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 CNS Story:

FILM-POOR Mar-28-2005 (860 words) With photo to come. xxxn

TV director's conversion experience leads to work on behalf of poor

By Paula Doyle
Catholic News Service

BURBANK, Calif. (CNS) -- As a network television producer, Gerry Straub had all the trappings of success -- a BMW, nice homes on both coasts and financial security. But he left that life of privilege after a profound conversion experience led Straub, 58, to his present vocation as president of the San Damiano Foundation, a Burbank-based secular Franciscan ministry putting the power of film at the service of the poor.

After 14 years at CBS-TV in New York, Straub found his work creatively unfulfilling. Born a Catholic, he was also going through a spiritual search. He joined the TV department of the Christian Broadcasting Network, but left two years later after becoming disillusioned with what he called its "dark, judgmental and oppressive interpretation of their faith."

Convinced then that Christianity was a sham, Straub decided to return to network television. "I didn't think people's faith had any impact on their life and I sort of slid into atheism," he said. He found a niche in soap operas, but as the years went by, "I found myself asking, 'Who would watch this stuff?'" said Straub.

"With my wife's loving support, I withdrew from commercial television and picked up my pen and began my search for the God I had come to assume did not exist," Straub told The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

After penning one novel that sold just a few hundred copies, he began work on a book exploring the connection between creativity and spirituality. One character in the book was St. Francis of Assisi, whom Straub regarded as a "pious fairy tale with no relevance to modern people." However, for authenticity's sake, Straub made a trip to Italy in March 1995.

With introductions from a U.S. Franciscan pastor, Straub got a room in Rome at the Collegio Sant' Isidoro, a Franciscan friary that contains the world's largest English-language library of literature on St. Francis. Only the housekeeper was present when he arrived, so he went into the 17th-century church on the friary grounds to think. Prayer was not an option since he had long ago embraced atheism.

"Without warning, I felt the overwhelming presence of God," said Straub. "I didn't see any images or hear any words. I knew experientially that God was real, that God loved me. In that moment of revelation, I was transformed from an atheist into a pilgrim."

He felt so moved that he got up and bowed before the altar. "I'm still living off that one moment," declared Straub.

Days later, Straub went to confession and received the Eucharist at Mass for the first time in a decade. "St. Francis of Assisi became my spiritual guide," he said. He abandoned his novel and instead began writing about the life of St. Francis and his faithful follower, St. Clare, intertwining the story of his own spiritual pilgrimage.

Straub worked on "The Sun and Moon Over Assisi" over the next five years, intensely writing during annual stays at the Collegio Sant' Isidoro while he taught seminars on writing and documentary filmmaking at Gregorian University in Rome. "It was the writing of that book that gave birth to everything," said Straub. Published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in 2000, it was named best spirituality hardcover book of the year by the Catholic Press Association.

In spite of Straub's research into St. Francis, which included eight trips to Assisi and discussions with numerous Franciscans, he still didn't fully understand St. Francis' love of the poor and poverty itself.

A Franciscan friar suggested Straub spend some time with poor people, and he ended up living for a few days at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia. It was then, said Straub, that "everything I ever thought about the poor and poverty was turned upside down."

Obtaining the blessing of Father Giacomo Bini, Franciscan minister general, Straub embarked on an international photography tour of Franciscan missions serving the poor. He visited impoverished areas and slums in 29 cities worldwide, ultimately writing "When Did I See You Hungry?" The book's film version, narrated by "The West Wing" star Martin Sheen, led to the creation of the San Damiano Foundation in 2002.

Since then, the foundation has produced four additional films. Straub is at work on a new film, "The Patients of a Saint," about Dr. Tony Lazzara, an American doctor who has spent more than 20 years ministering to sick children in the shantytowns of Lima, Peru.

Straub shot 27 hours of footage in January and hopes to raise the estimated $35,000 it will take to edit the film, record the narration, compose the music and manufacture the DVDs and VHS tapes.

Straub, who works 10 hours a day after attending daily Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, recently went on a speaking tour to Catholic and Christian colleges in Chicago and New York.

"All the money and glory I got in network TV," he said, "could not compare with working on behalf of the poor and having these films make a difference in their lives."


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