About 3:15 pm the other day, my colleague looked out her office window (which faces the church parking lot and the end of the church building where the sanctuary is located) and saw a guy trying to open the sanctuary doors. As the man turned to come back across the parking lot to access our side of the building, my colleague, still at her desk, asked me out loud, “Do you know this guy who’s trying to get in?” (My office is next door so we often have conversations from our desks) I looked out my windows just in time to see the guy hit the top of the steps and reach out to ring the doorbell. My initial thought was, “That guy looks a lot like the dude who played Dawson’s dad on Dawson’s Creek and The Flash” but I quickly dismissed the idea because the likelihood that a famous actor is going to show up in Duluth, Georgia, just north of Atlanta is slim to none. And don’t we all see folks who look like celebrities or sound like celebrities but really aren’t? Don’t get me wrong, there are several celebs who live in the Atlanta area, the obvious ones being the players for the Braves, Falcons and Hawks, but also artists like T.I., Usher and Tyler Perry. And Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who is related to one of our members, has on occasions worshiped in our congregation and even played music during a service.
Well…add to that list, the versatile actor John Wesley Shipp aka Mitch Leery the fictional super dad of Dawson Leery (actor James Van der Beek) on Dawson’s Creek, 1998-2001; aka the popular DC comics superhero The Flash, 1990-1991.
I answered the door on our side of the building, which is always locked when the church’s admin assistant leaves at 3 pm, and let JWS inside. Before I had a chance to introduce myself and learn his name, he told me that he had come to take a piano lesson in the sanctuary and apologized for arriving late after the doors were locked. I said “No worries,” and he walked down the hallway toward the sanctuary. When I saw him up close and heard him speak, I knew without a doubt that it was Dawson’s dad, the Flash himself! (Don’t ask me why but certain actor/actresses faces and voices stick with me. I can’t tell you how to solve a calculus problem or talk about the dynamics of the Ming Dynasty. But I do know trivial things like actor faces and voices and can tell you what movie or show they’ve been in.)
Being the TV-Movie-Comic Book Pop Culture dork that I am, I walked quickly back to my office and did a search on Internet Movie Database.com to find a picture and there he was… John Wesley Shipp, the same guy I just let in the church building 5 minutes before! (According to my other colleague and the church’s senior pastor, JWS is related to a church member and through that church member made a request to use the sanctuary for music lessons every now and then.
I was thrilled to have the short encounter with him in the doorway of the church, and not because I had been a huge fan or devoted JWS follower (although I do think he is a talented actor who has played characters with great strength and integrity). I was simply excited to meet someone who has been in some notable TV shows and films. That kind of encounter just doesn’t happen everyday.
To see actors (whom I admire for their ability to tell stories and capture imaginations with their gift for playing characters) carrying out fairly normal lives like the rest of us is pretty cool. Mind you, I’m usually I’m reading about their everyday exploits in a magazine article or watching a documentary on TV s opposed to seeing them on the front doorstep of the church wearing the average outfit of sunglasses, T-shirt, shorts and sandals. But learning that a lot of celebs lead pretty normal lives like the rest of us (with the exception that they make a product that is seen by thousands or millions) reminds me of how we’re all connected in our basic humanity. And I’m even further intrigued when celebs share their faith or spiritual journeys in interviews.
While surfing the web for more info on JWS’s life, I found this terrific interview that he gave in 2006 to Mark Walters, the creator and editor-in-chief of Big Fanboy.com. The interview coincided with the release of The Flash,The Complete Series DVD, which was a bold superhero show in the 90s, the best thing to hit the tube since The Incredible Hulk in the 70s and early 80s. The part of the interview that stuck out was when John talked to Mark about his upbringing in Virginia and his minister father’s fight against segregation. Here is an excerpt:
“My father was Southern Baptist Minister. My sister and I always gave a little Christmas party before Christmas every year. At that time some of our friends were black. The church my father was a pastor at found out about it, and held a special meeting telling him not to have the party. My father said no, and it upset the people of the community. They told him he would most likely be asked to resign. He said he had to do what he had to do, and that we’re all equal under the eyes of God. So we had the party, and a little after 9:00pm while we were all in the den, we got 18 bullets through our house. Thank God no one was killed or hurt. I think we were going through the kitchen to make popcorn when it happened. The police came eventually. My father was fired from the church the next morning, and we were asked to leave the community. Dad went on to become a Pastor in a church of Kentucky. He’s an American Baptist Minister. Now he’s technically retired. He and mom left there a couple of months ago. Now get this, if you’ll excuse the expression, flash-forward 30 years while I’m doing DAWSON’S CREEK. The president of the senior class of the now fully integrated Wake Forest high school was a day player. This woman on the set told her the story, and it got out on campus. She ended up asking me to come, I think it was either ’98 or ’99, and give the key note address to the high school, tell the story of the shooting and tie it in with other acts of violence. So in front of 2500 people I stood up and told this story. The reaction was a standing ovation. The next day my father was asked to come to First Baptist at Wake Forest, to pick the story up from the shooting and talk about his ministry since then. The mayor came and gave my mom a key to the city, and issued a public apology. It was a remarkable week within the community, which has now changed a lot. There are a lot of wonderful people in Wake Forest.”
If I happen to see JWS the next time he comes to the church for a piano lesson, I’d love to sit down with him and hear more of his story and his craft. And hopefully I won’t be too celeb struck in the moment….