MILAN, Michigan, DEC. 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Steve Ray isn’t just a tourist when he travels to the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Mideast.
He considers himself a pilgrim — a sojourner seeking the historical truth of the Catholic Church in the places and events of its sacred past.
On his pilgrimages, Ray brings his wife, Janet, and a camera crew that films him sharing the good news of salvation history and literally retracing the paths of Peter, Mary, Moses and Jesus — the four videos released to date in his 10-part series, “The Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation from Abraham to Augustine” (Ignatius).
Ray shared with ZENIT why he travels to these sometimes-dangerous places and how he hopes to fortify the faith of Catholics, young and old, by sharing the story of salvation.
Q: What inspired you to start filming your video series, “The Footprints of God”?
Ray: Shortly after converting from evangelical Protestantism to the Catholic Church, our family took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome. We followed the footprints of Our Lord and the apostles.
When we returned home I noticed a big change in my children. I asked, “Why do you suddenly have such a passion for Jesus and the Church?” Without hesitating they replied, “While visiting those holy sites we realized in a profound way that Christianity is real historical truth. Jesus really lived; he really died and rose again — and we saw where it happened.”
I wanted to bring that same profound reality to other Catholic families; I wanted to see Catholics get excited about their faith.
The actual moment we decided it should be an adventure video series was at 2 a.m. about three years ago. From a sound sleep I sat bolt upright in bed. I shook my wife awake and scared her half to death. “Janet,” I said, “we have to make a 10-part video series on the history of salvation from a Catholic perspective!” She responded, “You’re crazy! Go back to sleep!”
But I couldn’t sleep. So I jumped out of bed, sat at my computer and typed out the outline for the whole series.
Q: What have you learned about your subjects by physically walking in their footsteps?
Ray: Living in 21st-century America makes it difficult in many ways to relate to the real people and history in the Bible.
We are 2,000 years removed from the land, languages and customs that underlie our Christian faith — all on the other side of the world. By walking in sandals along their very footsteps I have learned many practical and spiritual things about the heroes of the faith.
When walking through the Sinai desert in the blistering sun with sand in my teeth I understood why the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness. A night out in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee gave me a great appreciation for the apostles and for many of the stories of the New Testament. Once you’ve been there you never read the Bible or hear the readings at Mass the same again.
Walking miles along dusty roads or riding a donkey across rocky fields with flies buzzing around your head caused me to constantly reflect on the fact that the Second Person of the Trinity gave up the glory of heaven to struggle and suffer, to stub his toes on rocks in Nazareth like I was doing, to experience sunburn and thirst in the Jordan Valley like I was doing. I’ve gained a profound appreciation for the Incarnation.
Mary was not the sweet-smelling icon that we often see in art. Mary was not a wealthy girl, and visiting Israel quickly made me realize that life was very tough for a young Jewish girl in the first century.
Wearing rustic sandals, Mary trudged along dusty paths with donkeys and camels. She worked hard with her calloused hands. Mary did not have daily showers and modern conveniences, and riding a donkey all day is hard work. Having studied her life on location from Jerusalem to Ephesus has given me a great love for Mary the Jewish girl as much as for Mary the Queen of Heaven.
Q: What are some of the adventures you’ve encountered while filming this series?
Ray: I’ve always loved adventure peppered with a little danger. When I was kid I always had broken bones and stitches. The excitement never ends on this project.
While creating a burning a bush in the Sinai desert for “Moses: Signs, Sacraments and Salvation,” I was arrested by Egyptian police. While trying to get the right aerial footage we unhappily knocked a window out of an Egyptian Air Force helicopter over the Red Sea. Our Israeli helicopter pilot crashed with a filming crew shortly after flying with us — it could have been us.
The Arabian stallion I was riding for the opener of one documentary got in a fight with another stallion and with slashing hooves he finally fell over backwards right on top of me. I’ve handled cobras, stood among Palestinian militants with hoods and machine guns, waded in the Nile and awoke one morning with 50 mosquito bites.
But very profound things have happened as well. I’ll never forget spending two nights locked in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem with our filming crew. The midnight solitude and beauty of that church is indescribable. We had the blessing of working and praying at the very place where Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again — and for two nights we had it all to ourselves.
Q: How has your faith grown as you have visited these religious sites?
Ray: In the Holy Land I can never consider myself simply a tourist. There is a much deeper dimension. I prefer to use the word “pilgrim.” In Israel I am, in a real sense, walking on sacred ground. Even in Egypt, when God confronted Moses at the burning bush, he told Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground.
Even though we are often working — filming, narrating, directing — my wife, Janet, and I never lose the sense of being in God’s presence in a unique and real way. I can recall many times when we’ve wept tears of joy, overwhelmed at the profound realization of where we were standing. In these marvelous sites God was involved in human history in a very unique way.
Q: Why is it important for Catholics to see the sites of Church history?
Ray: Many people are afraid to visit the lands of the Bible because of the current unrest, so we decided to bring the Holy Land back to them. Every Christian should experience Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Jordan River.
Our faith is not a thing of fiction. It is not just an interesting religion made up of fairy tales. It is truth rooted in history — in space and time. God exists and in the biblical lands he revealed himself in a special way.
I don’t know of anyone who has not come back from a pilgrimage to the land of Our Lord who was not profoundly moved. My kids were no exception.
I want Catholic kids to stay Catholic, to love their faith, to know it is true and to live it out with vigor. I want adults to understand and defend their faith. To be immersed in our history is to be firmly rooted in the Church.
It also gives us a much deeper appreciation for the Mass, for the Scriptures and for the authority of the Church. All of these things have their roots in the Holy Land.
Q: What audience are you trying to reach?
Ray: Our goal is to reach everyone. The videos are intelligent and theological but they are also fun and adventurous. They plumb the deep truths of the Christian faith but they do it in an entertaining and quick-paced format.
One night I invited a large group to preview our first video, “Peter, Keeper of the Keys.” Among the group were two theology professors and a whole lot of kids. Everyone watched the video with equal attention. Even the kids laughed and asked questions. I was overjoyed because I realized that our goal of reaching young and old alike had been achieved.
The videos are being used to great advantage — and fun — by seminaries, elementary schools, CCD and RCIA classes, families and even religious orders. A month ago, Father Benedict Groeschel thanked me for making the series. He said he always wanted to do something like this and now we have done it for him. I took this as a great compliment.
Q: You have already done videos on Peter, Mary, Moses and Jesus. Who will be your subjects for the six subsequent videos, and why?
Ray: Our goal is to cover the whole story of salvation. In the end, our series will include four documentaries on the Old Testament, four on the New Testament and two on the early Church.
Our next video/DVD, scheduled for an April 2004 release, will be “Paul, Contending for the Faith.” We have just returned from four weeks of filming in six countries to get the story of St. Paul ready. We have great adventures to share from Antioch and Tarsus in central Turkey, to Athens, Corinth, Jerusalem and Rome.
We are currently writing the script for “David and Solomon: Building the Kingdom.” Following will be: “Elijah and Elisha: Conscience of the Kingdom,” “Abraham: Father of Faith and Works,” “The Church Fathers: Handing on the Faith,” and “The Doctors of the Church: Defining the Faith.”
We have a few years to go and we are excited to bring all the riches of our faith and history back home for Catholic families, parishes and schools.