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Say Hallelujah!

Singing the praises of Jesus Camp

Steve Almond
January 17, 2008

I first heard about the documentary Jesus Camp on right-wing talk radio. Some loudmouth mentioned it with the sort of contempt usually reserved for minorities who don’t believe in tax cuts, so into the Netflix queue it went.

My wife was skeptical. “Another documentary,” she moaned.

“Whaddya mean another?”

“Please don’t tell me this one is about Hitler’s secretary.”

“It’s not,” I said. “It’s about a fundamentalist summer camp.”

My wife made a skeptical noise.

She remained skeptical until we actually watched the film, at which point her attitude changed.

Jesus Camp, directed by New York City documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, tells the story of a peppy evangelical preacher named Becky Fischer and the camp she runs for kids in Devils Lake, North Dakota. (Why would a peppy fundamentalist evangelical preacher choose Devils Lake as a locale? I’m assuming she got a deal on rent.)

A third-generation Pentecostal, Fischer is a stout, blond woman with an unabashed sense of her religious mission. “Where should we be putting our focus? I tell you where our enemies are putting it—they’re putting it on the kids,” she says. “You go to Palestine and they’re taking their kids to camp like we take our kids to Bible camp and putting hand grenades in their hands.”

Fischer is undeniably inspiring. With no children of her own, she devotes her life to those in the North Dakota youth ministry she founded, the Kids in Ministry International. Her rhetoric from the pulpit is fire and brimstone. But elsewhere, she comes off more like a passionate elementary school teacher. She exhorts her young congregants to view themselves as the rescuers of what she calls “this sick old world.”

As should be obvious from my wife’s attitude, I am something of a documentary slut. I’ve always admired the documentary form because it combines the best aspects of journalism and short stories. That is, you can assume (usually) that a documentary is true. At the same time, documentarians—at least the good ones—cherry-pick the best moments, the ones that reveal the characters most nakedly. Just like a good storyteller.

Jesus Camp does that and more. (It was an Oscar nominee last year for Best Documentary, but it got steamrolled by that trendy Al Gore movie.) It focuses on a single session of Fischer’s Kids on Fire camp, which she founded in 2002. In one scene, campers (there are about 100 of them, from all across the country) are encouraged to bless a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. A guest preacher trumpets the evils of abortion and hands out tiny, intricate fetus dolls. The kids are coached to feel the spirit, and speak in tongues. Many weep hysterically at revival-style sermons.

All this may sound brainwashy to those of us who don’t share Fischer’s eschatological mindset, but Jesus Camp steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on its subjects. Instead, it illustrates why kids choose to become true believers. The basic message of fundamentalism, as delivered by Fischer, is this: God has known you since before you were born. He loves you, and He has a plan for your life.

The film focuses on three eloquent young campers, including a twelve-year-old aspiring preacher named Levi, who informs Fischer that he got saved at the age of five “because I just wanted more of life.” He later declares, “We’re being trained to be in God’s army.”

The intention isn’t to make him an object of ridicule. On the contrary, the film stresses his earnest devotion. At one point, Levi has a brief audience with Ted Haggard, who was then head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard’s cynicism is striking. Levi approaches him with a genuine sense of wonder and a passion to spread the Gospel. Haggard—looking like a lizard in a three-piece suit—says nothing to Levi about his sense of mission. Instead, he advises Levi to find the right gimmick so he can build a following. (And yes, this is the same Haggard who stepped down from his post a short time later, after admitting that he had bought crystal meth from a male prostitute.)

Jesus Camp is one of those remarkable films in which all the characters reveal themselves with a terrifying candor. Parents blithely instruct their kids to disregard the scientific evidence of evolution. Smiling moppets cheer at the chance to die for Jesus. Most haunting of all, Fischer watches a video of her campers weeping during one of her sermons, beaming with pride. There’s something disturbing—even unsavory—about the scene. Fischer sees the children as experiencing religious ecstasy. The emotions pouring from them, she believes, are evidence of their devotion to her holy crusade. But it’s hard to fight the notion that the inconsolable crying and shrieking of these children might also constitute a kind of trauma play.

Though Jesus Camp won raves from major critics, Christian groups accused Ewing and Grady of misrepresenting evangelism by focusing on what Mark Moring, an editor at the website, called “a very charismatic and rather unusual slice of the Pentecostal church in America.” Fischer herself had no problem with the portrayal of her camp. She even used the film as a promotional tool for a time. That changed in the fall of 2006, when vandals caused some $1,500 in damages to the campground Fischer rents, and in response Fischer closed the camp. In fact, Fischer told, she had decided to shut the camp down anyway, over fears that outsiders who object to her mission would disrupt it.

So, clearly, I got a little obsessed. I watched Jesus Camp twice in a row, then a third and fourth time, using the excuse that I wanted friends to see the movie. And as so often happens when I start crushing on a piece of art, I became convinced that I needed to speak with the artists—in this case, Grady and Ewing.

It took a few weeks, but I eventually managed to get Grady, who I’d learned was Jewish, on the phone. Right off the bat, I wanted to know how a nice Jewish girl from Washington, D.C., had gotten into something as disreputable as documentary filmmaking.

It all started, Grady said, back in middle school, when she saw the legendary 1984 documentary Streetwise, about a group of homeless kids in Seattle. “After that I was hooked,” she told me. “I started watching documentaries all the time.”

Grady wound up with a journalism degree from Columbia, then spent a few years working at a detective agency. (Her mother is a private dick, so she had connections in the business.) She eventually admitted to herself that what she really wanted was to make documentary films.

Rather than go to film school or, G-d forbid, head out to L.A., she landed a job working on The Farm, an astonishingly sad and beautiful film that documents the lives of half a dozen inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. (I’ve seen it multiple times.) She met Ewing on that shoot, and they eventually formed their own company, Loki Films. In 2005, they released The Boys of Baraka, about the rise and fall of an innovative educational program that sent African American kids from Baltimore to a special school in Kenya.

One of their subjects was an aspiring pastor, and their interest in him led them to Becky Fischer. “That’s really when you know you have a film,” Grady said. “If you have a strong main character where there are some stakes.”

In Fischer’s case, the stakes were nothing less than the salvation of mankind from the threat of eternal damnation.

The one thing I’d wondered as I watched and rewatched Jesus Camp was how a couple of secular filmmakers from New York City were able to win the trust of these Midwestern evangelicals. The key, Grady said, was that she and Ewing didn’t come in with an agenda. “I really experienced what I saw more through an anthropological lens. We wanted to come to a better understanding of fundamentalism and why it exists all over the world, and why someone would turn to it, regardless of belief system. We felt we had a responsibility to share this information with other American citizens.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “but didn’t some of the stuff you saw freak you out?”

“It was somewhat disconcerting initially to see the kids so emotional,” Grady said. “But the parents were all there when this was going on, and—I don’t want to make this sound like they weren’t sincere, but we got to see the whole context. After the services, they’d go back to dorms and hang out and gossip.”

I asked Grady if she told her subjects she was Jewish.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” she said. “Before I made the film, I didn’t know the relationship between right-wing evangelicals and Israel. They’re sort of obsessed with Jewish people and Israel and the Old Testament, but they don’t know many Jewish people. So they thought it was great I was Jewish. I saw Israeli flags in people’s homes and in churches. They’re Zionists, basically. There were even a couple of times that they had me lay hands on Israeli flags.”

At this point I heard Ewing yell in the background, “That was awesome!”

“What was having you lay hands on an Israeli flag supposed to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Grady said. “It legitimized it, I guess, like it had been blessed by a Jew. It certainly wasn’t offensive to me.”

Before I hung up, I had to ask Grady what her dream project would be.

“We want to make a film about Muammar Qaddafi,” she said.

“You mean the Libyan leader? Why?”

“He’s been a world leader for longer than anybody alive, besides Castro, and he has a fascinating relationship with this country. The State Department recently took Libya off the list of states supporting terror. And Libya is sitting on the biggest oil reserves in Africa.”

Grady sounded positively smitten. “Yeah,” she said, “we’ve started reaching out to every contact we have. If you know his people, let them know.”

Sadly, I do not know Muammar Qaddafi. Nor do I know his people. But I hope Grady and Ewing do get their man. If and when they do, I’m sure they’ll present him in a way we’re not used to seeing him: as an actual human being.