The Common Good

Finding Grace in Reality TV

 A number of years ago, my spiritual director said to me, “James, you must open your heart to all that God is doing in this world. When you do you will find Grace in the most unexpected places.”

Photo courtesy Neale Bayly Rides
James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, while shooting in Peru. Photo courtesy Neale Bayly Rides

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I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about reality TV. Many of the shows, like Real Housewives of bla, bla, bla, and Jersey Shore, though wildly popular, seem fraught with manufactured drama, extraordinarily poor problem-solving skills, and relational chaos. Other shows, like Pawn Stars or Counting Cars, are fun but I’m never any the better for having watched them.

So, when my dear friend, Linda Midgett approached me about being cast in her new reality show, Neale Bayly Rides, I was intrigued, yet questioning. Linda is an Emmy Award-winning television producer who worked on the Sojourners’ documentary The Line and on such shows as Gangland and Starting Over. Her goal has always been to create meaningful programming, so I knew there had to be something special about Neale Bayly Rides.

The genesis of her new project came through a series of serendipitous events. While awaiting an appointment, John, Linda’s husband, read an article in a motorcycle magazine about Neale Bayly, a motorcycle journalist who had ridden through 45 countries around the world. While traveling in Peru, Neale had a spiritually transformative experience with Father Gio, a Catholic priest whose life-blood had been poured out caring for the abandoned children of Moquegua, a small town in southern Peru. The love that overflowed from Father Gio went deep into Neale’s own heart. From that point on, Neale’s passion has been irrevocably redirected toward the children of the Hogar Belen Orphanage. John brought the magazine home, plopped it on the kitchen counter in front of Linda and said, “Here is your next show.” That was three years ago.

So compelling was Neale’s story, that Linda set up an appointment to meet with him to discuss the possibility of creating a new show that featured adventure and adrenaline mixed with compassion. There would be no pre-scripted drama and no space given to sentimentality. The purpose — to bring comfort, supplies, and care to the children of the orphanage and to raise awareness in the hearts of the audience —was compelling enough.

The challenge of the journey — riding adventure motorcycles (geared for both on and off-road riding) through crazy third-world traffic, across the blistering heat and deep sand of the Paracas desert, and over treacherous mountain roads in the Andes — would provide all the drama the show would need … they hoped.

So, they shopped their idea of “Reality TV with Heart” to a number of networks – for years – without success. Finally, Speed TV took a chance.

Then, Linda and Neale selected three participants for the journey. They looked for individuals who were open to new opportunities for integrating compassion into their lives.

Laura Ellis, an Ashville-based surgeon with an adventurous flair, was looking for ways to build greater meaning in her life. Troy Rice, an IT entrepreneur who never traveled outside the U.S., was game for an epic adventure and desirous of expanding his worldview. Oh, and me, a Whiskey Priest and spiritual director. Though I had traveled extensively through Europe, Africa, and even Peru, Linda seemed keen that I, too, participate, in finding Grace along the way.

There is a downside to this sort of thing. During the shoot one of the crew members said to me, “I could never do what you guys are doing — leave the storytelling to someone else.”  I get that. I haven’t seen the show yet and, honestly, I’m a bit nervous about it. But, I trust my friend Linda. I trust her honesty, creativity, and passion to show what is real. Just like on my better days, I trust God to work out the story of my life, despite scenes I really wish would be chopped before going to print.

I wonder what you’ll see when you watch the show. I wonder what I’ll see. I wonder how many times I’ll wince and think, “James – seriously?” But, I believe that everything is valuable – the good and bad – in the hands of God. I have faith in The Great Storyteller. I have hope in what God is doing in our real world and in our real lives. I even had the privilege of experiencing God’s love through the kids of the Hogar Belen Orphanage and the crazy cast of characters with whom I journeyed. And, I believe that Grace will come through this new reality TV offering.

Watch Neale Bayly Rides: Peru, on Speed Channel starting Sunday, June 9, at 9 p.m. ET, and follow the adventure at NealeBaylyRides.com. Look for follow up articles from James as the show progresses.

Rev. James Johnson, affectionately known as the Whiskey Priest, is an ordained Presbyterian Minister, spiritual director, writer, and occasional speaker. Check out www.whiskeypriest.org to find out more about his work and follow him on Twitter @awhiskeypriest.

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