Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

Singing in church choirs has given me many opportunities to travel and meet people of different races, colors and creeds.

As a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, we once traveled by planes, trains, buses and boats to perform concerts in Western Europe. There’s nothing like traveling overseas to give you a new perspective of our own country. But the true value was meeting people with entirely different life experiences.

Sometimes we stayed in peoples’ homes, other times we met the locals after the concerts. We listened to their stories, enjoyed their customs and saw the world from a different point of view.

Their buildings were old, some still scarred by war. Their family histories were deep, some still scarred by oppression and conflict. Many do not enjoy the personal freedoms we take for granted. I could see the differences with my own eyes.

You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29)

Dachau TowerA memorable stop during this trip was at Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp in Germany. Built to hold 5,000 individuals, Dachau’s barracks during the Holocaust once held more than 30,000 Jewish people. Many did not stay very long.

Today, the mechanical components of the genocide remain the watch tower, the gas chambers, the crematorium. The old foundations of the barracks are now filled with glistening white rocks. Mass graves at Dachau are covered with flowers, memorials and reminders that we should “Never Forget.”

JeffreyIn an old photograph, my college roommate Jeff Rubenstein stands in front of a large plaque written in Hebrew. He said later that visiting Dachau, where so many Jewish people who shared his faith were indiscriminately murdered, made him both sad and angry.

I learned about different faiths because I was there. But for the students of Whitwell Middle School, an extraordinary program teaches them the lessons of tolerance and diversity, even if most of them never leave the hills of rural southeastern Tennessee.

Paper Clips is an award-winning documentary that describes how a school program reached around the world to touch countless communities, people of different faiths and even survivors of the Holocaust.

Principal Linda Hooper said they had a distinct need to teach their students about tolerance and diversity. “Our entire town is only 1,600 people. There are no Jewish people, no Catholics. The school has only five black students and one Hispanic student. (In 1998) we didn’t have a clue what different people were like,” she states.

Assistant principal David Smith and 8th grade teacher Sandra Roberts had a goal: “to teach the students what happens when intolerance reigns and prejudice goes unchecked.” They decided to teach the students about the Holocaust.

During their classroom discussions about the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, one of the students asked “what does six million look like?” They decided to collect six million of some object to better comprehend the number.

After searching for an object small enough to collect, they settled on a paper clip, which was used by Norwegians during World War II as a symbol of unity against Nazi Germany.

So began the campaign to collect six million paperclips, one for each of the victims.

But instead of placing a large order at Wal-Mart, the students wrote letters. They sent letters about their program and asked for a paper clip from famous individuals. They received letters and paper clips from Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and entertainers like Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby and Tom Bosley.

The next year, national journalists discovered the program and wrote articles for The Washington Post and the NBC Nightly News. Within the next six weeks, the school was inundated with millions of paper clips.

Most shipments included letters from Holocaust survivors, their family members, even the soldiers who liberated the camps at the end of the war. The authors praised the students for learning the valuable lessons of respect and tolerance. They were pleased to send a paper clip so that the memories of their loved ones could finally rest in peace at Whitwell. The program indeed changed the lives of many students and teachers.

The “Children’s Holocaust Memorial and Paper Clips Project” is open to the public. It is located behind Whitwell Middle School in an authentic German railway car used to transport the victims to the camps.

The lessons of tolerance and diversity are just as important today as any day. We should support efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur. We should celebrate our country’s diversity, not segregate people into separate camps.

Our leaders will do well to remember this lesson. If not, they should visit Whitwell Middle School and learn a few things.

Whether you believe by faith or learn by sight, the path to enlightenment is worth the journey. Our society needs tolerance and respect. The price of ignorance, intolerance and racism is way too high.

First published in the August 10, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
Purchase from Amazon.com:
> Paper Clips DVD

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Ever since the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France was completed in the early 13th century, sunlight streams through its windows and bathes the worshippers at Mass in glorious technicolor.

Each of the three stained glass rose windows tells a different story. The one on the north transept shows the Glorification of the Virgin. The one on the south portrays the Glorification of Christ, while the one on the west front depicts The Last Judgment.

For the first visitors to the Cathedral, the windows were an artistic portrayal of inspirational stories, whose messages of sacrifice, good works, repentance and love enriched their lives outside of the church.

These windows (and the beautiful examples in our local churches) continue to inspire us to this day.

But thanks to modern technology, we have many more media formats in the 21st century through which inspiration touches our lives. Readers of this column know that one of our favorite formats is film.

Robert K. Johnston writes in his book Reel Spirituality that “film has the power to disturb and to enlighten, to make us more aware of both who we are and what our relationship with others could be. It can even usher us into the presence of the holy.”

Some films were created specifically to be inspirational stories of faith:

> A young French shepherd girl holds fast to what she saw, heard and believes, despite the ridicule of her family and the townspeople. (Song of Bernadette)

> An Olympic runner refuses to run on Sunday, but runs on another day, saying “I believe God made me for a purpose…but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure. (Chariots of Fire)

> A non-Italian cardinal is elected pope and takes drastic measures to feed the starving people of the world and diffuse the growing threat of nuclear war between two superpowers (The Shoes of the Fisherman)

> A widow and her son offer gentle help and heartfelt words to a recovering alcoholic country music singer, helping him reclaim his life and advance his career. (Tender Mercies)

Other films, while not specifically stories of faith, have scenes that mirror the choices we have to make every day.

> When it is clear that Lord Voldemort has returned, Professor Dumbledore tells Harry that “dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must make the choice between what is right and what is easy.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

> In the heat of battle, Luke Skywalker realizes that his anger serves the wrong purpose. He regains his peaceful composure, throws away his light saber, and tells the Emperor “I’ll never turn to the Dark Side…I’m a Jedi, like my father.” (Star Wars VI – Return of the Jedi)

Movies can also be metaphors for classic themes (good vs. evil, individual vs. establishment) or for contemporary issues. Consider a film currently in theaters Evan Almighty, starring Steve Carrell.

In this film, Carrell reprises his weatherman role from Bruce Almighty and wins election to Congress. But his wife and three sons recognize Congressman Evan as the same old Dad, who brings work home and never has time for them. Late one night, Evan learns that his wife has prayed that they grow closer as a family. Evan also decides to pray, asking God for help to fulfill his campaign promise to “change the world.”

God listens and asks Evan to build an ark in the middle of his subdivision. God makes the clear distinction that he is not answering Evan’s prayer by changing the world, but that he is giving Evan the opportunity (along with a large supply of gopher wood and the necessary hand tools) to change the world himself.

evan-almighty.gifStill, it’s up to Evan to make the right choice and do what is necessary, even at the risk of losing his job, his family and the respect of his community.

The film becomes a metaphor for the internal conflicts we experience when making a choice in our lives. Do we follow God’s way or the path we want? Evan Almighty also explores the themes of man’s improper use of the Earth’s resources, the misuse of legislative power for personal financial gain, and the influence that Biblical stories should have on our lives and the operations of our government.

Films can inspire us to lead better lives, to respect others and make good choices that affect the lives of our family, friends and even our planet.

In The Lord of the Rings films, we see Frodo’s courage and hear from Galadriel that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

Imagine what we could do for our planet if we combine that sentiment with the suggested energy-saving measures in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

We truly could change the world.

First published in the July 13, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
Purchase from Amazon.com:
> The Song of Bernadette

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