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Marilyn Sewell's next calling

Retired minister talks about her calling, her life, and the documentary film about her.
By Julia Angley
Fall 2011 8.15.11

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Marilyn Sewell (Jacqueline Jones)

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, subject of the documentary Raw Faith, talks about living as the camera rolls. (Jacqueline Jones)

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is the subject of a feature-length documentary film, Raw Faith, a two-year study of the now-retired minister from Portland, Oregon. The filmmakers initially intended to follow Sewell during her transition into retirement from her position as senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, where she served for seventeen years. But the film took on a new direction when, in the middle of filming, she unexpectedly fell in love.

The film, named the NPT (Nashville Public Television) Human Spirit Award winner at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival, hit New York independent theaters for its debut on June 24, 2011. The film will be broadcast on The Documentary Channel May 20, 2012, at 8:00 p.m. For screening dates and more information, visit alivemindcinema.com.

Sewell spoke with UU World intern Julia Angley on June 7 about the film, before its theatrical release.

Julia Angley: This is a remarkable project. What prompted your involvement?

Marilyn Sewell: The universe presented it to me. A couple who were in the church for fifteen years, [executive producers] Ashley and Scott MacEachern, said to me, “We’re interested in getting your message out there in a larger way.” I didn’t really know what they had in mind, and I really wondered about the whole thing. I thought, do ministry and marketing really fit together? One day, Ashley said, “Why don’t we make a movie?” That captured my imagination, and I said, “That sounds like it’d be fun!”

Angley: How did the project evolve from there?

Sewell: The initial idea was we would get on a bus and go around the country and ask people, “What holds the country together rather than pulls us apart?” We interviewed three different directors and told them about our idea, and well, all three of them independently said: “You need a narrative, and you need a person who is the center of the film.” And all of them said, “I want to make a film about Marilyn.”

Angley: Was signing on as the subject of a feature-length documentary a difficult decision to make?

Sewell: At first I thought, oh dear, now it’s me, and so it was a little unnerving, but I realized this was what I was supposed to be doing. This was my next call.

Angley: Was it always intended to be a two-year long filming process?

Sewell: The time frame was going to be that last year of me leaving the ministry, the last year and a half that I was at the church, something like that. Well, what happened then was a surprise to everyone. I fell in love with George [Crandall]! And of course, the whole film changed. With a documentary, you kind of have to follow what’s happening. And this love relationship emerged, so we just had to follow that.

Angley: What was it like being followed around for two years?

Sewell: [Director Peter Wiedensmith] took footage of everything I did. When I gave out candy to kids on Halloween, when I went to a Planned Parenthood opening of a new building, certainly every sermon that I gave, he was there taping that. You’ll notice that, in the film, I don’t put makeup on, I sometimes have bed-head and I don’t comb my hair, I wanted it to just be as honest as I could make it. Nothing is planned, everything is unfolding in real time as it happens.

Angley: The narrative unfolds organically. Was that planned?

Sewell: [Wiedensmith] is a wonderful guy, and my trust for him got to a point where, when something was going to happen in my life, and I had a realization that I was going to do or say something significant, I would call him. During filming, I realized I was ready to become engaged! So I called Peter and told him, “I think I’m ready to accept a ring from George!” And so Peter came over and watched me call George, and we went over and looked at rings, and all of this was spontaneous.

Angley: Was the filming invasive?

Sewell: There were a couple of times that I said no to Peter, where I drew the line. But I told Peter when he first started filming that I don’t think I’m acutely brilliant, I’m not particularly funny, I don’t know why we’re making this film about me. But I can be totally honest, emotionally honest, on camera. I think the film’s strength is that it is emotionally raw, emotionally honest. People say, “I’m amazed that you could do that!” I think I could do that because it was all I had to offer.

Angley: You open up about very private things on camera; was it difficult to be genuine with a lens on you?

Sewell: I have had a lot of therapy in my life, and so it wasn’t an unknown thing to me to be open about my feelings, because I’ve delved into my feelings over the years. I’ve been open about my feelings as a minister in my sermons. I’m used to self-revelation, and I think it has a certain strength. I would always be nervous when I told very personal stories from the pulpit, but my congregants would come to me after the service and say, that was my story, I lived that same thing. It’s amazing how universal these stories are.

Angley: What did you learn from the process?

Sewell: A call is not just a call to ministry. A call is whatever the spirit moves me to do. My job is just to listen to see what happens next. That’s a very exciting way to live. I never thought I would be in a film! It’s exciting to live in that spiritual thread. It makes you say, okay, what is next?

Angley: Was it transformative?

Sewell: The real transformation for me was that I grew up with a very poor self-image. You can see that when you see the film, I did not grow up feeling that I was well loved or even well liked. I’ve never understood that people might love or like me. I thought people could admire me, so I worked hard for that. But after seeing the film, I looked at myself objectively, and I thought, you know, I kind of like that person! I saw myself as someone who could be likable, or lovable. It’s a wonderful thing.

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