Praying for a Living

PBS’s ‘The Calling’

A tattoo of a cross shimmers on an African Methodist Episcopal minister’s calf, a few inches above her red stiletto sandals. A chubby-cheeked young rabbi and his newly pregnant wife dig into celebratory pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. A Muslim chaplain leafs morosely through boxes of paperwork—reports on anti-Islamic harassment he experienced while working in a federal prison.

Those are just a sample of the striking images that jostle together in The Calling, a documentary that will air on PBS December 20 and 21 (check local listings). Presented by the Emmy Award–winning series Independent Lens, and supervised by series director and executive producer Daniel Alpert (A&E’s A History of God), the program tracks seven young men and women studying for, and beginning, careers as professional clergy. Though it is too broad in scope for its four-hour running time, the film is well textured and affecting, implicitly celebrating both the diversity of America’s religious life and the determination of those who have resolved to make ministerial life their full-time concern.

Similar in look and style to Scenes from a Parish, a cinematic study that Independent Lens aired last December (see “Feeding the Multitudes,” Commonweal, December 18, 2009), the new documentary nods briefly to its subjects’ stints in seminaries. For instance, we see Tahera Ahmad, a star high-school athlete turned Muslim scholar, as she argues with a fellow Hartford Seminary student about whether there is sex in heaven. (He says yes. She says the jury’s still out.) And we watch Steven Gamez, a Catholic of Tejano (Texan and Mexican) heritage, as he delivers a practice sermon while enrolled at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio.

But The Calling is more engaging and more thorough when it dwells on its subjects’ efforts to climb the first rung on the clerical job ladder and, more generally, to fit into American society—a challenging process, to say the least. Jeneen Robinson, a former beauty pageant queen who becomes an African Methodist Episcopal minister—she’s the one with that tattoo—wears fishnets to her ordination. But it’s more of a support-stocking world out there: her exuberance is dampened after she has trouble finding a church job that gives her the flexibility she needs as a single mom. Trading on her good looks and some experience in show biz, she resorts to acting in a South Beach Diet commercial to earn some cash.

And in a compelling storyline that emerges in the second evening’s program, we meet Shmuly Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student with a yen for idealistic crusading. Full of energy—he even talks fast—he demonstrates for a Free Tibet, jets to California to help forest-fire victims, and, after a high-profile scandal involving charges of worker abuse at a kosher meat-processing facility in Iowa, founds Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social-justice organization. But scenes of his awkward interactions with California disaster-relief workers, and with a distraught illegal immigrant arrested at the Iowa plant, make clear that his good intentions don’t easily translate into meaningful results.

Yanklowitz doesn’t seem prone to discouragement. Even after he breaks up with his girlfriend, whom he had hoped to marry, he appears merely a tad subdued. But several of the other fledgling ministers reveal their doubts and anxieties, suggesting that such feelings are a normal part of answering a religious call. “There’s still a part of me that just wants to party with everyone,” the endearing Ben-and-Jerry’s fan Yerachmiel Shapiro confesses.

Gamez admits to reluctance about adopting the celibate lifestyle, especially when he considers the closeness he enjoyed with a onetime girlfriend. “We’ll see if I turn into the runaway bride—the one they found in Arizona,” he jokes at one point, referring to his ordination. Other scenes find the documentary’s subjects in tears—and one of them finally moves to a career outside the ministry.

Bilal Ansari, the appealing Muslim chaplain who works in a prison in Connecticut, seems to have a particularly tough time, in part because he goes through a divorce, but also because he’s still reeling from anti-Islamic prejudice he says he encountered on the job. Among other incidents, he relates, he returned to his office one day to find that his computer had been sealed off with yellow crime-scene tape because someone had found the word “jihad” on one of his documents—the text of a talk aimed at steering listeners away from terrorism.

Fortunately, we don’t see Ansari only at his lowest ebb: we also watch him deliver a sermon filled with quiet conviction to a group of prison inmates; we catch a moment of serene exhilaration as he listens to muezzins during a visit to Syria; and we witness his delivery of a public prayer at a convening of Connecticut legislators. “When I think back to who I was two to three years ago, that person was a person in search of their calling, trying to find the voice of God, trying to distinguish it between my noise and the noise of others,” he says at the end of the documentary, sounding upbeat. “And it just so happened that my discovery of God’s voice was behind the lens of a camera, played out to whoever sees it.”

Alas, in point of fact, we don’t see that discovery, as he assumes: the moments devoted to Ansari in The Calling are too few and too scattered to clearly outline his spiritual and professional journey—a problem with almost all the documentary’s case studies. In their attempt to hint at the breadth of America’s religious vibrancy, the producers have sacrificed depth: they focus on too many individuals and don’t stick closely enough to any of them, making the whole package of tales ultimately unsatisfying. Was the trip to Syria a turning point for Ansari? How did his studies in Hartford Seminary’s Muslim Chaplaincy program affect him? How did he end up delivering that public prayer to lawmakers, and what did it mean to him? We don’t find out. Nor do we hear more than a passing allusion to his conversion to Islam from Pentecostalism while in his late teens—an episode that would seem germane to his vocation.

But if we rack up similar unanswered questions about most of The Calling’s subjects (with the exception of Rob Pene, a Presbyterian minister and Christian rapper who gets attentive coverage), the documentary certainly offers some inspiration. In particular, a subtle leitmotif grows from a notion that Jeneen advances in a Pentecost-themed sermon: the idea of the “second wind” an athlete gets after a first bout of exhaustion. Each of the young clerics in The Calling seems to gain a second wind after bouts of discouragement: even the one who leaves the clergy finds that a lay profession is simply a different kind of ministry. In a voiceover worked into the show’s credit sequence, Yanklowitz attests, “I’ve never had a calling. I really feel like I’ve been called every day of my life”—a statement that emphasizes the concept of repeated, divinely granted bursts of much-needed resolve.

Ahmad, who ran track in high school (and who is now a chaplain at Northwestern University), would surely know something about getting a second wind, though she isn’t heard using the metaphor in The Calling. An invigorating presence during the documentary’s first two hours—and certainly its fashion icon, with her eyeliner and her glamorous head scarves—she disappears from the film’s second half for some reason. But before she vanishes, she shares a thought that becomes one of the film’s most moving insights on the nature of a calling.

“Religiosity isn’t based off of telling people what to do and how to do it,” she says. “It’s really to allow yourself to be open so that they can see in you something—inshallah [God willing]—that guides them toward God.”

Published in the 2010-12-17 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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