documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady gave us The
Boys of Baraka, a moving account of a program that took
12- and 13-year-old "at risk" black males out of Baltimore's
public schools and enrolled them in an academy in rural Kenya with
rigorous disciplinary and academic standards — and no TV. (The school
was mostly funded by private donations, with about one-eighth per
pupil cost coming from the tax coffers.) So effective was this African
boot camp, that after only one year the boys returned to Baltimore
as men: strong-minded, self-confident and smart enough to get into
the city's most demanding secondary schools.
Grady's current film, Jesus Camp, examines the effect of
another unusual school on children. This time the kids are white,
middle class and from stable homes. And the academy in this case
is a vacation bible school, Kids on Fire, located, ironically, in
Devil's Lake, ND.
to the Baltimore inner city youths who did not take quickly to the
Spartan regimen of the Baraka School in Africa, the kids entering
the campus at Devil's Lake can scarcely contain their enthusiasm.
All are from Protestant denominations, all have been "saved"
(spiritually born again), many are home-schooled, and some have
already begun proselytizing. The first gathering in the camp's assembly
hall features an abundance of singing, hand-clapping and cheerful
slogans. The kids clearly are enjoying themselves; they could be
at an amusement park or a rock concert.
One of them,
Rachael from Missouri, at the age of nine already has definite ideas
about church ritual: "I love being in the presence of God.
. . God likes to go to places where people are singing and jumping
up and down." When the camera follows her family's outing to
a bowling alley, we see Rachael handing out tracts to strangers
and explaining, "God is telling me that He wants you to have
Him in your life."
Levi, 12, says he was saved at the age of five. He has preached
at his family's church and dreams of becoming a "mega-church"
A third camper,
Tory, 10, is an aspiring dancer who loves "Christian heavy
metal music" and scorns Britney Spears because of her emphasis
on "the flesh."
The only discord
that the filmmakers can find happens one night when a counselor
cautions some of the boys against telling scary stories: "Jesus
would want you to think positive thoughts."
founder, Becky Fischer, as a Pentecostal minister, puts great emphasis
on outward signs of spiritual experience. At one camp gathering
she announces, "Now we are going to speak in tongues,"
which prompts some in the congregation to begin uttering either
gibberish (as skeptics would hold), or (as the faithful would have
it) a language inspired by the Holy Spirit that the speaker himself
does not understand.
to join in, Becky says, "If you don't open your mouth, the
Holy Spirit cannot enter you," and soon the assembly hall is
buzzing. Whether one interprets this as follow-the-leader, crowd
hysteria, or evidence of a gift from God, the scene is genuinely
moving. The children shake with emotion, tears gush forth, some
kids collapse on the floor.
None of this
would be terribly controversial outside theological circles if not
for the political element in the Kids on Fire curriculum. While
Becky flatly denies pursuing any political agenda, she also says,
"I want to see children as ready to lay down their lives for
Christianity as they are for Islam," and refers to her charges
as the "Army of God." In one of her sermons she issues
a call to action: "This means war!" Indeed, at times her
summer camp looks less like a religious school than the training
ground for a children's militia.
Take, for example,
the ceremony where boys with grim, camouflage-painted faces and
girls in black ninja outfits twirl quarterstaffs to the accompaniment
of bombastic music.
is also the pledging of the Christian Flag:
allegiance to the Christian Flag
and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands.
One brotherhood, uniting all mankind
in service and love.
the Christian Flag carries the same spiritual weight as a prayer
is not explained.)
the rite of the smashing of the cups. A table in front of the pulpit
is filled with white coffee mugs, each one bearing the grease-penciled
word, "government." The kids are then invited to come
forward, pick up a hammer and smash one of the mugs.
cups, one of the counselors tells them, "releases the hold
that the Devil has on us."
We gather this
mug-smashing is not directed at the present administration in Washington,
for in the next scene a life-sized photo cut-out of Dubya is placed
onstage and the children are invited to bless him and "lay
the Spirit over him." The kids shuffle reverently towards the
Decider's cardboard facsimile and, one by one, kneel, extend a hand
of blessing, and move their lips in prayer.
All of this
makes for fascinating viewing — especially since none of the participants
show the least concern for or even awareness of the documentarians'
is that Ewing and Grady don't trust their audience to draw the right
conclusions on their own — as they did in The Boys of Baraka.
So the footage inside the Kids on Fire camp and the children's homes
is interspersed with commentary by Air American talk show host Mike
Papantonio, who uses his on-screen time to serve up such warmed
over platitudes as "the entanglement of politics and religion"
and a "witch's brew that will destroy democracy."
Even if one
shares Papantonio's judgments, his presence is a jarring intrusion
into our tour of an offbeat but fiercely devout community. It is
rather like having someone sitting behind you in a movie theater
remarking on every turn of the plot and predicting the outcome.
The difference here being we can't move away from this annoying
Air America guy.
it should be pointed out that America's past is loaded with examples
of churches serving causes that modern liberals hold dear: the abolitionist
clergy who supported Lincoln's invasion of the South and the many
churches that were directly involved in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam
War movements. The current leftist outrage against undue Christian
influence on national affairs is a spectacular example of special
In 2005, Ewing
and Grady released a film that made a superb case for private education.
This year, they appear to be making the opposite argument.
Rosinger [send him
mail] writes from Roswell, GA.