North Dakota woman still ministering to kids, long after controversy over 'Jesus Camp' documentary
MANDAN, N.D. - The North Dakotan at the center of the controversial documentary "Jesus Camp" said if she could do it all over again, she probably wouldn't allow the film to be made about her former Pentecostal children's camp near Devils Lake.
Becky Fischer said the creators embedded a clear "slant" into the 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary, and the ensuing controversy eventually led to the closing of her "Kids on Fire" camp.
Ministering to kids
Fischer said the film, recorded in 2005 and released Sept. 15, 2006, made her into a national "lightning rod" and earned both praise from some parents and intense criticism from others, including fellow evangelical Christians who accused her of going too far in her children's ministry.
But six years later, the movie continues to give her worldwide attention, she said, which has allowed her Mandan-based Kids in Ministry International, which she formed in 2001, to take its mission across the globe. The ministry now has 457 "PowerClubs" in 18 nations that minister to more than 23,000 children each week.
Fischer, 61, said she never planned this kind of career. She grew up in a religious family - her parents, grandparents and four uncles were pastors - but at the time, she said it was unlikely she could find work as a pastor because she was a woman.
After graduating from high school in Sidney, Mont., she attended Jamestown (N.D.) College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1973 in art education when she realized the fine arts degree she was pursuing wouldn't lead to a job.
She never got around to having children or starting a family, instead focusing on working at her parents' hotel and radio station in Sidney and a four-year stint at the city's junior high school before moving to Bismarck in 1984 to open a sign company.
"I really didn't want anything to do with kids and was very happy being a businesswoman," Fischer said. "I tell people I sort of got sideswiped by God and ended up in this."
Fischer found her calling when her church in Bismarck asked for members to help with children's ministry. After a decade working with local churches, she said she wanted to address the "great deficit" in how churches were meeting the spiritual needs of children.
"In the average church, they have what I call a Sunday school mentality, where they just seem to think that all kids need to become strong Christians is just to hear the same basic Bible stories over and over and over again," she said.
Her ministry instead sought to satisfy spiritually "hungry" kids by teaching them that they could hear God's voice, pray for the sick and see people healed, and embrace the "supernatural" side of Pentecostal faith that usually is reserved for adults.
She started to develop a reputation, and first started bringing children from around the country to her three-day Kids on Fire camp just outside Devils Lake in 2004. Fischer said that reputation attracted the attention of filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who called to see if they could make a documentary about her camp in 2005.
Fischer said she felt "conflicted constantly" when she watched the film before its release because of its "political twist." But she said she also wanted the world to see the images of children praying, crying and seeking God.
"I wanted the Christians to see that children can have significant experiences with God," she said. "I wasn't prepared for the lack of understanding of people who have no grid for God whatsoever, or who come from church backgrounds where they just had no idea what they were seeing."
A controversial topic
The controversy that erupted from the film forced her to stop sponsoring the Kids on Fire summer camp after 2006, just three years after she had started the program. Fischer said people from Devils Lake vandalized the camp that she only leased for three days each summer, mistakenly thinking it was owned by her ministry, and she agreed with the camp's owners that it was time to stop.
The movie also drew criticism from across the world that Fischer's style of children's ministry was nothing more than brainwashing or indoctrination of young children.
The film shows her saying young people in other countries are "ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam," and that young people in America should be just as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ.
"I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have ... excuse me, but we have the truth," she said in the film.
Fischer also told the children they need to prepare to be part of the "army of God" and gives them plastic swords as she instructs them to put on the "armor of Christ."
Roy Hammerling, a Concordia College religion professor, said the "very provocative" film offers a glimpse into the different expressions of Christianity found in America. But many who have seen it fear the movie in some ways "is like throwing gasoline on the conversation" because it stops discussion about these issues rather than encourages it, he said.
"There's this broad range of evangelical Christians, and some of them are obviously nervous with this sort of thing because they're clearly not on the same page of what appears to be extremism to them and the sort of extremism that creates all these sorts of problems where we can't talk to each other," he said.
But John Helgeland, a professor of religious studies at North Dakota State University, said any film like this that can honestly show people engaged in their faith "is a valuable contribution" to the field.
"A lot of times, religion is presented more like in the abstract and removed from the hustle and bustle of the regular life, and that's where, as you know, religion takes place," he said.
Creating a legacy
Fischer said the accusations of brainwashing come from people who believe children should not be taught about God at all.
"When you talk to your kids about what you believe, you call it good parenting," she said. "But when I talk to my kids about what I believe, you call it brainwashing because you don't like what I believe."
Because of the attention the movie brought to her children's ministry, Fischer has been able to open a 45-hour correspondence course called the School of Supernatural Children's Ministry. The course is designed to teach parents and ministers how to go beyond Bible stories, and has been translated into 18 languages so it can be taught around the world.
Despite her problems with how her work was portrayed in "Jesus Camp," Fischer said it's hard to deny the film has become her "legacy," both for good and bad.
"It has nothing to do with brainwashing," she said. "It has everything to do with life improving, with families loving each other stronger and more intimately. It has everything to do with them becoming equipped to deal with the challenges of life that Bible stories simply don't equip them to deal with."
Hammerling said "Jesus Camp" continues to be relevant - and controversial - six years after its release because it shows a cross-section of the political divide starting to split the country in 2006 that has only intensified today.