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Monday, February 25, 2008

UB story: Filmmaker puts the power of faith in service of the poor

Putting the power of faith in service of the poor

By Wendy A. Hoke

Photo by George Shuba

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS—It’s not easy to watch the films of Gerry Straub. They make the viewer uncomfortable. The stark images compel almost compel one to look away.

But the point of his films, made under the auspices of The San Damiano Foundation, is that humanity cannot look away from pain and suffering all around.

His work today is a far cry from his work as producer of the daytime soap, “General Hospital” and the 14 years he spent at CBS-TV. It’s been a spiritual journey, one that brought him to Cleveland this week to share with high school students.

“I considered myself an atheist and had been searching for God for years,” Straub said during dinner here. “I found myself in a rundown church in Rome, praying the Liturgy of Hours and it just hit me. The core of all faiths is mercy and compassion. But people who say they believe don’t always take that seriously so it wasn’t real to me.

“I spent years in network television where you do anything for a rating point. I really wanted to write seriously and try to understand what happened to that young boy who went into the seminary,” he said.

At the urging of a Jesuit, he turned his pen to writing about St. Francis of Assisi. He questioned his credibility in writing such a work. But after nine months of following in the footsteps of St. Francis in Italy and recording his own journey in diaries, Straub published, “The Sun and Moon Over Assisi,” which won a first place in the Catholic Press Association Book Award for spirituality.

Now a Secular Franciscan, Straub says Francis has been his spiritual guide.

“Francis became fully dependent on God and had a real love of poverty,” he explained. “Everything that came to him had to be a gift from God. I can understand that on a theological level, but practically I couldn’t.”

Straub’s spiritual quest led him to live at a Franciscan soup kitchen, an experience that turned his thoughts on poverty upside-down. “When we blame the poor or the homeless for their condition and label them, it becomes their fault and not our responsibility,” he said.

He called upon some friends in network television to help make a film about the soup kitchen. “When Did I See You Hungry?” was narrated by actor Martin Sheen and ran on PBS for 10 years.

Like Francis, Straub prays that God and others will provide the means to make his films. Through 13 films and three books, he has so far been blessed, though it has been hard at times.

There is no call to action in his films, he asks only that people pray for those suffering in the world. “I don’t tell anyone what to do. Everyone can do something. Christ is not asking for your spare change; he’s asking for your life.”

During his visit to Beaumont School Tuesday, Straub engaged 150 student members of Catholic Students for Peace and Justice. He was hoping the films lead to a transformation of the heart.

His mission, it seems, has been accomplished.

“Mr. Straub’s presentation forced me to face a reality that is completely different from the reality I live everyday,” said Beth Melena of Beaumont School for Girls. “It is easy to forget that people live without the basic necessities of life, but Mr.Straub’s films and presentation have left an impression on me that will last a long time.”

“It was very powerful and moving and made me want to get involved,” said Halle Ross of Villa Angela St. Joseph High School.

“My initial reaction was definitely shock. I mean, I'm aware of the issues involving poverty, but seeing the images never cease to rip your heart out in their agony,” said Elizabeth Hauserman of VASJ.

But she and others including Emily Infeld and Laura Welgs, both of Beaumont, also saw that through Straub’s visit, even small contributions mean the world to those who suffer.

“I ignore every rule of filmmaking,” said Straub. “These films are my prayers.”

For more information about The San Damiano Foundation, visit here.


Michelle O'Neil said...

Ooooo! I love the concept of films as prayers. Beautiful.

(Have you heard of The Spiritual Cinema Circle)?

I also thought his statement about being an "athiest searching for God" was poignant.

Wendy Hoke said...

I thought it was beautiful, Michelle. I haven't heard of The Spiritual Cinema Circle. I'll have to check it out. Thanks, as always, for reading.