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

THE ST. FRANCIS INN

…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.

GOING DEEPER INTO THE "BELLY OF THE POOR"

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

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 (http://www.sandamianofoundation.org/) and view some of the video clips to hear the voice of God.

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

1 comment:

Terri said...

I just watched the DVD "Prayer and Poverty II". It went over in depth, extreme poverty that you never get a chance to see up close, unless you are in mission work. Thank you for bringing this film to the attention of a lay person. It is motivation to help the poor. The way we get into Heaven is by God knowing us as one of his children. I often think that when we are helping the poor, directly, what better way for God to see us looking in His eyes. And isn't looking in someone eyes, the way to make a connection with them? Aren't we called to be in Communion with God? Having Him look back at us from a poor person's eyes means when we get to Heaven, God will say, "I remember you!" God Bless, Mr. Straub