Nearly two years ago, a Roman Catholic bishop from Detroit arrived in New York to stay for the weekend at the home of one of his former parishioners, a filmmaker. And from that short reunion between old friends a movie was born.
Growing up in Detroit, I never fully appreciated or understood what my family's parish pastor, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, did in his ministry. I only knew him as our humble priest, who instead of a bishop's palace lived in a room for the janitor and slept on a mattress on the floor so that a free clinic for poor women could be built in his residence instead. He was a gentle man who despite the busiest of schedules set aside as much time as he could to listen to parishioners' troubles, comfort the sick, pray with those in despair, provide healing to aching hearts, and roll up his sleeves to help feed the hungry in the basement soup kitchen. He frequently traveled abroad, I knew, but could always be counted on for Sunday Mass or other parish events, presiding over weddings, baptisms, funerals, and all other sacred demarcations of the life events of his parishioners.
Due to his extreme humility I never knew that Bishop Gumbleton was also regarded worldwide as a heroic peacemaker and leading voice in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was a main proponent of the letters "The Challenge of Peace", which condemned the use of nuclear arms and "Always Our Children", which urged pastoral care for gay and lesbian Catholics. He negotiated peace treaties in war-torn countries, ministered to the American hostages in Iran, risked his own life to protect refugees in El Salvador, founded clinics in Haiti, and provided solidarity to poor farmers in Colombia and other voiceless peoples across the world. In 2006 he spoke on behalf of the victims of clergy sex abuse, advocating for an extension of statutes of limitation so that victims might find recourse from the Church, but was forcefully retired and removed by the Vatican from his parish, St. Leo, as punishment. But despite his retirement Bishop Gumbleton continues to travel around the world, advocating for peace and social justice and honored by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
He is, in short, regarded by many to be a modern-day prophet--a visionary speaking truth to power despite overwhelming opposition and odds. And when that prophet came to visit me that fateful weekend in New York, I suddenly realized that my life had been influenced by his peaceful example more than I had ever imagined, and knew that as an artist, I needed to tell his story.
As a film American Prophet is a closer look at the beginnings of the journey of this heroic individual's life, a glimpse into the evolution of a young man who when conferred with great authority learns the meaning of true leadership, fidelity to one's own conscience, and faith in the hopes and courage of others. It is an origin story, featuring not only a young Tom Gumbleton of 1968, but other real historical figures such as Cardinal (then Archbishop) John Francis Dearden, Bishop (then Father) Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and other men and women of that great era of upheaval. The film is not just a portrait of one young man, a heroic but flawed human, and but also that of a city struggling to rebuild and reconcile itself in the aftermath of its own post-riot hell.
The journey to make American Prophet has already spanned the globe, journeying from New York to California to Michigan, from Michigan to Rome, from the great basilicas of the Vatican to the hockey rinks and humble parishes of Detroit. The story spans over fifty years of American history, from the tumultuous climax of the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War to the desegregation of schools and the struggling rebirth of a great city brought to its knees by violence and racial strife. American Prophet touches on these momentous events of the nation's past, but its voices echo into the present as it speaks to the sacrifice of leadership and the power of faith.
I invite you to follow along on this production blog and see the film evolve in its journey from memory to page to screen. Hours of research, collection of oral history and interviews with generous and remarkable individuals have contributed to the shaping of American Prophet, and with a commitment to the city of Detroit and local professional artists the production of the film is set to become a unique community effort, utilizing the gifts and talents of the very people whose story is being told.
The experience and responsibility of bringing such a story to life is a great undertaking, but an adventure to be savored in all the pleasures of honoring Bishop Tom Gumbleton and others like him who have struggled to build community and hope in a place forgotten by many. Should you choose to read on and follow our journey, I hope you will enjoy the ride.
Jasmine Rivera, Director