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Carol Kane Interview

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves is writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, whom I’ve written about over the years.  Many of my stories about her can be found on this blog.  Her 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, was a phenomenon for its time because Joan and her producing partner husband Raphael (Ray) Silver were forced to go totally independent when all the studios rejected the script.  Thus, the couple raised the few hundred thousand dollars needed from investors, gathered a cast and crew, completed the film on time and on budget, then distributed the picture themselves.  It all came together, too.  The period piece looked like it was done on a much larger budget.  The performances were stellar.  Most amazingly the film found a large enough audience at theaters to make millions at the box office, making it one of the most successful indie films up to that time.  The capper was star Carol Kane getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her sensitive and insightful performance as Gitl, a traditional Jewish immigrant wife and mother who undergoes a transformation in the face of the new world she enters and the gulf that’s grown between herself and her husband.  It’s a powerful and moving portrayal of emancipation and empowerment as Gitl finds a path of her own from her and her son.  The impish film-television-stage actress recently spoke with me about working with Joan on the film and what it meant to be part of a movie that’s now part of the National Film Registry.  She’s a delightful interview.

Look for coming Q&A’s with Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, Danny Glover, and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler.

 

 

Carol Kane

 

 

Interview with Carol Kane

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: So what are your thoughts about Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry?

 

CK: “I had no idea about it until Joan wrote me a couple days ago saying she’d talked to you. I didn’t know. I’m so glad you’re doing this because I didnt know about the movie getting this status and I think it’d be fun for us to have people know about it.”

LAB: It’s selection in the registry pretty much ensures it will be part of the American film canon going forward.

CK: “Isn’t that wild? It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like something we did was authentic enough and true enough to be valued as something which should be preserved. You know that’s an extraordinary thing because so many movies are made every year and a lot of them just disappear. And it’s wonderful to know that ours will be preserved and, of course, I’m proud to be part of it.

“I always loved the story, it’s just a great, great story. When I read the script I saw the movie in my mind. She (Joan Micklin Silver) wrote the movie so beautifully that you could see it, and so I’m just so glad that it materialized in the way it read.”

LAB: I understand that Joan first saw you in the Canadian dramatic feature, Wedding in White.

CK:  “Yes, I co-starred in the movie with Donald Pleasance when I was 19 actually, and I guess somehow she saw it. It was voted best film in the Canadian Film Festival I believe. Donald and I were disqualified because neither of us were Canadian. But it got very lovely reviews in the New York Times and in other publications and I guess her being an independent film gal she went and saw it.”

LAB: Joan told me she assumed that you were Canadian and therefore it would be difficult to get you to come on location for a small indie pic on New York’s Lower East Side.

CK: “Oh, I didnt realize that or I forgot about it. But I do know at that point a lot of people did think I was Canadian because somehow I was working a lot in Canada when I was young.”

LAB: In fact you’re a native of Cleveland, where coincidentally Joan settled after college and that’s where she got her start in theater and in film. By the time she was casting Hester Street she and her husband Ray lived in New York, where you had moved as well.

CK: “Yes, and did she tell you that my dad and Ray knew each other in Cleveland?”

LAB: No.

CK: “Yeah, because my dad was an architect, Michael M. Kane, and Ray’s dad was a rabbi, Rabbi Silver. I think I’ve got that right. And my dad did some work with the temple at that time and so they knew each other in this other life, you know. Ray also was involved in pre-fab housing when we made Hester Street. I don’t know if that’s still his business or not or whether he gave it up for the love of the movies. Yeah, so the Silvers and the Kanes knew each other in Cleveland. It’s a strange aside, right?”

LAB: Yes, I love that kind of thing. In checking your IMDB page…

CK: “Oh my God, I’ve got a movie on there that I’ve just begged them to take off from mine and they won’t. It’s some movie (supposedly) like early on in my career, and I have no idea what it is, and they also say I’m also known as this other person that’s in that movie. It’s still there and I can’t get it off.”

LAB: Before even doing Hester Street you had already made Wedding in White, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, which was an incredible start to your career and found you working with some impressive talents like Pleasance, Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Randy Quaid.

CK: “I know, I’m so lucky.”

LAB: When you got the part in Hester Street did you give much thought to the prospect of working with a woman filmmaker?

CK: “I don’t think I thought of a woman or a man…Like I told you, I read that script and saw it and I just wanted to be in it, but I don’t think I thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s it going to be like to have a woman in charge?’I didn’t really feature that, and I still don’t. I mean, I just think a good director is a good director and the sex doesn’t feature in that much. But I do think at that time some female directors were very tough because they had to be. That’s not my main recollection of Joan. But I know there was a time when there was such a battle to make a movie that some of them were pretty tough.

“But the Silvers had this sort of unit of belief in the fact that if something was good and worthwhile it would happen, which was very nice. And of course it was a time in film history when that was coming true, when a lot of strange little movies somehow were happening from beautiful scripts about people rather than you know giant events. So it was the right time for this little story I guess.”

LAB: What about working with Joan and the tone she created on the set?

CK: “Well, it had to be very serious because it had to happen very fast because we didn’t have a lot of money. We had less than $400,000 I believe, so you know we didn’t have any time to waste but she would never sacrifice the essence of a scene for that. Ray was producing. They both had to be very, very, very prepared, which she was, and I think I was too. I think there was a lot of research and work that happened before the camera rolled.

“Our art directors were so brilliant, the costume designer, makeup and hair, our DP (director of photography), everyone was so prepared. And as an actress that was so so helpful to me that I would look around and what I was seeing was what would have been. I was wearing clothes from that time and earrings from that time. Our little set was just a little apartment, and it was so real. The settee the boarder had to sleep on was so tiny and you would think, ‘How could a grown man sleep on this behind a curtain?’ You know, it was all there. And everybody was so prepared in working as fast as they could but with a very determined view toward it being right and real. I don’t mean right as in there’s only one right way but it had to ring true before we moved on.”

LAB: Joan described to me that there was a particular article of wardrobe you wanted to take home with you and the costumer balked at letting you do that until she approved it.

CK: “I don’t know if you’re talking about the sheitel (a wig or half wig,) which I believe I did take home and wear around, or maybe my nightgown. But I do remember taking the sheitel and wearing it somewhat. It’s so interesting what we go through in falling in love with our characters. For awhile I was thinking that sheitel was really beautiful, that I looked really good in it, and then if you look at it objectively it’s like, ‘What? What is that thing on my head?’ But I became very happy with it, very comfortable with it because you have to get used to the fact…I mean, that’s my partner and it’s very important to an Orthodox woman. So they did let me take it home and wear it.”

LAB: What is your take on your character and her transformation and awakening?

CK: “I haven’t seen it (the film) in awhile I must confess. I think the last time I saw it was when the film was going to come out on DVD and Joan and I recorded commentary for it.

(Speaking of her character Gitl in the first person):

“I just think I came here to America with kind of a pure hope and attitude and feeling that my life with my husband and child would continue very much as it had been and of course I arrive to find out that’s completely untrue and that I’m somehow kind of an embarrassment to my husband and not ‘modern.’ Because I’m very religious in the beginning I’m not flexible about practicing the things I practiced in the old country, like wearing the sheitel or not looking at men in the face and not using American names for my son and husband as he wants me to.

“I think life teaches me that I have to change. I think of Gitl as very, ver,y very strong but not tough. Very strong to be able to change in a way that would make her life and her son’s life feel rich while getting divorced, which you know is a huge traumatic scandal. She works so hard at learning English. People always say to me, ‘What do you think happened to Gitl afterwards?’ and I always think she probably went on to run Macy’s. You know how were walking down the street at the end and we talk about opening a store and I tell Mr. Bernstien that he’ll study and I’ll sell? I have the feeling we did quite well.

“Who knows what would have become of me if we hadn’t had a son, which I think is a story that’s repeated very frequently throughout history. Women have to learn to be strong because they are responsible for a child and that brings out things in one that one didn’t think were there, and thats true of Gitl.”

 

 

Carol Kane as Gitl in Hester Street 

The emancipation of Gitl

Montage from Hester Street 

 

 

LAB: I don’t know how you feel but I regard Hester Street as one of the great immigrant experience depictions in screen history.  There aren’t that many.

CK: I think The Godfather II, don’t you?”

LAB: Yes. And Kazan’s America, America.

CK: “Right. I have to say, I don’t know how, it just seems impossible to me those people (immigrants) did what they did. How did they do it? I mean, get on a boat to someplace they’d never even seen a picture of and don’t know the language. My grandmother came over and taught English and she barely spoke English. You know, the resourcefulness is just…It’s scary enough nowadays in the modern age –with the computer and you Google where you’re going and you see the pictures of the hotel where you’ll be staying – to go to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. To just leave your life and start over from scratch like that, the bravery is just unimaginable to me.

“Can you possibly picture yourself doing that?”

LAB: No, I can’t.

CK: “I can’t either.”

LAB: “Both sets of my grandparents made the immigrant journey from Europe – my father’s parents from Poland and my mother’s parents from Italy – and I regret not knowing more about how they did it and why they did it.

CK: “I think we all lost a lot of opportunities to find out what that was like and what drove them to be brave enough to do it. Gosh. My relatives went to Cleveland. It’s not like, OK, the boat lets us off by the Statue of Liberty and we’ll just stay there.”

LAB: And my people ended up in Omaha, right in the middle of America.

CK: “That old cliche which is so true about necessity being the mother of (invention). I guess that was the main thing, people reinvented everything about themselves.”

LAB: It’s often said that completing any film is a small miracle and getting it seen in theaters and having it be well received is perhaps even more miraculous. But in the case of a small indie film like Hester Street that saw the filmmakers raise the money, produce the picture and get it distributed themselves, and have the film find an audience and do quite well is the rarest of all miracles, especially in that era.

Joan Micklin Silver busy directing

 

 

CK: “Oh, I know. And by the way yours truly big mouth here was adamant against that (self-distribution). I tried to explain to Ray it was impossible (laughing), but you know he talked to my later to become dear friend John Cassavetes and I think John was very inspirational and helpful as he was all the time with every artist he ever spoke to and in business too because he was such a maverick. He was an immigrant in Hollywood, you know. He did such a brilliant job, Ray. Where I’ve done other wonderful tiny little movies like this, like a movie called In the Soup that Alex (Alexandre) Rockwell directed and you know the distribution part is so critical and it doesn’t always work. And Ray (and Co.) just did a great job.”

LAB: I understand that it was Joan who had the thrill and privilege of calling with the news of  your Oscar nomination.

CK: “Well, that’s the craziest thing in the world isn’t it?”

LAB: I’m sure you never saw that coming.

CK: “Uh, no, no I didn’t think of anything like that. I think when I was nominated I was 23. I know it’s crazy.”

LAB: I assume you attended the Academy Awards ceremony?

CK: “I did but I really think I was pretty much in shock.”

LAB: What do you recall of it?

“Well, the thing was again Joan and Ray had done sort of a maverick thing and hired this wonderful man named Max Bercutt who had worked in PR in the studio system (at Warner Bros. publicity from 1948-1968, where he headed the department for 15 years, before working as a consultant from 1968-1984). He was retired and he was a man who loved to gamble and he loved to gamble on a dark horse and he had done Julie Christie’s campaign for Darling and she had won for a similarly tiny movie. And he came out of retirement to do my campaign. Oh, he was just so great. I think for me the biggest disappointment was not winning for Max because I had hoped to be one of his dark horses. But I mean the fact I got nominated was amazing. I know he went around with a can of film under his arms and went over to Roz Russell’s house and had her invite six people, he went to these dinner parties with the film and people sat down and watched it and that’s why I got nominated – because of him schlepping it around.”

LAB: Yeah, but you overcame such huge odds just to get nominated.

CK: “I did but I still do feel sad that I didn’t go the distance for him. But I think it was a pretty big distance to get where we got. I tried to track him down after and I never found him. And he was just as you would have imagined, with a cigar and scotch. Anyway, he was tremendously kind to me and you can imagine I was way out of my league and he was a great guide in a very human and humane way through this strange experience.

“And the other thing for me that was very moving was that that was the year Jack (Nicholson) was nominated for Cuckoo’s Nest. That year Cuckoo’s Nest won everything. So I was there and it was so sweet and surrealistic for me to be sitting a stone’s throw away from Jack, whom I had done my first movies with, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. The most amazing thing was the next day. In the days before you’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel or whatever and every one sends you flowers and calls. People come out of the woodwork to celebrate you and it’s lovely but it’s just completely overwhelming and then the next day it’s like the phone doesn’t work, there’s no ringing. Suddenly the phone stops ringing, there’s no flowers, and who calls me but Jack and he invites me to go with my friend Angelica (Huston) at the time and they took me to El Cholos for lunch. Only Jack would understand what that day is like and what it meant to be included.”

LAB: What a graceful thing to do.

CK: “Oh, so graceful, he’s a very graceful person. It’s almost like when I tell that story I think it can’t be true because it was so graceful but it is true and it is quite a strange thing to wake up the next morning and to realize the air has been completely changed in your room. Everything about it is different.”

LAB: Were you surprised by Joan’s subsequent success after Hester Street, when she went on to make two of the better comedies of the late ’70s-early ’80s period in Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter, respectively, and had her greatest triumph with Crossing Delancey in the late ’80s? I mean, I think she has one of the best bodies of work from that era.

CK: “Yes, she does. Amy Irving (the star of Crossing Delancey) and I are very close friends and we had lunch the other day and we were saying wouldn’t it be fun if somebody did a program, a double feature with Crossing Delancey and Hester Street (the films look at Jewish life on the Lower East Side from contemporary and turn-of-the-last-century lenses, respectively). I think that would be very fun.

“Joan and I tried to do one or two other things together and never got them off the ground and that’s what surprised me more than any success – that it wasn’t a guarantee you could pick up and tell more stories (together). There was another book that was a true story that we had really tried to get done but it didn’t happen. But there’s still time. And we worked for awhile on a play together that also has not yet happened but we really enjoyed working on it. But I’m not at all surprised by any success they have had or would have in the future.”

LAB: I note that you say ‘they’ and so I take it you think of Joan and Ray as a team?

CK: “Yeah, I guess I do. I know that they obviously perform very different functions on a set but at least on Hester Street I did think very much of them as a team.”

LAB: The fact that they’ve endured as a couple for all these years in an industry that’s not conducive to long term relationships certainly indicates they have something very strong together.

CK: “Yes, very unique, very non-show biz.”

LAB: I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.

CK: “Sure, and if like in the middle of the night you think of another question, give me a call, but don’t call in the middle of the night, wait till the morning (laughing).”

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

February 9, 2012 5 comments

 

Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s.  Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf.  Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s.  Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II.  As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.

I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry.  I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date.  Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time.  Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s.  I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging.  After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the Jewish Press

 

Long before Kathryn Bigelow struck a blow for women filmmakers by capturing the Best Director Oscar, Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver made her own Hollywood inroads as a feminist cinema pioneer.

With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street  she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.

“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.

Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.

That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.

“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”

Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”

Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”

The honor took Silver by surprise.

“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.

 

 

 

 

The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.

“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.

Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”

She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.

“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”

Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.

The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.

After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.

“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”

On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.

 

 

 

 

Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.

The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).

The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films

Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.

“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.

“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of    anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”

Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”

For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.

“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”

In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.

“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”

He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”

Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.

‘A Time for Burning,’ Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Made in Omaha Captured a Church and Community’s Struggle with Racism

December 15, 2010 1 comment

Cover of

Cover of A Time for Burning

Rarely has a film, fiction or nonfiction, captured a moment in time as tellingly as did A Time for Burning, the acclaimed 1967 documentary that exposed racism in Omaha, Neb. through the prism of a church and a community’s struggle with issues of integration at a juncture when the nation as a whole struggled with the race issue.  The film really is a microcosm for the attitudes that made racial dialogue such a painful experience then.  In truth, when it comes to race not as much has changed as we would like to think.  It is still America’s great open wound and it will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.  The following two articles appeared, as Part I and Part II, of a two-part series exploring the context for the film and the impact it had here and nationwide.  The stories appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) around the time of the film’s 40th anniversary.  If you’ve never seen the documentary, then by all means seek out a DVD copy or a screening.  It’s a powerful piece of work that will provoke much thought and discussion.  In fact, from the time the film was first released to this very day it is used by educators and activists and others as an authentic glimpse at what lies beneath the racial divide.

‘A Time for Burning’

Part I

Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Made in Omaha Captured a Church and Community’s Struggle with Racism

What Would Jesus Do Today?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

On the eve of the 1968 Oscars, a nominee for best documentary feature, filmed in Omaha, foretold the violence that was ripping America apart. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination six days earlier in Memphis was the match that lit the fire. The riots that followed spread to more than 100 cities.

About once every generation a seminal film takes an unblinking look at race in America. Crash took the incendiary subject head-on in the 2000s. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing hit all the hot buttons in the 80s. Roots offered a hard history lesson in the 70s. A Time for Burning arguably made the most righteous contribution to the topic in the 60s.

The movie took a heavy toll locally, splitting Omaha’s largest and most established Lutheran congregation on the year of its 100th anniversary.

Produced at the height of the civil rights movement, Burning captures honest, in-the-moment exchanges about race. Shot here in 1965 and released in late ‘66, Burning’s candid, unadorned style was revolutionary then and remains cutting-edge today.

Turned down by the three major networks, it premiered on PBS to national acclaim. Burning earned an Oscar nomination and became a staple of school social studies curricula and workplace diversity programs. Selected for the National Film Registry in 2005 to be preserved by the Library of Congress, the picture may be viewed in a new DVD release.

Burning holds special significance for Omaha. The film that was a litmus test for racism then and is a prism for measuring progress today. Then the mood was rapidly turning acidic. The black frustration expressed in the film first erupted in violent protest mere months after production wrapped. The race riots of the late 60s tore apart the North Omaha community as the promise of a better future was dashed against new injustices piled on a century of oppression.

The film came at a crossroads moment in Omaha history. At a time when racism was on the table for discussion, the opportunity to address it was lost.

Burning follows self-described “liberal Lutheran” pastor Rev. Bill Youngdahl, on a quest for his all-white congregation at Augustana Lutheran Church to do some fellowship with black Christians living “less than three blocks away.” The son of a popular former Minnesota governor, Youngdahl had recently come from a Lutheran Church of America post in New York, where he led the national church body’s social justice ministry. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. He traveled the country working for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

All of which led director Bill Jersey and producer Bob Lee to seek him out when he came to minister in that most typical American city — Omaha.

His “inclusive ministry” posed problems from the start of his arrival at Augustana. Church elders earlier made it clear he should steer clear of the homes of black families when evangelizing in the neighborhood. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I won’t do that.’” The film project brought everything to a head.

“After filming began, some people began to question what was being documented. ‘Why aren’t they filming the smorgasbord and the choir?’ So, that became an issue,” Youngdahl said. “I had to call those two (Jersey and Lee) back from New York to appear before the council. We talked several hours and finally affirmed going ahead with the film as Bill wanted to do it.”

Members of the church council try to get this brash upstart to tone down calls for diversity. Caught in the fray is member Ray Christensen, who goes from the timid ranks of “we’re moving too fast” to vocal advocate of outreach.

Militant sage Ernie Chambers, pre-state senator days, dissects it all. Chambers held court then in Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, where he cut heads and blew minds with his razor sharp activist ideology. A famous scene finds Chambers lecturing Youngdahl, who’s come to the shop to float his idea for interracial fellowship. The pastor sweats as Chambers, wary of this do-gooder’s intentions, critically analyzes him and foretells his fate.

 

Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl

 

 

As the film plays out, the black Christians stand ready to break bread and talk straight with whites, most of whom repeat the mantra “the time is not right.” Youngdahl asks his bishop, “If not now, when?”

Cinema Verite

Unseen but felt throughout is the guiding hand of Jersey — one of America’ most noted and honored documentarians. His projects range from the Renaissance to the Jim Crow era to a recent film on propaganda in modern society. He applied cinema verite techniques with his hand-held camera and available lighting. The approach registers an intimate naturalism. Point-of-view narration and jump cuts heighten the conflict. He was assisted on the shoot by the late Barbara Connell, who also cut the film.

“Nobody in that film appears because a filmmaker dragged them in,” said Jersey. “Everyone appears because they were in some way directly involved with what was going on in that community. I feel that is, in fact, its strength — it’s a story of individuals who faced one another and confronted one another. No one was ever set up to expose their prejudice.”

Jersey admits he influenced situations to further the story, suggesting a couples exchange to Youngdahl, sensing it would stir up trouble.

The climax comes when Youngdahl proposes the exchange with ten volunteer couples from Augustana meeting with ten couples at nearby black churches Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church and Hope Lutheran Church. The mere idea of meeting for fellowship in each others’ homes polarized the Augustana congregation. The adult visits never come off, but a youth exchange does, setting off a firestorm.

Former Calvin member Wilda Stephenson helped escort the youths to Augustana. The retired Omaha educator recalled “the people in the congregation became very upset that they were there and participating, especially in their communion service. That bothered me. I wouldn’t have gone if I had thought we weren’t going to be received well that Sunday.”

The visit followed a warmly received visit by white Augustana youths to Calvin.

“We were really glad to see that happen and welcomed them,” Stephenson said. “And that was the situation whenever any white people attended our church. We just always made them feel welcome. For our youths to have been treated otherwise, I was really shocked about that.”

The Calvin youths who went to Augustana that Sunday included Central High students Johnice (Pierce) Orduna and Francine Redick. Orduna said they were not made to feel “unwelcome” by anything overtly said or done. Such is the “insidious face of racism.” They only learned of the upset their visit caused when Jersey, who always stirred the pot, told them what his cameras and mikes caught. He gathered the students for an on-camera forum in which they pour out their disappointment.

“There was a fair amount of anger, certainly some frustration, but I would say outrage and real surprise that Christians we thought had similar ideas about humanity and how to live lives would behave that way,” Redick said. “The visit seemed like such a small thing. I mean, it’s not like we wanted to marry their children. It was people worshiping together. At one point in the film I utter something like, ‘How can people who profess to be Christians and Christian ministers respond in this way?’ Even today that seems outrageous to me.”

“I’m sure whatever Bill preached was not that radical,” then-Calvin pastor Rev. James Hargleroad said. “The whole gist of the film is how such a minor thing could lead to such a momentous result when racism is rampant in a community. The civil rights movement was well under way then, but it was a little late getting to Omaha.”

Burning documents the fallout, including rounds of frank discussion that expose people’s naked fears and prompt serious soul searching, as the divisive climate increasingly makes Youngdahl’s position untenable.

Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates to show a positive portrayal of the church engaged in racial ministry, Jersey made a film tacitly critical of its efforts.

“It didn’t spark conflict, it sparked dialogue,” Jersey said. “We didn’t do a film about Omaha. We didn’t really even do a film about a church. We did a film about individuals in a church structure struggling with the issue of race in a way that I think represented how America was dealing with race at the time,” he said. “Not the crazies in the South who were using fire hoses and attack dogs. Not the urbanites who were frustrated for many other reasons and setting fires to the banks. But average people being who they are authentically.

What Would Jesus Do Today?

The figure who most poignantly grapples onscreen with his own views is Christensen. His crisis of conscience marks some of Burning’s most human moments. At one point, he said, he wanted to quit the project. Everything was topsy-turvy. The placid church that once comforted him had turned battleground. Jersey convinced him the film was too important for him to abandon it.

 

 

 

 

“This was scary. I wanted to bail out. I was unsure. We were all unprepared,” Christensen said.

“The church was a retreat where you go to recharge your batteries and sing beautiful hymns — it’s not where you go to be disturbed and bothered. And then Bill (Youngdahl) wakes you up. Waking up is bothersome.”

But Christensen stayed the course, one that got even rougher when he and his late wife June were ostracized by old friends in the church. A moving scene depicts the couple in a state of emotional exhaustion. A tearful June says, “I just can’t do it anymore.” She appears opposed to going forward. The unseen back story is that she was sick with cancer. The rebuffs she and Ray endured took a further toll.

Far from disagreeing, he said, “We were totally together. As a matter of fact, we had agreed that whatever Bill said, we’d support. That’s how unified we were. It’s too bad the film implies otherwise. When she says she’s tired, she’s tired of the radiation treatments, the phone calls, the cold shoulders, the loss of her friends. She’d founded the altar guild and the acolyte guild and now she’s on the outside.”

“She’s crying for the people of the church,” he says in the DVD.

As Jersey explains in the DVD, “There’s a universal important lesson in the film — that change is hard. That change can be costly, but that resistance to change is a killer. It makes even the simplest efforts impossible.”

Youngdahl said the film is an accurate snapshot of where America and the church were then with regard to race. “Our country had not advanced very far.” Churches included. At its core, Jersey said Burning examines the human tendency for one group to distrust “the other.” “It’s fear that immobilizes people,” he said.

All along Jersey meant to “find a situation where there’s a potential conflict” but never intended showing the church turning its back on racial accord.

“I offered Lutheran Church officials the option to cancel the project and to take the footage, but I wasn’t going to change a thing. And to their ever lasting credit, they said, ‘No, this is the story. It’s an honest film — keep making it.’”

Still, “this isn’t what the church wanted to say about itself,” he said.

 

 

Bill Jersey
In the end though, Bob Lee said, officials “felt it was more important to see the church wrestling with the problem than to have a pat solution…The consensus was the film was a good way to deal with this problem because it generated all kinds of discussion and still does. That’s one of the reasons it’s out in DVD. It talks about the issue and is relevant today.”

Reaction by local church officials was not as positive. Nebraska Lutheran leaders filed a protest with the national executive council, branding the film “a disgrace to the church.”

Soon after its original PBS airing, the film ignited national discourse in reviews and essays. Jersey, Lee, Youngdahl and Chambers were much quoted. The earnest pastor and militant barber even made a joint speaking appearance. Their association with the film made them public figures. But Youngdahl was too embroiled in healing the divided house of his church to care. In the end, he couldn’t square his beliefs with the rancor and resistance at Augustana.

For Johnice Orduna, Burning still has the power to illuminate racism. “The film is a gift in that it reminds us we’re not there yet. It’s not a short war. I’m not going to see it ended in my lifetime,” she said. Racism, she said, is “still there, just a little more hidden, a little better couched. But it’s still burning. We still need to put some heat under it.”

Orduna’s done mission development work for the Lutheran church to promote integration, including anti-racist training workshops. She said, “I find the movie itself is a wonderful microcosm of the time. Watching can be a real wonderful remembrance, but it’s also a real frustration. I’m still dealing with the same frustration of, Why don’t they get it?”

Some years ago she consulted Augustana on blended worship services and found resistance still alive. She said bruised feelings remain among old-liners.

“They’re angry over the film. They feel they got set up. That it showed them at their very worst,” she said. “But that would have been any (white) congregation in this city 40 years ago. The fact it was them is sad for them. I think at their core they’re good people.”

She said few Omaha churches are integrated today. New Life Presbyterian Church — a merger of Calvin and Fairview — is an exception. She said Burning reminds us how far we have to go. “I think it’s wonderful it’s still making people itch…because the things that make us uncomfortable force us to change.”

‘A Time for Burning ‘

Part II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Forty-two years have not cooled the incendiary 1966 documentary A Time for Burning. Its portrayal of a failed social experiment in interracial outreach at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, 3647 Lafayette Ave., still burns, still illuminates.

What members were led to believe was a paean to the all-white congregation’s attempts at fellowship with the surrounding African American community turned into a de facto critique.

As pastor William Youngdahl and others pushed “civil rights” at the church, things were stirred up at Augustana. When a group of black high school students worshiped there one Sunday in 1965 — returning a visit white youths made to Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church — it caused a ripple. When white couples considered hosting black couples in their homes it made waves. Burning captured the wake. The fallout led to a rift within the church’s leadership that resulted in Youngdahl’s ouster. Hundreds of members eventually left.

Augustana faced its biggest crisis on the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The film, shot hand-held style, immediately became a sensation for the naked emotions and stark black-and-white imagery that framed the problem of racism against the backdrop of the church. The dark-suited, male-centric piece has a chic Mad Men look today that belies the angst of its real-life, as-it-happened drama.

Near the end of the film the late Reuben Swanson, the church’s former pastor, asks how people can be persuaded “to change their hearts? This is the burning question … ”

Augustana’s remaining members could have closed their hearts and minds to introspection, growth, renewal. Instead, they pursued the more difficult path of facing and overcoming their bias.

“It wasn’t all a political thing, it was a spiritual struggle for people, and a very deep one,” said Vic Schoonover, who helped heal and guide the church in Burning’s aftermath. “This was a struggle for one’s soul and what they really believed.”

Omaha and New York City

This Friday, Oct. 17, the UNL College of Journalism will screen Burning at 1 p.m. with a Q & A to follow with Director Bill Jersey. On Saturday, Oct. 18. Film Streams will again screen Burning, at 2 p.m., with a panel discussion to follow, moderated by current Augustana Pastor Susan Butler . Jersey will participate, along with two key figures in the film. Ray Christensen is the Augustana member who had a change of heart — moving from opponent to timid supporter, and then to outspoken witness for change. Johnice Orduna is one of the teenagers from Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, who speaks out strongly against the response her youth group’s visit evokes at Augustana. On Sunday, Augustana Lutheran will be hosting an interfaith service at 10:30 a.m.

Similar programs are happening the following Monday in New York, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is sponsoring a screening of Burning and panel discussion. Longtime Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who plays a prominent “role” in the film, is appearing with filmmaker Bill Jersey.

‘Stirred people to their bones’

Today, Augustana is a beacon for an inclusiveness, crossing racial/ethnic lines, to sexual preference/identity. Butler said that as the only Reconciling Church in Christ congregation in the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Augustana “is welcoming, affirming and supporting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered believers.”

What transpired at Augustana wasn’t unprecedented. Ministers often get people’s backs up for taking unpopular stances. Tensions rise, disputes erupt. Members of First United Methodist Church in Omaha have endured their own schism, only over same sex marriage, not race.

What set Augustana apart is that its wrestling with controversy and discord was caught on film and aired nationwide. One could argue the parish might never have come to brand itself “a progressive, thinking, Christian church,” as it does today, without Burning as a backdrop for discussion, examination, inspiration and transformation. Longtime member Janice Stiles said the film initially “created a lot of hard feelings” within the church.

“I felt and most of the people felt they only picked out the bad parts,” she said.

Her perspective changed because, wherever she traveled, she met people familiar with the film, and they wanted to discuss it.

“I was really astounded. It gave me another outlook you might say; that maybe it did something good. Much more than we thought. It really was a blessing that we did that,” she said. “It really brought up the feelings and the discussion out into the open, and it needed to be done very much.”

Since the film’s release, the parish has fielded inquiries from around the world.  People ask:

“How’s Augustana doing?” It still sparks discussion wherever it’s played. That is what Lutheran Film Associates intended when Burning was commissioned.

“Some of these memories are going to be brought back up again, for better or worse,” Augustana member Mark Hoeger told a recent gathering of church members who watched the film as part of adult forums he led there. The forums were meant to generate discussion and they succeeded, Hoeger said. He also screened a 1967 CBS special on the impact of Burning.

Butler views the programs at Augustana and at Film Streams as educational opportunities.

“My intention is to use this reunion weekend as a time to revisit a particular part of Augustana’s history,” she said. “I think it is always productive to review one’s story from time to time in order to see where we have come from, where we are now and where we are going.”

Butler said reviewing church history can only be healthy.

“I don’t think there is any healing that needs to be done at Augustana. I think we have moved on quite healthily,” she said.

The CBS News special about the aftermath of Burning was entitled A Time for Building.

Moderator Charles Kuralt, Burning co-director Bill Jersey, executive producer Bob Lee and Lutheran pastor Philip A. Johnson discussed reaction to the film.

For the special, Jersey had traveled nationwide and captured audience reactions, including church congregations.

The program ended with members of all-white Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Seaford, N.Y. deciding to proceed with an interracial exchange. Pastor Bob Benke’s benediction offered thanks “for the willingness of the Augustana congregation to let themselves be seen; for we are well aware of the fact that we have problems here, too.”

Forty years later, Benke is in Portland, Ore., a town Youngdahl also calls home, though the two have not met. Our Redeemer did follow through with interracial youth fellowship, but Benke confirmed the attempt was not well received within his church.

Willing or not, Augustana members found their weaknesses laid bare on screen. for all to see, becoming a mirror for others to do their own inventories and ministries. Introducing the program, Kuralt described the buzz Burning had generated: “It is a film that has stirred people to their bones … “

 

 

Augustana Lutheran Church

 

 

‘A social tide’

The Hoeger-led forums at Augustana were attended by dozens of parishioners. Most had seen Burning. Few had seen Building. There were lots of questions. For newer members, the most obvious was “What happened next?” The answer is best informed by the context of the film’s troublesome times. The mid-’60s marked the height of the civil rights movement. A great social tide was moving forward and an old-line, inner-city Swedish-American congregation in the Midwest like Augustana felt threatened by change that might disrupt its homogeneous traditions.

More blacks were moving into the area. Cries for black power, equal rights and change by any means necessary (as the late Malcolm X famously put it) disturbed many. Black discontent is well expressed in the film by a young Ernie Chambers as well as Earl Person, Rev. R.F. Jenkins and students from Central High/Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.

The exclusion blacks felt was tangible. Omaha’s pronounced geographic and social segregation meant whites and blacks lived parallel lives, separate and unequal. The era of white flight saw scores of Augustana members move to The ‘Burbs, a pattern that played out in inner cities across America. The tinderbox of racial tension exploded in riots here and elsewhere during the late ’60s.

Schoonover said those who left Augustana in the decade following the film did so for many reasons, “but the rapidity and the intensity of it I directly attribute to A Time for Burning.” Now a retired minister, he’s an active member of Augustana.

White-black interaction was so thoroughly circumscribed that the mere suggestion of interracial exchange concerned enough Augustana members that the proposal was defeated and Youngdahl forced to resign.

Heated discussions ensued, prejudices surfaced, conflict escalated and resistance held fast. Filmmakers Jersey and Barbara Connell captured fears and doubts that usually remain hidden or silent. The film is a prism for viewing all people’s struggles with race.

Burning uncovered racism among otherwise decent, churchgoers. Unfortunately, Augustana took the fall for the bigotry, cowardice and hypocrisy of the larger white Christian church and society. Its members scarred with the celluloid scarlet letter, when virtually any white congregation would have looked that way under the same scrutiny.

“I think A Time for Burning was a slice of the American church wherever you would have cut it in those days,” Schoonover said. “There was racial tension all over the city and the country. White congregations were not really ready to face the whole racism issue. They wanted it to go away.”

He said the film resonated with audiences everywhere.

“If people across the country hadn’t identified with that on a personal level as well as a just oh-my-gosh level, it would never had had the popularity that it did. It hit chords in people,” Schoonover said.

Hoeger agreed, saying “ … this was not the story of a single congregation, it was the story of our society, our community in general. People could see in this bunch of white Lutherans themselves.”

But for Augustana members, a stigma was attached to their church that made it/them a symbol or scapegoat for prejudice.

“To a certain extent the congregation was sacrificed for a greater good and in that sense probably deserves some credit,” Hoeger said. “The pain and suffering they went through as an institution led to a larger, better good. And frankly, we think, it’s a better congregation than if it had not gone through that experience.”

Indeed, as Building brought out, people admired Augustana for initiating steps to deal with race. Hoeger and Schoonover said they elected to worship there because of the church’s role in the film, not in spite of it.

Hoeger first saw Burning in grad school, where it was held up as the pinnacle of American cinema verite. He recalls being struck this searing drama set in his native Nebraska. When he and his wife moved to Omaha in 1980 their “church shopping” brought them to Augustana without realizing its connection to the film. The day they went there, Schoonover led the congregation in confessing their sexism, typical of the radical liberal sermons he delivered.

It was only then, Hoeger said, “it clicked in my head this was THAT church” from the film.

He was hooked. He was also intrigued by how Augustana had so drastically changed in 15 years. Hoeger discovered it had been a process led by Schoonover, fellow pastors and a lay leadership willing to “embrace change.” The groundwork for that change can be traced to Burning.

In 1969 Schoonover accepted a call to lead Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries in his hometown of Omaha. His social justice mission tasked him with confronting racism in the Lutheran Church and wider community. Following Youngdahl’s exodus Augustana had a “quiet-things-down, not-rock-the-boat” pastor in Merton Lundquist who, to his and his lay leadership’s credit, began doing more minority outreach, Stiles said.

Schoonover joined Augustana and within a decade was asked to pastor there. He shepherded to completion a year-long self-study begun by Lundquist at the church on its future. Ironically, the church that drove off Youngdahl got a bigger troublemaker in Schoonover.

 

 

Vic Schoonover today

 

 

‘Hit square in the jaw’

When Schoonover began preaching he sounded-off on integration, police-community relations, poverty, prejudice — both from the pulpit and in his work with the activist group COUP — Concerned Organized for Urban Progress. He quoted Stokeley Carmichael. He once called America “a structured racist prison.”

COUP’s overtures to and advocacy for the black community made Schoonover a target. “I had to move my family into a motel because we had anonymous threats of doing harm to us and to our property,” he said.

His less militant stands led him to co-found a handful of social service programs still active today, including the Omaha Food Bank, Together Inc. and One World Health.

Schoonover was attracted by what he found at Augustana. “I thought, here was a congregation that at the very least was forced to begin to look at the issues and maybe had made some progress,” he said.

The people were, he said, “in any other circumstance some of the most generous people I’ve ever known.”

“They would do anything for you. Really good-hearted. But on that issue (race) it was a blind spot,” Schoonover said. “It’s a dichotomy. But that’s what they were taught. Because I don’t think it’s possible for any white person to be raised in our country without being raised a racist and a sexist. I just think it’s in the air you breathe and in the systems you get socialized in.

That’s the milieu in which you live and — that’s what you absorb.”

Janice Stiles acknowledged the blind spot she had in those days. She recalled her feelings when blacks moved in.

“All I could think of was the price of my house going down,” she said.

She recalls when her son Mark became friends with a black schoolmate. At first, she was bothered by it. She gradually changed.

“I started looking at people and seeing what’s on the inside instead of the outside. I’m glad I got to know black people as people.”

Schoonover was also the product of a myopic vision. He grew up on Omaha’s north side, where his family kept moving, in white flight mode, as neighborhoods were integrated. His own “baptism” or “awakening” came as a young minister in Kansas City, where he “took a class taught by black clergy called Black Power for White Churchmen,” he said. “It cleared my eyes open to some of the problems.”

After interacting with Augustana members, he said, he “really became aware of their anguish” over the film and how it held them back.

Some felt it unfairly made them an example. Some accused the filmmakers of betraying their trust. Others believed the film presented a gross distortion of them and their church. After all, much of the conflict in the film went on behind the scenes, in private, in the inner circle of the church council. That’s why most members who went to the Omaha premiere were shocked by the friction Burning depicted.

“They all traipsed to the world premiere at the Joslyn in their best bib-and-tucker and got hit square in the jaw,” Schoonover said.

 

 

 

 

As if being exposed in that way were not enough, the film became a phenomenon — the subject of untold screenings, reviews, essays, articles, public programs, debates.

Burning aired coast to coast, prompting the CBS special. The film earned an Oscar nomination. It’s been used in film/social studies programs and diversity training. In 2005 it was selected for the National Film Registry.

Thirty-odd years ago the wounds were still fresh enough that Schoonover discovered members didn’t want to relive the film. Understandably, they didn’t appreciate being a whipping post, as they saw it, for a national dialogue on race. When he became co-pastor there in 1976, he decided to bring it out of the closet.

“It wasn’t mentioned, it wasn’t something talked about, it was something avoided in the congregation,” he said. “They were traumatized. They felt totally betrayed, misled. I knew we could never get healthy without confronting it, so we bought a copy of the film and began showing it. The young people were especially interested.”

Thus, Burning became a conscience or barometer for the parish to measure itself. Older members may not have realized it, but outside its walls Burning wasn’t viewed as an indictment or condemnation of Augustana, but as a challenge for America to confront the nation’s racial divide. That’s why the film endures beyond being a mere artifact of ’60s racial tension. Instead, this document of a congregation struggling with its worse nature was the impetus for that same congregation, and presumably others, to realize their better angels.

‘You’re already dead’

At the end of Augustana’s year-long self-study, the congregation was faced with several options. Stay and expand the ministry, merge/relocate, close or continue as is. The parish council recommended remaining and expanding its inner-city ministry. Put to a vote of the general membership, a majority opted for the council’s recommendation.

“It was a test for the parish and to their credit they said, yes, and we did,” Schoonover said.

His sermons helped sway the congregation to stay its new course. He cautioned against being mired in old ways, old attitudes.

“The past cannot be brought back,” he told them, “and the way things were is irretrievable.”

Janice Stiles said his preaching exerted much influence.

“Oh, yes, he opened our eyes to so many things,” she said. Rather than criticism she said “it was more like a challenge.”

Despite empathy for his flock’s distress, Schoonover didn’t let them off the hook or allow them to rationalize or minimize their reluctance to accept diversity.

“I told them, ‘Look, I understand your pain, but what the black people have felt far surpasses any pain you have felt.’ I was extremely blunt about what they faced and what it meant and what it would require of them. I said, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re already dead. You’ve got to change. You don’t have any choice.’”

One of his sermons put it this way: “ … There is no place you and I can go to hide from change. We might wish things would leave us alone but this will not be … Organized religion has often been in the conservative role of resisting change. This has often been at the cost of truth and integrity. A congregation can lose touch if it is static and immovable. It’ll become irrelevant … ”

From that crucible, Augustana evolved into the progressive place it is today. The rupture that divided the church allowed Augustana to reinvent itself.

“By splitting the church and creating this schism,” Hoeger said, “those who were left were the core of folks who were more socially aware, concerned, interested in embracing change then the folks that were upset … There are still some people here who I would consider very conservative, but what differentiates them is they were willing to stick with it.”

The film that created this house divided also helped repair the breach.

“In the end run I think whether they realize it or not the film was worth it … It certainly changed the direction of that congregation, that’s for sure,” said Schoonover.

It’s meant Augustana engaging in urban, interfaith service-mission ministries.

For example, the church is active in the ecumenical social action group Omaha Together One Community, OTOC offices there. Augustana’s Cornerstone Foundation addresses the inner city’s shortage of affordable-livable housing by buying-fixing up homes for low-price resale, or refurbishing residences that owners don’t have the means to renovate.

In the late ’60s Augustana and nearby Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church launched Project Embrace, a summer youth enrichment program for minority kids. At one time, Embrace included an after-school tutoring program serving thousands of kids at six churches. It has dwindled to a summer-only program at Augustana and two other churches. The integrated Danner day care operated for years at Augustana.

Schoonover carried those relationships over to the larger black community through Augustana, where he performed weddings, funerals and confirmations for blacks. Some blacks began attending the church. A few became members. As did Hispanics. Several Laotians, whose immigration the church sponsored, joined Augustana. He said those experiences “helped win the congregation over.” Stiles was among them.

“It was our occasion of getting to know a different race,” she said.

Even as barriers at Augustana have vanished, blacks still comprise only a small fraction of the parish rolls.

Vic Schoonover would say Janice Stiles is representative of the changed hearts that can move institutions forward. He acknowledged much work remains to be done.

“I go from hope to despair on the whole racial issue,” he said. “From thinking, ‘Yeah, we have made some progress, to thinking, Geez, we’re not any further along. We’ve just become more subtle, more guarded about it. Not much has changed.’”

As Bill Jersey said in Building: “Until the individual is willing to say what I can do, we’re going to continue with all this pious dialogue and get nowhere.”

The tragedy in that, everybody agrees, is that as the beat goes on, the flames still burn. Who will put out the fire? And what will heaven say if we had the chance but didn’t act?


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