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New film recounts how Burmese refugees saved a Tennessee church

PWRDF was proud to be among a handful of national faith-based organizations to sponsor the film’s sneak preview. It opens across Canada August 25.

August 15, 2017

By Janice Biehn

The film All Saints is named for the real parish at the centre of this remarkable true story, but there’s leeway for the title to refer to the many good people who breathed life into this church that was slated for closure.

Let’s start with the Episcopal priest, the Reverend Michael Spurlock (John Corbett). He arrives at All Saints in Smyrna, Tennessee with a mission to inventory the parish’s bits and pieces. It’s clear that this parish, his first charge, is a stepping stone to his new career in ministry and his former job as a paper salesman is meant to have given him the skills to manage this closure. But once he’s met the congregation of a dozen people (“Jesus only had a dozen” quips crusty old Forest), he’s not so sure if closing All Saints is what God is calling him to do. As the developers sniff around the building like vultures picking away at a carcass, something shifts in him.

Then there’s Ye Win, the leader of a group of refugees from Karen State in Burma who comes to the church asking for help. “We are Anglicans,” explains Ye Win (played convincingly by Torontonian Nelson Lee). As a former British colony, the people of Burma learned about Jesus Christ, he tells Michael. Indeed, while Ye Win and his fellow refugees hid out in the jungle or wasted away in refugee camps, their one solace was Church Hut, where they sat on sacks of rice, praying and reading scripture.

Ye Win describes the despair in the refugee camps along the Thai border, where lack of work, fear and restlessness eat away at people. Leaving was their only hope. The work of DARE (Drug and Alcohol Recovery and Education Network) in these very camps can attest to the conditions, which drive many to substance abuse. PWRDF has supported this program since 2000.

Michael and Ye Win appeal to the Area Council to let the congregation farm All Saints’ land. Ye Win quietly describes the atrocities of the Burmese civil war, one of the longest in history. The plan suddenly means much more than a lifeline for the church, it’s a lifeline for the Karen refugees, too. How in their right Christian minds could they refuse?

There are other saintly hands at work: the Bishop, who is ultimately sympathetic; the aforementioned Forest, a bereaved Vietnam vet who finds common ground with Ye Win reminiscing about machine guns in the jungle; those dozen parishioners who follow Michael’s blind enthusiasm to plough, plant and water the crops; the scores of other townsfolk from many denominations who also jump in to help; and let’s not forget Michael’s wife, Aimee, and their son, the aptly named Atticus, who also have skin in the game.

The All Saints parishioners face many obstacles as they try to work the land, some seemingly sent by God (not enough rain, too much rain). But the biggest one is Michael himself. His stubborn pride keeps him from asking for help until Aimee and Ye Win convince him otherwise.

All Saints reminds us time and again that even when we feel most alone, we are part of a community. We need to reach out and ask for help. Sometimes we need to get out of our own way and let others in. It is also a powerful example of how God calls us to welcome the stranger, while refugees and displaced people cross our borders every day.

To donate to PWRDF, click here.

Read how you can organize a group trip to see All Saints. Click here to download a PDF of PWRDF’s refugee work in Canada and around the world.