Interview: Pastor Steven Earp of “Where Was God?”
Posted on June 5, 2015 at 12:00 pm
“Where Was God?” is a documentary about “stories of hope after the storm,” the impact on the community of Moore, Oklahoma of an E5 storm with destructive power eight times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I spoke to Pastor Steven Earp, who produced the film and who is featured in it as well, telling the story of his own involvement. It is now available on DVD and streaming..
My wife and I were in a storm shelter the day of the storm. My kids were in five different places. So our kids were at school and at work. We came out of the storm shelter, we find out that our home was spared, the tornado had missed us by a mile or mile and a half but immediately we were thrust into full-time disaster relief. Every other church in town is crammed, we’re looking for our kids, we’re not able to get contact from anyone and when people would contact us we would get 40 text messages at once when communications would finally come through. And so immediately everyone’s in full-time disaster mode. The tornado was a mile and a half wide at certain points, so it just went right through the middle of a highly populated area. And so the hours turned into days and the days turned into weeks and about two weeks in we were still in day and night, full-time disaster relief mode and all of our plans changed and all of our appointments changed. A friend approached me who has been involved in some film projects and he said, “Hey Steven, you know here in another two or three weeks all these media trucks are going to be gone and there are still going to be stories to tell, the deeper stories, stories of hope and faith in overcoming and, what does it look like for someone to recover emotionally or for someone to recover spiritually? Specifically what does tragedy or what does difficult time and what does the storm do to someone’s faith?”
I had been doing almost nothing but listening to stories day in and day out. Churches and organizations would send resources to those of us who were here and they we were just given food and clothes and money and everything to people who lived there and so we had these stories. And I resonate with the concept that there definitely would be stories that needed to be told. So that’s how we started out. Initially we wanted to follow 10 or 12 families for about a year. We would narrow that down to 4 or 5 stories that we wanted to share. And it ended up as we started this process, a handful of the families that we were interviewing their stories started overlapping and it became more apparent that they were all linked in one way or another. And then we started hearing other stories, someone who lost everything but you still see a lot of light in the eyes. Like the Moody family who talked about overcoming addiction and things like that and they have already been through that life storm and then they experienced this storm that didn’t particularly shake their faith as much because they had already been through some other life storms.
Earp spoke about the power of sharing stories, for the listener and the speaker.
I definitely think that there is a therapeutic peace of overcoming tragedy, just being able to talk about it, just being able to hear someone else’s story. You see a little bit of your story in their story. And as the McKays said, “Every time we talk about our son, our hearts heal just a bit.” Our initial plan was for this to be a tool to help bring emotional disaster relief specifically to this community. That was initially our plan and during the film we took pictures of the houses being rebuilt. But what about the hearts that needed to be rebuilt and the homes, the relationships that need to be rebuilt? So it just sort of grew into something more and as we started seeing these stories especially certain families’ lives started intersecting. And so we felt like it did have a message beyond does this community.
It was important to him that the film itself be a form of community storytelling, even the music.
The music was an original score written by Christopher Clark, a local artist, local musician. Everyone who worked on the film is local to Oklahoma City. Many of them are film professionals. He worked with Travis Palmer. And they sort of put together a theme behind each family and each story so there is a slightly different sound with each family.
At screenings, he has seen that the impact of the film reaches far beyond the specifics that it covers.
Locally, of course the film has a huge impact because everyone in our community knows someone in the film. So it has helped to bring a lot of healing. Across the country whether someone has seen it at the film festival or in theaters, we get messages every week from people saying, “Thank you so much for putting this together.” A lot of the stories we get are, “I’m going through cancer and I see some hope now.” Or “I lost my son 18 years ago in a tragic accident and I’ve never been able to put into words what I saw but when I saw the McKabes say those things my heart resonated with that.” I’m super honored to have been able to be in a project that is impacting people in the way that it has. And so that was what our initial goal was. And so we are really grateful to be involved in this because of the impact, so we had a great response in film festivals and in churches and all over the place.
The movie begins with a child reciting a passage inspired by Romans 5:3 about the purpose of suffering, and that raises the question asked in the title of the film.
We just thought felt that that was the main theme of the film. People asked, “Where was God?” A lot of people ask when tragedy strikes, “Why does God allow it to happen?” And that is a question that believers have to wrestle with and also a question that skeptics ask as well. And it is very difficult. We would have to literally know the mind of God to be able to answer the question, “Why does God allow specific instance of suffering?” And so I don’t feel that we can answer that question particularly but the question, has more to do more with when people experience tragedy where did they see him working in their lives? So we just let people tell their own stories and let everyone else come to their own conclusions about that. It’s first person narrative, just letting them tell their stories so in these stories you see people saying, “I experience God in this way, I experience God in this way, I experience God in this way.”
Some people can experience tragedy and they run to the Lord and other people run away from him and why is that? And I don’t know why. I think is a great mystery of life. The answer to the question “Where was God?” I think is during life storms God is always near. And I think that the Romans passage deals most directly with that. “I rejoice in my suffering,” you know these are the results of suffering there are things that come as a result of suffering and in our darkest time we can perhaps experience even more closeness to Him than we could at any other time.
I asked Pastor Earp what to say to a person who is suffering.
Saying less is better than saying more. The things that matter most are letting them talk. Our silence says more than our words and I think the more we tend to say, the worse it tends to be. And so I think love and compassion and acceptance and affirmation of what they are experiencing and what they’re feeling, those are the kinds of things that can help people and then in addition to that the practical things that people need that many times they don’t realize they need because they are stunned. So someone loses a loved one, they don’t need your advice or counsel but they might need your presence and they might need just a quiet hug or they might need you to just sit there or they might need you to go to the grocery store or clean their bathrooms and they will never ask for it. So those are the ways it’s counterintuitive, we want to come up with answers for people, and in general people don’t need our answers, in general they need our love, they need our mercy, they need our help.