By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Mississippi Public Broadcasting is set to air a documentary about the work of Sister Teresa Shields, SNJM, and the Jonestown Family Center for Education and Wellness on Monday, Dec. 12, at 10 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18, at noon and 4:30 p.m. The film will then be posted to the MPB website.
“Enriching Destiny” is the third documentary to come out of the True Delta Project, a collaboration between Erickson Blakney, philanthropist and film producer, Lee Quimby, professor and documentary filmmaker and Daniel Scarpati, cinematographer.
The documentary showcases the almost 30 years of service Sister Teresa offered in the Delta. She founded the Jonestown Family Center, which includes a Montessori School, a pre-school, parenting programs, a fitness center and summer programs. She moved back to her home in Seattle in January.
Blakney said he met Sister Teresa while he was working in Clarksdale and figured out pretty quickly he had the makings of a good story. “Sister Teresa herself is a wonderful storyteller, smart, aggressive and fiercely protective of those kids and the Family Center,” he said. When he found out she was leaving, he knew he had to act quickly to capture the story.
Sister Teresa admits she is careful about letting journalists, writers or filmmakers have access to the Family Center. Many of them, she feels, are looking to show the worst parts of Delta life, highlighting only the challenges and not the success stories. “We have had some bad experiences,” she said. The crew from True Delta was different.
“They came in May for the Montessori graduation. They interviewed me and members of the staff. They were so respectful,” she said. The crew returned in June to see the summer education program at work. She felt comfortable with their approach and with the end product.
“We don’t have narrators. We let the subjects tell their story. We just wanted to give them a platform,” said Blakney of how they put the story together.
Sister Teresa even decided to talk about a chapter in her life she does not often reveal. In 2012 she was stabbed and beaten during a robbery in her home. She does not like to talk about it and declined to speak about it in May when the crew started their work. By June, they had earned her trust. “By then, I had prayed and discerned and changed my mind. The attack is part of my whole story,” she said.
“It was a special joy to work with Sister Teresa and see how much the Jonestown Family Center benefits the families of Jonestown,” wrote Quinby in an email to Mississippi Catholic. “Erickson and I hope that our documentary will inspire support for the Center and show that the vision that Sister Teresa brought to Jonestown can be achieved in other communities as well,” she added.
Quinby and her partners have used their other documentaries to tell the stories of blues musicians and children in the Delta who are maintaining the legacy of blues music. When they work in Mississippi, they see opportunity and hope.
“In the center of Jonestown is the Family Center, which is this beacon of light and hope and it’s safe and nurturing,” explained Blakney. He and his crew rode the bus to go pick up the children participating in the summer program.
“As the kids are boarding the bus the women picking them up are singing and the kids start singing. When you are on that bus you really feel like you are involved in something special,” he added.
Blakney points out that Sister Teresa and Sister Kay Burton, SNJM, who is still in Jonestown running a number of projects to improve the community, did not come to the Delta with their own agenda. “She and the other Sisters did not come to impose what they thought people should be doing. They worked with the town to create something special,” he said. “It’s unique in that the town owns the Family Center. They understand the value of it,” he added.
When Sister Teresa retired from her position as director of the Family Center, Stanley Lang, a native of the Delta, was hired as a replacement. Sister Teresa said she is thrilled to know she left the center in good hands. She still visits, but said she always wanted to see the programs become self-sufficient and run by members of the community.
Sister Teresa is enjoying being on sabbatical while she contemplates her next ministry, spending time with her family, traveling and enjoying herself.
“Enriching Destiny” will be available on the Mississippi Public Broadcasting website, www.mpbonline.org, for about a year. True Delta also hopes to make DVD copies available for purchase.