Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gerry Straub - Using the Power of Film for the Service of the Poor (Part II)

by Hope Frances

(Click here to read Part I of this story)

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21


…So Gerry rounded up some of his friends in the film industry to produce a documentary based on the poor and homeless at the St. Francis Inn. They spent four days living at the shelter in the slums with Philadelphia's destitute. We Have a Table for Four Ready was then produced and according to Gerry, "somehow the film ended up on PBS."

Viewers of all faiths so overwhelmingly responded to the film that it brought in close to a quarter of a million dollars in donations to the St. Francis Inn. With the donations, the friars built a new soup kitchen, which could better accommodate their needs. In addition, the friars also were able to add a chapel to the second floor of the shelter. The homeless can now pray in the chapel and experience God away from the struggles they face living on the streets of Philadelphia.

By following his desire to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis, the documentary filmmaker found his calling in life. The man who was once "chasing after Brother BMW" now found true fulfillment in living among and documenting the plight of the poor through the power of film.

"That experience (at the St. Francis Inn) showed me that it was possible maybe to put the power of film at the service of the poor," said Gerry.


During a meeting with the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, Gerry told his desire to go deeper into the "belly of the poor." He asked permission to travel around the world, live with the friars and serve the poorest of the poor. The Minister General blessed the plan and for the next 15 months Gerry lived out the struggles and hardships of the poor spanning 29 cities across India, Kenya, Jamaica, Italy, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada and the United States.

He saw firsthand the depth of despair plaguing the poor on a daily basis. Of their living conditions he said, "I have filmed in the worst slums on earth, seeing people earning a living scavenging through the waste of others in massive garbage dumps. And encountering horribly disfiguring lepers in the Amazon region of Brazil and spending months on the mean streets of skid row in downtown Los Angeles."

From his 15 months of living in the most unimaginably poor conditions in the world came the book, When Did I See You Hungry? Through the eye of a camera, Mr. Straub uses black and white photography to bring to surface what we so often shelter ourselves from - the 2/3 of the world's population living in severe poverty. A short film based on the book was then produced. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the documentary When Did I See You Hungry? uses over 250 photos from the book of the same name to further reinforce our responsibility to the least of God's children.


The San Damiano Foundation was later founded with the mission to produce fundraising films for Christian charities throughout the world that serve the poor. The foundation was named after the church of San Damiano in Assisi, Italy where the Franciscan movement had its start.

The funding for the films he produces is either raised on his own or the services are donated in kind. In making the films he has never stayed in the comforts of a hotel. Gerry's life is equally as uncomfortable as those seen on screen. He literally lives with the poor. Staying in "rooms with bats, snakes, no running water or electricity" is not uncommon.

It is "emotionally draining, hard work." Devoting the first 90 minutes of each day to prayer is what sustains him. Gerry feels no desire to go back to his old lifestyle of the rich and famous in Hollywood.

"I make virtually no money, yet I have never been happier or more fulfilled living with the poor," he said.

His films have a lasting impression on viewers. In the past year five college students who saw The Patients of a Saint we so moved by it that they decided to spend their summer volunteering in Lima, Peru with Dr. Tony Lazzara. Dr. Lazzara opened up a home for poverty-stricken children with severe illnesses. Not only does he offer free medical attention to the children, he also provides them a place to live as well as an education.

"When we hear the cries of the oppressed, the cries of the poor, we hear the voice of God," said Gerry.

I encourage all who read this to visit the San Damiano Foundation website ( and view some of the video clips to hear the voice of God.

God continues to shine brighter than all the stars in Hollywood.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Gerry Straub - Using the Power of Film for the Service of the Poor (Part I)

by Hope Frances

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21

So often the lure of materialism leaves us in denial that there is another side of the spectrum. Hollywood, especially, is known for its movie sets that portray the 'perfect' life as one full of the latest and greatest material goods: several cars neatly parked in the garage of a beautiful, pristine home where the cupboards are stocked and the electricity and water flow freely at the flip of a switch or the turn of a faucet.

Very rarely, though, are we viewers exposed to that other side - those living in poverty.
As a former producer of General Hospital during the heyday of Luke and Laura, Gerry Straub lived among the richest of the rich in Hollywood. And now as founder and president of The San Damiano Foundation, he lives among the poorest of the poor in unbearable conditions in slums with neither running water nor electricity.

He lives among lepers. He lives among children in poverty-stricken countries whose bodies are being eaten away by incurable diseases.

All in an effort to show the reality of poverty through the power of film.


Raised in a Catholic home, Mr. Straub felt the calling to become a missionary priest at a young age. He entered the seminary in his teens, but withdrew in the first year.

After graduating high school he landed a summer job at CBS New York handing out tickets for "The Ed Sullivan Show." He continued moving his way up the ladder and by age 21 he was an executive at CBS. By 30, he had his own network show.

"I was a big success," said Gerry. "I made a lot of money. I had a lot of prestige, but there was a deep emptiness inside of me, which I tried to fill with all kinds of things, usually bad things. But, the emptiness wouldn't go away."

Eventually he started getting disillusioned with network television. He felt the focus was on rating points. He turned down the opportunity for advancement and left his television career in favor of writing.


Essentially, he wanted to use his writing as a vehicle to find out what happened to his faith.
"As a child and as a young teenager I had these ideas about being a priest. Suddenly after 15 years of television all of that just fell by the wayside."

With the rise of his career as a television executive he fell away from his Catholic faith. He says that he became "a committed atheist."

His first novel entitled Dear Kate was about a man obsessed with searching for God. He started writing a second novel, The Canvas of the Soul. He wanted to "explore the connection between creativity and spirituality with Vincent van Gogh representing creativity and St. Francis representing spirituality."

After devoting one and a half years to the novel, Gerry encountered a writer's block. So, to get past the writer's block, he decided to travel to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, and to Arles, France where van Gogh found his creative inspiration.


Gerry's trip to Assisi turned out to be more than a means of inspiration. It was a conversion.
On the day of his arrival in Rome, he walked into a church and read Psalm 63 in the Liturgy of the Hours and "God broke through the silence of the church."

He felt the "overwhelming presence of God." He knew that the longing he had felt all these years could only be satisfied by God.

"In this moment of revelation I was transformed from an atheist to a pilgrim and I went from denying God to wanting to experience more and more of God," he said.

Later, upon the recommendation of a Jesuit priest, Gerry scrapped his book on the connection between van Gogh and St. Francis. Rather, he spent the next five years writing The Sun and Moon Over Assisi: A Personal Encounter With Francis and Clare.

In writing the book, he couldn't comprehend the saint's love, not only of the poor, but of poverty.
"To St. Francis," said Gerry, "voluntary poverty was a way of becoming wholly dependent on God for everything. St. Francis spoke of being wedded to Lady Poverty."


Gerry again made a life-changing decision. A friend of his, an elderly friar, suggested that he live with the poor to better understand St. Francis' love for poverty. He went to the worst slum in America, the Kensington section of Philadelphia, and lived with the friars at the St. Francis Inn.

"Every concept I had about the poor and homeless turned out to be a misconception. I met real people. People just like me in so many ways," he said.

He said that it's so easy to judge or label these people but cautions us because it removes the obligation that we have to love our neighbor as God asks of us. From his experience living with the poor he decided to make a film about the St. Francis Inn…

…to be continued next week as…
God continues to shine brighter than all the stars in Hollywood.

For further information about the Gerry Straub and The San Damiano Foundation, please visit their website at