Documentary honors ministers' storytelling art

The problem with preachers is that they preach.

Their strength is their stories.

Parrish Smith remembers how one put him to sleep and the other kept him awake. Now he introduces viewers to the difference in a new documentary trilogy, "The Scroll: Evidence of Life Unseen."

"Dad told stories and they held my attention," says Smith, 36, who grew up in Newark as a preacher's kid. "And that taught me to teach other people."

Smith spoke by phone from Miami, where he screened his documentary trilogy during the recent American Black Film Festival. The three films showcase some of the best-known ministers in America: T. D. Jakes, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, Hezekiah Walker, Frederick K. C. Price and many others.

Even some leaders better known for their singing are included, such as Della Reese and Shirley Caesar. Also among the five women on the list are Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But rather than sermons, Smith recorded stories. Some of them about sinful lives, such as drug dealing, from which the ministers themselves were saved. The preachers also offer metaphors like T.D. Jakes' theme on "living suspended."

"He was saying that you don’t know if you will succeed or reach a goal," Smith says. "God keeps you suspended until you reach the goal. But faith pulls you through."

The "Scroll" project is a considerable switch from his usual work in films, commercials and music videos. His clients have included Gillette, Converse, MTV and American Express. He has also worked for BET and other cable networks.

Because the ministers are so widely scattered, "The Scroll" took more than three years to produce. Smith thinks it was worth the effort because of their contributions.

"They are usually great orators and often unsung heroes," he says. "Sometimes they get a bad rap. If there are scandals, ministers are seen as hustlers or money hungry. They don’t always get recognition for doing people good."

Although most of the subjects for "The Scroll" are black, Smith says the themes they raise cross racial lines.

"Transcendent faith can pull people through anything in life. Christ said you only had to have faith like a mustard seed. As you go through situations, it can grow and strengthen.

"It's not a black thing, it's for everyone. The stories are universal. Not only around the country but around the world."

Smith plans to show the trilogy at churches and other events, then market it to cable outlets like the Gospel Music Channel. It's also available as a DVD or download at

James D. Davis

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