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Montana/Local briefs
Montana/Local briefs

First United Methodist members star in local video showing a church engaged in its community and beyond

Maggie Knowles, a new member at First United Methodist Church in Missoula, came to church one Sunday last summer and saw the notice about a "harvest of blessings." Members were asked to use their talents to multiply a gift of "seed money," returning the funds raised to the church.

"I knew I wouldn't be interested in that kind of thing," Knowles remembered thinking to herself. But when the pastor asked people to come forward, "a little voice inside me said, 'Make a movie about the church.' " She remained hesitant, even as she walked to the front to accept an envelope with a $20 bill inside.

Knowles had never produced a videotape, and wasn't sure how to get started, although she had just completed the Rocky Mountain School of Photography program in Missoula. Then she heard the new theme for the church's ministries: "Reaching Out in Love." This phrase captured her imagination, and she decided to document how this downtown church, at 300 E. Main St. for 130 years, reaches out to people from birth and infancy to death. She imagined a brief, 10-minute "snapshot." But like anytime when someone steps out in faith, the project grew and blossomed.

Nine months later, on March 30, the front of the sanctuary at First Methodist was filled with a 14-by-20 feet rear-projection screen, and more than 100 members and friends came to see the remarkable fruits of Knowles' eight-month labor - a 24-minute videotape showing how this congregation "reaches out in love."

Knowles came to Missoula in 1999 with diverse experience - years of academic research in social sciences and public health, and fun jobs such as Bronx Zoo tour guide and carrying a sandwich board at Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Fortunately, she had become friends with Letitia "Tish" Johnson soon after she started coming to church in the spring of 2000. Johnson has been part of this congregation for more than 60 years. Knowles sought her advice about the videotape project.

"I told her that I'd decided to do this. But is it really a good idea?"

Johnson remembers her reaction: "What could do the church more good than for those bogged down in one area to see all the other things that are going on."

Knowles interviewed local videotape production groups and selected River City Media of Missoula.

"Mike Steinberg and Steve Kelly are phenomenal cinematographers and editors, with years of production experience," she said. They became full partners in her effort to capture a congregation's faith.

By October, Knowles had found enough funds to hire River City Media and schedule two weeks of taping. For worship, Pastors Beth Garnaas-Holmes and Steve Garnaas-Holmes suggested a Communion service. Still planning a 10-minute final product, she shot 17 hours of footage, including worship services, youth fellowship, Disciples Bible Study, Sunday school, children and adult choirs rehearsals.

Using the theme of "Reaching Out in Love," she looked for children reaching for Communion bread, members reaching out hands for fellowship and hugs, people reaching into the Food Bank box to leave donations, and reaching out for helpings at potluck dinners.

The two weeks of taping also captured a 60-foot inflated plastic whale for children to walk through as part of the Jonah story, and the Amazing Grays' halloween costume party for the congregation's senior members.

The church's outreach and social justice work, important to this congregation located across from the public library in the center of Missoula, was more difficult to capture, given the brief period of time for taping. Fortunately, every Tuesday some women members of the congregation in bright salmon-pink jackets shampoo patients' hair at St. Patrick Hospital. This unique, intimate ministry of love and caring began many years ago.

Shots of the congregation in action are complemented by in-depth interviews. Celia Winkler, a new member, reflected on her return to the church, hesitant and uncertain of welcome, after decades away:

"I was drawn to this church by the pastor's take on sin. You are beloved of God, whether you want it or not. You may not feel that God is paying attention to you, or you may not be wanting God's attention. Well, tough! You got it. I think of all the times in my life that were so dismal and so awful (because) I was alienated from God."

Other members - James Olivarez, Dick Gay, Alex Brown and Tish Johnson - describe their experiences of being reached out to in love at crucial moments in their lives - welcomed as youth, during adult struggles and questions, at the time of facing death.

Knowles laughs now at how much she had to learn about editing.

"I was pretty comfortable about directing the camera because of my work in still photography. I knew to tell Steve and Mike that I wanted lots of close-ups of faces, anything that was a visible representation of love, of personal touching and connection. I looked for little things, like a child's feet in a pair of blue socks, propped up on the back of a pew during worship. But when it got to the editing, I was a novice; my notes for 10 minutes came out 2 1/2 hours on the first cut."

Knowles decided to use music instead of narration to weave the visual content together. "Music captures the spirit of this church." Nita Hamilton, church organist and musician, selected the music and musicians for a specially-recorded soundtrack: Gary Funk, choir director (and University of Montana professor of choral music) singing; Hamilton on piano; Bill Manning (retired UM music professor) playing clarinet and flute; and a young member, Alex Brown, playing "Amazing Grace." In addition, the congregational singing for which Methodists are famous is heard.

Knowles stressed that this is a personal documentary - the videotape is her view, as a new member of the congregation, not the church's or the pastor's. So, what's the reaction of other members? Longtime members have sent Knowles notes of thanks. Many purchased copies of the video to look at again and again, and to show to friends and family. The church received funds donated by those who attended the congregational viewing on March 30 and profits from the video sales, as the return on Knowles' seed money. But more than the dollars, members say that they have received an ongoing blessing by the video. It shows visibly the spirit of love and caring that they experience and share with others.

Knowles has reaped her own harvest of blessing from stepping forth in faith. She is now established as Maggie Knowles Photography. In addition to portrait photography, she is looking to work with families wanting to document reunions, birthday parties or oral histories, and for nonprofit or faith organizations seeking a videotape producer to tell their story. She can be reached at P.O. Box 8353, Missoula 59807; 549-3699.

Jana Staton is a member of the adult spiritual growth ministry at First United Methodist.

If you're interested

The videotape, "Reaching Out in Love," will be shown at the New Crystal Theatre, 515 S. Higgins Ave., at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 20, and also on MCAT Monday, May 21, at 3:30 p.m. again Wednesday, May 23, at 7 p.m. A copy has been donated to the Missoula County Public Library for the public to borrow.

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