In 2008, a dying church in Middle Tennessee was on the verge of shutting its doors and selling its building. With only a dozen or so members left, the congregation couldn’t pay its bills.
But then the refugees arrived, and they brought hope.
The true story of this church, All Saints Episcopal in Smyrna, Tennessee, is told in the new film All Saints, the latest from Affirm Films, Sony’s faith-based division, which also helmed When the Game Stands Tall and Heaven Is For Real. John Corbett stars as the Reverend Michael Spurlock, a newly ordained pastor assigned by the diocese to help the church close and sell its assets. He, his wife (Cara Buono), and young son (Myles Moore) move to Smyrna; they don’t expect to stay long beacuse the church’s closure should be swift. But God had other plans.
A group of about 70 Karen refugees, newly arrived in the United States after fleeing Myanmar’s civil war, start attending the church. Led by Ye Win (Nelson Lee), the refugees are Christians who had attended Anglican churches back in Myanmar. Jobless and afraid in a foreign land upon their arrival, they go to a logical place to find help: the church. They show up on a Sunday morning, and this church’s story begins a new chapter.
When we first meet All Saints Church, it’s a congregation looking backward with a “for sale” outside. Its members are busy looking through old scrapbooks (literally), and reminiscing about the glory days.
But what if its glory days are still to come? This question gets raised when the Karen refugees arrive. They need food and jobs. The church needs money. So Spurlock and Win come up with an idea to solve both problems: turn the church’s land into a farm, where the harvest both feeds the refugees and pays the church’s bills. In what seems like their last hope for survival, the church goes for it. The refugees work the fields alongside the congregation’s aging white members. Everyone gets their hands dirty together, sowing seeds for what they hope will be a bountiful harvest in a new season.
All Saints, filmed at the actual church in Smyrna, is the rare movie in which a church itself is the main character; it’s a living organism with particular strengths and weaknesses, struggles and hopes. As a result, in its own slightly cheesy but strangely subversive way, the film captures well what’s so revolutionary and counter-cultural about the church of Jesus Christ. It’s a community where young and old, bankers and farmers, lifelong Tennesseans and Burmese refugees—and everyone in between—are united together in Christ. They may speak different languages and have little in common, but they’re all saints. They’re all one family with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5).
The subversive message of All Saints is the same subversive message Paul preached in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In a polarized, fearful culture where the insidious evils of “blood and soil” racism and nativism infect even some who claim Christ’s name, this message is timely.
Here’s another question the film raises: what if refugees and immigrants are part of God’s answer to our prayers for revival in the American church? What if our divisions and intramural battles and dwindling memberships are merely God’s way of preparing our churches’ soil for a new sort of crop, a harvest that looks different than what we’ve seen before?
One of the most effective aspects of All Saints is that its story—of a church that finds renewal by literally becoming a farm—feels so much like a biblical parable. Indeed, the film constantly alludes to Christ’s agricultural metaphors, especially Mark 4:26–34 and the parables of the seed growing and the mustard seed. It’s inspiring to watch church members working together to plow fields, sow seeds, and harvest crops; it’s moving to watch Spurlock spend long days watering the crops by hand. Like any other faithful pastor, he diligently tends to the growth of the lives in his care, whether baby corn or baby Christians.
Indeed, the pastoral landscape of the film comes not only in its agricultural motif, but also in its portrait of a pastor and his calling. As Spurlock, the shepherd called to this particular flock, Corbett captures well the tenderness and complexity of the pastoral calling. At a crossroads for the church he leads, Spurlock struggles to bridge the gap between the traditions of his church’s past and the potential of its future. He struggles to connect with the grumpy, retired curmudgeon and the young Karen leader, Win, who’s going through marital problems. He struggles to tend to his own wife and son’s needs amid the stresses of the season. And above all, he struggles to discern the will of God. He listens and thinks he discerns God’s leading. But how much of the farming plan is God’s will, and how much of it is Spurlock’s pride in this seemingly brilliant solution?
The lesson Spurlock learns—and the lesson every pastor hopefully learns sooner rather than later—is that God is the lead farmer of any church’s field. He’s the one who grows the church. He’s the one who calls shepherds and farmers to toil in the fields and do everything they can to sow good seeds and till good soil.
But the harvest depends on God. Weather. Rain. Floods. Frost. So much can go wrong or right, so much is out of a pastor’s control. Indeed, the beauty of agriculture as a metaphor for the Christian life is that it necessitates dependence on God.
When there’s enough sun and enough rain, when the miracle of seed-to-sprout-to-crop occurs, we’re humbled and grateful. We marvel at the miracle of life and growth, and that it all comes from the great Gift-Giver. Near the end of All Saints, a choir of young Karen children sings “For the Beauty of the Earth” during a Sunday service. Still uncertain about their future, still at the mercy of God for a harvest that seems tenuous, they nevertheless praise God:
For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise.
Imperfect but Inspiring
All Saints has its flaws. It suffers from the artistic mediocrity and heavy-handedness that plagues most films of the “faith-based” genre. The uninspired, predictable pacing and schmaltzy music are particularly bad. One wishes the only music in the film had been the choral songs of the Karen children, who are the actual children of the church playing themselves in the film, along with some of their actual parents and other congregation members.
There are also moments in All Saints that present a rather fuzzy ecclesiology, where “community” in a vague sense, united around a social justice cause (Buddhists and Baptists brought together for the refugee/farming purpose), is depicted as almost more important than saving souls and spreading the gospel.
This is problematic, to be sure, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s inspiring power and timeliness. All Saints is a breath of fresh air at a time when many headlines about Christianity in America are negative and politicized. The reality is, most of what’s happening in churches across the world is positive, good, and beautiful. There are thousands of inspiring stories like this just waiting to be told. But we rarely see them on screen or read them in print.
If nothing else, perhaps All Saints will stoke curiosity among producers and storytellers to investigate the many dramas unfolding in churches everywhere. After all, these are places where God is at work, healing broken people and transforming communities. If audiences are hungry for affirming and inspirational stories, our local churches might be a good place for Hollywood to start.