Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The good stuff. Hallmark Channel’s When Calls the Heart, which recently scored a series-record 3-million total viewers in Live+3 day ratings for its Season 3 finale was honored with the prestigious Spirit Award at the 67th annual Christopher Awards held in Midtown Manhattan Thursday night. The awards are presented to film, TV and book projects that uphold the ideals of the organization’s founder Father James Keller. Those ideals are  encapsulated by the group’s inspirational motto “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” 

The Christopher recognition and strong finale ratings come on top of the show’s over 192 thousand loyal Facebook fans (who call themselves “Hearties”). So, it’s little wonder that the show’s fourth season pickup was recently announced.

On hand to accept the award were Hallmark Channel President & CEO Bill Abbott and Executive Programming V.P. Michelle Vicary, as well as the show’s producers Michael Landon, Jr., Brian Bird and Brad Krevoy. While I didn’t speak with Mr. Krevoy, the others offered me their thoughts on the show’s success. They essentially credit the show’s rabid fan base and the lack inspirational series on other networks.

BRIAN BIRD: “We’re just about to go into season 4 of When Calls the Heart which is a huge honor for all of us..

MICHELLE VICARY: We grew from week to week and the season finale was the highest rated episode that we’ve had to date. When Calls the Heart and the “Hearties” were responsible. We give them all the credit for it.

BB: In Season 1, the Hearties sort of emerged as a (loyal) audience. We started to see them pop up on Facebook. They came up with their own name. We were so busy trying to get the show done that we didn’t have a clue as to what was happening out there with the audience. When we realized that they were coalescing on Facebook and Twitter (#Hearties) we all talked and said we need to encourage them. (We) sort of poured fuel on the fire but they started their own fire. There are now hundreds of thousands of Hearties and about 35,000 really hardcore ones who are a community. They talk everyday. They have their own Facebook page which they run. We don’t run it…They have private parties now all over the country.

MICHAEL LANDON, JR.: I think (When Calls the Heart) is filling a void. There’s nothing else like it on television. There’s a craving for inspirational, family-friendly entertainment. That’s not the direction that Hollywood or (other) cable networks want to go.

BILL ABBOT: I think we’re one of the few channels out there that are on 24/7 to really celebrate life’s special moments. That’s our vision statement and we feel (the fact) that we’re so successful is indicative of the need of the genre and quality content that we produce…We’re very excited about our success.

The event was hosted by Tom Leopold, a legendary TV comedy writer who has written for the likes of Bob Hope, Cheers, Seinfeld and Will & Grace.  He’s also the recipient of the 2014 Christopher Spirit Award.

Other Winners in the various categories include:

TV & Cable (presented by Today host Kathie Lee Gifford)

ABC News 20/20: Escaping ISIS  follows 189 Iraqi Christians as they find safe haven from terrorists in a Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq, before two Americans help them escape the country.

America ReFramed: If You Build It (World Channel) follows two architectural designers who move to North Carolina’s poorest county and use creative educational techniques to teach high school students how to transform their lives and community.

Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (NBC) brings the legendary entertainer’s classic song to life in a story that addresses working through grief, bullying, and the riches beyond money that are found in a loving home.

The Jim Gaffigan Show: My Friend the Priest (TV Land) finds the comedian feeling comically uncomfortable because his friendly parish priest tags along with him wherever he goes—even an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Tashi and the Monk(HBO) takes us to the Himalayas where a Buddhist monk has created a home for abused, neglected and orphaned children, teaching them to move beyond their violent pasts and find healing through love and compassion.

Feature Films (presented by renowned children’s book author Joan Bauer whose latest work is titled Soar)

Creed (Warner Bros.) lands a knockout punch with its story of aspiring boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who face self-doubt, loneliness, and even cancer as they pursue victory in the ring and in life.

The Drop Box (Arbella Studios) A documentary about a pastor in South Korea who gives abandoned, disabled babies a loving home that highlights the inherent dignity of society’s most vulnerable.

The Martian (20th Century Fox) Stranded on Mars because his fellow astronauts believe he’s dead, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses science and determination to keep himself alive until he can be rescued. In Room (A24 Films), the powerful love between a mother and son sustain them through the years they’re held in captivity by a kidnapper and the hardships that arise after they escape and return home.

Books for Adults (presented by New York TV journalist Tony Aiello)

In Five Years in Heaven (Image Books/Crown Publishing), John Schlimm chronicles his friendship with an 87-year-old nun whose kindness and wisdom led him to renewed hope, faith, and purpose in life.

Marcy Cottrell Houle and Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom join forces for The Gift of Caring (Taylor Trade Publishing/Rowan and Littlefield), a heartfelt memoir of a daughter supporting her aging parents through their medical problems—and an empowering handbook on navigating the perils of the healthcare system.

New York City’s first African-American police officer, Samuel Battle, maintains his dignity and Christian principles in the face of racism to help integrate the department in Arthur Browne’s revealing biography One Righteous Man (Beacon Press).

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, who lost all his limbs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, fights through a painful rehabilitation to live a full life as a husband, father and veterans advocate in his book Tough As They Come (Convergent Books/Crown Publishing), written with Marcus Brotherton.

Joseph Kim documents his journey from starvation and homelessness in North Korea, to his new life in the United States, made possible by activists and Christian missionaries, in Under the Same Sky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written with Stephan Talty.

The transformational power of faith and art guide actor Wendell Pierce’s memoir The Wind in the Reeds (Riverhead Books/Random House), about the family values and community atmosphere in which he was raised in Pontchartrain Park, New Orleans, and his efforts to rebuild that community after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Books for Young People (presented by Joan Bauer)

In a community where neighbors don’t smile or talk to each other, a child’s act of kindness sets off a chain of events that transforms strangers into friends in One Good Deed (Preschool and up, Kar-Ben Publishing) by Terri Fields, illustrated by Deborah Melmon.

A young woman opens her heart and home to a boy who’s never celebrated Christmas, teaching them both lessons about family and giving in the fact-based An Invisible Thread Christmas Story (Kindergarten and up, Little Simon/Simon & Schuster) by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, illustrated by Barry Root.

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (ages 6 and up, Peachtree Publishers), written and illustrated by Don Tate, presents the inspiring biography of a slave who taught himself to read and eventually became the first southern African American man to be published.

A third-grader donates the 40-pound cabbage she grew in her backyard to a local soup kitchen, and launches a national youth movement called Katie’s Krops to end hunger one vegetable garden at a time in the true story Katie’s Cabbage (ages 8 and up, Young Palmetto Books/University of South Carolina Press) by Katie Stagliano (now a high school student) with Michelle H. Martin, illustrated by Karen Heid.

Firefly Hollow (Ages 10 and up, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster) by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Christopher Denise, presents a tale of adventure, friendship and courage about a lonely boy who befriends a firefly that wants to touch the moon and a cricket that wants to be a baseball catcher like his hero Yogi Berra.

A birthday card for a fellow Auschwitz inmate becomes an act of defiance and statement of hope for two Jewish young women with the determination to survive in the “based on a true story” novel in verse Paper Hearts (Young Adult, Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster) by Meg Wiviott.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Ernie Anastos, a beloved New York City anchorman of 40 years who currently anchors the 6:00 PM newscast on Fox 5. In his acceptance, Anastos spoke eloquently of how simply being grateful for life has helped him in his success.

Overall, some fine choices for honor by The Christophers.

John W. Kennedy is a writer/development consultant specializing in teleplays, screenplays and novelizations. He can be reached at

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11


Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

An audience with the Pope. The tables were turned when Risen stars Joseph Fiennes and Maria Botto and co-producers Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon found themselves as star-struck audience members. Here they are talking about their meeting with Pope Francis at The Vatican.

Risen, which was in theaters last February, debuted on digital earlier this week. It will be available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, May 24.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11


Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Feeln debuts new drama series. The Eleventh follows a young girl’s journey to fulfill her mother’s last wish –  to get to know and reconcile with her estranged grandmother.  What she finds is that the only path toward reconciliation and peace is through truth, forgiveness, and unconditional love.

The series, featuring TV legends  Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), Ed Asner, and Cloris Leachman (both of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), premieres tomorrow night (Thursday, May 5) on Feeln, the SVOD Channel of Hallmark Cards.

John W. Kennedy is a writer/development consultant specializing in teleplays, screenplays and novelizations. He can be reached at

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11


Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Touched by an Angel. Jennifer Wilder Morgan, author of the inspirational novel Come to the Garden based on her personal encounters with the Devine, takes the stage in more than 400 theaters tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 3 at 7:00 p.m. local time) for a special one-night presentation featuring her interaction with animated characters voiced by Kathie Lee Gifford, Louis Gossett Jr. and Christian comedian Chonda Pierce as the author’s witty and wise guardian angel. Come to the Garden – On Stage!, from Fathom Events and Eakin Films, includes a post-event discussion with special guest and New York Times best-selling author of The Shack, Wm Paul Young. Tickets can be purchased here.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer about the events leading up to tomorrow’s cinema event.

JWK: What inspired you to write the book Come to the Garden?

JENNIFER WILDER MORGAN:  This journey began with a curious calling on my heart to write about how God has been speaking His love and comfort to me throughout my life—a calling I initially didn’t want to accept, because to do that, I would have to share things that I had previously kept very private.

But I believe that God had been guiding the inspiration for this book from my earliest days. When I was a little girl, my daddy, a physician, would take me to visit his patients with him on Sunday afternoons after church.  I saw how his compassion and willingness to listen to and spend time with his patients brought a bright spark of hope into the sickroom.  Many years later, as I visited patients as a lay minister in a hospital here in Houston, I recognized that same spark of hope as I offered a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere of compassion, listening and acceptance.  Patients let down their defenses and began sharing deeply personal and powerful stories with me about how they had encountered God in their lives—bringing them comfort, encouragement and hope. I realized that I was not the only one who had been having powerful encounters with God … yet I had been afraid to share them.  Seeing the hope and healing that occurs between people who share their stories encouraged me to finally overcome my fears and pay attention to this intriguing calling to share my own personal stories in the form of a book.

JWK: Come to the Garden was inspired by true events, can you tell us a little bit about that? Are there any childhood experiences that you drew inspiration from? 

JWM:  My novel is inspired by the true events of my own life … my deepest trials and struggles, Divine dreams and personal encounters with God.  The awareness that God has been speaking to me began during my childhood when I began to dream dreams that came true.  That was startling at first, but I came to understand that this was going to be a primary way that God was going to speak to me.  As I have grown older, my dreams have held profound messages that align with scripture, serving as guidance and inspiration for me along my life path.

JWK: What are some of the most profound lessons you learned that you would like to share with others?

JWM:  The Spirit of our living God lives within us … walking with us and talking with us each day.  And to hear Him, we must quiet ourselves and listen for His still, small voice, read His Word, and open ourselves to the possibility that the Creator of the universe wants to be in a deeply intimate and loving relationship with you—He cares about your life and will never leave you or forsake you.

I have learned that it is important to share with others what we have received from God—comfort, encouragement, healing, or peace.  Someone out there needs to hear your story, to receive what you have received.  That is how we can spread hope in our world.

And finally, I have learned that so many of us feel completely unqualified or unworthy of the calling that God places on our hearts.  But if we are obedient and put our faith and trust in the One who calls us, well … that is when miracles can happen.

JWK: How did this Fathom movie event — scheduled this Tuesday in over 400 theaters — come about? Who approached who?

JWM:  About two years ago after speaking about my book at my church, I was approached by Frank Eakin of Eakin Films and Publishing.  He was moved by the message of my story and had been looking for a new faith project to be involved with. He had recently completed a project in which he produced the audiobook version of 12 Years A Slave with Louis Gossett, Jr. We soon became partners in this journey, and he produced the audiobook version of Come to the Garden, which was narrated by Kathie Lee Gifford. Then, after I received a publishing contract with Simon & Schuster’s Howard Books, Frank suggested the idea to produce a live stage show to help introduce the book and me—a Texas homemaker-turned-author—to the world. As this project grew, renowned Nashville director Ken Carpenter joined us to turn this stage show into a film.  Frank’s contacts led him into discussions with Fathom Events, who liked the concept and our May 3rd Fathom Event was born!

JWK: What can theater goers expect?

JWM: Come to the Garden On Stage! is a unique storytelling cinema event which features groundbreaking projection technology—fusing live action with animation during a filmed stage show. In a stunning display of light, color and music, I recreate the wondrous garden where I finally opened my heart and mind to the possibility of experiencing encounters with the Divine. With the help of a humorous and wise guardian angel named Margaret, I take the audience on a journey to discover the reality of God’s healing presence in our world and in our lives. Heaven is closer than you think!

JWK: Will the performance be live or taped?

JWM:  This event is taped.  It was filmed during a live stage show performance that I did in February.

JWK: What has it been like working with Kathie Lee Gifford and Louis Gossett, Jr.?

JWM:  What a blessing it has been!  As we began planning this project, God faithfully opened doors, providing the assistance of these special and talented people who wanted to help me share my message by lending their voiceover performances to the show.   Louis Gossett, Jr.’s rich, baritone voice is the stirring ‘voice of God,’ and Kathie Lee Gifford lends her lovely voice to song and scripture quotations—which are from her narration of the audiobook version of my book.    These are individuals who have beautiful hearts for God and for humanity.  Through their own personal experiences, Lou and Kathie understand the truth about how God shines His healing light of grace into the midst of life’s trials and struggles, and were very gracious in their willingness to help me share this message with our broken and hurting world.

JWK: Christian Comedian Chonda Pierce is playing the voice of Margaret — an angel who, I understand, has a sense of humor. Do you believe that God likes laughter?

JWM:  Absolutely. I believe that God wants us to live abundant lives, filled with joy.  Luke 6:21 states, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”  We were made for joy, not sorrow.  Our trials and struggles would overwhelm us if we did not have laughter to soothe our hearts and spirits.  Chonda Pierce understands this all too well.  She has bravely shared her life struggles with all of us in a way that makes us laugh until we cry—tears that say “I can relate” and “thank you God for joy that can lift us up!”  Her latest Fathom Event was appropriately titled Laughing in the Dark.  I love that Chonda is the voice of my quirky and endearing Angel, Margaret!

JWK: Tyler Smith, son of three-time Grammy winner Michael W. Smith, composed the music for the event. How does it feel to have music inspired by your writing?

JWM: Wondrous. Tyler Smith is an exceptionally talented musician and composer, and I am thrilled to have had the chance to work with him.  In my initial discussion with Tyler about the musical score, I told him I envisioned music that was soul-stirring and elegant.  Boy, did he deliver!  I was moved to tears as I previewed the finished film because it was evident that Tyler’s heart was completely engaged in the project.  His music ebbs and flows beautifully with the storyline’s events and dialogue.  His music mirrors the emotions that flowed from my heart.

JWK: What do you do when you’re not writing and performing?

JWM:  I enjoy spending time with my husband and dogs.  My husband is involved in amateur auto racing, and I love to go to the racetrack to watch him drive and cheer him on.  I am also a baseball fan—I grew up in the Cleveland Indians Organization where my father served as medical director, so I love cheering on my beloved ‘Tribe,’ even from afar.  I also sing in the choir at church and like to lead Bible studies.  And yes, I love to garden!

JWM: What’s next? Another book? A movie?

JWM:  Hmmm.  Good question.  I have a lot of ideas percolating.  I would love to write another book, and am looking forward to what God has planned for me next.  I prefer to let Him lead me in my next venture … and He will!

John W. Kennedy is a writer/development consultant specializing in teleplays, screenplays and novelizations. He can be reached at

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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