Stories that Engage By inSpire with Todd Gessele

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inSpire - Todd, I have known for sometime of your interests in art and photography, and particularly in using it to covey God's message of hope to our hurting world. Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you arrive at an interest in visual arts?

Gessele - I grew up sketching during my father's sermons and became interested in video production while at Milo Adventist Academy. I wanted to make a promotional video to use as a student recruiter, so I asked the principal for $2000 to make a 10 minute video. That was 1987 and I thought $2000 was plenty of money to get the job done, only to discover the going rate was $1000 per minute. I contacted the North Pacific Union Communication department and asked for help and they sent a communication intern down to assist me, and I directed my first production, which helped bring 36 new kids to Milo!

I had my heart set on being a mechanical engineer, but when I arrived at Walla Walla College and saw all the math classes that were required, I reconsidered. Being a pastor and taking theology would be too easy, and I really felt like I needed some time to explore world religions. So I signed up as a Mass Communication major, figuring Christianity was simple, and if it still made sense after I checked out Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Atheism, I would be prepared to market it visually.

My sophomore year I attended Southeast Asia Union College in Singapore for 6 months, and while there I took world religions and wandered the back alleys of Singapore and did lots of temple crashing. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer so I built a darkroom under the stairs of the Administration building at the college and installed an air conditioner which never got the temp below 90 degrees. I learned to work fast, as the chemical reaction times were incredibly fast at these temperatures. The more I studied world religions, the more I realized that all of them, except for Christianity, required you to work your way and earn God's approval. Adventism's view of God's character only required a response of love for what he had done for us.

A sample of Todd's video work

I had befriended some Buddhist workers who were restoring the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Hindu Temple on Upper Serangoon Rd, and I'd spend the afternoons after class climbing up through the towers of their many gods to where they were touching up the cement figurines and repainting them in brilliant colors. I documented their work and they invited me to come see Thaipusam, a Hindu festival on Feb. 8 where devotes put hooks into their backs and small spears through their tongues and walk between Hindu temples carrying physical burdens. Basically they become elaborate human pin cushions with their "kavadis." The greater the pain the more god-earned merit.

I picked a place on the public sidewalk right in front of the temple gate along with many other international photographers. As the procession began, I felt a cold slimy evil presence in the air and as I snapped Kodak 100 in the bright sunshine, I began to silently pray, "Lord, I really need these images for my National Geographic portfolio, please protect me from what I'm sensing." About 1 minute later, the entire procession stopped and several men began pointing and yelling at me. I lowered my camera, and they said, "You need to move." I looked around at the sea of big lenses around me, and back at the men motioning to me. Again they said, "You need to move."

"I'll be happy to move, I said, but please tell me why you need me to move, and not the other photographers around me." I'll never forget what they said, "You need to move, because our prayers are bouncing off of you and can't make it into the temple!"

My faith went "Wow!" My God had revealed himself to them, and I never had to even fold my hands. I graciously lowered my camera, and crossed the street. The procession continued. They clearly sensed that my God, the one who I was seeking, was stronger than the powers they were worshiping.

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I challenge you to seek God and he will reveal himself to you. An adventure awaits... are you bored with life? Keep learning, he's qualifying you for what he has for you to do next.

When I graduated in 1992, I took the only job I could find which was as an intern at the North Pacific Union Communication department, doing church journalism and layout and design work. I was burning out on impossible deadlines when in 1998, I was invited to go to Livingstone, Zimbabwe in Africa to assist Duane McKey with an evangelistic series. About the 3rd day into our meetings, I realized that Duane only had illustrations of white people going to heaven. So I started posing and photographing Africans and then used Photoshop to replace the white people in Harry Anderson's paintings with Africans. I made an African Adam and Eve and even a few African angels. I'll never forget the evening when Duane showed my first image to a crowd of 10,000 gathered in a field. He asked, "How many of you have lost babies?" Hands went up everywhere. "How many of you want your babies back?" Then he clicked the slide I'd created of an African angel handing and African couple back their baby at the resurrection!"

For the next 10 minutes, Duane couldn't be heard above the crowd as they were all talking excitedly among themselves. Afterwards, the woman I'd posed for the picture came forward crying and wanted to speak to me. I found a translator and Duane joined me. She told us that everyone now understood what Jesus's second coming is about. He's coming not just for white people, but for them. She said, "You had no way of knowing that I lost a baby and my husband last year. Everyone in the community now understands." Click to view the story behind the story.

Returning stateside, we shared this touching story with Donna and Denzil McNeilus, and Donna said, "We've got to do this kind of work for every country we go to." We were invited to share our story at ASI, and at the end of a 4 minute video that showed a few of the graphics I'd created, 1200 business people were standing on their feet. An informal offering was taken and there was 2.8 million dollars in the collection!

I was asked to become lead photographer for the project and 13 young graphic artists were hired from Walla Walla University, Andrews University, Union College and Southern Adventist University. That's how the "New Beginnings" DVD project began. We created Biblical presentations with culturally-sensitive illustrations for 20 countries and ASI took another offering a year later and an additional 2.7 million was raised to do an additional 20 countries. Today, over 1 million "New Beginning" DVD sets are currently in use around the world.

So God took my dream of being a National Geographic photographer and greatly expanded it for his Glory! I have had the opportunity to travel and work in 27 countries, and it is going to be fun to arrive in heaven and meet the people who my work had a small part in bringing them there.

Today I serve as Director of New Outreach Media for the North Pacific Union, where I produce evangelistic graphics and events, and use my communication skills to tell stories about what God is doing across the Northwest in the lives of his people. Watch 3ABN and the Hope Channel this fall for my newest TV series, "My Alaska" with Ken Crawford. What's next, I want to develop a website that will connect Adventist Academia with the front line needs of the church on a project by project basis, so students can get credit for working virtually along side church leaders, publishing houses, and with media producers. Right now, our church has no clear way or strategy to identify, develop or engage student talent. 

inSpire - That's an exciting idea. What is the most challenging thing about the work that you do? If you could, what would you like to alter about the creative process?

Gessele - The most challenging part about producing Christian documentaries as a one man video production team is not shooting the video, it is identifying a non-church setting, where the subject will relax, open up and be honest. Finding a setting that is free from background noise interruptions so the interview can be cut together with amazingly clear audio is important. These days, people tend to listen to videos, they don't watch them entirely. Their eyes go to the screen when there is an abrupt sound, music, or change in volume. Visually the image must engage and hold their attention. There are so many religious talking heads on TV, so if I could alter the creative process and influence church leaders, I would say stop spending evangelistic big bucks recording more talking heads! I encourage the church to spend money on message, not churchy looking productions.

Christian producers need to get their cameras out of the sanctuary, into people's homes, work places, and let new Christians and long-time members show us their world and tell us their testimonies while enjoying one of their hobbies or past times. People are interested in people. We like to see what others are doing and thinking, especially if we have something in common. I like to hook my audience with an interesting character, and then let them share in their own words why some aspect of the gospel makes sense. Two minutes of personal testimony is stronger than 60 proof texts in a well presented evangelistic event.

So again, if I could alter the creative process, I'd say to church leaders, considering that most of our current tithe dollars vanish unrecorded each week inside our sanctuaries, and even if they are recorded, the "surf-past" rate once these shows are packaged and rebroadcast is very small audience-wise. Wouldn't it be interesting to team up our pastors with media professionals who could identify and interview interesting individuals doing interesting things, and sharing how God's word changed their life? Then package these interviews in 28:30 or 58:30 shows that will draw in the unchurched. I am currently working on several prototypes of this genre of which demonstrate how engaging this kind of testimony can be.

Gary Myers -- A life changed by the Hope Channel

My Greatest Find—Zeke the Garbage Guy

2010 Winter Olympic Torch Bearer's Sabbath Witness 

Cowboy Camp Meeting Hightlights 2008: NW Spotlight on Mission Number 3, 2008

LLUMC-Murrieta "World Class Medicine • Community Focus": Barbershop Promo 

inSpire - Todd, you are doing some amazing work and we want to encourage you to keep leading the charge. Our prayers are with you as you continue to grow your ministry. Thank you for sharing with us.

This interview was conducted by Rich DuBose, Director of Pacific Union Conference Church Support Services and the inSpire project. All rights reserved © 2012 Click here for content usage information.