Film festival world premiere features UM clergy

By Amy Forbus, Special Contributor…

BATESVILLE, Ark.—This year’s Ozark Foothills FilmFest, held April 3-7, featured 34 films, one of which holds special connections for United Methodists in Arkansas.

Black Marks on White Paper, an hour-long documentary, made its world premiere April 5, with both the filmmaker—retired clergyman the Rev. Bob Hager—and the film’s subject—retired Bishop Bennie Warner—in attendance.

The film’s title refers to an observation made by young Bennie Warner the first time he saw someone reading and writing in his village in Liberia. He told his father he wanted to learn how to make “black marks on white paper,” and his father explained that people who could read and write had gone to school.

Before the world premiere screening, Bishop Warner poses next to a movie poster for the hour-long documentary that focuses on his life and work. ARKANSAS UNITED METHODIST PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Thus began Bishop Warner’s dream to attend school—which, when fulfilled, turned out to be at a Methodist mission. His education set him on a path to his work as a teacher, his call to ministry, election to the vice-presidency of Liberia and more.

While serving as both a bishop of his church and vice-president of his country, Bishop Warner had come to the U.S. for the 1980 United Methodist General Conference. During that time, a military coup overthrew the Liberian government, all government officials were executed and Bishop Warner was cautioned not to return lest he join them. He and his family made a new home in the U.S., serving in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The Rev. Hager, the filmmaker, first met Bishop Warner when the exiled leader became superintendent of the Camden District in Arkansas. At a clergy retreat, he and his fellow pastors learned Bishop Warner’s story.

After Mr. Hager retired, he studied documentary filmmaking at Arkansas State University. While talking with a fellow student who was working on a project about a man from Nigeria, Mr. Hager realized Bishop Warner’s life would make a great documentary: “I’ve got a story that’s in my lap!” he told his classmate. He called the bishop, and the project began to take shape.

Premiere night

Bishop Warner and his wife, Anna, who now live in Oklahoma, spent the moments before the premiere visiting with Arkansas friends, including a busload of parishioners from St. Paul United Methodist Church in Maumelle, where they served before Bishop Warner became a district superintendent.

He took some time to reflect on the experience of having his life become the subject of a documentary.

“I had to stop to look back, to learn about myself,” Bishop Warner said. “I began to look at myself in retrospect. When you are busy doing something, you don’t look back, take a back-track and see what things are going to look like.

“I’m going to have to pinch myself: ‘Is that me, really?’ It’s amazing.”

Bishop Warner had not received an advance screening of the documentary, and looked forward to seeing it along with the rest of the audience.

“I saw Blake [Lasater, pastor of Living Waters at Centerton UMC] in one interview, a clip on one of the ads, and he’s talking about me. I said, ‘Really? Did we do that? Did we really do that?’ It’s exciting, and you’re grateful to God for letting your life be a record that has meaning to other people,” he said. “You don’t start off with that in mind, but you just do what God wants you to do, and that’s the outcome.”

Mr. Hager noted that the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, which provided grant funding for the documentary, will provide a copy of the DVD to each charge at the Arkansas Annual Conference session, June 9-12 in Little Rock.

“You saw the long list of people in the credits,” he told those who stayed after the premiere. “Documentaries don’t get made by one person, and I’m humbled by those who have donated their time and their effort and their love.”

New Hope Academy

While Black Marks on White Paper does share one man’s life story, it also looks to the future, and the legacy that he intends to establish.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the premiere, Bishop Warner said he considers “the investment I’ve made in people” as his biggest legacy. “The way I will thank you is to keep doing the good things that you witness in this film,” he told those gathered.

One of those good things has taken center stage in Bishop Warner’s life: his work to establish New Hope Academy, which will be the first school built to serve his home village in Liberia.

“I left that village at around 15, thereabouts, going to look for a school. And now, my determination is to bring the school to them,” Bishop Warner said. “We are talking about 14, 15 different villages that the school will serve. So, who knows? Thousands of students will go through there.”

The school’s foundation and cinder block walls already are in place, and a roof is the next step toward finishing the facility. It will have classroom space for pre-kindergarten to ninth grade students, a library, a technology center and a soccer field. There also will be a health clinic, Bishop Warner said, “because sick children can’t go to school.”

New Hope Academy will be United Methodist-affiliated, like the school Bishop Warner attended. Attendees of the post-screening talk peppered him with questions about the school, and many gave donations.

He emphasized that small gifts from individuals have driven the project. After the Living Waters at Centerton United Methodist Women held a fundraiser, Bishop Warner was on his way to his car and the pastor’s young daughter, Grace Lasater, chased after him to give him 25 cents.

“You don’t know how much that means,” he said. Small gifts made possible his own church-funded education.

When Bishop Warner went to school in 1950, the tuition was $3 U.S. He didn’t have money, let alone know that he needed it. But when the missionary in charge saw that he was determined to learn, she put him on a work scholarship. She later told them that the Woman’s Society of Christian Service—one of the predecessors of today’s United Methodist Women—had given money to that mission station for needy boys and girls.

“So I say to the United Methodist Women, look at the return on your three-dollar investment,” he said. “The return on your three-dollar investment is a bishop!”

In the aftermath of a 14-year civil war, Liberians need ways to teach their children.

Bishop Warner sees education as the solution to war and global violence “because much of the unrest is due to ignorance, illiteracy and misunderstanding. If we have education, things will be better for the world. And we can do it one school at a time,” he said.

“I hope that people can be inspired that every life is worth something, and has value in it—and that people’s lives can be transformed and changed for the better,” Bishop Warner said. “And that no life is useless; it’s what you make of it.”

For more information on the documentary, visit www.blackmarksfilm.com.

Ms. Forbus is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, where this article first appeared.

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