In 2007, as he was finishing the Episcopal seminary education that would officially transition him from salesman to priest, Michael Spurlock discovered he was being sent to a small Smyrna, Tennessee, congregation. Sure that the bishop would be appointing a more seasoned pastor to lead the congregation through the church split it had just experienced, Spurlock never imagined he’d ever be in Smyrna. But he went where he was sent, knowing that closing the church under his leadership was a strong possibility.
Against all expectations, this little church in Smyrna, Tennessee, became the home for a sustainable farm, joining the efforts of the native Anglos and immigrant Burmese refugees in the story that is now Sony’s film, All Saints, starring John Corbett and Cara Buono. Now as the curate at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York, where he has served since 2010, Spurlock shared his perspective on the way God continues to move in the world, through the miracle at All Saints and the upcoming film.
Spurlock spent days with director Steve Gomer and writer Steve Armour, who he affectionately refers to as “the two Steves.” He spent hours sharing and resharing the story, as they worked to adapt it into a screenplay; once he’d completed his role in telling the story, he went on about his business as pastor in New York, while they worked to find a producer. Seven years later, he finds himself amazed that his story will play out on movie screens; he simply desired to be a solid parish priest.
“My initial response to the version I saw was, ‘Why do they keep saying my name? Is that really me? Am I like that? Is that how John [Corbett] sees me?’” Spurlock shared with a chuckle. “I remember getting so lost in the story, especially things that Ye Win [played by Nelson Lee] was saying that it became very emotional.”
Spurlock admitted that the story has been dramatized, that he was not sent so directly to close the church, and that he didn’t directly fight his superiors. “It was more like, ‘Go down there and we’ll see,’” he said. “But we hadn’t been there even two months before we realized we’d be broke by the end of the year, so we had to sell the church to pay off the mortgage or be in default.”
Everything changed when the Karen immigrants arrived. From Burma or Myanmar, the Karen people arrived with a desire to farm the extensive seventeen-acre property around the church building that was currently unused. But it wasn’t until God spoke to Spurlock after the decision had been made to sell the church that everything came together.
“I had just gotten off the phone after hours with the Bishop and we had made the decision to sell,” remembered the pastor. “I took a walk around the property to clear my head, and God told me, ‘Michael, I’ve sent you sixty-five farmers from the other side of the world and you’re walking on farmland.’”
Spurlock called the congregation’s lay leader, who encouraged him to call the bishop back. The bishop’s response? “Isn’t it just like God to move in the eleventh hour.”
The Anglo and Karen communities responded with a sense of teamwork that defied Spurlock’s expectations. People in the congregation started giving rides to children for doctors’ appointments; they taught English and invited the refugees into their homes. All of the action matched the Christian teaching about inviting in the stranger. “What were you going to do,” asked Spurlock, “tell them to go away? You can’t call yourself a Christian and act like that! You don’t get to pick who comes to your church door, but you do get to decide how you respond.”
Of course, there was some resistance. Spurlock called one woman who had been absent for several weeks, and was told she’d gone to a church where the people looked like her. He saw raw fear, prejudice, and dis-ease for anything different from a few people, but said, “They missed out on the most Godly experience I’ve ever had.”
While he’s recently celebrated ten years of ordination, Spurlock was a newly-minted priest when he took over All Saints, just months after the previous pastor led eighty percent of the congregation to start a new, non-denominational church. He admits openly that he made mistakes, and that his wife, Aimee, would remind him of his call to be a husband and father first.
“It was hard to maintain the right perspective about my responsibilities for the parish’s survival,” Spurlock reflected. “My wife would remind me that I had a family, too. Church wasn’t all up to me. My perspective wasn’t so outsized that I neglected my family, but I had to recognize that what I owed the church was in comparison to my first vows as husband and father.”
To that end, Spurlock accepted the invitation to St. Thomas in 2010, where he says that God provided a way for him to heal, to learn from a more experienced priest, and to be strengthened. Now, he can see how God continued to grow All Saints after he left, that it wasn’t all up to him. The Bishop appointed a successor who had worked with Sudanese refugees in Nashville, to bridge the relationship between Anglos and Karen. Of course, the transition wasn’t without its struggles.
“We cried like babies,” remembered Spurlock. “Our last Sunday was the hardest day in my ministry.”
Not only had Spurlock pastored his congregation, but his wife Aimee had formed a choir of the Karen children which also helped them learn English, and their son was involved in the church. Having seen the movie, it’s clear that there’s a bit of a “Moses narrative” in the story of All Saints, as Spurlock worked through their transition but didn’t get to see them into the “Promised Land” of steady existence. Those Moses comparisons aren’t lost on Spurlock, but he’s quick to point out that it’s more about God showing up even when he wasn’t ready.
“There’s the scene in the film where John and Cara [as Spurlock and Aimee] are out for a picnic. I’d told her I wanted to get out of there, because I was physically exhausted and emotionally tired of talking about the farm. We went to a state park, and I told her I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. There was only one car in the parking lot besides ours!”
“We started hiking and saw this couple walking toward us. I begged her not to do anything more than say, ‘hi,’ but she started talking to them, and I ended up speaking to the man.”
“Now, we needed a water tank to irrigate the crops more efficiently, and it turned out this other man was a farmer who had just upsized and modernized his equipment. He told me we could have anything we needed of his older equipment, and I explained about the water tank which would have cost us quite a bit. He said, ‘I have one of those, and you can have it!’”
For Spurlock, literally hiking in the middle of nowhere, the sense that this was holy ground was inevitable. He recognized that even in his unwillingness, even in his disobedient spirit, that God has shown up and provided anyway. In the course of sharing all of these stories with “the two Steves,” Spurlock said that the most important thing for him was explaining that there were hard days but they were never a crisis of faith, that the hardness of life was true whether you believed or not.
“But when you believe, you can see that God is with you,” Spurlock said. Like a sermon he once heard about how God didn’t promise a rose garden, he was moved to see that walking with God wasn’t ‘magical,’ that the situation didn’t suddenly go away. “It’s a reminder to endure, to pass through the struggle and see the Promised Land on the other side. We can see that in Scripture and it’s still happening today.”
For Reverend Michael Spurlock, formerly of All Saints Church and now of St. Thomas Church, the story still inspires - and reminds him of God’s providence. But rather than see it as some badge of honor, some accolade to what he’s done, Spurlock remains the same man he set out to be when leaving seminary.
“Hopefully, even after the movie fades, Michael Spurlock will be found, just being a parish priest.”
That in itself is the beauty of All Saints, that God would use an ordinary man, flaws and all, strengths and weakness, to work a miracle, to bring people together, to build the Kingdom of God upon the earth.