Pastor With A Past
Pastor With A Past
Talk about looking on the bright side. Here is a man who turned a 393-year prison sentence into an over-the-top opportunity!
Talk about looking on the bright side. Here is a man who turned a 393-year prison sentence into an over-the-top opportunity! Read more
About this project
PASTOR WITH A PAST
John Edward Farmer’s first memories of family life involved his feet hitting the ground and running as fast as he could. All he needed was an unlocked door or window and he’d be gone. His mother wasn’t more than twelve or thirteen when he was born and his father left them when the child was only two.
He grew up with a series heavy drinking, violent stepfathers. As Johnny grew older, he began to stay away for longer and longer stretches of time. He begged, found food in the dump, slept where he could and learned how to survive with other children who were on the streets. He always went home eventually – and was accustomed to being welcomed with a beating.
Run, Johnny, Run!
Ten days after his 17th birthday, two of Johnny's cousins, 19-year-old Crossley and 21-year-old Abel, came to town. They took him to a nightclub where Abel got into an argument over a woman, shot one man dead and wounded another. Run, run, they urged Johnny -- in spite of the fact that he hadn’t been involved.
When they were finally caught, all three were charged with murder. The prosecutor convinced the boys -- who had no lawyers to represent them -- to plead guilty. He told them they would avoid the death penalty, get a life sentence and eventually be released. He lied. Each was sentenced to 393 years with no chance of parole. The year was 1937 and all three were sent to Red Top Prison in Tennessee -- infamous for its violence. (It has since been closed and was the location for the 1999 Tom Hanks movie, "The Green Mile."
Everything happened so fast Johnny’s mother didn’t even know where he was or what had happened to him. She searched for five years before she was able to locate her son. Lawyers who found out about his case were appalled and tried to help. Jailers even took pity on him and tried to protect him.
Saved in Solitary
Because Johnny was underage and illegally rammed into the prison system, the warden – early on – put him into solitary confinement (with special privileges) for a year. He intended to keep anyone from knowing – and suing the state on the boy’s behalf. Ironically, solitary may have saved his life.
Crossley and Abel were both murdered in Red Top by other prisoners. Alone and facing life behind bars, Johnny decided to he wanted to learn to read and write. Since it was assumed he’d never get out and that educating him would be a waste of time, the usual courses were closed to him. He took the only thing available -- mail order Bible study. With tuition paid by a California church, he completed the course, learning to read and write as he progressed.
The prison's pastor took Johnny under his wing. Eventually, the young man became a fully ordained prison pastor (the first prisoner in history to earn that status) with unusual privileges and responsibilities. He was allowed to leave the jail to visit prisoners in the hospital, ministered to prisoners on death row and even helped remove bodies from the electric chair.
Finally, an attorney visiting the jail took pity on him. The lawyer approached the governor and asked him to pardon John – This was not the first attempt, but this time the governor relented and let John Farmer out of prison, not pardoned, but paroled for life.
The condition was that John would not sue the State of Tennessee for an illegal underage conviction. After 23-1/2 years behind bars, at the age of 40, John Farmer walked out of prison with $40 in his pocket.
Who would know?
A few years later he married a widow with three children and lived the quiet life of a hard working janitor and well-loved pastor. A year after his wife died, he followed her at the age of 72 -- survived by his mother who was said to be around 84.
Shock and Surprise
The movie script about John Edward Farmer is based on the true life story of John D. Gilbert. It was when his stepdaughter, Janice Russell, cleaned out his house after he died, that she found pages and pages of memoirs he had written that described his childhood and his experiences in prison. She knew he had been in jail, nothing more.
As she read chapter after chapter, Janice was shocked to learn what her stepfather had experienced. She was also amazed at the goodness of his soul and his determination to help others.
Although Janice had never written anything before – she is a minister who counsels female alcoholics -- she spent the next few years gathering information and wrote and self-published a book based on John Gilbert’s life story – “There, Red Top Prison to Mt. Nebo.”
Her next mission? To see this book turned into a film, to reach a wider audience with her stepfather’s inspiring story of survival under conditions that would have broken most other men.
Risks and challenges
Making a film has all sorts of pitfalls. The rule that "anything that can go wrong will go wrong" is an accepted part of the business. As a longtime member of Atlanta Film Festival and graduate of the GSU masters in film program, I have many friends who are in the same game and we reach out and help each other.
I have worked at keeping connected with my facebook friends. What goes around comes around. Hopefully, I will make a great film and it will help the actors in it and the crew that works with me.
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