It’s easy to equate fundamentalist evangelical Christianity with intolerance and stupidity but, to be fair, there’s more to it than that, Jerry Falwell and the dimwits who equate “Harry Potter” with devil worship notwithstanding. No, fundamentalism has deep roots in this country and will not be going away anytime soon. In Latin America, Evangelical Christianity is taking on the Roman Catholic Church and growing by leaps and bounds, largely because of activist organizations like the Westwood Baptist Church of Tennessee.
Directed by Chris Westendorf, “Westwood Loves You” is a well made, if not especially electrifying, Dutch-made documentary that follows a group of missionaries from the suburban backwaters of Tennessee to the lush but deeply impoverished countryside of Honduras.
We see the trip through the eyes of three particularly committed evangelists as they lead a group that gives food, toys, medical, and dental care to locals in exchange for their attendance at a revival meeting. The least interesting of the three is Jan Hartley, who’s not far from the stereotypical Southern fundamentalist. He’s a husky fellow whose twin obsessions are saving souls and checking his own elevated blood pressure. Hartley is deeply convinced that Satan is a powerful presence in daily life and works by glad-handing and pressuring Tennesseans and Hondurans of all ages. Giving check ups with a stethoscope around his neck, he’s happy when he receives anything that looks remotely like a conversion or an admission of faith.
His boss in evangelism, Jim Caywood, is introduced preaching a typically intolerant hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. But, as we get to know Caywood, we see him as a truly sincere and compassionate man who wants to help people in this world, but also in the next one. Caywood, we find out, gave up his real estate and construction business to become a full time preacher after the death of his daughter, Debbie. He knows he’ll see his daughter in heaven and wants as much company up there as possible. His beliefs might seem absurd and worse, but it’s impossible to question his sincerity and good intentions.
Young Rachel Peterson is a teenager on her first mission. With a “Star Wars” poster in her Tennessee bedroom, she’s seems in every way a normal, good-natured youngster who just happens to be obsessed with saving souls. Not surprisingly, she is a surrogate daughter for Jim Caywood. When they embrace, Caywood admits that Rachel has been giving him “the Debbie hugs” he’s been missing. It’s a genuinely touching moment.
Nevertheless, as we watch the Westwood Church folk trying to save Honduran souls, it seems to me that they’re setting the spiritual bar somewhat low as they tick off the numbers of “souls saved.” These people are desperately poor and in real need of medical attention. It’s easy to see why they would want to placate the missionaries.
Well photographed on video by Rolf Dekens, “Westwood Loves You” is a dispassionate look at a particular group of people trying to do good. Far from an expose, looking at it will only reinforce whatever view you already have. Fundamentalist evangelicals will find it an accurate and inspiring rendition of missionary work; nonbelievers will see sincere people acting out their rather strange, occasionally disturbing, beliefs.