Author and apologist Stephen Ray (CatholicConvert.com) along with his wife Janet, entered the Catholic Church in 1994, a journey from the Baptist tradition to Catholicism described in Ray’s first book, Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church. Since then he has kept busy with giving numerous talks, leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome, and other locations, and writing more books, including Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, and St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary.
Steve and Janet have also kept busy working on writing, filming, editing, and producing the award-winning video series for Ignatius Press titled ”The Footprints of God”. The Rays and their crew have completed eight of the ten films and are busy making preparations for the final two films, including raising money to help with the costs of filming on location in countries including Israel, Turkey, Italy, and Egypt.
Catholic World Report recently caught up with Steve shortly before he and Janet left the country to lead a pilgrimage in Rome and Assisi.
CWR: You’ve been working on the “Footprints of God” film project for 16 years. Where did the idea come from and how did you get started on such an ambitious project?
Steve Ray: It started in the middle of the night around 2 a.m. Without any forethought I woke up with a start. I sat up in the pitch dark and grabbed my wife and began to shake her, “Janet, Janet! Wake up, we have to make a ten-part video series on the history of salvation from a Catholic perspective!” I had woken her up so abruptly she was shaking from fright. When she finally realized what I was saying she responded, “What? Are you crazy? I thought the house was on fire or you were having a heart attack. You woke me up in the middle of the night and scared me half to death to tell us we have to make movies? We can’t even take good pictures—how does God expect us to make movies? You’re crazy, go back to sleep.”
She rolled over and went back to sleep but I was wide awake—and I was on fire. For the rest of the night I was at my computer with fingers flying, getting it all down out of my head before it disappeared. The ideas flowed like a waterfall and by the time the sun came up I had the whole outline of the series figured out, along with the title. It was going to be called The Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation from Abraham to Augustine. It would consist of ten parts and each one would explain how God has come to his people to offer redemption and salvation—to the point that he even got his own feet dirty doing it!
CWR: How did Ignatius Press get involved in the project?
Steve Ray: We called Ignatius Press to tell them our idea. They invited my wife and I out to San Francisco for lunch and a meeting. I presented my idea. By the end of the lunch we had their approval and the funding for the first movie Peter, Keeper of the Keys. Within six weeks we were flying over the land of the Bible in helicopters getting the aerial footage, and six weeks later we were filming Peter in Israel and Rome. We are grateful from the bottom of our hearts for the unflagging support and funding from Fr. Joseph Fessio, Mark Brumley, and Tony Ryan of Ignatius Press.
These movies couldn’t be like anything else out there. We wanted them to be unique and one of kind—and they are! They had to be documentaries about the central biblical characters Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha, Mary, Jesus, Peter, and Paul, as well as the Apostolic Fathers and the Doctors of the Church. They had to be travelogues so people could “visit” these places vicariously, through me, to see that these places really existed and that the Bible is true and reliable. Each one had to be full of apologetics and catechesis. They had to be fast-paced and beautiful, but more than anything they all had to be rollicking adventures—along the lines of the Crocodile Hunter or Indiana Jones. Actually, that is how I got my nickname “Jerusalem Jones”.
We watched other documentaries and I told my crew, “See how boring these are? We have to make sure mine are not like these. I want kids to love them!”
CWR: Since you started this project, what countries have you visited and done filming in?
Steve Ray: We’ve covered a lot of the Middle East and Europe following the stories and people of the Bible and of the early Catholic Church. Of course, beginning with Abraham we had to start in Iraq since that was the homeland of Abraham. We also filmed in Turkey, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Iraq was probably the most exotic site we visited because it has been in turmoil and war. It was an exciting week we spent there, driving across the country with camera rolling. We covered the start of salvation history from Adam and Eve, though Noah, to the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s life.
We’ve also spent a lot of time in Syria and five other countries for the film on the conversion and life of St. Paul. Another film, Moses: Signs, Sacraments, and Salvation was, of course, filmed in Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Mary: The Mother of God was filmed in Israel, Turkey and Greece, as well as France, Italy and Lebanon. We’ve found sites and gained access to places many people have never seen. It all makes the Bible and early Church history come alive.
CWR: There’s one scene in your documentaries that everybody talks about and remembers more than any other. What can you tell us about that scene?
Steve Ray: Yeah, it was a fun scene to do and it’s one that people don’t forget. But there’s also a tremendous lesson that is learned by this escapade. After we filmed the story of Mary, revolving around all the places that she lived or visited (and all the theology and dogmas intertwined), I was not happy with the way we had explained the Immaculate Conception. I wanted any eight-year-old kid to understand and be able to explain it because it’s one of those things we Catholics get challenged on frequently.In the middle of the night the idea came to me—we had to make a mud puddle.
We bought bags of black dirt from a garden supply center and we dug a hole along a desert pathway. We placed a big log right in front of the puddle. I came walking down the path towards the mud puddle. The viewer suspects I will trip and fall in—and I don’t disappoint them. While strolling toward the mud I’m speaking to the audience—saying we have a problem: if Mary was conceived and born without Original Sin and never sinned in her life then why did she say in the Magnificat: ”My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”? But if Mary was not a sinner then why did she need a savior?
As soon as I ask that question I trip and fall headfirst into the mud puddle. This was not a fake—this was a real header. At that moment a hand reaches down and pulls me out of the mud and with my face dripping with mud I say, “There are two ways to be saved from a puddle of mud. The first is to be pulled out and cleaned up.” Then the video quickly rewinds with me shuttling backwards and the sound of a video rewinding. I start coming at the mud puddle agai, and right before I trip hard and fall a hand reaches out hits my chest and pushes me back. I then say to the camera “The second way to be saved from a puddle of mud is to be prevented from falling in in the first place.”
Now, any youngster or adult can understand that there are two ways to be saved from sin. Yes, Mary needed a Savior, but she wasn’t pulled out and cleaned up through baptism; rather, she was prevented from falling into sin in the first place by a unique act of God, through the merits of her Son. So Mary is the Immaculate Conception. And folks, in remembering the mud puddle, can use my header and explain this often misunderstood fact about the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
These videos are full of things like that—and, as a bonus, I’m having a lot of fun reliving my childhood. But others are learning the Bible and their Catholic faith in a fun and adventurous way.
CWR: One thing often noted about your documentaries is that young kids enjoy watching them. What makes the difference?
Steve Ray: Well, I’m still a kid myself! I told my wife when we got married that I would get older but never grow up all the way, and I’ve tried to live up to that. Our target audience is the Catholic family, which means being fun and entertaining, on the level that young people enjoy them, as well as educational and deeply theological for adults. I have many, many testimonials of parents who say their kids begged them to watch these movies over and over again. This makes me very happy because I want to influence the young generation that will fill the Church in the decades ahead.
One of the most touching comments I’ve ever heard was from a young priest who had just been ordained. He told me “Steve, I was raised on your videos and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a priest.” I don’t know if it gets any better than that!
We’ve heard many stories about families who watch these movies with their kids, with popcorn during a family film night, and it’s enjoyed by adults and even the youngest kids. Young ones who don’t understand theology still like to see me fall in the mud, climb up trees, pour oil over my head, float on driftwood in the Mediterranean Sea, fall off horses, or come down the three-story wall of Damascus in a basket.
CWR: So, with all the traveling in rather exotic places you’ve had some interesting experiences.
Steve Ray: Oh yes! We’ve also seen many miracles which could be nothing other than the hand of God on our behalf. I remember the time we were forbidden from filming in Damascus, Syria, and walked into a situation that could’ve been very troublesome. But right at the last moment, and for reasons I still don’t understand to this day, the Minister of Information in Damascus called me on my cell phone and gave us permission to come and film. He even offered his assistance. The story is much more detailed than that and you can see most of it in the “Behind the Scenes” section of the St. Paul film.
CWR: How long does it take to make one of these movies?
Steve Ray: It varies, depending on our schedule and the complexity of the topics. Abraham took us a year of our lives. Janet is at my side through every step of the process: we write the script, make all the travel arrangements, hire and organize our filming crew, and set up the budget. Then the real work begins when we board the plane and fly to exotic countries to scout the areas where we’re going to be filming so we know exactly what we’re going to get on camera, and then arrange ahead of time for guides, permits, and plans.
Then we take the crew and spend anywhere from two to four weeks shooting all the footage. When we started the project we flew in helicopters over six countries getting all the aerial footage in advance because I knew exactly what aerial footage we needed. After the filming is done we start putting the puzzle together. Our studios are in Phoenix, Arizona and we spend one month in the dark belly of the editing bay arranging all the footage. We have to arrange and decide upon what to use from all the footage that we took.
We search and collect great art and illustrations, make maps, and have original music composed for each episode. We create the opening and closing credits, acquire the bishop’s Imprimatur because I want everything I do approved by the Church. When the editing is done I write a very detailed Study Guide for each documentary. The Study Guides are all tied to the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, following the script of the movie. They are excellent for families or groups to use as a Bible study.
CWR: You have finished eight documentaries to date and still have two left to complete the series. Which ones are they?
Steve Ray: We have two more documentaries to make which will complete our 10-part series. The first is Elijah and Elisha: Conscience of the Kingdom, which will cover not only these two prophets, but the prophetic office of Israel. Jesus is, of course, prophet, priest, and king and we will make the correlations between Old and New Testaments which everyone has really enjoyed about our series. We will visit all the places they lived and visited and extract from them great theology, apologetics and as usual an exciting and adventurous romp through the Bible. It will take us to the countries of Israel, Palestinian Territories, Egypt and Jordan. We will conclude with an overview of all the prophets ending up with John the Baptist and the coming of Mary and the Messiah.
The last in the series will be the most difficult of all to produce. It is entitled Doctors of the Church: Defining the Faith, and will be filmed in Israel, Turkey, Italy, Egypt and North Africa. (Pray for us with this one!) We will focus in on the first four Doctors that are below the Chair of Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica. Two from the East: Athanasius and John Chrysostom; two from the West: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. In addition, due to his early importance we will include St. Jerome from the East and the West. The material here is legion and it will be a tough job to cover them all in a rich and exciting way. I can’t wait to get started.
But at this point we are making an appeal for financial assistance to complete the series. We are thrifty with every dime, but the reality is that the project is costly. Moving filming crews with equipment back and forth and making it a quality production is not cheap. Each project costs about $250,000 to produce. Ignatius Press is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization and has been very adventurous and generous in providing the funding in the past, but now we need the assistance of others to complete these last two “Footprints of God” DVDs.
CWR: How can supporters donate to the project in order to help finish these last two DVDs?
Steve Ray: Ignatius Press has set up a website – www.FOGHelp.com – where our supporters can go for more information and to see videos about the project as well as to make a secure tax-deductible donation online. There are also a variety of gifts, including the current Footprints of God DVDs, available for various levels of giving. For questions, please contact Diane Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 866-431-1531 ext. 5. Thank you!