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Christian Living

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David A.R. White on Chasing Your God-Given Dream

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

You know him as Pastor Dave from the highly successful movie, God’s Not Dead and its sequel God’s Not Dead 2.  With a witty charm powered by the belief that God has a plan in every situation, David A.R. White’s real-life optimism isn’t too far removed from the character he plays.

White has made a career of playing likeable everymen in in his 25 years of acting.   But like any actor plying their craft in Hollywood, the road to stardom can sometimes include a series of pot-holed side streets along the way.  For White, this was certainly the case.  From early success on a hit TV series to a string of forgettable commercials, he persevered through many dry years to eventually co-found Pure Flix, the Christian movie studio that has given us the aforementioned God’s Not Dead movies as well as Do You Believe, Woodlawn, and the just released I’m Not Ashamed.

I recently sat down with David to discuss his new memoir Between Heaven and Hollywood, how to distinguish your dream from God’s dream for you, and why God wants you to succeed … sometimes.

Your autobiography, Between Heaven and Hollywood is just out in bookstores around the country. As we get started, tell me about the genesis of the book. You really opened up your life here for all to see.

You know, I grew up basically in a small town outside of Dodge City, Kansas. And I just remember sitting on a tractor in the middle of a wheat field and having this dream one day that I believed God had given me to go into the entertainment industry.  I feel like I was the last person on the planet that probably should have gone into the media given how I grew up, given that I saw one movie in the theater the first 18 years of my life.  It wasn’t my thing, but that dream, that gnawing dream, I just couldn’t shake it.  I think the reason for the book is taking the dream that God has written on your heart, and figuring out how to make it into the writing on the wall and living out your passion in an actual day-to-day world.

You certainly grew up far removed from the bright lights, big city that is Los Angeles, California.  What was it like growing up in Kansas, seeing life from atop a tractor?

It’s like that joke, what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Mormon? Well, the Mormons make the Mennonites look like a pack of Hell’s Angels. I grew up conservative. I was a pastor’s kid, and so in a Mennonite church and the whole drink, dance, smoke, chew, I didn’t go with any girls that did or do. But my father taught me that the biggest thing from an early age is to serve the Lord first and foremost in everything that I do. So, when I first mentioned to him that I wanted to go into the entertainment industry, I think he was from the old school. His response was, ‘Well, you don’t know how to sing and you don’t know how to dance, so how in the world are you going to be an actor or go into the entertainment industry?’ It didn’t make any sense to them. I actually never told them anything about it, really, until I was at Bible school. My entire family had graduated and met their significant others at Moody Bible Institute. So, I went there for a year and I really just felt this gnawing on my heart. I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t let it go. I actually felt really guilty about it.  I kept asking, “Lord, how am I going to leave Bible school and go to Hollywood to be an actor?” There’s nothing that’s good about that from everything I’d grown up with and been taught. The entertainment industry was an evil place. But I really felt like God was saying, ‘No, this is what I want you to do.’ So I called my parents and said I want to leave Bible school and I want to try acting. But this time my father said, ‘Well, David, as long as you serve the Lord in whatever you do, we support you.’ And that was the change. That was that encouragement. They couldn’t help me financially at all. I moved to Los Angeles. I was 19 and I just jumped right in without knowing anybody, and then the Lord kind of took it from there.

So, you didn’t sing, you didn’t dance, and you didn’t act.  Yet you moved to California to become an actor.  I’m guessing that times were probably pretty tough for you early on in your quest.  What did you learn about yourself during this period of adversity you were in?

You know, the interesting thing was I was really blessed. I was in Hollywood only six months when I landed a recurring role on a hit television show called Evening Shade with Burt Reynolds.  I did that show for close to four years. So, I didn’t have to starve for very long, which I consider a tremendous blessing from the Lord. Most of my challenges, the big challenges came after that show was over. It was almost like my work started to dry up. I had done a bunch of different shows and just a ton of commercials, and I had even done some Christian films, but it all kind of started to dry up. For me it was like, “Lord, why would you let me taste my dream if you were only going to take it away?” What was the whole point of all of this? And again I think it’s in those times when we’re not doing what we want to do, and when I had to take other jobs and do other things, those actually are the biggest times when we start thinking about what we really want to do. It happened to me on the tractor during high school. I couldn’t shake the dream.  This “dry” period of my life helped catapult me into the producing side, and ultimately to founding one of the largest Christian production and distribution studios (Pure Flix) in the world.

Was there ever a time in your acting and producing pursuits that you considered letting go of the dream that you felt was God-inspired?

In my book I talk about how do you know if it’s truly from the Lord or not. It’s something that you can’t shake. And yeah, there’s certainly times where my family thought, 'Hey, when are you going to be done with all this?' They thought maybe it was just kind of a thing that you would go out and try it for a little while, and then you come back and you actually get a regular job. For me I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake the desire, the dream of what I was doing, and I was willing to sacrifice for it.  I believe that that was what I was supposed to be doing. Certainly there were tough times along the way, a lot of tough times. Even in the first two years of Pure Flix, I think it was the second or third year, it was like right around 2008 or 2009 when the whole economy was failing.  We went without a salary for almost two years just to keep our doors open. We sold everything we had. Not only did I learn that my wife really did love me during that period, but also I really felt like this was what I was called to be doing and what I was supposed to be doing. I was committed to doing it as long as I possibly could.

What role has prayer, perseverance, and your faith played in staying committed to your life’s calling?

I think those are for sure the strongest keys, because you have to include the Lord in your journey. As my parents said, ‘Keep God first and foremost.’ Some of my favorite verses, whether it’s Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” Those are so important. Get up in the morning and dedicate your day to the Lord. Say, “Lord, what do you want me to do today?”  Then follow Him and be obedient in the process. And out of our frail humanity He is able to turn it into something magnificent that we can never do by ourselves.

Your movie, God’s Not Dead, seemingly came out of nowhere in 2014 and earned $63 million at the box office.  We have been discussing learning through our trials but what about learning through our success.  What did God’s Not Dead teach you?

For me the biggest thing was His faithfulness, that God is faithful. It’s so important in our lives to give Him the glory, to give Him ourselves and to make our best effort at whatever it is that we’re doing and to glorify Him. In the process of that I believe that God is a rewarder. I don’t know that it’s always financially, but I think if we’re faithful He will reward us in our marriages, He will reward us at being a parent, He will reward us in our finances in a lot of different ways if we’re truly givers to Him. So, that’s what I walked away with, that in the midst of losing everything to start Pure Flix and then almost losing it again with the release of God’s Not Dead. We had pretty much mortgaged the company and pretty much given everything so that we could get that film into theaters.  We did that because we thought we were supposed to do it, and the Lord blessed that, and the return was obviously astronomical.

What’s your greatest hope for those people who read Between Heaven and Hollywood? What do you want people to get out of that reading experience?

We’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on it that people are really enjoying the humor in it.  I don’t like to take myself too seriously, as you know, and frankly I had a lot of embarrassing moments in my first ten years of Los Angeles. From dancing for Madonna to where I was dressed up as Barney the dinosaur doing an odd job in Compton, I have had some interesting experiences. So the book will entertain you, but more importantly I want people to be inspired and chase their God-given dream, and to never give that up.

Watch a trailer for Between Heaven and Hollywood:

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