Paul stood on the stairs and motioned to the people to be quiet. Soon a deep silence enveloped the crowd, and he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
Acts 21:40, 22:1
They say he was short, bow-legged, balding, and nearsighted. But, man, could he talk. Historians will tell you that the Apostle Paul spoke at least two languages fluently: Greek and Hebrew. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he also spoke Latin and conversed in some of the regional dialects where he traveled on his missionary journeys.
Be that as it may, what Paul surely understood was that to reach people—any people—he needed to speak to them in their heart language. In the verses above, we see an enraged crowd in the temple at Jerusalem intent on killing Paul then and there, until he began speaking to them in their language, a dialect of Hebrew known as Aramaic. It was the language of the street, the language of their heart.
Personally speaking, I have learned words and phrases in dozens of languages over the years. I suppose it’s something of a hobby of mine, but I have also found it a wonderful “ice breaker” leading to all kinds of interesting conversations. And if one happens to speak a second language fluently (as I do), well… it can make a world of difference.
In the 1990s, I made several “investigatory” trips into Cuba in preparation for a series of documentaries to be produced in-country. These trips were made with the full knowledge, even the direct help at times, of the Cuban government. Nonetheless, on my third (and final) trip to Cuba, I was detained at the Havana Airport on my way back to Mexico City. For the next several hours, I sat in a room with two Cuban military police who grilled me about my purposes in the country.
I might call one of them Good Cop (the tall one); the other, Bad Cop (the short one). They had my checked luggage open in the interrogation room and Bad Cop made a show of going through all my things, accusing me loudly of having entered the country under false pretenses and even being a spy! He knew where I was born, where I lived, who I worked for, everywhere I had been on the island. “You have broken the law!” he railed at me. “You can go to prison!”
Bad Cop set to one side the videotapes I had shot for my research along with the interviews I had recorded, and went through all my books, which included a Spanish Bible. When he came to a book entitled Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology, he held the book up and nodded approvingly. “Now, this is a good book,” he said, still scowling at me.
Good Cop, meanwhile, looked on benignly from a chair in the corner and I began to consider the very real possibility that I might be going to jail.
Then, it was my turn to speak. I said a quick prayer and made my defense—in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, I started with Good Cop. I sensed there was at least some measure of warmth in his eyes, and decided I would talk to him as I would anyone else that I wanted to get to know as a friend. I told him (and Bad Cop, too) how much I had enjoyed being on their beautiful island, how wonderfully kind the people had been to me, how much I liked Cuban food… On and on I went. Before long, I had taken pictures of my children out of my wallet and was showing them proudly. Good Cop actually smiled! But Bad Cop wasn’t impressed. And then, the oddest thing.
“And I pray for Fidel!” I exclaimed, looking squarely at Bad Cop.
Bad Cop glared at me. “Yes, I pray for him,” I continued. “I want him to know Jesus as Lord. I want him to have peace in his heart. I want us to be brothers in Christ just as I want the two of you to be my brothers in Christ!” I took my Spanish Bible from the open suitcase and read to them from Acts 16:31, where Paul spoke to his jailer, “Have faith in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved!”
I continued speaking for several minutes more, sharing the gospel in words I no longer recall. Matthew 10:19 became a reality for me: “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say…” It seemed as though my heart was overflowing with love and joy.
And then, something broke. Somehow, I had gotten through. The atmosphere in the room changed. Bad Cop grew oddly quiet and Good Cop began smiling more broadly.
A few minutes later, I was escorted across the tarmac to my waiting airplane. Some of the passengers glared at me as I walked down the aisle. After all, I had kept them waiting for several hours. I smiled in return, and upon taking my seat, all the air drained out of my balloon. I physically began to tremble. Incredibly, I have a photograph from the time, taken by the passenger in the seat beside me.
Arguably, my fluency in Spanish had served me well that day in La Habana, Cuba. And now, thirty years on, I can look back on the experience with a deeper conviction than before as to why I make films in the first place. The answer is simple enough. I make films to speak to people’s hearts! I make films to quiet the angry crowd, if only for a few hours, and convey the message of God’s love. Cinema is the lingua franca of our age and if we’re looking to communicate our dreams and longings for a better world, we might be well advised to keep moviemaking at—or near—the top of the list.
God bless you! ¡Dios te bendiga! Que Dieu te bénisse! Allah Al Hafiz! Bog te Blagoslovio! Inkosi ikubusise! Hashem yevarech otha!
For those of you following the story of my son, Daniel, I have wonderful news to report. Just a few days ago, Daniel was officially discharged from the Minnesota Security Hospital after having been a patient there for twelve and a half years. He has now moved into a group home with a housemate and trained staff to look after his needs. Now begins a process of transition and reintegration into the larger society. The hospital was a locked-down facility where visits were few in number and held under numerous restrictions. All that is about to change. Many of us have prayed for this day to come, and now it’s here!
Messenger Films will be producing an hour-long documentary about this new chapter in Daniel’s life and a generous donor has already pledged $20,000 in matching funds toward that end! Will you contribute toward the match? I hope so! Messenger Films is a 501(c)(3) corporation and all gifts are tax deductible to the amount allowed by law.