“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”–Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963.
It’s hard for me to admit, but until recently, I never connected the dots between Bill Jersey’s 1965 landmark Civil Rights documentary, A Time for Burning, and the events that splintered ties to my own childhood church in New Jersey.
Ever since I met Bill, who I now consider a dear friend, and began writing about his work, I’ve struggled to do justice to his groundbreaking film. Yes, the subject matter is extremely troubling; but I failed to realize that it was hitting too close to home for me. I grew up in a bucolic all-white community, developed post-war on Dutch and German farmland in Clifton, NJ. I was baptized and confirmed in the Allwood Community Church, a lovely clapboard church serving congregants of the Dutch Reformed Church of America. The Protestant denomination was newsworthy at the time thanks to the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, whose “Power of Positive Thinking” mantra spiked attendance at his Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC.
For the better part of my active church membership during my childhood and young adulthood, circa the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, our minister was the Rev. Raymond J. Pontier. He and his wife, a popular high school teacher, and their kids became beloved members of our church, civic and school communities. He also built a highly visible statewide coalition with Catholic and Jewish religious leaders, was a Board member of the NJ ACLU and active in numerous organizations working for peace and justice. After living almost two decades under his quiet but socially progressive influence, I later realized how impactful he was on the choices I would make as an adult and journalist.
That he managed to remain a minister in our church for 18 years was remarkable for two reasons. For one thing, ministers tend to migrate from church to church within their designated Protestant denominations. And secondly, as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements took hold across the country during the mid-to-late Sixties, Rev. Pontier practiced what he preached. His advocacy for fair housing and abortion rights and against the war triggered his censure by our Church Elders. It became a dirty battle.
Frankly, I was shocked, given the years of service this man had given to our church and community. My mom and I wrote supportive letters in his defense. My letter was especially pointed. The whole thing, I said, smacked of a witch hunt. I was in high school or college, just a year or two younger than one of his draft-age sons. I’m proud to say that my letter was read aloud in his support at a pivotal meeting convened by our Church Consistory. He thanked me. But our letters didn’t do any good. Rev. Pontier was ousted and subsequently found a welcome niche in the Unitarian Universalist Church. I left the Allwood Community Church.
The parallels between my experience and the toppling house of cards documented in A Time for Burning are clear and unsettling.
“The only way is by taking the big risk, the hero’s journey, to look at things honestly.”–director Bill Jersey, A Time for Burning.
Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates in 1965, Bill Jersey’s A Time for Burning documents the efforts of young Lutheran Pastor Bill Youngdahl to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example and integrate a large, all-white church in Omaha. With each new revelation from Pastor Youngdahl’s white, seemingly Christ-loving congregants, it became painfully clear, however, that this film would not travel the trajectory of traditional run-of-the-mill “sponsored” films.
“The Lutheran Church hired me to make a film for them on the church’s response to racial tension,” recalled Bill Jersey. “So I found a minister who had an integrated church in Orange, New Jersey, and was being called to a big all-white church in Omaha. I knew he’d want to integrate it, and that there could be some tension. I met with the minister, who said, ‘You can do a film here, there’s no problem.’ The church fathers had hoped to show their organization responding effectively to the tension embroiling the country over this issue, but it was not turning out that way.”
The 56-minute documentary tracks the crises of conscience and faith that arose when pastor Bill Youngdahl encouraged his white congregation to engage with black congregants from a neighboring Lutheran church. Despite his gentle, faith-based approach, Pastor Youngdahl’s impact on Omaha’s Lutheran community proved to be, as Jersey predicted, incendiary. The brick walls that the idealistic young pastor valiantly tried to knock down between whites and blacks were so firmly implanted that he faced the unthinkable: deep-seated racism from his white congregants and distrust and fear from neighboring black congregants.
As filming progressed, the God-fearing citizens of Omaha, both white and black, provided filmmaker Jersey with a litany of soul-crushing revelations: “One white Omaha church member said of the African-American congregants: ‘I want God to bless them as much as He blesses me… I just can’t be in the same room with them.’ Another said, ‘I don’t see the problem… I had a Negro in my gym class.’ An African-American barber (Ernie Chambers) commented on the white churchgoers, ‘Your Jesus is contaminated–just like everything else you do!'”
Unencumbered by a script, narrator, identifying subtitles, timelines or media stars and filmed with a minimal crew, A Time for Burning became a benchmark film in the nascent cinéma vérité movement. The critically acclaimed Civil Rights documentary was broadcast on most PBS stations nationwide, but its unorthodox format and unvarnished content was not a fit for network broadcast at the time. The film did impress Fred Friendly, the legendary President of CBS News, who ultimately called it “the finest Civil Rights’ film ever made.”
A Time for Burning subsequently received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Documentary Feature, was added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection and, in 2004, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the prestigious National Film Registry. In 2012, it was transferred from the original 16mm film to 35mm by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The film thrust Bill Jersey to the forefront of the cinéma vérité movement where he has remained for more than 50 years, producing and directing independent documentaries on such hot button issues as racism, criminal justice, gang violence, AIDS, Communism and integration. Despite his résumé of more than 100 films, Jersey—with typical self-effacement—claims to have lost count of the awards and nominations he’s received. In the mix are names like Emmy, Oscar, Peabody, DuPont Columbia, Christopher, Gabriel, Cindy and Cine Golden Eagle.
Who could have predicted that more than half-a-century after its release in 1967, A Time for Burning would continue to resonate… and painfully so. America remains polarized by systemic racism. And the film’s title could easily serve as a mantra for the firestorm now empowering Americans in the months following George Floyd’s murder. The thought that he is not the first and won’t be the last victim of racist cops is a hard pill to swallow.
The question remains: How many more shocking cell phone videos and documentary films will we have to watch and how many more decades or centuries will it take for us to fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 call for an end to racism in America?
I encourage you to revisit A Time for Burning or screen it for the first time. You can stream it for free @ https://vimeo.com/426115081/6f642677bf And while you’re at it, check out the YouTube DocTalk video link @ https://youtu.be/TORZvA4pQU4 for a fascinating half-hour panel discussion about the film, featuring director Bill Jersey, the film’s executive producer Robert E.A. Lee, and NPR film critic Elvis Mitchell. –Judith Trojan