Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 16, 2009
Conversion led atheist from riches to rags
Filmmaker now puts his talents at the service of the poor
After undergoing a conversion in 1995, filmmaker Gerard Straub has devoted his life to make films that show the interplay between faith and poverty.
BY BETH GRIFFIN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
MARYKNOLL, N.Y. — Gerard Thomas Straub recounted his “riches to rags” journey from atheistic, financially successful Hollywood television producer to secular Franciscan filmmaker documenting world poverty.
During a Lenten meditation March 8 at Maryknoll headquarters, he described how his unexpected conversion during a 1995 visit to Collegio Sant’Isidoro, a Franciscan friary in Rome, led him to devote his talents to “putting the power of film at the service of the poor” by making documentaries about unsung nonprofit organizations.
He does not charge the groups for his work and he also travels the country showing the films and telling his conversion story to parish, high school and college groups and raising funds for the groups depicted.
“My initial impulse was to give ministries that are serving the poor a tool to raise funds. Film is so emotional and people respond to it,” Straub told Catholic News Service.
FAITH AND POVERTY
“Then I started to get invited to colleges and I realized a vital part is the educational component. I could show the plight of the poor and connect faith to poverty. Then the only option is to do something,” he said.
The images in Straub’s films are raw and heartbreaking. He has documented grinding poverty in inner-city Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia, as well as in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
He said his experience living for a month with Franciscan friars operating St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in Philadelphia, challenged his preconceptions about the homeless and addicted.
“I met real people, people just like me in so many ways,” he said. “It’s easy to label a homeless person as lazy or an alcoholic or drug addict as weak.
“The labels removed my obligation to do anything about it. But Jesus did not label or judge people. He reached out to them and excluded no one.”
Straub, 62, was raised Catholic in New York City and briefly attended a minor seminary. He landed an internship with The Ed Sullivan Show on the CBS television network after high school and then moved into a clerical job there.
He progressed rapidly to network executive and produced soap operas, including General Hospital. He said he was “a committed atheist” who enjoyed the material successes of his chosen industry.
“I had reached a pinnacle in a very brutal, tough and competitive industry, but I began to slide away from God. I was very successful, but there was a deep emptiness,” he said.
Straub said he walked away from an opportunity to produce yet another television program.
“We pandered to the lowest and most base in human nature,” he said. “I knew TV was all about the commercials. And the commercials were about creating desires we don’t have. It’s all about pushing the envelope for rating points.”
During a period of reading, writing and soul-searching, Straub explored the connection between Vincent van Gogh’s creativity and St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality.
He was more interested in van Gogh and thought that “Francis was a pious fairytale from the Middle Ages who had nothing to say to my modern, skeptical, secular life.”
Looking for free lodging on a 1995 trip to Rome, he asked a Franciscan priest friend for a lead and was invited to stay at Collegio Sant’Isidoro, a Franciscan friary with the world’s largest English-language library of literature on St. Francis.
When he arrived, he went to rest in the chapel and opened the Liturgy of the Hours randomly to Psalm 63, which begins “O God, you are my God whom I seek.”
“An empty church and an empty man became a meeting place of grace,” Straub said. “God broke through the silence and everything changed.
“I felt his overwhelming presence and I was transformed from an atheist to a pilgrim.”
He returned to the sacraments and redirected his talents to making films for groups working to alleviate poverty in the United States and overseas. A theme that runs throughout the films is: “The best way to love God is to relieve the pain and suffering of others.”
CATHEDRALS OF THE POOR
Straub said he hopes the films will connect the viewers emotionally to the poor and help them look at the poor through the eyes of faith.
“Slums in developing countries are the cathedrals of the poor,” he said. “They are holy ground. Jesus is here — in the form of people suffering from curable diseases.” He also intends the films to call people to action.
Straub challenged the audience at Maryknoll to take Jesus seriously and turn away from things that “block us from being fully united to God.”
He said, “Christ isn’t asking us to be successful or productive, but to be present to each other in acts of love and mercy.”
Straub established the San Damiano Foundation to finance his films. It is named for the church outside Assisi, Italy, that was rehabilitated by St. Francis at the beginning of his ministry.