When David Petersen decided to make a documentary about black storefront churches, he first went to see Bishop Imagene B. Stewart, aka “the Georgia Peach.” Host of a Sunday-morning radio show on WOL 1450 AM, Stewart was then preaching at, among other churches, the Pearly Gates Baptist Church on 14th Street NW.
“I told her my idea, and she looked at me and said, ‘So why do you want to see a lot of black people jump up and down?’” recalls the 44-year-old filmmaker, whose Let the Church Say, Amen premieres this week at the National Museum of Natural History. “I told her I made movies about communities that are self-contained, self-sustaining, and powerful.
“Then Rev. Stewart asks me, ‘So what church do you go to on Sunday?’ and I told her my grandfather was an Episcopalian minister in Minnesota and that I’d been to Episcopalian, Unitarian, and Catholic churches—even a Buddhist monastery. And she asks, ‘So what are you?’ and I said, ‘An agnostic, I guess. I’m still searching.’ She says, ‘Hmmmph. Do you know any hymns?’ and I said yes, and she goes, ‘Sing me one.’”
Petersen sang “Amazing Grace,” then “Jesus on the Cross.” Stewart invited him to Pearly Gates on Sunday morning and told him to bring his guitar. “So I practiced hymns all week and walked in really nervous on Sunday, one of maybe three white people there,” he says. “I sang for the congregation with my whole spirit because I didn’t want distance between me and them….I was determined to make a movie about fundamentalism that shows how it helps.”
Such immersion is typical of the Minnesota native and former D.C.-area resident. While working on his first documentary, Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9, a day in the life of now-closed Sherrill’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill, the director worked as a cook and waiter in the establishment for over a year. The extra effort paid off: The 1989 film earned Petersen an Oscar nomination.
The next project Petersen would complete was If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home Now, about WPA artist Jack Lewis teaching students and convicts in Bridgeville, Del. But by the year of that film’s release, 1996, he had already begun work on Let the Church Say, Amen. His initial meeting with Stewart, in fact, took place almost a decade ago.
But Petersen’s fascination with D.C. churches actually awoke long before that, with his first glimpse of the Easter Sunday parade through the city’s poorer neighborhoods. “When I was a kid,” he says, “we’d come in from Silver Spring on an Easter morning and the city just bloomed—a glorious spirit and color and community that I had never seen, which was never talked about on the news or discussed as part of the culture of the city.”
That spirit impressed him even more when he lived on 8th Street NE as an adult. “On H Street, there were maybe 10 small storefront churches,” he says. “They’d pop up and disappear like thistles in an abandoned lot….If an area can’t support fervent shopping, churches go there because the rent is cheap. The storefront churches are the bare bones of faith: no pomp, nothing magisterial, nothing but a pulpit, a few pews, and fluorescent lighting…a place where people who face incredible challenges go for life-sustaining spiritual uplift.”
In 1998, Petersen applied for a grant from the Independent Television Service, was turned down, and applied again the next year. In the meantime, he kept working on his other projects, mainly I Run and Feel Rain, a novel-in-progress and screenplay-in-search-of-funding loosely based on his mentally disabled brother. “I was going to lots of writers’ colonies to finish the novel,” he recalls, “and thinking I was more of a writer than a filmmaker.”
Petersen moved from Capitol Hill to Brooklyn in 1996, and in September of 2000 the grant came through, specifying that the movie had to be finished within a year. Because Stewart had since left Pearly Gates, Petersen and producer Mridu Chandra immediately began to look for another church. The director estimates that they saw 250 in Brooklyn and almost that many in D.C. “We knew we wanted a small church with an outreach program,” he says, “with members trying to achieve things, some dramatic elements, and a dynamic pastor with a story unto himself.”
They found it all in the World Missions for Christ International Inc., a red building with a cross-shaped window at the corner of First and Randolph Place NW. Petersen and Chandra spent hundreds of hours filming inside the church’s tiny, orange-pewed sanctuary, where its 35 principal members sing and cry, praise Jesus and prostrate themselves, and cough up $200 they can ill afford so Sister Darlene Duncan can get her car fixed.
World Missions is led by former crackhead Pastor Bobby Perkins, who screams the story of his own resurrection until he’s hoarse, striding up and down the room, breaking off to dance like Tina Turner. In Let the Church Say, Amen, he paints a vivid picture of addiction, crawling on the floor as he testifies: “Anything I found on the floor that was white, I put it in the pipe; I didn’t care what I was smoking. I’d speedball, mixing the heroin with the co-caine, amen, come on somebody!”
The organ player riffs behind Perkins as he rises to his feet and builds to the part of the story where Jesus picked him up. “I didn’t need no AA meetings. I didn’t need no meth-a-done, come on somebody! ‘Cause I was filled with the Holy Ghost….And now I’m free.” He runs up and down the room, head down, chanting into his microphone: “Free. Free. Free. Free. Free. Feel this place, Lord. Feel this place!” The members of the congregation leap to their feet and throw up their hands as if they’re surrendering.
“I was impressed with Bobby’s preaching and his spirit and the way he talked about his addiction and his overcoming,” says Petersen. “Jesus is absolutely real in that church. I never have questioned their faith, and the only way I could make the film is to believe.”
When confronted again with Stewart’s question about his own cosmology, Petersen answers, “Do I believe Christ rose from the dead and is my personal savior? In that church, I do….One of the things I really liked about this church is its inclusiveness; everybody is welcome. They accepted me.”
Let the Church Say, Amen follows four members of World Missions: Perkins; Duncan, who’s studying to be a nurse’s assistant despite a sixth-grade education; David Surles, three years off drugs but still homeless as he tries to regain his children’s trust and buy “a house or an apartment with a tree in back”; and Ceodtis Fulmore, known as Brother Cee, who’s shown in his efforts to make a gospel record “for young people, to lift ’em up.”
Petersen began filming in January 2001. On Jan. 25, Brother Cee’s teenage son Cion was stabbed to death just blocks from the church. “In a way, the murder propelled us into their lives,” says the filmmaker. “Brother Cee wanted us to film the funeral for his family.
“Brother Cee also wanted justice, and he thought we could help him get that with our film,” adds Petersen. “It’s hard to say if we made a difference, but he got on WOL and he met with the [D.C.] councilmembers, and maybe that had to do with a film crew following him around.”
Let the Church Say, Amen includes that radio show, about the District’s hundreds of unsolved homicides and Fulmore’s frustrating encounters with local police. But Cion’s murder is not introduced until over halfway through the 90-minute film because, Petersen says, “I didn’t want Brother Cee to be defined as a victim’s father; he had a life before and after, pursuing his music ministry.”
It’s hard to believe that a camera was present for some of Let the Church Say, Amen’s rawest scenes: the funeral; dealings with loan officers, school administrators, and recording-studio heads; matter-of-fact discussions of personal degradation and the deaths of children; howling, crying, and rolling on the floor of the church. But Petersen says that his subjects were unfailingly forthcoming: “I told them, ‘I’m here to show the work you’re doing,’ and they’re evangelicals. They liked the opportunity to get the word out.”
Logistics were a greater problem than self-consciousness, the
director says: “A lot of the church members didn’t have working telephones, so it was hard coordinating from New York. Darlene let her phone get cut off because she could just see everyone at the church at least three times a week.”
Now that the film is complete, Petersen has submitted it to the PBS show P.O.V., film festivals, and documentary-screening theaters such as the Film Forum in New York. But his most nerve-racking screening so far was for Sam Pollard.
“He’s Spike Lee’s editor, one of the producers of Eyes on the Prize [II], a guy I have enormous respect for,” Petersen says. “After the screening, Pollard comes up to me and says, ‘You know, I was an evangelist for the Pentecostal church and I used to live in D.C., right?’ And I went, ‘Oh, shit, this guy really knows this world.’
“But then,” Petersen adds, “he said, ‘You’ve done great poetic justice to these people. This is an important film because it portrays faith in the inner city in a positive way.’ Which is about the most meaningful compliment I could get.” —Virginia Vitzthum
Let the Church Say, Amen premieres at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, 10th and Constitution Avenue NW. For more information, call (202) 287-3382.