Jen Jensen’s life changed forever late one night in 2012. She awoke to find her husband Mike—then a worship and music director at Nazareth Lutheran Church, Cedar Falls, Iowa—having a seizure, the first in a series of incidents that would eventually reveal a stage-3 brain tumor diagnosis. It was a strange and scary episode—one made all the more surreal by the fact that, five years later, actors and a film crew would re-create it on camera in the Jensens’ bedroom.
The Jensens and their three children found themselves the subjects of a movie when filmmaker Brian Ide, who was a classmate at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, reached out to the couple about adapting their story into a narrative feature.
Ide—whose father and grandfather were ELCA pastors—is a member of All Saints Episcopal in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was serving on the church vestry when a question arose: “Are there other ways to activate the gifts within our congregation?” Since many members work in the entertainment industry, Ide said the vestry decided to “take a shot at seeing if we might have some stories that are worth telling.”
Eventually, All Saints’ Films was formed, using an entirely philanthropic, self-funding ministry model. When the group was deciding on the first feature-length project, they knew they “didn’t want it to be a typical faith-based film [where] if your faith is strong enough, then things work out in the end,” Ide said. “Because there are challenges that we face on our faith journey where it just doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t work out in the end. And how do we speak to people who are living that truth?”
Ide was aware of the extreme difficulties the Jensens were facing, as well as the unique and honest ways they were processing the changes in their lives. He thought theirs was the kind of story All Saints would want to tell. “We believed that people might benefit from a different story of faith: a faith journey that was messy, where problems weren’t easily prayed away,” Ide said.
“[We] didn’t want it to be a typical faith-based film [where] if your faith is strong enough, then things work out in the end. Because there are challenges that we face on our faith journey where it just doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t work out in the end. And how do we speak to people who are living that truth?”
The Jensens agreed. “I think maybe I didn’t get the scope of it right away,” Jen said. “But I was on board from the moment Brian reached out to me.”
Before long, a film crew, led by Ide as director, set up production in Waverly—filming at Wartburg, where Mike had also worked as a professor of vocal music, as well as in the Jensens’ home. This fall the resulting film, This Day Forward, is screening across the country.
“God is still using him”
Mike and Jen grew up together as high school sweethearts in Independence, Iowa. As long as Jen has known him, Mike has been a person of steadfast faith and raw honesty. “That’s something I think they did a great job portraying in the movie. He was so strong and so faithful, and that came through in his work,” she said. “People connected with him. And that’s what made him such an amazing worship leader, that he was so real.”
One of the questions Ide wanted to explore with the Jensens was “how somebody [for whom] everything is being ripped away can stand in front of 500 people on a Sunday giving glory to God,” Jen said.
A scene in the film set shortly after his diagnosis depicts Mike (played by Randy Coleman) beginning a worship service by saying, “I don’t feel like worshiping today. That’s usually the best time to do so.”
He continues: “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m able to put my hope and trust in God—but then there’s that 1 percent.”
It was important for Ide and the Jensens to tell a story that dealt truthfully with difficult faith questions. “Pastors aren’t supposed to say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” says Jen (played by Hayden Blane) to a pastor (Meg Thalken) in a scene where she asks a question for which there are no easy answers.
“Sometimes ‘I don’t know’ is all you got,” the pastor responds. She then challenges Jen: “There’s nothing wrong with being angry. It’s the hopelessness you’ve got to watch out for. God can handle your anger.”
Some days, Jen still feels that anger more strongly than others. Since the events depicted in the film, Mike’s health has continued to decline. But she sees the opportunities This Day Forward created as a blessing. “Maybe this is what God had intended. Because we still have that unanswered question: Why?” Jen said.
Prior to the production, she had wondered how Mike could continue his ministry. “So when Brian called, it was like, ‘That’s it!’ ” she said. “Mike’s tools are gone, his body has failed him, but he is still changing lives. God is still using him—and he’s sitting in a nursing home today. It’s such a heartbreak and, yet, such a blessing.”