Filmmaker helps us to see, respond to, Christ in the poor

Photo Caption: Former network television producer Gerry Straub poses with Haitian children during the filming of his latest documentary, “Mud Pies and Kites: Death and Resurrection in Haiti.”

By: By Tom Dermody

BLOOMINGTON — Laughing and chatting, the student body of Central Catholic High School walked through the doors of the school auditorium April 3 and soon fell silent as they encountered a nightmarish “netherworld” of disease, starvation, and despair.

“We must look at them,” said guest speaker Gerry Straub, as images of dying and disfigured children showed on a large video screen on stage. “The Gospel tells us we must not look away. We must embrace them, and be God’s healing hands.”

Straub is a successful network television producer and filmmaker, but the horror to which he now introduces audiences is not of Hollywood’s creation. Rather, it is the sad reality for millions living in slums as far away as India and Uganda, and as near as earthquake-ravaged Haiti and the inner cities of the United States.

Gently yet powerfully, Straub uses the power of film to raise awareness of and inspire Gospel-based compassion for people and places many choose to ignore as we lead comfortable lives. He was in the Bloomington-Normal to receive the “Voice of Conscience Award” from the Illinois State University Documentary Project.

“While we go about our lives today, 20,000 people in the world will die of malnutrition,” said Straub at Central Catholic. “Yet, we don’t hear about it.”

For more than a decade, Straub has been on a mission to not only make us hear and see, but respond.

The former producer of television dramas such as “General Hospital” now uses film to put names and unforgettable faces on the staggering numbers of those affected by poverty. The students of Central Catholic — and later that night an adult audience at a Secular Franciscan-sponsored gathering at St. Mary’s Parish — were introduced to Henry, a dying teenage boy in Peru; little Moses, a child covered with ghastly sores in El Salvador; and Sam and Esther, polio stricken and starving siblings crawling through the dust of a remote village in Uganda.

“I’m not trying to make anyone here feel guilty,” Straub told the hushed crowd of teenagers. “I simply want to show the plight of the poor and connect it with our faith.”

Straub has made that connection personally, living among the poorest people of the world. His travels are the result of a journey of faith that took him from professed atheism to a dramatic experience of God’s reality and deep love, and from pursuing BMW cars to embracing poverty in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.

After his conversion experience while visiting a Catholic church in Italy, Straub lived with Franciscan friars in Philadelphia serving the homeless. With the help of friends in the television business, he filmed their work, and the resulting documentary — “We Have a Table for Four Ready” — was shown on PBS. After it aired, a quarter of a million dollars poured in from viewers and the Franciscans were able to build a new soup kitchen.

“That experience made clear my life mission,” said Straub, who left Hollywood to devote himself “to wonderful people who embody the self-giving love of Christ.”

He has written and directed 17 documentary films and authored six books, including a photo/essay book on global poverty “When Did I See You Hungry?” that features photographs taken in India, Kenya, Brazil, Jamaica, Italy, Canada, the Philippines and Mexico.

His latest book, “Hidden in the Rubble,” is based on his experience in Haiti during the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left a million people still living in tents a year later. Straub’s new documentary, “Mud Pies and Kites: Death and Resurrection in Haiti,” will be released this month.

“Three years ago, I lived for two hard months in Uganda,” Straub told the Central Catholic students. “Uganda was Beverly Hills compared to Haiti.”

Straub’s films and presentations do not leave audiences in despair, but end in hope by showing the transformative power of love.

“Christ is not asking for us to be successful or productive,” Straub, himself now a Secular Franciscan, told the students. “He is asking us but to be present,” both to Him in frequent prayer and to each other, “especially the poor and suffering.”

“If you say you’re following Christ and you’re not helping the poor, something’s amiss,” he told The Catholic Post after his presentation.

The Central Catholic students embraced his challenge immediately. Straub’s talk opened a 24-hour student fast during Holy Week to raise money for the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen at St. Mary’s Parish in Bloomington. During a school Mass the next day, student leaders presented Father Ric Schneider, OFM, of St. Mary’s with a check for $4,000.

With the students’ permission, Father Ric donated half of the amount to support Straub’s new documentary on Haiti. The school will receive mention in the credits.

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