When Becky Fischer of Bismarck gave permission for a pair of documentary filmmakers to film at her “Kids on Fire” prayer camps, she felt good about the idea. She had met the filmmakers; she liked them.
But even before the release of the film, “Jesus Camp,” bloggers were spreading the word about it: “We lost control of the message before the movie was even released,”Fischer said.
Fischer has spent the last few weeks in the national media glare trying to reclaim that message in the face of accusations that young children attending these camps are being brainwashed into becoming “foot soldiers” for a right-wing political and religious agenda.
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Talk show circuit
After “Jesus Camp” was released by Magnolia Pictures at film festivals earlier this year, a frenzy of reaction to the film thrust Fischer onto the talk show and news circuit. Good Morning America, ABC News, CNN, Joe Scarborough, BBC News, the 700 Club and others, as well as numerous radio talk shows, either reported the story or had Fischer on as a guest.
With her in many of the interviews was Mike Papantonio, an attorney and radio talk show host for Air America’s “Ring of Fire.” Papantonio appears briefly in the documentary as a voice opposing what he calls the political activities of the Christian right.
But the bulk of the 84-minute documentary is footage of Fischer’s “Kids on Fire” camps for children, including one held each summer near Devils Lake. The images that provoked the most shock in viewers were those of children weeping in prayer to stop abortion and talking about “spiritual warfare.”
“Jesus Camp” is a prize-winner:It received the Special Documentary Jury Prize at its premiere in May at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the Sterling Award at the 2006 SilverDocs film festival outside Washington, D.C.
In August, it was screened, despite Magnolia Pictures’ request that it be pulled, at Michael Moore’s Traverse City (Mich.) Film Festival, where viewers voted it the “Scariest Film.”
The movie is now in limited release, scheduled to open in select cities this month.
Fischer said she’s been getting negative feedback for weeks, some so vicious that she’s had to disconnect her home phone. She said she has asked Magnolia Pictures not to release the film in Bismarck, her hometown for 22 years, quite yet.
“I have to live here,”she said.
Won’t disavow film
Fischer, full-time director of Kids in Ministry International and lead pastor of The F.I.R.E. Center in Mandan, was approached a year and a half ago by documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, creators of an earlier documentary, “The Boys of Baraka,” which included a 12-year-old boy who was a preacher.
“Do you know any children who preach?” they asked her.
“I know children who preach,” Fischer told them. “I know children who heal the sick, do prophetic ministry and pray.”
“We instantly became friends,” Fischer said. “I felt good in my heart about it.”
Ewing and Grady flew out to North Dakota three times, spending about eight days filming at the camp here, Fischer said.
For the two women – one Jewish, the other Catholic – it was their first time around an evangelical community and charismatic worship, Fischer said.
When they met, Grady and Ewing told Fischer that the film had no agenda, it was just an exploration of a subject they were curious about.
Afterward, the two told her that the film acquired its political element when children at the camp were asked to pray for an end to abortion and to pray for President Bush, Fischer said.
Fischer was pressed by some to disavow the way the film portrayed her kids’ camp.
Condensing 260 hours of film into 76 minutes distills the experience, and camp experiences tend to be very intense, but no images were distorted or invented, she said. Fischer said that the majority of people who were filmed feel they were presented fairly.
Rather than disavow “Jesus Camp,” Fischer ultimately decided to accept the intense publicity as a way to get her message out in a way she could never have done otherwise.
Fischer has been grilled by interviewers about a segment which some think shows children “worshipping” a cardboard cutout of Bush, another in which children perform a drama in camouflage and use “war” language, others in which children weep when talking about stopping abortion, as well as a clip of Fischer talking about how the Taliban trains youngsters to its cause.
Most people outside the charismatic community have no context, no “grid,” as Fischer calls it, to understand what they are seeing.
In interview after interview, Fischer says the image of children touching a cardboard image of Bush is not “worship,” she said: “Absolutely not.”
“The Bible tells believers to pray for leaders and for those in authority,” she said. “What people are seeing is children praying for the president.”
Fischer makes the point that if these images of children speaking in tongues, of dancing and praying, were in a black church, people would think nothing of it. But because the children are mostly white, people don’t expect to see this, she said.
Is this abusive? Their parents are standing right there, Fischer said. If they felt the children were being abused or traumatized, they could have stepped in, she said.
Adults also are shocked because they rarely see children “this passionate” about anything, Fischer believes, or never feel passionate about faith themselves.
What about the language of warfare, the children performing in camouflage makeup?
Insider language, she says. Today, people hear “war” words and think only “terrorism,” she said.
Phrases from the Bible urge believers to “fight the good fight” of faith, she said, “against what wars against our soul. This is spiritual warfare. Our weapons are not guns and bombs, but prayer.”
“People are not our enemies.”
Emotional manipulation feared
One local clergyman who has seen the film in its entirety, the Rev. Jim Moos of Bismarck’s United Church of Christ, is uncomfortable with a lot of it, he said.
“I heard a lot of language of ‘war’ and ‘enemy,’ ” he said. “Jesus talked about enemies a lot – he talked about loving them and praying for them.”
Moos said Fischer has the right to do what she is doing, but he sees in the documentary the emotional manipulation of children in unhealthy ways.
“It’s certainly never too early to expose children to faith,”Moos said. “I’m not sure that taking 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds and instilling them with fear and guilt, is eliciting the kind of faith commitments we would all like to see.”
Moos, who has served as a military chaplain, also said he doesn’t like the blending of religion and patriotism:”I’m uncomfortable wrapping Jesus in the flag,” he said.
“My question is, what does any of this have to do with the cross?”he said. “Are Christians supposed to seek power and rule the state?”
Moos believes that Christians should be conscience of the state, but there’s no call to rule.
“This call to power – I’m not sure Isee any connection between that and the self-giving love that is in the cross.”
Evangelicals may be concerned about the message in this film as well, he said: “I don’t see this as a liberal-conservative divide.”
In the film Fischer talked about Muslim extremists, Moos said, “and sort of held them up as a model, as if to say they have the correct method but the wrong message.”
“I’m trying to be fair, but I hear no talk of love or grace or acceptance. (It’s a) very hard, ‘this is war’ message.”
Minister says camps misrepresented
A lot of what has been written about Fischer is “very, very inaccurate,” said the Rev. Alan Koch, pastor of the Church of Christ Triumphant, based in Lee’s Summit, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City. Fischer is ordained for ministry through this charismatic church.
Koch said that he has known Becky Fischer for four years. Some of the children from his church have attended Fischer’s camps.
“Regretfully,” from Koch’s point of view, “the documentary does not reflect her. She is not political or militant. She wants kids who carry Bibles and proclaim the love of God.”
“Jesus Camp” really didn’t do justice to what was really taking place,he said. “The camps are showing kids how wonderful a relationship with Jesus really is, as well as the importance of prayer, that prayer really changes things,” he said.
“The gist (of the camps) is teaching kids that God really does love them, cares for them. God does love people, regardless of whether they follow him or or not. Teaching them to treat others with dignity and respect.”
“The lives of these kids have changed,” he said. “When they come back (from camp), they are more concerned with their relationship with Jesus than before. They get along better with siblings and other kids, become model students. They want to excel and lead others.”
Free with emotion
The sight of children weeping over abortion, or prophesying or praying, is outside the comfort zone of many Christian circles, Fischer said.
But to charismatic believers, these are familiar worship experiences, she said. “In the charismatic community, we are very free with emotion, dancing, raising, clapping our hands.”
Fischer, who’s been a children’s pastor for 15 years, grew up in a traditional Pentecostal church environment and became “born-again”at an early age.
Statistics estimate charismatics to be one-fourth to one-third of the 80 million to 100 million Americans who call themselves evangelicals. Fischer said that charismatics are the fastest-growing segment of evangelicals, citing a figure of 600 million worldwide.
Theologically, charismatics believe in God as Trinity, in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God and the validity of the Bible, Fischer said.
“Where we part company (with other evangelicals) is charismatics believe the supernatural is alive and well,” she said. “Evangelicals believe that miracles ended when the Bible ended. We still believe in the supernatural. We still believe in the miraculous.”
Christianity is in danger of losing an entire generation of its children, Fischer said. She said that 70 percent of children leave the church when they become teenagers and never come back. Children form their core beliefs by age 6 or 7; what they believe then, they will believe the rest of their lives, she said.
She believes the way to keep children is to give them, not watered-down Bible stories, but what she calls “the meat” of faith.
Children, she believes, are an “untapped resource” of potential ministers of the gospel.
Karen Sattem, a speech therapist from Newark, Del., met Fischer at a conference about six years ago and became one of Fischer’s first financial supporters.
“Becky has such a heart to see children move out in the realm of the spirit of God,”Sattem said. “We both believe that children can be used mightily by God at a young age,” she said. “Becky’s philosophy is the same – that children can be ministers. I have seen so many children (perform) signs, wonders, miracles.
“Children have to be led and taught how to move in the spirit,” Sattem said. Children’s tears, Sattem believes, are “the heart-cry of God, crying for souls. They are intercessors.”
Sattem said that she expected that “people of the (secular) world” wouldn’t understand the film. There also was a lot of misunderstanding even among Christians:That was hurtful, Sattem said.
Fischer is “on the maximum cutting edge with children in ministry,”Sattem said, “and is daring to take them into realms that nobody has ever done. This is a new thing.”
“People are looking for the realm of the supernatural. They want to know there’s a real God. They want to see miracles, to see healing flow.”
People today can “walk and talk with God,”Sattem said, “if we learn how to tune into it and get all distractions out, to train them to shut down, be quiet and obey. Everything in the Bible is based on trust and obey,”she said.
As for the current strong reaction to the film, Sattem says, “the most persecution that you get, the more the breakthrough comes when the dust settles.Ibelieve that’s what’s going to happen.”
Church and state
Don Morrison, of Bismarck, director of the North Dakota Center for the Public Good, also has seen “Jesus Camp” in its entirety.
“My reaction is that these people have every right to do what they’re doing, but it goes against all the traditions and core values of America,” he said. “They actually look at the Islamic jihadist as the role model for what (Fischer) wants to do in this country,” he said. “It’s bringing back religious warfare to our culture.”
In the film, talk show host Papantonio, who is a member of the United Methodist Church, warns against the mingling of church and state.
For Fischer, the political cannot be separated from belief.
“We can’t believe one thing and live another. Belief does not stop at the voting booth,” she said. “For born-again Christians, our opinions look to the Word of God for answers. (For) all issues, that’s where we go.
“We go to the Bible, it’s our foundation and anchor.”
Fischer said that fears of creating an American Christian “theocracy” are unfounded.
“We have no intention of forcing people to become Christians,” she said. “We just want to get back to where we were.”
Christians are tired, she said, of children not being able to pray over their school lunch or sing Christmas carols.
In American history, Morrison, a former Sunday School teacher, said, “These folks have risen and fallen. Each time they’ve risen, most Americans have said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
What’s been different in the last 30 years, Morrison said, is that mainstream Americans have been silent.
“Nobody is speaking out. Mainstream religion has been silent in public up to this point. Nobody wants to be the first person to say, ‘This has gone too far.’ ”
Morrison said that the religious right has a stranglehold on American views on religion: His question to the public would be: “How can we live together and respect each other? What kind of world do we want to live in?”