Michael W. Smith, one of Christian music's most popular artists, is known for his sensitive heart. He's long been a spokesman for Compassion International, bringing many donors and sponsors on board. He ministered to victims' families—especially Cassie Bernall's—after the Columbine High School shootings. He's an active voice—with his friend Bono of U2—in the fight against AIDS and Third World debt.
But now, in his first leading role in a motion picture, he's a different man—or at least his character is. Smith plays not quite a jerk, but certainly a cocky, comfy suburbanite who's clueless about the plight of the down-and-out in the inner city.
In The Second Chance, directed by Steve Taylor and opening in limited theaters on Friday, Smith plays Ethan Jenkins, an associate pastor and music minister at The Rock, a wealthy—and mostly white—suburban megachurch. On the other side of town, Jake Sanders, played by jeff obafemi carr, is the street-smart African-American pastor of the urban Second Chance Church, where he ministers to gang members, teen mothers, and drug addicts.
Ethan's father had founded The Second Chance Church in the 1960s, then moved to the 'burbs to plant The Rock—leaving Jake and the Second Chance congregation feeling a bit burned and left behind. Early in the film, Jake makes a financial appeal from The Rock's pulpit, ending his pitch by saying that if the people are unwilling to offer their hands-on help, "then you can keep your damn money." After the gasps, it's no surprise that Ethan's and Jake's worlds would soon collide—and that hearts and minds would be transformed in the process.
We recently talked with Smith and carr (who spells his name with all lower-case letters) about the film.
Why did you want to do this movie?
Michael W. Smith: I got asked to do this movie about five years ago. Steve [Taylor] and Ben [filmmaker/photographer Ben Pearson] knew I had the bug to act, and they asked if I would be interested. I said yes, but I didn't get my hopes up, because I knew there was still a script to write and so much work to be done. Well, it took five years, and I'll have to say it's been worth the wait.
jeff obafemi carr: Because it fit well within my criteria for artistic choices—choosing roles that are realistic, honest, that can effect change and leave a legacy. If it's in the context of telling a good story that could change people positively and make people think, then it's a good role. And this met all of those criteria.
What is the main message of this film?
carr: I think the main story is about reconciliation and understanding of differences—and understanding that there are different paths to one particular goal.
Smith: I agree. There's reconciliation and redemption. We're not dealing just with one character being changed. There's a lot of different things happening with a lot of different characters. My character is taken out of his comfort zone and exposed to a whole new way of life, and all of a sudden, he's a different person.
Who's getting the second chance here? Ethan or Jake? Or both?
carr: This whole movie is littered with second chances. Jake has a second chance. Ethan has a second chance. I think everybody in the movie moves toward a personal cathartic moment; every character has a second chance. Some choose to make a positive choice, and some choose to throw that chance away.
Michael, what was Ethan's main problem?
Smith: He obviously has issues. He's spoiled. He's a little cocky and thinks he knows it all. I think he has a good heart, but he's too comfortable. I look at Ethan's character and go, "Boy, this guy needs to find a little bit of humility."
Does Ethan have any racism issues?
Smith: He obviously thinks Jake is nuts because he doesn't understand the way Jake operates and how he deals with problems. But a racist? I don't think that's in Ethan's character.
Jeff, would your character, Jake, concur with that?
carr: I think Jake might say yeah, Ethan has some racism issues, simply because Jake is looking at it as a systematic thing. Where does racism come from? It usually comes from ignorance—simply a lack of knowledge or understanding. When the church moved out to the suburbs—and big cars, television and lots of money—and left behind its predominantly black and Latino inner-city ministry, Jake would perceive that as subtle racism, simply because the people out there making the money are not paying attention to what's going on in the inner city. Sometimes perception becomes people's reality.
Jeff, what would you say Jake's main problem was?
carr: Jake has quite a few problems, and they're layered and they're complex. One of Jake's biggest problems is an overall lack of trust. We can say that came from feeling betrayed, but that lack of trust leads to a lack of forgiveness, and that leads him to develop this tough veneer that prevents people from coming in and participating in his world. That, I believe, is a glaring contradiction to him being a minister. We're dealing with a guy who on one hand is about helping people to help themselves, and on the other hand he's telling other people just keep your money and stay away.
When Jake tells the people to "just keep your damn money," in some ways that's exactly what they needed to hear, but in other ways it's just a stupid, compulsive thing to say. How do you see it cutting both ways?
carr: I think there are elements of both. It's something that needed to be said; the message was effective, powerful, honest. But I think Jake violated the first rule of public speaking, which is to analyze your audience and your occasion. So it's a double-edged sword. On one hand he needed to deliver something that powerful. On the other hand it was a tough context to deliver that in. But if it hadn't been delivered that way, would it have been heard?
Should a Christian feel guilty about only writing a check?
Smith: It depends on the state of the heart, on the intent. It's easy to write a check. But sometimes that doesn't cut it, because nobody's really involved heart-wise. Nobody's changed their lifestyle. It's a lot tougher to give up your time than it is to write a check.
carr: I agree. The Scriptures are full of stories that represent the notion of "intent contradiction"—a contradiction between intent and action. There are people who will write big checks who care nothing about the people they write the checks for. They do it because it looks good. There are also people who visit elders in nursing homes and give alms to the poor, just so they can say, "Look at what I do." It all comes down, as Michael was saying, to intent.
Do either of you have any stories about your own experiences with prejudice or racism, whether on the giving end or the receiving end?
Smith: I don't think I've ever had one iota of racism in my blood. I've probably felt it on my end, though. I'll never forget doing a photo shoot in a certain LA neighborhood; I was one of the only white guys out there. I felt a little uncomfortable and got the eye. I don't know if you'd call that racism toward me. I think I was just in a rough part of LA and I wasn't very welcome.
How about you, Jeff? Ever been on the giving or receiving end of any racial prejudice?
carr: Years of receiving. As an African-American man in America, it's really tough. I've lost count of the times I've been pulled over in the car for absolutely nothing. I've lost count of the times I've been followed around the department store, regardless of how I've been dressed. I've lost count of the times I was passed over in class, or not cast in a particular role in the theater because the director didn't want to take a chance on a black actor, even though he may have been more disciplined or gifted than the other actors.
But something happened the other day that kind of made me feel good. I was standing in line at an ATM machine, behind this white woman. She was looking over her shoulder, incredibly nervous. I had on my jeans and T-shirt, had on my baseball cap turned backwards. She was trying to avoid eye contact, and I saw in her eyes, Oh my God, he's going to rob me. It's a familiar look. She got her money and her receipt, then took off. She left her card in the ATM. I retrieved her card, tapped her on her shoulder, and said, "Excuse me, friend, you forgot this." She just said, "Oh my God. Thank you." And I saw in her eyes This is a really nice guy; I feel bad. And I think I felt pretty good about that.
Who is the target audience for this movie?
Smith: I wouldn't necessarily call this a Christian film. I think there's a big audience out there who just love great drama and great stories, and I think this is a great story. We hope the evangelical community is going to support this, but I think it's much bigger than that.
carr: I agree. I think the audience appeal is wide.
Often when we go to the movies, we're emotionally moved. But this movie seems more like a call to action, challenging people to get out there and do something.
Smith: Exactly. I think you walk out of the theater thinking, There need to be some changes in my life. I can do better. I don't do enough for my neighbor. The homeless guy's been down there for two years, and I haven't taken him one meal. Why am I not working in the soup kitchen once a week? I could do much more for my neighbor. I spend too much money on myself. It can just go on and on. Just do something. It's the whole thing of loving your neighbor as yourself.
For more information on the film, check out the official website.
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