Ascension hopes documentary on lives of children in poverty is 'call to action'

December 15, 2019
A child rides his bicycle down a trash-strewn alley in a scene from Inherit the Earth, an 8½-minute documentary focused on children who live in a troubled section of West Baltimore. The movie was produced by Ascension as part of its formation work.


The movie is stark, just like the lives of the children it depicts.

The setting is their West Baltimore neighborhood, where streets and alleys are strewn with trash and the windows of many buildings are covered in plywood. Some scenes are filmed in black and white and some in color, but the color scenes seem mostly gray given the bleak surroundings.

Even at only 8½ minutes, the movie, Inherit the Earth, packs a sobering and lingering punch. Robert Fish, senior director of ministry formation at Ascension Health, says that was intentional. The film is the first of a series to be used as part of the health system's
formation work.

"I wanted to put some actual experiences of poverty in front of our health care leaders to deepen the sense of solidarity with those we serve," he says. "To whatever extent that could accelerate action, all the better."

The documentary spotlights the lived experiences of five boys and girls, who talk about the weight of growing up in an environment where drugs and blight have scarred the landscape and the residents.

Early on, the camera lingers on a street pole turned makeshift memorial with snow-covered stuffed animals attached.

In one scene, two elementary school-age girls carry their bookbags into a tidy home with white siding and shutters. Inside, the home is mostly bare. A TV sits on a wood floor scattered with what looks to be school papers. The girls play together alone inside.

Two sisters take a break from playing and doing homework in their sparsely furnished home in West Baltimore in a scene from Inherit the Earth. The children spotlighted in the documentary discuss life in an impoverished and drug-ridden neighborhood. Ascension produced the film in hopes of bringing children's experience of poverty into focus.

"If I see somebody with drugs, I would snatch 'em and put 'em in the trash," one of the little girls says.

In another scene in the documentary, a boy in a decrepit and nearly empty apartment talks about his father, dead at 48. "And I'm starting to forget about him," he says. "I really can't even remember his voice."

Before screening it at Ascension gatherings, Fish took the finished film to Baltimore in late May to show it to the children it depicted. He had found them with help from Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. People there connected the moviemakers with the founder of The Food Project, a training and mentorship program for young people on the city's west side. The movie's subjects have all gotten assistance from the program.

When Fish showed the movie to The Food Project's founder, Michelle Suazo, she cried. She then gathered children in the program to see it. "They just watched, and they were rapt," Fish recalls.

Afterward they launched into a spontaneous discussion of what could be done to help their neighborhood. "It was really interesting that they had thoughts about it," Fish says. "But there was also a level of hopelessness, like 'Nothing we can do can ever change this.'"

Fish also vividly remembers the young audience's reaction to one scene in particular, when a boy talks about how he hopes his culinary training will help him get a job and buy a home to live in with his parents. The boy says: "I'm gonna get 'em out. They wanna come with me. If they wanna do
anything, they not gonna do it at my house."

A boy eats a snack outside a convenience store where the windows are protected by security bars and the door by a metal grate. He says drug dealers regularly work his West Baltimore neighborhood, but he pays no attention to them. Later in the movie, he talks about life without his father, who died at 48, and his brother who is in and out of jail.

At that, Fish says, the kids watching clapped and cheered.

Suazo says that the grimness of the film is an accurate depiction of its subjects' lives. They are doing as best they can, often with little adult support, in a neighborhood crippled by drugs, violence and poverty, she says. "We know of all these things these kids are going through that other people just wouldn't realize," she says of herself and others who help at The Food Project.

She hopes the film reaches a wide audience and that it gives its viewers a better understanding of how hard the children's lives are.

Since its initial screenings in Baltimore, Inherit the Earth has been shown at a number of Ascension gatherings "as a way to say that in everything we do we need to remember that these are the people we are here to serve," Fish says.

The movie also has been screened and won awards at film festivals, including Best Documentary Short at the Windy City International Film Festival in Chicago. By early November, an online link to the film had gotten 58,000 clicks.

The documentary is one of three being made by the St. Louis-based health system as part of its formation work. One of the other films will focus on a rural part of Indiana that's been ravaged by drugs. The third will focus on young expectant mothers living in poverty in New Orleans for whom, in Fish's words, "motherhood can be less than a blessed event."

Fish expects the other two movies to be ready for screening in the spring. All of the films have the same director, Christian Schultz. Fish said he reached out to the 28-year-old filmmaker after being moved by his work.

The film is the first offering of Mandorla LLC, a new Ascension entity Fish says will be focused on a variety of projects serving the common good. There is no Ascension or Mandorla branding on Inherit the Earth, in part, Fish says, because the health system wanted the documentary to stand on its own.

Fish says he and the others who are screening the movie share a goal. "We really hope every individual or group will find their own call to action in this," he says.

Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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