean, throughout the film, people are being very blunt in their critique of things.

Mr. ALPERT: Yeah. I love that scene. It's one of my favorite, and probably because I am Jewish. It's, like, I can see my grandmother and my aunt and, you know, in that woman, you know. She doesn't mean, I don't want to criticize, but I can't help myself.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I've met them, Danny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But let's just say, this is at the wedding reception, OK?

Mr. ALPERT: Yes. And it's the mother-in-law. It's the mother of the bride. But, yeah, I mean it's a very public job. Everybody thinks they know how you should do your job.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.

Mr. ALPERT: Religion is something that, you know, parishioners feel very strongly about, and they're going to let you know about it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with Daniel Alpert. He's the director and executive producer of a new two-part documentary. It's called "The Calling." He follows the journeys of seven young people as they pursue the process by which they become faith leaders in their various traditions.

And I'm also speaking with one of the people profiled in the work. She's Jeneen Robinson, a newly ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She's in Los Angeles.

You do have a background in religion. You worked on a documentary earlier with one of the very well known public theologians of our time, Karen Armstrong. But was there something surprising to you that you discovered in the course of doing this work?

Mr. ALPERT: I think that there was. I mean the project I did with Karen was very theological and this was a very personal story. And I think what surprised me most about this group was they are fully, fully committed to living lives of faith. And at the same time, they are fully committed and unwilling to compromise their modern American identities. You know, they like to listen to hip hop music. They connect with people through humor as much as they do through preaching. So that to me was really interesting and actually quite hopeful for the future.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip that speaks to that point, though. Jeneen, I'll hear from you in a minute. I just want to begin with a clip from Rob Pene. He is Samoan. He's training to become a Presbyterian minister. I just want to play a short clip here, where you talk about how he's using some very modern preaching methods to get his message across. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "The Calling")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROB PENE (Minister in Training): (rapping) I'm getting paid to take over, paid to transmit you, (unintelligible) philosophical (unintelligible) to the state of California, where the (unintelligible). Similar to the (unintelligible). Our actions are acting like the Bible (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Well, that was fun. And, also, Rob has a particular struggle. And he kind of - he's, in this particular scene he's rapping at a - is it a juvenile facility or is it an adult prison? I wasn't sure.

Mr. ALPERT: No, it was juvenile - a juvenile facility.

MARTIN: In a juvenile facility. These kids are incarcerated, but he's also assigned to a particularly affluent area. And he feels this struggle around whether he should, you know, where he really should be. Jeneen, I did want to ask, did you ever feel, in the course of your work - we talked a little bit about this earlier - that there's a struggle between kind of the message the way you want to deliver it and what the expectations are? And, also, it has to be said, you are a woman, and in some denominations that's still controversial.

Ms. ROBINSON: Absolutely, Michel. I think I've been blessed to be a part of a denomination who affirms women in ministry. But at the same time there is a certain expectation and the double standards that play out in terms of what women do versus what men do in the pulpit. And I think what we are trying to say as young modern leaders in our religious denominations, is that we are not only going to allow our commitment to be questioned, even though we have other interests or other things that pull on us.

MARTIN: Daniel, I do feel I do have to ask you, though, about the two Muslim people whom you followed.

Mr. ALPERT: Yeah.

MARTIN: One is a woman and one is a man. I think it will be a revelation to many people that there is a young woman who is studying at the level that she is. She's highly educated and has studied very intensely over the years, both in a traditional madrasah and in an American seminary. She is now serving as the associate chaplain at Northwestern University. So I think it'll be a surprise to some people that such a woman does exist.

But on the other hand, this is a source of great anxiety for many Americans. And I think there are those who will ask, and I do think it's fair to ask, is part of, you know, what is your intention with this character?

Mr. ALPERT: Yeah, absolutely. It's a very fair question. And I think that that's true for all religions. But I think that, you know, when we set out to make this film, there were two things that we had in mind. One was to create a film that balanced a keen eye, asking the tough questions, and a warm heart and respect for the people in the communities of faith.

The other thing was that we wanted to make this a very American story. And Tahara's(ph) story certainly could only happen in the United States. And I think what's happening in the United States and Islam is very exciting and has great potential for change within the Muslim world, much like American Judaism and the liberalization and the pluralism that formed in the United States, bounced back and affected Judaism all over the world.

You know, there Islam in America is at have a very interesting place. It's a real experiment about what happens to a religion that has almost only existed in a homogeneous context, and what happens to that religion when it comes into the very heterogeneous context of the United States.

MARTIN: Jeneen, what would you like people to draw from the film?

Ms. ROBINSON: I think what I do want people to draw from my testimony is that you can be yourself and be godly and do a good service and a deed for people. And I think, overall from the film, people can draw from that that everyone is called and purposed in this life and created in this life to do something important. And as we seek and search for that, that God is faithful to make his revelation known to us as to why he created us and what path and trajectory we can take to pursue that calling.

MARTIN: Jeneen Robinson is the young adult pastor at Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. She also recently finished a show in Hollywood, if I have that right.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. Ironically enough, Michel, I played the Wicked Witch of the West Side in a production of "Da Hip-Hop Wizzard of Oz."

MARTIN: OK. Well, you had to draw on your evil side, right?

Ms: ROBINSON: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Daniel Alpert is the director and executive producer of the two-part documentary, "The Calling," which premieres on Monday and Tuesday. It is part of the PBS series "Independent Lens." Of course you'll want to check your local listings for exact times. And he joined us from Chicago. I thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. ALPERT: Thank you very much, Michel.

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