“Raw Faith” explores former minister Marilyn Sewell’s long journey to happiness

For something that seems to play such a prominent role in society, spirituality doesn’t often get the serious and honest exploration it does in Raw Faith. The documentary, which premieres May 20 at 8pm on Documentary Channel, follows two years in the life of Portland minister Marilyn Sewell, who devotes almost all her time and energy to helping the members of her unitarian congregation, to whom she is beloved. She does so to the detriment of her personal life, causing her grown sons to proclaim their bitterness toward the church for stealing their mother away from them. After 17 years, Sewell decides it’s time for her to leave the church and pursue the next phase in her life, but in order to move on, she must come to terms with the emotional trauma of her past and her upbringing. Doing so helps her arrive at a place where she can finally accept falling in love.

With politicians scrambling to see who can appear the most pious, and windbag pundits exhausting their plentiful supplies of hot air touting the eternal damnation that awaits all those who disagree with them, it’s a relief to see Sewell quietly and sincerely examining her life’s work. Her more liberal brand of religion won’t sit well with fundamentalists  — Sewell doesn’t accept the Bible as literal truth — but her quest for truth and fulfillment will affect anyone who has ever asked these big questions.

Raw Faith features an original song, “Love Will Remain,” by Sheryl Crow, and has received many accolades since its 2010 release. Sewell took some time to answer questions for us about the film, why she was hesitant to be the center of attention, and how her life has changed in its aftermath.

Channel Guide Magazine: How do you feel watching Raw Faith can help someone?

Marilyn Sewell: Viewers have been deeply moved by the film, as they explore the universal themes in the film, in relation to their own lives: searching for love; forgiving parents; changing life-long self-destructive patterns; balancing relationship and work. The film is not about me — it’s about us.

CGM: But how did making the film help you?

MS: For the first time, I was able to see myself objectively, and to like what I saw. It helped me overcome the sense I’ve always had that I’m not likable or lovable.

CGM: How did the idea for Raw Faith come about?

MS: Congregants from my church, Scott and Ashley MacEachern, approached me about the idea. They said they wanted to get my liberal religious message out to a larger audience. Scott was the Nike executive who initiated and ran the LiveStrong program for Lance Armstrong, and Ashley had also worked in promotion for Nike. Initially, the idea was for me to get on a bus and go around the country interviewing people, asking what holds our country together, rather than what pulls us apart (this was pre-Obama election). But filmmakers that we interviewed rejected that idea, saying that they needed a character as the subject of the film — i.e., me. When we started filming, the concept was to follow me in my transition out of ministry, after 17 years as Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Ore. — but then I fell in love for the first time in my life, and everything changed. The question became, “Can she accept this love into her life?”

CGM: Why did you agree to do the film?

MS: I am a writer and a public speaker, so working in a new creative genre was intriguing. But to tell you the truth, I did not see why making a film about me would be valuable. On the first day of filming, I told the director, Peter Wiedensmith, “I don’t think I’m particularly brilliant, I don’t think I’m particularly funny — but I can be emotionally honest in front of the camera, so if that has value, that’s what I can offer.” He accepted my offer, and that was our deal.

CGM: How has your life been since the events depicted in the film?

MS: I understand myself as a called person, and I have come to understand that the film was my next call, after I left the parish. So I’ve been touring with the film. I’ve also been writing for the Religion section of Huffington Post, and I just finished 24 online radio shows for Pagatim.fm: RawFaithRadio. Needless to say, being married has been a big change, and I’m still getting to know the wonderful man I married.

CGM: Do you still feel you made the right decision walking away from your minister’s job?

MS: I had known for several years that another call was pulling at me, but I just wasn’t sure what it was. I knew I wanted to spend more time writing, and the parish work load did not allow that, after sermon preparation. So I think the decision was the right one. I don’t miss the relentless pressure of the work in the parish, but of course I miss the people, whom I love.

CGM: How do you feel about the way faith and religion are generally discussed in today’s society?

MS: I often despair about the way faith and religion are discussed in today’s society. The Christian Fundamentalists are all too quick to condemn everyone who does not agree with their theology and moral persuasions. And the fastest-growing group in the country seems to be the ones who consider religion a non-issue, who are indifferent to it or think about it as a negative influence. Religion attempts to answer the most basic human questions: What is the purpose of my living? How should I face my inevitable death? What is the right relationship to my fellow humans and to the earth and her creatures? The most important questions cannot be reduced to numbers and the scientific method. But of course religion is created by us corruptible beings called humans, and we fall short all too often.

CGM: How do you feel about the prominent role religion plays in our political system?

MS: Religion is degraded in our political system, for only a certain narrow version of faith will be found to be acceptable to the masses of American voters, and therefore it is the only one that will be articulated. I judge public servants by their actions, not by their words or their specific theology.

Photo: Courtesy of Documentary Channel