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.
A "COMMITTED ATHEIST"
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.
EXPLORING HIS FAITH THROUGH 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."
LIVING AMONG THE POOR
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 http://www.sandamianofoundation.org/