The Dawn of a New Era at SDF

The Dawn of a New Era at SDF

Last night after my presentation at a Catholic church in Camarillo, California, about 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles, a deacon with years of dedicated service to the Church approached me weeping. We had just screened our film A Distressing Disguise. After seeing an endless stream of broken bodies and lives, he looked at me, and, out of sheer compassion and empathy, asked, “Now what? How do I respond to that?”

Now what, indeed.

I had not seen the full film in some time, and had never seen it on a big screen in front of a live audience. I have been so concentrated on the suffering in Uganda and the beauty of Assisi these past two years that the agony of the homeless of Skid Row in Los Angeles had retreated to a dark corner of my consciousness. Yet, last night, the sad denizens of Skid Row I had captured on film long ago reached deep inside me and, once again, rocked me into a state of acute sadness, as well as a keen awareness of the weakness of my own response to the poor in my own city. I understood and appreciated the deacon’s tears. But there was little I could offer in response to his burning question.

Once a heart is opened and touched by an SDF film, we need to give a person effective tools of transformation, tangible ways of changing their lives and society. We need to create channels into a deeper consciousness of our suffering sisters and brothers in their various stages and forms of poverty. We need to help people become instruments of God’s healing presence and boundless love and mercy.

This is our challenge for the future of SDF.

I had already realized that SDF had reached a point where the future would simply be more of the same, a movie or two a year, a couple dozen speaking events a year and constant begging to keep everything afloat. But, more of the same is not an option. Those heartfelt words of compassion the deacon uttered were not new. There have been students and others over the past eight years who have also responded with, “Now what?” Until now, I could only suggest they turn to God in prayer and patiently allow their hearts, now open, to find their own way, with the Spirit’s help, to love Christ in the poor. I was in no position to offer anything more than the consciousness-raising of the films. Until now, the hectic pace of filming, speaking and begging had left no time for strategic planning, no time to think about how to respond to the kind of pleading question the deacon asked last night. But his reaction to the film was a powerful indicator that we must move forward and take SDF to a new, more effective, level of engagement with society.

The necessity for moving forward in a fuller, more dynamic way in the coming year is especially important because of the recent explosion of interest in our work from around the world as a result of our posting the Sam and Esther scene from The Fragrant Spirit of Life on You Tube. As of this morning, more than 164,300 people had viewed the scene. Without question, it was the hardest thing I have ever filmed. I have shown the scene many times at high schools across the United States, and it never fails to still and silence up to a thousand kids. And now people are writing us from England, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and many nations in Asia and Africa, some of which I would have a hard time finding on a map.

Our future is bound to change because of the changing face of the staff. With the arrival of two new people, Ralph Plumb and Tom Roark, and the imminent arrival of a third person, Jonathan Montaldo, we are at the dawn of a new era for SDF.

I am delighted that Tom Roark joined the staff this past Monday. At long last, we now have a very competent office manager who can relieve Jeremy and me from the constant burden of doing so many clerical tasks. Tom has great organizational and administrative skills which are already making a difference.

Dr. Ralph Plumb possesses, in abundance, skills SDF has long needed. He is gifted in the areas of resource development, strategic formation, vision implementation. He has worked on behalf of the poor all over the world, including a stint as the President and CEO of the Union Rescue Mission here in Los Angeles. In a recent E-mail to me, Ralph wrote: “While I have been with you for only three weeks, I know. . . that I know. . . that I know God is doing a great thing in and through the San Damiano Foundation! You know more than anyone that the last eight years have been borne out of sacrifice, trial, error, human weakness and imperfection – yet with a divine presence that has allowed you to just now begin to see this vision of enormity, a movement of God still in the process of being formed. What has been created is an amazing corpus of material (film and text) that moves people from ignorant bliss to agitated awareness that they must do something. The next eight years and beyond, we will, by God’s grace, formulate tangible opportunities, means and tools for people so moved to find a time and place in their spiritual formation to reach out effectively and lovingly to the least of these.”

While initially only working at SDF two days a week, I nonetheless expect that by year’s end Ralph will have created a strategic development plan and a donor prospectus which outlines growth and capacity building potentials. He will also be engaged in opening doors to new opportunities for us to market our films to Christian seminaries and Bible colleges around the world.

Ralph, who is a whirling dervish of creative ideas and frenetic energy, sees unbelievable possibilities being birthed with each new sunrise. He envisions a range of ways in which SDF can move beyond my simply making films and speaking at schools and churches. A true leadership team is now being formed. Besides Tom, Ralph, Jonathan, Jeremy and me, a current and a past member of the Board of Directors might become more fully engaged in the day-to-day operation.

Recently, Ralph and I have had exciting discussions at CBS Studio Center with founding SDF Board member George Taweel. George is both an Orthodox priest and an extremely talented producer of children’s and family television. George will bring a universe of talent to SDF. His independent productions, produced for both the secular and evangelical market, have sold millions of DVD’s. George has submitted an initial proposal to create educational and entertaining films aimed at teenagers and young adults. Since students often respond to seeing one of SDF’s films or one of my “Poverty and Prayer” presentations with a sincere desire to do something about relieving some of the suffering in the world, there is no structured way of directing that youthful energy and passion. With George’s help, we hope to offer them some ideas. We hope to raise up a multitude of people committed to extending the mercy and compassion of God to more and more people. The films George will produce as part of our strategic youth initiatives will utilize and repackage material from all fourteen of our films. Ralph is already pursuing funding of the development phase of George’s three-phase proposal.

We have also had very exciting talks with current Board member Peter Poppleton, whose dream is to create an educational arm of SDF. His magnificent vision for this is as big as his heart and reflects the breadth of his intellectual gifts. Peter has a two-year plan to birth the San Damiano Institute (or School) of Discernment and Global Engagement. As a religious publishing executive with Our Sunday Visitor (formerly Harcourt Religion), we sought Peter out to help SDF created written syllabi and collateral materials that would give seekers affected by San Damiano films some tangible, biblically-sound materials to guide their onward spiritual journey. After our last meeting at Peter’s home, Ralph said, “We asked for a book and we got a library!” Peter wants the school to engage youth in a way that vocational and professional choices are inclusive of the authenticity of the Gospel. Envisioning this to be both certificate and credit based (with multiple affiliations with institutions of higher education), it offers a specific field practicum regimen to train a generation in global engagement!

I can hardly contain my excitement over the fact that Jonathan Montaldo, the renowned Thomas Merton scholar and past President of the International Thomas Merton Society, will be joining SDF in January. After years at both the Merton Center at Bellarmine University and the Merton Institute, which are both in Louisville, Kentucky, getting Jonathan to move to Burbank is an amazing grace for SDF. Besides being a highly praised author and editor of numerous books on Merton and contemplative living, Jonathan thrives on creating administrative order. He wants to get in here and look into every nook and cranny of the SDF operation, everything from shipping to donor relations, and make sure it is efficient and cost effective. I dream of what it would be like for someone to call SDF and have someone of Jonathan’s eloquence and depth of spirit answer the phone. But beyond his spiritual and administrative gifts, Jonathan too has a bigger dream for how SDF can better serve the poor. We have been discussing our vision to start of a new SDF division that publishes books. We hope that San Damiano Books will publish educational resource materials that might be created by Peter Poppleton and others. The book division might also publish collections of the SDF film scripts. We are currently talking with a book designer about the possibility of a photo/essay book based on some of the thousands of photographs I took in Uganda.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with Fr. Don Dunson, a priest from Ohio who teaches at a major seminary and who was featured in our Uganda film. Fr. Don has formed a non-profit corporation whose goal is to provide counseling to the victims of the brutality inflicted upon thousands of people in Uganda who were gruesomely tortured, people who had arms and legs, tongues and ears, breasts and hands chopped off. Adults and children were abducted at night and forced to kill in a senseless tsunami of violence that has churned up unthinkable levels horror and havoc in northern Uganda for more than two decades. Fr. Don has written two books on his experience in Uganda, both published by Orbis Books. He called to ask me if I wanted to collaborate with him on a new book. I would contribute my photographs and he would supply the text. Fr. Don will be pitching this project to a few Catholic publishers. Hopefully, one will publish it. Don will earn well under two dollars for every book sold. Of course, all the funds the book generates will go into his charitable Foundation, go into serving the impoverished and emotionally scarred victims of violence. Imagine this alternative: SDF publishes the book and we sell them on our web site. Once we recoup the cost of designing and printing the books, 75% of the profits go to Fr. Don and SDF retains the remaining 25%. We will, in essence, be putting the power of the written word at the service of the poor. Our motive would not be profit. Our motive would be transformed hearts. For Fr. Dunson, he will earn perhaps $12 to $15 per book sold, instead of the normal paltry royalty of a buck or so per book. All the money his book generates will go to those he is serving in Uganda. Likewise, any of my unpublished manuscripts would generate funds for SDF instead of putting money in my pocket. St. Francis would like it if I didn’t have pockets.

One more word about Jonathan. He also hopes to spend time archiving the vast amount of printed material generated during the production of our films and the establishment of SDF. This could be a rich resource for future scholars and others interested in replicating some of the outreaches to the poor featured in our films.

One more word about Ralph. Ralph is especially excited about an almost-forgotten part of SDF…that is, The Santa Chiara Compassion Fund. We set up this separate checking account a few years ago with the express purpose of using the funds to give away when a special need was brought to our attention. Sometimes when I am speaking at a church I mention that people can donate directly to SDF in order to help me make more films, or if they wish to have their money used to directly aid the poor, they could donate to The Santa Chiara Fund. But Ralph has a bigger vision for this established fund, which presently does not have very much money in it. In the past when a student or adult was moved to a compassionate response to the poor and asked, “What can I do,” they were directed on an ad hoc basis to write a check to SDF or contact directly the particular ministry featured in a particular film. Ralph’s vision is to create a substantial fund which can be directed by San Damiano to bring immediate help and encouragement to the organizations touched by SDF films. For example, through his vast network of international contacts and relief agencies, Ralph can leverage $1 million dollars worth of pharmaceuticals for less that $40,000. Over the years, he has generated over $1 billion in goods and commodities for charitable purposes. Rather than being an after thought, a distant second cousin, The Santa Chiara Compassion Fund can grow into a powerful expression of the compassion of Christ to a hurting world. Imagine: beyond making a film for someone like Dr. Tony in Lima, Peru, which can help him raise funds, we were also able to send him more medicine than he could ever hope to purchase.

So there you have it…the dawn of a new era at SDF. With God’s continued blessings and the dedicated work of Tom, Jeremy, Ralph, Jonathan, George, Peter, Bill Reilly (our film editor) and me, SDF will travel to new vistas of possibilities, as we focus our combined gifts and talents on one very simple and essential principal: Christ wants us to give our lives away, to put our lives at the service of the poor. Our desire is to showcase people who are living the self-emptying love Christ asks each of us to embody, and to help those saintly people who are living the Gospel and helping those living on the margins of society and unjustly imprisoned by chronic poverty.

In less than two months we will begin our ninth year of putting the power of film at the service of the poor. At times, it has felt as if these first eight years have been an endless treadmill of begging, filming, begging, speaking and more begging. For most of the first five years, we never had more than two weeks of operating funds in the bank. It was life on the edge. Of course, for the people in my films, my life was hardly life on the edge. It did seem, however, I could never let up, never take a day off, let alone a vacation. Weekends were spent filing and answering letters. But God has been faithful and the very help I always needed always showed up…most often at the very last second and sometimes in a form I had not anticipated. Essentially, the last three years were made possible by one very special guardian angel who has quietly and faithfully covered half of my operating expenses and has graciously pledged to do so again in 2010. Without her and God’s continued grace, our humble film ministry would have expired long ago. She is a tangible sign of God’s gentle hand on our ministry. As we move forward, I am so grateful that a new leadership team is being formed and that I will have the help I truly need and will, at long last, be able to slow down and pace myself for the long haul ahead.

I’ll end with a brief word about two films which will soon be released and the filming possibilities which await us in 2010. By the middle of December we will release our 14th title, The Cathedrals of the Poor. As I write this, a brilliant French composer who lives in Italy is writing a soaring, majestic score for the film’s opening 25-minute-long montage. I think this film is the most powerful film we have ever produced.

Jeremy and I made our first trip to Assisi in September of 2008 to begin production on our film on St. Francis. We made one subsequent trip in May of this year. I also made two additional trips by myself as I struggled with the enormous task of presenting the life of St. Francis in a way that made his spiritual journey and love of the poor more relevant to a modern, secular and skeptical audience. The film has slowly evolved into an inspirational meditation that is epic in scope. It has taken longer to produce than I imagined, but the end is in sight, and we anticipate releasing the film by the first of March.

In 2010, we are formulating plans to film in Haiti, Ecuador, Sudan and Minneapolis. And one film project will incorporate visits to Romania, Thailand, France and Peru. We are close to green-lighting two projects.

I want to thank everyone who has walked with SDF on this journey down poverty road. I humbly ask for your continued prayers and support as we get ready to embark upon a New Year and a new era at SDF. May God give you peace.

Pace e bene,

Gerry

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