‘The Calling’ Chronicles Lives of New Generation of U.S. Religious Leaders


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A new Independent Lens documentary, “The Calling,” follows seven young Americans entering into the ministry in the Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faiths. The four-hour film, which airs in two parts Monday and Tuesday nights on PBS, was an undertaking that Director and Executive Producer Danny Alpert took up eight years ago.

Alpert and his team of filmmakers from the religions they covered tell the story of a new generation of leaders navigating through the unique uncertainties, tensions, self-doubt issues and philosophical struggles that prepare them to be leaders of their respective faith communities.

Over the course of making “The Calling,” Alpert and his team began to wonder about others who might have felt “called” to do their particular jobs. The What’s Your Calling? Campaign explores the idea of a vocation as a career, from both religious and secular perspectives. In order to get at what makes people pursue the lines of work that they do, they spoke to professional musicians, academics, tug boat captains, inventors and NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. The project also serves as a public forum for dialogue about religion, service and community.

Read an interview with Danny Alpert below.

What are some of the traits the seven people you follow have in common, despite becoming leaders in different faiths?

I think it takes a certain kind of person to take on the life of a minister, rabbi or imam. You need to be willing to give a lot. That’s not to say that they don’t receive in return and they don’t have their egos, and certainly I hope in the film, those issues come out in spades. But I think that you need to be able to open your heart and be a giving person. You need to be a good listener and you need to have a caring heart toward your fellow human beings, and I think that’s really what struck me as what was most common to these characters. Certainly they’re called by their religion — their faith — but what I found powerful about their stories was their equal dedication to serving their fellow human beings.

Several of the characters are entering the ministry during a time of change for their respective institutions. How did this play out in the film?

All the research shows that America is still the most religious culture in the western world. We are still the most churchgoing. But I do think at the same time that religious institutions, and organized religion, are undergoing great changes. Studies are also showing great fluidity between faiths. People are changing jobs more often than they used to in the past — and people are also changing faiths more often than they have in the past. Three of our characters have grown up in faiths they are no longer a part of and are assuming leadership roles in new faiths.

Do you consider yourself a religious person?

I was raised in a traditional Jewish home. I like to call myself religious but not particularly observant. My religious identity is very core to who I am. I think about things through a Jewish lens. On the other hand, I’m not a synagogue-goer. But I do think it’s core to who I am, and I don’t think I would have been interested in doing this series had I not been.

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Did your perceptions of religion change over the course of producing “The Calling”?

First of all, I was really fortunate to be able to learn as much I did about the other faiths that I did not grow up in — about Islam and Catholicism and Protestantism. I think that being able to learn so much about other faiths really opened up my eyes both to the similarities, but also really made me respect the differences and acknowledge those differences. And the other thing I came away with was an understanding of how relevant faith is and the faith experience is to understanding the American culture and for us to be able to move forward. Our culture and the western way of thinking and philosophy and all those things that we take for granted in our society, were evolved and developed and came out of religious context.

What went into deciding which characters to follow?

As a documentary filmmaker my primary responsibility is to the story. So the choices that we made about the individuals that were highlighted in the film were really based on the fact that they were really interesting stories. They were interesting personalities who were doing interesting things, who were, and this is most important, who were willing to let us in. We’re doing a type of documentary filmmaking that really demands the subjects trust us. We followed some of them up to two or three years on a fairly consistent basis and they really needed to let us into their lives. At the same time, the religious diversity in the U.S. is huge and I wish we had more air time to cover more faiths beyond the three Abrahamic faiths that we do to include Buddhists and Hindus and Sikhs and Bahais.

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Only one of the characters you follow takes a vow of celibacy. How did Steven Gamez’s journey differ from the others as he became an ordained Catholic priest?

I think there’s no doubt that Father Steven’s journey demands the most sacrifice. He has to make vows of celibacy and obedience and Steven is a very strong character. He has a very strong self identity, and for him to make the vows of obedience, in particular, is a very difficult thing. He’s giving up control, basically of his life. And he did struggle with it in the story — both the obedience and the celibacy issues. And there’s no question that those are incredibly hard to make. I think that for Steven, he’s also the person who grows the most into his position, and perhaps because it demands turning off other parts of his life, and focusing on that role as a priest. I think he would say that he gives up much, but he also gets a lot more from his work. He is incredibly committed, incredibly spiritual. He really feels that he gets the opportunity to act as a go-between from his parishioners and God and to offer the sacraments. He gets a huge amount of spiritual and emotional support and uplift from that significance.

Why was it important for the filmmakers you worked with to come from different faith traditions?

We chose directors not only because of their experience in vérité or observational filmmaking, but also because they were of the same faith as the characters they followed. Religions are like clubs and we really wanted to be insiders and we didn’t want to have to deal with a learning curve about what these faiths and these traditions meant.

What were your goals in making “The Calling”?

We went into it striving to create a film that balanced a keen eye, which means to look at things critically and ask the tough questions, but we wanted to balance that with a warm heart towards our subjects. This was not meant to be an exposé. And then we wanted to really focus on these people’s lives and the complexity of their lives in all the different aspects: the personal, the professional, the financial, their relationship with their superiors and their families. We look at all of those things and we wanted it to be a complex, personal story. And the third thing that was a priority going into this was we wanted to make this very American film. We didn’t want this to be a show for the religious and we didn’t want it to be a show for the secular. We wanted it to bridge both of those audiences.