My boss at Continental Teen Challenge in Frankfurt called me into his office for a powwow and announced that we needed to put together a documentary film about drug addiction in Europe – about the way God was using our ministry to counter it and to spread the message of salvation to the lost youth of Europe.
"You will be spearheading the project," he proclaimed. "But I've got no experience in filming," I said. "All my experience is with still photography."
"Oh, that's okay," he encouraged, "We have found a really great documentary film director from Bombay, India. He's famous and has won all sorts of awards." Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
"You'll go to England and coordinate with Teen Challenge Britain's director, Terry Kaseman. He says that they have contact with a professional cinematographer who will be able to teach you the ins and outs of filmmaking. Your basic assignment will be to get lots of footage of gangs, drug use, and other types of antisocial behavior." It sounded to me like I was going to be hauling a movie camera into some rather seedy places – not just that, but dangerous as well. It reminded me of my first "field" assignment in Viet Nam. My sergeant simply said... "Well, just go out there to the various predetermined landing zones, drop in with the infantry guys, go out on patrol with them, and get shots of the guys in our unit doing their field communications thing!"
"On patrol?" I asked rather nervously.
"Oh yeah, keep your head down," he advised, "And get the shot! But don't get shot!"
This foray into the underworld of British cities' slums had about as much appeal as wading through the mosquito-ridden swamps of Southeast Asia. But I figured that it was for the glory of God, and agreed to do it.
"Like, am I just supposed to take a movie camera and wander around in London or Manchester, hoping to capture a clandestine drug deal on film?" I asked, cynically, knowing from my experience handing out Gospel literature in the bad parts of Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Mannheim, and the like that cameras are not welcome at all in such places.
"Oh, no ... you won't have to do any wandering at all. The Brits have it all set up... You will be traveling with a great guy, Rodney Stone, who works with Teen Challenge in Britain. He is well connected with the various evangelism and rehabilitation centers, and the addicts right off the streets throughout the British Isles. They will be able to get you into all sorts of great locations!" I could hardly wait!
"Oh, I almost forgot the good news!" my boss said enthusiastically. "You've seen the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, of course. Well, the black guy who played Judas has gotten saved and is touring all over the States, sharing his testimony of his salvation in Christ!" I thought that was great. "He feels that God has called him to share his story in Europe," he continued, "and he will be speaking in local churches and in street rallies that you will film. The local churches will do the publicity." I felt better knowing that all I really needed to do was to schlep the camera gear around and get the shots. I knew I could handle that.
Tyrone arrived in Frankfurt and hit it off with all the staff right away. He and I knew that we were going to be spending a lot of time together, so we made an effort to get acquainted. By the time we had gotten on the train in Frankfurt, made our way across Germany, Belgium, and the English Channel, and finally arrived in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, we had bonded and were ready for our British adventure.
The following day we met Rodney at the Teen Challenge Center. Terry, the director, was a fine fellow with a thick Yorkshire accent. His wife was American and gave us a crash course in understanding and living with the British. But my real baptism into the world "under the crown" came from Rodney. He was unlike anything I had expected. Yes, he did work with Teen Challenge, but he was no ex‑addict or anything close. He was a rather proper British banker who had felt the "call of God on his life" to get theological training and go into the fulltime ministry. After an hour or two of training on the 16mm camera with their cinematographer friend, we headed out.
Tyronne, Rodney, and I piled into Rod's British Ford station wagon and rolled out of Tunbridge Wells, heading north. Rod and I sat in the front, Ty worked on his music in the back ... and we were off on our missionary journey that was destined to take the whole winter and cover every corner of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Rod and I started talking immediately and didn't stop for four months until I finally got on a plane heading back to Frankfurt. We were fast friends before we even hit the M‑1 Motorway north of London, locked in serious conversation about everything from theology to the war in Viet Nam; the demise of the British Empire; pop culture, music, and films; and – above all – the differences between two peoples divided by a common language.
Neither of us had ever crossed that divide before. I had come to understand the Germans quite well after several years – including those spent in the military – but the British were a totally new challenge. And, to my surprise, the Americans were as much of an enigma to Rod as the Brits were to me. He knew nothing more about the "Yanks" than what he had seen on television, and I knew even less about them.
Both of us were like vacuums, sucking up information like crazy. Rod was very well-educated – a product of the British "public" school system, which translates to "private school" in the States. He had what could be called a classic European education. He had read all the literary classics, knew geography, politics, and economics; but, most of all, he loved history, as did I. Since we were in his territory, I learned all about Cromwell, the Round Heads, and the battle of Bannock Burn. Meanwhile, I dusted off my American history and told him all manner of facts and issues from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Civil War, Valley Forge, and the battle of Brandywine.
We took turns being the odd-man-out regarding sleeping arrangements. Usually flipping a coin, I more often than not lost the toss, but lucked out on the cultural experience. In Edinburgh I stayed with a very Scottish family who had never even known an American before that, save for a handshake here and there. They were very much Scottish nationalists – very proud "home rule for Scotland" types.
I spent a week and a half with them, intermittently going out during the day to drag through the slums of Edinburgh in search of the illusive Nidery Terror, and at night going to various church services where Tyrone gave his testimony and played his guitar and sang. I had never actually seen real slums in Germany, but Britain had them in every major town. Many of the northern mill towns that were once the powerhouses of the British industrial revolution were not only in decline; they were in ruins. The Nidery section of Edinburgh was the most notorious slum in Scotland. To quote Bette Davis: "What a dump!" We drove around deserted streets. "Where is everybody?" we wondered. Finally we found a trio of dopers hanging out on a flight of cracked concrete steps in front of a dismal, rundown block of flats. The graffiti was everywhere, warning of the dreaded Nidery Terror, a street gang known for their violence and mayhem. We finally found three of them stoned out of their minds and looking very un-terrorist-like. We told them that we were making a documentary film and showed them the camera. Suddenly they got really interested. We asked where the rest of the Terror team was, and learned that they were normally sleeping during the day, especially if they had scored drugs the night before. We made an appointment for that night to do some on‑camera interviews.
They showed up in droves to get face-time on film. We had told them to show up in their gang garb and to bring any weapons that might be normal or standard, for effect. They all dressed as frighteningly as possible, but there were no serious weapons. In a country where guns are not for sale to the public, only real hardcore "connected" criminals managed to obtain them. The kids that showed up for the photo shoot were anything but scary. They spent the evening posturing for the camera and for each other, talking big; but I saw through the act. The film was supposed to frighten the audience into giving money to help reach these poor desperate youth for Christ, but we really never got much useable footage there or in any of the major cities of the British Isles. These young people were basically addicts. Their lives were not those of devoted terrorists. Their motivation was just to get more drugs. We got enough footage to splice it into more material that we later staged in Hollywood where we did the final editing and postproduction.
There were real terrorists in Britain, to be sure. However, they weren't a motley collection of dropouts and dopers. They were the IRA and they were in Ireland and they were scary. As we got on the car ferry from Liverpool for the overnight ferry crossing to Belfast, Rodney went on and on about how he got seasick the first time he crossed the Irish Sea in winter. I slept like a baby through the whole thing, but when we disembarked in Derry, I knew that I was back in a real war zone.
Part 2. The Winter of Rod (Ireland)
They may call it the Emerald Isle – and it does have its moments of great beauty – but the dreary gray morning when we got off the boat in Belfast was anything but inviting. After running the antiterrorist gauntlet that rivaled Israel in the 80's or the USA today, we finally got back in the car and headed into town. A city under siege, it was in the midst of what the locals referred to as "the troubles." Whereas it seems to me that the basic human cause for conflict is competition over resources, it appears that religious wars come in a close second. I was amazed at the size of the churches in Belfast. It seemed to me that the polarization of Protestant and Catholic literally drove the mushy middle to the extremes. Everybody had chosen sides A or B, and church attendance was a key element of one's identity.
Tyrone played his guitar and sang tunes from Superstar. He even tried his hand at preaching a regular sermon, which lasted all of ten minutes. When he turned away from the pulpit to sit down, both Rod and the pastor glanced at each other with a look of alarm and panic. "Sing! Sing!" Rod said quickly to Ty, sotto voce. As he sang, they both were frantically flipping through their Bibles, looking for something to relate to fill time. They came through! Afterward, Rod told us that folks there come for "the big preach." In places where there isn't much to do at night, or it is too dangerous to venture out, church is really the big entertainment and the congregation wants to get its offering's worth. I found that to be very true in lots of places in the world. Some years later, when I was living and preaching in the Philippines, entire villages world turn out to see a religious film or hear a sermon or a gospel music group, no matter how amateur. After all, what else was there to do in remote villages out in the bundok (the origin of our word boondock!).
Actually, partway through our trip, when we were driving in Wales, I mentioned to Rod that I was studying for the ministry. He was impressed, as he had also done his theological studies by correspondence. Having a job at a local bank in Kent, with a family and financial responsibilities, he could not take four years off to attend seminary. Similarly, I was working in Europe and didn't have the time or means to attend a live-in seminary. He volunteered me to practice-preach at our next stop, Swansea, and I was a permanent fixture on the docket of our three-man road show from then on.
One thing I really enjoyed about our extensive travels around Britain and Ireland was our near daily visits to local high schools. The British have a school requirement called Religious Education (RE). This is an opportunity for students to be exposed to various religions, brief systems, and theological doctrines of all stripes. It is an open forum style discussion and dialogue. The intent is not to indoctrinate the students with any particular religious viewpoint, but to give them the widest possible experience with as many religious disciplines as possible.
We learned that many of the RE teachers frequently ran short on new material, so anything different was welcomed. Rod had learned to tip off local pastors who simply contacted their neighborhood schools, volunteering us to come to their classes to discuss drug addiction, Teen Challenge, etc. Having a celebrity singer from Superstar was a real draw.
We did our dog-and-pony show until April when my boss called from Frankfurt, telling us that the churches in Scandinavia wanted Tyrone to tour. So we bade Rod a fond goodbye and hit the road for Stockholm. I still saw him again once in a while at TC conferences in Switzerland where we dragged out all the old jokes that we had come to enjoy while on the road.
I didn't realize until years later how much those months helped me in so many ways. It wasn’t just that I’d gained confidence as a public speaker; when I was finally assigned to ministry in British Hong Kong, I was already so totally familiar with the British side of the colony's culture that I could concentrate all my efforts on learning the Chinese side. And guess what? I did!