All Saints planting good seeds for movie goers
by Keri Vermeulen
The seeds we sow in Christian life are not only metaphorical, they are sometimes quite literal. Such was the case with Reverend Michael Spurlock, a pastor who heard and followed direction from God to keep his quaint country church – slated for closure – alive by farming the land it sat on, with the help of Karen refugees who had arrived in the area. The inspirational true story of a persevering pastor, a group of dedicated newcomers and how God grows communities from strangers has been made into a new movie, All Saints.
The real-life Reverend Spurlock entered the seminary in the fall of 2004, after almost 10 years working as an editor in academic publishing. After completing Nashotah House Episcopal seminary, he took up his first pastoral role at All Saints Church, in Smyrna, Tennessee. With a congregation of about 25 people and a mortgage beyond its means, the church was slated for closure, and it became Spurlock’s job to shut it down and sell the land. But shortly into his tenure, Spurlock began to see new faces come in the church – those of recently arrived refugees, Karen people from Myanmar (formerly Burma).
When Spurlock was confronted with an offer to purchase the land, he remembers taking the potential loss of the church pretty hard. While taking a reflective walk on the property, Spurlock received a message from God, who had a solution and a plan for the future.
“…God spoke to me very clearly, saying that He had sent us 65 expert farmers from the other side of the world, and I was walking on farmland and that we were supposed to start a farm there,” remembers Spurlock. “I did not doubt that it was Him. I was just afraid everybody else would think I was crazy, not only for claiming to hear God’s voice, but to propose a solution that was so farfetched.”
But far from being rejected as crazy, he discovered support and encouragement from the people around him. While the film dramatizes a conflict between Spurlock and his bishop, the pastor says in truth, no conflict existed. But he did need to request that the decision to close the church be reversed. “I enjoyed the full support and encouragement of my bishop, it was just that for a while we agreed there was no alternative but to sell the church, a conclusion I actually came to first,” Spurlock shares. “But then I was also the person that God first revealed that selling the church didn’t accord with His plans, and I had to go back to the bishop asking that we reverse our earlier decision to sell.”
Spurlock and his congregation began work in the church fields, alongside the Karen refugees striving for a fresh start in America. The newcomers were already knowledgeable farmers and soon the fertile land became a working farm, able to pay the church’s bills and feed its newest people. During his three years in ministry there, Spurlock says he was greatly impacted by many people – but two, in particular, stand out: Father Bu Christ and a Ye Win.
“(They) are heroes to me,” Spurlock tells the Light Magazine. “Father Bu Christ ministered in the villages of the Karen territory in East Burma at great danger to himself, and was at times actively hunted for execution by the Burmese military, yet he persevered. Ye Win is one of the hardest working men I have ever met. His dedication to the well-being of his people and the community he leads is remarkable. If God could find 12 men like Ye Win in this country to be His apostles, there would be revival in this country like we’ve never seen.”
Spurlock is currently on the clergy staff at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he lives with his wife, Aimee, and their two children. He says that even today, it is a “great sense of relief and pride to me that the Karen still claim me as one of their own” when he visits All Saints a few times a year.
Spurlock hopes movie-goers will ponder relevant issues of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. “God is shown to be a lover of strangers, and he commends His kind of love and concern for them to us,” Spurlock says. “Xenophobia is from the Greek words for stranger and fear. Philaxenos is from the Greek for love and stranger. Which do you think God is? What are we? What would God want us to be?”
All Saints opens in Canadian theatres Aug. 25. For local listings, check out allsaintsmovie.com