In a way, Arleigh Prelow's journey to HDS began with a car crash. One Sunday morning in 1992, Prelow, MDiv '13, and her two daughters were in a head-on collision with another vehicle on their way to church. The children were injured, but not critically. Prelow was not so lucky. She spent more than six months in rehabilitation with injuries that usually leave the victim a quadriplegic or dead.
"After the accident I asked myself, 'What dreams do you have to fulfill with this new opportunity to live? What is God calling you to do?'' Prelow says. "That was the moment that I decided to begin work on a film on the theologian and minister Howard Thurman."
It wasn't surprising that Prelow dreamed of making a film. A talented producer and director, Prelow had created award-winning documentaries and television programs for more than a decade. But this film was different; it was a calling. Thurman's messages about inner and social wholeness inspired the leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement and countless others across lines of faith, race, and culture. Prelow's dedication to telling his story brought her to HDS in the fall of 2009. Now, MDiv in hand, Prelow hopes to finish "The Psalm of Howard Thurman," a film that depicts the minister's life, wisdom, and journey of spirit.
Prelow's passions for film and biography emerged early. She grew up in Compton, California, near Los Angeles, the epicenter of the film industry, where her family went to the theater every Saturday.
"I saw that movies could be windows to the world. Importantly, I could feel what was going on within the inner lives of the characters."
Prelow graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a communications degree and later took a job at WTCG/TV (now TBS) in Atlanta. She ran the center field camera for broadcasts of the Atlanta Braves baseball games, where, during breaks in the action, she envisioned the films she really wanted to make. One of those visions became Sweet Auburn, an Emmy Award–winning documentary about Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and where he preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
While living in Atlanta, Prelow discovered Howard Thurman. Joseph Roberts, then pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, would often quote Thurman in his sermons. Intrigued by these quotes, Prelow began to read Thurman's books. She was struck by one phrase from the 1953 work, Meditations of the Heart: "As long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living." The words became a guiding light for Prelow.
"There was always a 'spirit speak'—a sense of God's presence—when you read him," she says. Prelow first thought of making a film about Thurman in 1980, but life events and other projects intervened. As a single parent, she concentrated on providing a stable home for her two daughters. Still, she made it a priority to keep making progress on the Thurman film. "I really wanted to demonstrate to my daughters the importance of moving forward on their dreams," she explains.
After the accident in 1992, Prelow started working on the film in earnest. She began by meeting with Thurman's widow, Sue Bailey Thurman. The deeper she got into the project, however, the clearer it became that she needed a greater understanding of faith and theology.
"I began work on the film as a lay person," says Prelow, "but to appreciate Thurman, the context of his work, and his significance, I had to delve more into the study of religion."
At the same time, Prelow's own faith and sense of call to ministry were growing. In December 2008, Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly—the first African American bishop of the United Methodist Church—issued her a challenge. 'You have a call to the ministry,' Prelow remembers Kelly saying to her. "You need to do something about it!" The next month, Prelow applied to HDS at the age of 55. Soon after, she was accepted.
Prelow credits HDS's intellectual rigor and critical scholarship with transforming her ideas about art and ministry. Writing critiques and papers and engaging with the views of students who followed different religious traditions gave her confidence in her own ideas.
"As a result, with the Thurman film I became more comfortable with my unique voice," she says, "not just bringing up what other scholars have said about Howard Thurman, but also coming back to where and how I first encountered him, and the importance of his messages and story for me."
Prelow's study at HDS would not have been possible without the financial support from the School. "It also allowed me to delve fully into the work and to engage both in the classroom and in conversations and forums outside of the lecture hall."
Prelow also appreciates the generous spirit of the HDS community for its support, particularly during her last year when she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. "Now in remission, I'm still moved by the 'ministry in action' of my fellow students, professors, and the HDS staff."
Prelow says that HDS enabled her to realize that her call to the ministry is on the screen and on the page more than in the pulpit. Now on the verge of completing "The Psalm of Howard Thurman," she will continue to share the spirit and the stories of people's lives through the arts.
"Globally and across religions, arts are held up as part of the religious tradition," she explains. "HDS affirmed for me the role of the arts in ministry so that I could say 'Yes, I'm a minister.' The art that comes through me and from me reflects this."
For updates on "The Psalm of Howard Thurman," see the project's website or Facebook page. The expected release date is spring 2014.
—by Meg Muckenhoupt