It Takes a Village: Kathmandu, Water, Ubuntu, and Doing What We Can

Close up of the piercing blue eyes of the Buddha on the Boudhanath Stupa just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Close up of the piercing blue eyes of the Buddha on the Boudhanath Stupa just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.

For nearly 30 years, Nepal has occupied prime real estate in my imagination. It began the summer of 1987 when I spent the summer in London as a “mime for the Lord.”

I recognize the look on your face, so let me explain …

I was 16 years old and traveling with a Christian missionary organization called Teen Missions International that, for decades, has arranged for hundreds of teens to spend six weeks or so of their summer breaks in locations circling the globe, mostly performing construction and other manual labors as a means of spreading the evangelical Christian Gospel. Having inherited my parents’ chronic wanderlust, I couldn’t wait travel, but I was’t a so sure about spending July and August sweating in the jungle. So I chose what was at the time a new missions “team” that would attempt to spread the Gospel using truly awful street theater in the exotic urban jungle of London’s West End. And so began my sojourn in white face, red suspenders, yellow bow tie, black Dickies trousers, and Red Wing Steel-Toed Work Boots (which were a requisite or every member of Teen Missions, no matter where you went, although we did get special dispensation to wear ballet slippers whilst “performing.”)

That summer in London, I learned many things, not the least of which was how repellant and ineffectual “cold-contact witnessing” — which is, ostensibly, accosting a stranger with the Good News of God’s Love and Grace by trying to engage them in conversation that has, ideally, been provoked by the miming and other street performances — is. I returned home from England convinced that literally throwing Bibles at the heads of passersby would have been more effective than what we’d been trying to do — a conviction I hold to this day.

Before my tenure as a MFTL came to its merciful end, my “team” spent a long weekend in (if memory serves) Oxfordshire, England “debriefing” with another missions team that has spent its summer working at an orphanage in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. I spent hours in the English countryside talking to the members of the Nepal team about what they’d seen, heard, and experienced. A couple of the girls came home with nose rings or hennaed hands. More than a few of the Nepal team members returned to the West with a kind of enlightenment London had not afforded me.

Nepal had changed them, not the other way around, and that was a good thing.

A few snapshots from my Teen Missions tenure as a

A few snapshots from my Teen Missions tenure as a “mime for the Lord” aka MFTL as a member of England Drama Team 8746. Bonus points if you can pick me out in all four photos.

With their stories and anecdotes, they painted mental pictures of a deeply spiritual, difficult, sometimes brutal and staggeringly beautiful land that took hold of my teenage imagination and have never let go. They also instilled in me a healthy skepticism about faith-based organizations working in the developing world, particularly in locales (such as Nepal) where proselytizing is (or has been for long stretches of history) illegal.

Although I have traveled fairly extensively, both privately and as a journalist, I never had been able to arrange a trip to Nepal. As most of you know, the focus of my nearly 20 years as a journalist has been religion (defined broadly to include faith, spirituality, beliefs, ethics, philosophy, and identity) and where it intersects with culture — including politics, education, development issues, justice issues, and gender issues. Of particular interest to me is where those two things — religion and culture — overlap in the developing world where they so often are intertwined with extreme poverty, women’s rights, healthcare, education, and food security. I have looked at these issues through the religion-and-culture lens on several occasions in Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia, where I traveled to as a journalist and in my capacity as a member of the ONE Girls and Women advisory board at the ONE Campaign.

I’ve recited this lengthy preamble in the hope that you will understand why, when one of my great friends in Laguna Beach, the artist Iris Bourne (who had traveled with me to Malawi and Zambia a few years back) said she was going to Nepal with a new Fair Trade not-for-profit from our hometown Laguna Beach that is working with women artisans in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, in Kathmandu, I heard myself say aloud, “not without me you’re not,” before I could even think.

I said I’d go and write about the work the organization The Peace Exchange is doing on the ground, tell the women’s stories, raise some consciousness, maybe inspire readers to help or do something to change their corner of the world.

Iris and The Peace Exchange’s founder, Katie Bond, set about making their plans for a month-long visit first to Congo and then to Nepal, while I tried to figure out how to get myself to Kathmandu without having to sell a kidney. I applied for a journalism fellowship and for grant money to do an independent reporting project related to the Millennium Development Goals and how Nepal’s prevailing religious culture (Hindu) influenced, supported, or hindered progress on the MDVs and how is it might be shaping and preparing for progress to be made toward the Sustainable Development Goals that will follow the MDVs that expire this year.

In one application, I explained that I hoped to pay particular interest to then status and welfare of women and girls in relation to development goals  — i.e. are women and girls in Nepal better off now than they were 15 years ago, and what influence has their religion and the prevailing religious culture had on that status. Harkening back to my MFTL days, I said I also wanted to look at Christian NGOs in Nepal and how they have played a role development, the status and welfare of women, the education of girls, food security, health care, and, in turn, the socio-political climate in country.

But as I look back now on those applications for funding, a couple of lines stick out to me as vital. I said,

Most often, I find the most powerful stories to be those of ordinary people and I’d imagine the same will be true in Nepal. Telling the universal through the specific, making the obscure or theoretical personal in the voices, faces, and stories of “regular” people is, in my experience, what makes the most indelible impression on readers and viewers. I’m certain Nepal will not disappoint.

To make a long story short, I didn’t get the grant money or the fellowship, and so, a month away from The Peace Exchange’s departure date, I thought (momentarily) that my long-awaited journey to Nepal was dead in the water. But then a friend said, “why don’t you do a GoFundMe camapaign to see if people donate to get you there as an independent journalist?” A couple of hours later, I launched the crowd-sourcing campaign and six days after that was fully funded and booked my tickets from Los Angeles, through Singapore, to Kathmandu.

Last Friday night, just before midnight, I was all packed and ready to leave the next day at noon for LAX. As I reached to turn out the light on the nightstand, I heard the laptop open to my Facebook page on the bed, go “BING!” I looked and found an instant message from my friend Vicki that said, “There was just an earthquake in Nepal?”

The 24 hours that followed were a blur of activity and anxiety. How bad was it? Should I stay or should I go? If I go would I just be in the way? I’m neither a doctor nor an engineer and I don’t want to be a burden in an catastrophe. What help would I be? My inclination was to go, but was that ego or some misplaced bravado talking?

The prospect of walking into an disaster of the magnitude of what happened in Nepal with the 7.9 earthquake and 6.6 and stronger aftershocks, the photos of collapsed buildings and UNESCO World Heritage sites destroyed, gave me pause. Bodies pulled from the rubble. Chaos and terror in the streets. All of the unknowns and potentially perilous variables.

“I’m saving the starfish,” the child replied.
“Why waste your time?… There are so many you can’t save them all so what does is matter?” argued the man.
Without hesitation, the child picked up another starfish and tossed the starfish back into the water… “It matters to this one.”

After they breathed a sigh of relief that I was still safely in Laguna, I began to hear from some of my true-north people — the ones I trust with my life, whose judgment is sound, who know me best, who are prayerful, thoughtful, rational, and love me. To a person, they were getting the same thing (I don’t know what to call it exactly) as I was: Go.

My son, Vasco, has veto power on such things. He took a while to think about it and then told me that he thought I should go, just not right away (by which he meant, don’t take the flight you’re booked on that leaves 12 hours after the earthquake; wait a few days.)

With that, I unpacked and began assembling what I’d need for a very different journey from the one I’d had planned. There would be no trek on the Annapurna range below Everest’s base camp. There would be no occasions to wear that cute boho dress. But the new hiking boots would do just fine as work boots if the need arose.

I started to put together bundles of first aid supplies, some medications, and then I thought about what else might be helpful. That’s about the time news that I still planned on going to Kathmandu began to spread through our little seaside hippie town. Friends and neighbors were calling, emailing, stopping me on the street and asking what they could do, handing me cash, offering their prayers and contact numbers

“You can’t go to that party empty handed,” David, one of my very best friends, said as only he can. I think he was emailing from the other side of the planet — Shanghai, maybe? I lose track of his Where’s Waldo work schedule. But what he meant was, let’s do something significant to help. Within what felt like seconds he was texting me and Jon Rose, the pro surfer and founder of Waves for Water, an NGO that provides these ingenious portable water filters to crisis spots all over the globe.

The next morning, after David’s brother Joel took care of the logistics, I drove up north of LA and picked up 40 filters that will provide enough clean drinking water for 4,000 people. FOUR-THOUSAND PEOPLE. And they all fit in one duffel with room to spare.

Forty water filters from Waves for Water that will provide potable water for 4,000 Nepalese.

Forty water filters from Waves for Water that will provide potable water for 4,000 Nepalese.

Another friend bought dozens of bottles of eye drops and sunglasses for me to hand out as I move about Kathmandu where the normally horrendous air quality has been made a million times worse by the brick and concrete dust from collapsed buildings and ongoing excavations.

I needed a satellite phone in case of emergencies but didn’t have the time or cash to rent one. Within two hours, the brother of a friend from the church community my family is a part of lent me his.

Lisa and Dr. Love, a husband-and-wife team that runs a holistic health and chiropractic practice in Laguna, handed me hundreds of pre- and post-natal supplements as I was headed to the airport. Four duffel bags packed to the hilt with supplies bought and paid for by friends and even a few strangers.

The MARVELOUS Singapore Airlines (Thank you Joseph and Matthew!) helped me rebook my non-refundable ticket and then persuaded the airline to waive the $500 in fees for excess baggage. All the while, people continued to donate money to the GoFundMe account, which allowed me to buy more Bandaids, maxi pads, antiseptic spray, salves, face masks, sterile gloves, and even six packs of UNO cards for the kids at one of the orphanages I’ll be visiting.

There are times when all the cliches are true. This is such a time.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” – a.a.milne

It does take a village.

We are all connected.

I am because we are. (UBUNTU)

And there but for the grace of God go I.

We can’t do everything, but what we can do we must do.

If you build it, they will come.

I’m typing this from the airport in Singapore waiting for my flight to Kathmandu. I hope to report and tell the stories and do all that I can.

Thank you all for helping me show up.

Namaste for now,

Cath

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The Americans Season Finale: Teach Your Parents Well

the-americans-season-3-570x294My latest is up at Religion Dispatches where I offer my take on the extraordinary third season of FX’s The Americans, which concludes tonight with the episode titled, “March 8, 1983.”

Here’s a taste:

It’d be a stretch to say Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric defined my faith, worldview, or burgeoning political sensibilities at the time, but the idea of the godless, Communist Russians being “evil” and us god-fearing evangelical Christian Americans being “blessed” or even “chosen” was a spoken and unspoken mantra throughout my teen years.

How I emerged from the 1980s with what I hope is a humble Christian faith, decidedly left-leaning politics, open-minded stance toward the world, and openhearted approach to “the other” is nothing short of miraculous. Well, that and some excellent parenting by a mother and father with a deep faith matched only by their curiosity and wanderlust who went through life cancelling out each others (political) votes, inhaling and debating the news of the day, teaching my brother and me to think for ourselves, and to lean hard into our educational pursuits.

So it’s been with great interest that I’ve watched season three of The Americans unfold.

Read the post in its entirety at Religion Dispatches HERE.

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God Girl’s Got News: Religion Dispatches and ‘Remapping’ Christianity

11075263_10152909550180819_5979026208049641961_nHiya folks,

Loooooong time no write (in this space at least.)

Well, I’m back. For realsies and when I’m not noodling in this longtime space (11 years!) you can find me over at my new gig on Religion Dispatches.

To wit: announcement time (via RD and our host family, the University of Southern California — Trojan Country) —

Cathleen Falsani, an award-winning religion journalist, will spearhead coverage of the changing landscape of American religious practice, identity and belief in Religion Dispatches.

As senior editor for the daily online magazine about religion, politics and culture, Falsani will lead the three-year “Remapping American Christianities” project. She will work alongside Lisa Webster and Evan Derkacz, the magazine’s co-editors.

Besides launching the new initiative, Falsani will work with students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who are interested in covering religion and spirituality.

The Christianities project is funded by a $1 million grant the Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded to USC Annenberg School in December. The magazine is overseen by Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion.

Cathleen is one of the country’s leading religion journalists.

~ USC/Annenberg Knight Chair in Media & Religion, Diane Winston

“Cathleen is one of the country’s leading religion journalists,” Winston said. “She has an unerring sense of how people live out their spiritual commitments and find meaning in their daily lives.”

Papal coverage

Falsani was religion writer for the Chicago Sun Times from 2000-10 and most recently religion columnist for the Orange County Register, where she covered the election of Pope Francis in Rome and his first pontifical year. She served as Web editor and director of new media for Sojourners magazine and she has been a longtime contributor and columnist to Religion News Service.

Her writing has appeared on numerous media outlets, including Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune,Christianity Today, The Atlantic and TIME. Her sixth and most current work explores the spiritual, social, cultural, political and technological reasons for Pope Francis’ popularity.

“I am thrilled to be joining colleagues who are passionate about serious journalism at the intersection of faith and culture.” Falsani said. “The Remapping American Christianities project will explore the root questions behind shifting cultural expressions of identity, meaning and lived beliefs that are inextricably tied to the American experience.”

Falsani, who holds degrees from Northwestern University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was honored as the 2005 James O. Supple Religion Writer of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association and twice has been a finalist for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year award.

Launched in 2008, Religion Dispatches has been nominated for a Webby Award three of the last four years. In 2014, it had 2.7 million unique views. The site moved to USC Annenberg in October 2013.

And all the people said SQUEE.

You can read the entirety of my first piece for RD, “The Gospel According to Frank Underwood,” HERE.
And you can read a few bars I hummed about the passing of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller HERE.
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Before Oprah There Was The Hour of Power: RIP Robert H. Schuller

My latest from Religion Dispatches

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,”  the French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote.

When the Rev. Robert H. Schuller saw the concession stand of a southern California drive-in movie theater in 1955, his imagination bore the blueprints for a crystalline cathedral and thoroughly-modern ideas about spreading the Christian Gospel via television.

Schuller, founder of the now-defunct Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the long-running spiritual television program Hour of Power, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with esophageal cancer. He was 88.

A native of tiny, rural Alton, Iowa, Schuller was an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America and served a congregation in Chicago before his denomination asked him to move to Southern California and plant a church.

With his wife Arvella (who died last year) serving as organist and “$500 in assets, he rented the Orange Drive-In Theatre and conducted Sunday services from the tarpapered roof of its snack bar,” according to Schuller’s biography on the Hour of Power website. “One hundred persons attended that first Sunday, all in their cars. Dr. Schuller, who believe[d] this outdoor ministry experience helped inspire him to later build the all-glass Crystal Cathedral, often state[d], ‘It was there I fell in love with the sky!’”

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches HERE.
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‘I Don’t Buy It': The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

Originally appeared via Religion Dispatches

04-kevin-spacy-house-of-cards-1.w750.h560.2x-1050x700There are many things that Netflix’s House of Cards can do — and do well — because it is not a network television series, not the least of which is handle faith, spirituality, and religion with nuance, courage, and a certain alacrity that is virtually absent from traditional, commercial programming.

Throughout Season 3 of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his existential striptease unabated, revealing the depths of his moral declension and staggering spiritual torpor.

House of Cards gets away with showing and telling things about the harrowing intersection of faith and politics that it never would have had the award-winning series fallen into the hands of ABC, NBC, CBS, or even HBO. (Thanks be to God.)

Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode “Chapter 30″ (aka season 3, episode 4) or beyond of House of Cards.

To wit: a scene in the fourth episode of the new season that contained one of the greatest spiritual moments in “television” history followed immediately by one of the most disturbing.

In the episode, disquieted by a presidential decision he made that cost several Navy SEALs their lives, Frank seeks counsel from a military chaplain — the motorcycle-riding “Bishop Charles Eddis” played by John Doman — under cover of darkness, standing under a huge crucifix in the sanctuary of a church.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches by clicking HERE.
And read the bonus 12 Quotes from the Underwood Bible HERE.
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Becoming King: How David Oyelowo Prepared Spiritually for “Selma”

Editor’s Note: A few days before the magnificent new film Selma opened in wide release Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, I had the chance to speak with the British actor David Oyelowo who portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film.  Born in Oxford, England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo, 38, was raised in the Baptist church. His Christian faith continues to be a driving force of his life and work. Below is a transcript of our conversation about faith, film, Dr. King, and the extraordinary Selma. ~ CF


Cathleen Falsani: I heard that when you first read the script for Selma, you felt that God meant it for you. Please tell me a bit more about that story.

David Oyelowo: I felt God tell me … no, I know God told me. God told me I was going to play this role in this film.

The reason I have been quite vocal about that is because, in all honesty, I wouldn’t cast me as King — certainly not seven-and-a-half years ago. It was on July 24, 2007 that I felt God tell me that — I know the date because I wrote it down. It was so strange. Of course I knew who Dr. King was, but I had never watched him, heard him, and certainly never felt that, ‘Oh yeah, that’s someone I should play at some point as an actor.’ But I just knew it.

I know God’s voice. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, it’s the same voice that gave me the names of all of my children. I know that voice and it has never failed me in my literal life and in my spiritual life.

So I proceeded to put myself on tape for the director who was attached [to the film] at that point. And then much to my chagrin and surprise, he didn’t agree with God on that one. And so I didn’t get cast in 2007. It wasn’t until 2010 that I did get cast.

In the meantime I went on this amazing journey that just continually confirmed for me that God had called me to do this. I played a Union soldier in Lincoln, and American fighter pilot in Red Tails, I played a preacher in The Help and then I played the son of a butler in The Butler. And even though I was British and that was one of the reasons why I thought I can’t play Dr. King,  but God gave me these opportunities that taught me what it was like to be an African American in this country over the last 150 years — from Lincoln [set] in 1865 to The Butler that went all the way up until Barack Obama’s election.

So yeah, then you look at the divine timing of the film dropping at this time in American history. I can absolutely trace the divine nature of this.

David Oyelowo (center) as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in "Selma."

David Oyelowo (center) as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma.”

CF: Isn’t it a gift when we’re able to see that thread running through? It’s not often that we get such a clear glimpse of God’s plan, I suppose.

DO: I have to be honest — it’s only retrospectively that I can look back on it and see it. There were many frustrating moments when I thought, Did I hear right? I know how Moses must have felt in the wilderness.

CF: Tell me a bit about how and if you spiritually prepared yourself for this role and for the performance. Is there anything different you did this time than you’d done for other roles?

DO: Absolutely. I’ve never approached any other role the way I approached this. Because I always knew that I couldn’t do this on my own.

One of the things I spotted early on was that when you see Dr. King giving a speech, that is a human being absolutely flowing in their anointing. That is someone who is taken up by something other than themselves. I know it because I have had glimpses of it myself when I’m flowing in a spiritual space that transcends my soul. And I felt the only way to play Dr. King was to do all the preparation I could, and then just trust that if God truly has called me to do this, He is going to come alongside my talent, alongside all that I am doing in the way of work, and make it more than I could make it on my own.

I truly felt every day on that set that something other than me flowed through me. There were times I felt God lifting me through scenes. There were times when bizarrely — and it almost flies in the face of my own theology, really —but I felt Dr. King very close to me in the playing of the role. And the only way I knew that it could ever possibly happen was for me to be open to it, for me to sort of let go of the reins and hope that that openness allowed something other than me to flow through me.

So it was absolutely different. I don’t normally do that. I’m normally a control freak. So letting go was what I needed to do and what I think, certainly, is something I will try to apply going forward.

I know God’s voice. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, it’s the same voice that gave me the names of all of my children. I know that voice and it has never failed me in my literal life and in my spiritual life.

~ David Oyelowo

CF: It’s a wonderful lesson to learn, although it’s terrifying to let go of those reins. But I know that when I do, something really magnificent can happen, something far bigger and greater than I ever could have hoped for on my own.

DO: Right. Exactly.

CF: I visited the Selma set in Montgomery last summer and had a chance to speak to [the actor] Wendell Pierce [who portrayed civil rights leader Hosea Williams] and a few others and watch some of the filming. Oddly enough, one of my roommates from college [Elizabeth Diane Wells who portrays Marie Reeb, the wife of slain Boston minister the Rev. James Reeb] has a small role in the film. She is a person of faith. I know Wendell is a person of faith, as are a number of other people in the film including Oprah Winfrey and yourself. I wonder whether there was a different kind of a vibe on the set? What was the spiritual vibe like while you were filming in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and other places?

DO: A hundred percent there was — we all went to church together. There was a lot of praying together, especially before some of the tougher scenes. And [the director] Ava  [DuVernay] was very picky in terms of the people she had around the film. I think she knew, I think we all knew, that this couldn’t feel like just another gig to people.

This was a spiritual endeavor because these were spiritual people and the engine for what they did was their spirituality. King and his band of brothers were largely made up of preachers. And the philosophy of nonviolence, the philosophy of love in the face of hate, was born out of their Christian faith.

It’s one thing to talk about that, it’s another thing to be able to project it truthfully. I don’t think it was an accident that most of the people on the set, certainly when it comes to the actors, were Christians or people who had been raised that way so they had a frame of reference for it.

It absolutely does affect the film you’re watching because what sometimes happens in Hollywood, when Hollywood tries to make a film about or that has faith as a part of it, that is written by or is being portrayed by people who don’t believe in what they’re doing, it shows.

And it feels inauthentic, and it feels, actually, patronizing. It feels like you’re almost making fun of faith because if you don’t believe it, you cannot truly —I don’t believe you can enter into it in a way that feels truthful and powerful.


CF: What I find really interesting in having watched the film now several times is that it’s mighty spiritually, but when I first saw it, I wasn’t thinking about the spiritual heft. I was thinking about Dr. King as a young man — as a human — in a way that I don’t think I had before. He’s almost this mythic character, certainly in the American consciousness, but here I saw a man who was just a young man, a man who was faulted and fragile, but who was brave and courageous, and allowed himself to be used by God.

I felt the only way to play Dr. King was to do all the preparation I could, and then just trust that if God truly has called me to do this, He is going to come alongside my talent, alongside all that I am doing in the way of work, and make it more than I could make it on my own.

~ David Oyelowo

DO: That’s exactly what we set out to do. I think that when you read the Bible, when you read about David, when you read about Joseph, when you read about Moses — when you read about all of these incredible human beings that God chose to shine a light on in his world, they were all fallible and yet they did great things.

And the great things they did were when they surrendered and let their calling dictate their steps. But the reason they are in the Bible is because they are us. We are all, we all know what it is like to have hope deferred. We all know what it is like to battle against our own sin. But what is truly transcendent about us as human beings is the fact that we are human and yet there are these moments, these times when God flows through us, and we are transcendent. And that’s what the combination of God and us leads to. And that is what you see so, I think, powerfully in the film.

I love the moment after Bloody Sunday when Dr. King calls for “people of faith” to come and join him. Because he knows that in order for this to be successful you cannot have people who are coming with anger, bitterness, and those who just want to riot and perpetuate strife.

What is truly powerful is love in the face of hate. That is the best of us as people, when we operate in sacrificial love. And that is the kind of thing that we were very keen on showing in the film. And I am very glad to say I think we really were successful in that.

CF: You did and you were. It’s quite eloquent in that manner and the story that you sayDr. King is telling in the film is the same story you yourself are telling as an actor and as artist. I thank you for that and I thank you for this film. I think it’s going to have long-lasting and far-reaching spiritual and cultural heft.

DO: Oh, bless you.

CF: Bless you too, David.

###

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