How Mike Ferree Saved the film "Raise the Dead"

How Mike Ferree Saved the film "Raise the Dead"

I met Mike Ferree in 1993 at an empty lot along a highway outside Kannapolis, North Carolina. Mike, his wife Sally and their eight kids, were raising the tent for a series of revival meetings that would culminate with the arrival of H. Richard Hall two weeks later. 51 year old Vaudry Tucker, pastor of a local church, had brought his family to help out.

Mike’s son Josh was only 12 at the time but was helping the big Tucker men pound the 44 stakes that outline the tent’s footprint. It is arduous work, especially on a hot and sticky June day. But for the Ferree kids, this was summer vacation. Young Aaron and Missy were using the tent trappings as a makeshift playground; the older girls were helping Sally lay out the smaller stakes and throw sawdust. They lived in two trailers behind the tent during the summer months, the high holy season of mountain holiness religion.

It is a style of ministry that Mike adopted early in his career. Dozens of disaffected countercultural types traveled with Brother Hall in the late 1960s and ’70s, and Mike was among those who ultimately established careers of their own. Back then, he and others like Mike Shreve, Pat Hayes, Kent Sullivan, and Charlotte Murray traveled ahead of Hall to raise tents and promote his meetings or helped out at the home base in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Mike fell right into the itinerant lifestyle and in love with the people he met along the way. Like Brother Hall he feels a pull toward the disenfranchised, to “the man that’s down.” He likes the direct contact of a grassroots ministry and feels this is what God is directing him to do. “I liked the sincerity of it,” he told me, “it just felt like something real. Some people feel called to be doctors or lawyers, this is my call.”

Mike had grown up in southern Indiana, not that far from where I was raised in eastern Iowa. We had both come of age in the late sixties and been influenced by the counterculture of that time. Years later we both had difficult careers and families to support.

He was laboring in the highly competitive field of itinerant evangelism. Hundreds of hungry young evangelists crisscross the back roads and byways of the American South, sending VHS demo tapes ahead to secure bookings at small church revival meetings. If the Spirit is with them and the meetings go well, they will likely be invited back the fol- lowing year. But one’s style or personality may not take hold in a particular congregation, and meetings don’t always catch fire.

When I asked Mike about the insecurity of

having a big family to support and being on

the road keeping his career alive, he confided,

“There are always people who can preach better

than you, who can attract a bigger crowd. But you have to trust your call.”

As a sometimes independent filmmaker, I understood what he meant. I had been writing grant proposals for two years, hoping for some interest in the film and finding little. I had barely enough money to complete this first shoot and knew there would have to be others. I would have to edit the film between paid professional jobs, and I was feeling uncertainty every step of the way. Would this ever be a film? Would it ever catch fire on screen?

Years later, when I finally showed the first rough cut of Raise the Dead to my advisors and a few friends, these questions remained unanswered. My test audience found the film engaging, but they were confused about the relationships between characters and some felt the need for more background information.

I knew the use of a narrator could eliminate the confusion, but I was concerned about how that would alter the film’s point- of-view, which had evolved into that of the three central characters themselves. I wanted Brothers Hall and Ferree and Sister Shelton to tell their own stories, but their field interviews simply could not be pieced together to give the turns of phrase that bring nuance to a scene or help ease a transition to another. It felt like the Spirit had taken flight

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when the idea came to me, but I have to think there was some kind of divine intervention at work: Mike could narrate the film. He had a resonant voice with the right sound. He had conviction, inflection and—after all—this was his story too, one he know from the heart. I had listened to his interviews many times and knew his voice well. Once I started writing, the words came quickly.

In December 1997, I traveled to Calvary Christian Assembly in Creswell, Maryland, where Mike was preaching at the time. I screened the rough cut with him and Kenneth J. Eller, the church’s pastor. When the film ended, Mike walked to a table in the basement, sat down with the script and began crossing out whole passages. I was stunned but quietly read his changes.

I had written the line “Holiness people have always gone where the Spirit leads them.” Mike rewrote it as “Holiness people have always sought to go where the Spirit leads them.” A subtle but significant theological distinction. We talked through other script issues. I slowly realized that a real collaboration was happening, something beyond what either of us could have done alone. The film was becoming deeper, more authentic.

My last trip to work with Mike was five years after our first meeting, when I traveled to Cleveland to the Ferree family home. By then it felt like a family reunion; Josh was 16, 6’ 5”, a star basketball player at his Christian school. Mike and Sally’s oldest daughters Amy and Beth had jobs and an apartment nearby, Aaron and Missy had grown unrecognizable. It was a bit embarrassing to be working on the same film so many years later, but—hey—wasn’t Mike still working on his ministry?

I wanted Mike to record a line I had written to follow up on an interview piece where Mike speaks about the worldwide revival he believes is on the way. My line led with “ Awakening that will make what Brothers Branham and Hall saw seem like a warm-up.” Mike rewrote it as “ awakening that will make Brother Branham’s day and Brother Hall’s day seem like a warm-up,” reminding me of the unique ministry Brother Hall had developed more than thirty-four years after Branham’s death.

It is a ministry that has inspired many to preach, like the shy Eula Shelton of McDowell County, and others around the world. Glenn Hinson, who advised me throughout the making of this film, describes Brother Hall as “a master of words and faith and song.” And I believe he is right. But Brother Hall’s lasting legacy may not be as much in his words as in the Spirit contained within them and in the listeners who have been moved by it. Mike Ferree is part of that revival.

--James Rutenbeck