'The Calling' shows the faces behind faith

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 3:57 p.m. MST

Bilal Ansari is a student at the Hartford Seminary's Muslim chaplaincy program. He's featured in "The Calling."

The Kindling Group

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Have you ever been curious what drives people to want to become ministers or other spiritual leaders?

"The Calling," a new two-part PBS miniseries lasting four hours, shows why. It premieres at 8 p.m. on KUED on Monday, Dec. 20, and Tuesday, Dec. 21.

Part of the series "Independent Lens," "The Calling" follows seven young Americans as they prepare for the professional ministry.

You'll meet:

Rob Pene, a Samoan studying at the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University, working with a Presbyterian minister in Los Angeles and mentoring poor teenage boys. He's also pursuing a career as a Christian rapper.

Jeneen Robinson, an African American single mother and newly ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church in Los Angeles. She recently finished directing a summer camp for inner-city youths at her church and writes and performs in church-based plays and musicals.

Bilal Ansari, an African-American father of four and student at Hartford Seminary's Muslim chaplaincy program. He works in the federal prison system in Connecticut.

Steven Gamez, a Tejano born and raised in San Antonio who entered the Catholic seminary to become a "servant priest." He is now pastor at St. Philip of Jesus Catholic Church in San Antonio, where his grandmother worshipped and his father was an altar boy.

Tahera Ahmad, a young Muslim scholar, teacher and student in Hartford Seminary's Muslim chaplaincy program. Recently married, she is now head of Islamic Studies at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, Ill.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, N.Y., who tries to make an impact on the world, from protesting at Free Tibet rallies to starting Uri Le'Tzedek, a new social action organization in the Modern Orthodox community. Since filming, he has been ordained and is the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA.

Yerachmiel Shapiro, a recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah who took a position as rabbi for a tiny congregation in Red Bank, N.J. Since filming, he accepted a position as rabbi at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation in Baltimore. He and his wife, Helene, a dentist, have a new baby daughter.

The strength of "The Calling" is that it puts real people's faces on faith. It explores their motives for going into the ministry, follows them as they study, work and struggle. Yes, there are moments of self-questioning as they wrestle with a variety of issues.

After graduating, they have to find jobs.

Robinson finds a part-time position that pays $20,000 a year, not enough to provide for herself and her son. On top of that, the minister she's working with questions her commitment to the ministry. Sometimes the family has to fall by the wayside, she is told. "That's why preachers' kids struggle."

Robinson says, "I should leave, but I'm called."

She finds another position at her home church, and nobody there questions her commitment to the calling.

Gamez realizes that as a Catholic priest, he must take a vow of celibacy "for the rest of my life." He decides his calling to serve is greater than anything else and that although difficult, the celibacy vow is worth it.

Ansari wants to work hard to establish a better understanding of Islam in America but fears that he's neglecting his own four children in the process.

All conclude that it's necessary to find time to renew themselves while following through on their desire to do what they feel they've been called to do.

"The Calling" documents seven good people on their journeys to put their faith into practice and provides a good dose of faith to viewers of any religious persuasion.

e-mail: rwalsh@desnews.com