- - Tuesday, October 20, 2015

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — “Woodlawn” co-director Jon Erwin is deeply concerned that an atheist advocacy group wants to eliminate chaplaincy programs at universities across the country.

“Woodlawn,” which debuted Friday in theaters, is based on the true story of a chaplain and a star football player who together led an evangelistic movement that curbed violence during desegregation at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham in 1973.

Mr. Erwin believes chaplains are needed now more than ever to help reduce violence and racial tension in the U.S. and pass along core values of peace, love and forgiveness.

“I’m a passionate person,” Mr. Erwin told The Washington Times. “So I think that when you look at a chaplain at a high school or college who raises their own support, raises their own salary and wants to come in and volunteer to work with athletes and people in schools to help them and you want to stop that?

“It blows my mind that anybody in the social climate that we live in right now in America would want to stop that,” he said.

Mr. Erwin and his brother, “Woodlawn” co-director Andrew Erwin, grew up with the story of Woodlawn High School in their native Birmingham. Their father, former Alabama state Sen. Henry “Hank” Erwin, was a young evangelist in 1973 when he helped diffuse racial violence at the school that had grown so bad that the FBI was contemplating its closure.

“Politics couldn’t stop it. Police couldn’t stop it. Teachers couldn’t stop it. Nothing could stop the violence,” Jon Erwin said. “The only thing that literally turned the school around, and turned around a situation of despair into a situation of hope, was an entire football team committing themselves to God and each other and saying, ‘We are going to model this thing that Jesus said 2,000 years ago — to love God and to love each other.’”

Faith proved to be a touchstone for Woodlawn’s football team, which in turn inspired the rest of the school and the community. The team and its star player, Tony Nathan, soon caught the attention of legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant, who had been working to integrate his own team.

Regardless of the spiritual and social dividends, the Freedom From Religion Foundation says chaplains — whether paid with public funds or not — have no constitutional right to share their religious views with students at practice, during a game or any other school-sponsored function.

The Washington Times reported in August that the nonprofit group sent cease-and-desist letters to several universities demanding the end of their chaplaincy programs. Auburn University, the University of Georgia, Florida State University, Clemson University and Louisiana State University were among the schools receiving letters. To date, the schools have retained their chaplains.

“I think an attack on chaplains would be a huge mistake in the cultural climate that we live in today,” Mr. Erwin said. “And I think we need to look back and see who led us out of darkness and civil rights — pastors like Martin Luther King. Do we really want to be in a climate where the Martin Luther Kings of today would no longer have a voice or platform?”

He made the comments as a popular football coach in Seattle was being threatened with losing his job if he continued praying with football players.

The Seattle Times reported Saturday that Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy, a Marine war veteran, defied a cease-and-desist letter from his school district as he prayed silently with players from both teams after a game Friday night.

A lawyer with the Liberty Institute, which is representing Mr. Kennedy, said Bremerton School District will face a lawsuit if its client loses his job for what he says is his constitutional right to exercise his faith.

Mr. Erwin said increased tension and violence in the U.S. makes telling Woodlawn’s story more urgent. He learned that riots had broken out last year in Ferguson, Missouri, as he was taping racially charged attack scenes in Birmingham for the movie.

“There are so many similarities between the time period of this movie and the times that we live in today,” Mr. Erwin said. “And what I love about it is that it’s a film about love and unity conquering racism and hate — a true story. It makes me very optimistic that if [love and unity conquering racism] happened then, it could happen today.”

The $25 million film, produced by Sony’s Provident Films, is one of the costliest faith-based films to date. Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight plays Coach Bryant, and Sean Astin plays the team’s chaplain. Newcomer Caleb Castille, a former defensive back for Alabama, plays the lead role of Tony Nathan, a talented running back who would go on to have a standout career in the NFL.

The film, which is in 1,300 theaters, is distributed by faith-based film company Pure Flix (“God’s Not Dead,” “Do You Believe?”). It was the weekend’s ninth most watched feature film, with a box office tally of $4.1 million.

“Woodlawn” continues to garner positive reviews. Sports Illustrated said: “Regardless of religious conviction, Woodlawn shares a universal truth: Winning is sweeter when you play for a larger cause.”

Fox News commentator Sean Hannity said of the film: “It was just incredible.” The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that “the fact-based film turns out to be an improvement over many others in the faith-based flock.” Also Saturday, movie review website RottenTomatoes.com showed the film had attained an overall audience score of 90 percent.

Mr. Erwin said the film has had an evangelistic impact on some viewers: “In Amarillo, Texas, something like 250 high school athletes watched the film, and over half the room stood to make the decision together that, ‘Hey, we’re going to love God and we’re going to love each other, and we’re going to model unity in our communities.’”

Mr. Erwin appreciates the film’s growing fan base, which affirms his belief that audiences crave hope-filled and encouraging stories.

“People ask me, ‘What does “Woodlawn” sell?’ I think the one word is hope, and I think that we’re at this point in America where [there is] a bit of cultural desperation, and we need hope and we need optimistic stories of hope,” he said. “‘Woodlawn’ is one of those stories, and I hope it can lift our heads a little bit as a people and remind us that we’ve been in these situations before, and there is hope and there is a way out. Hopefully, we can all find it together.”

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