Faithful on Reality TV

When pastor Becca Ehrlich was cast on a reality TV show, she had no idea what to expect. Read her reflections on being a Christian in public.
Closeup of hand holding popcorn bowl as a person sits on a couch watching TV.

“Welcome to our rage ritual,” the retreat leader Chrissie said. “Imagine that person who has stepped over your boundary and made you angry. You take a moment, and when you’re ready, you go for it.”

My stomach twisted itself into knots as she described the ritual—I had no desire to “go for it.” I had just arrived in Costa Rica a short time ago, barely met my fellow retreat guests and leaders (called “healers” on this wellness retreat), and everything felt raw and weird. 

We had already shared our deep traumas and hopes for the retreat with the group at our welcome ceremony, which felt to me like a crash-course in immediate vulnerability. I wasn’t feeling emotionally prepared for what a rage ritual entailed—expressing one’s previously repressed anger in a safe and supportive space. 

Though I have moments of anger, it’s not an emotion I usually express in front of most people—especially not people I just met. And here we were, being asked to think about someone who made us angry, and we were supposed to just let it rip.

I put off my turn as long as possible, but Chrissie eventually called my name. I stood up, took a deep breath and closed my eyes, reminding myself to be open to whatever God would do through this retreat and pictured that particular person who had made me angry earlier that year. 

At first, I voiced my anger through words. But the anger I hadn’t gotten to release before welled up inside of me and became so strong that it defied speech. I balled up my fists and let out a primal scream—and then another—and then another. I was screaming my lungs out, fully lost in the process of letting go of my rage. I had no concept of time, no idea what was happening around me. 

When it was over, I opened my eyes. There in front of me were at least fifteen production crew members and five cameras pointed at me and those in our retreat group sitting behind me. In the midst of the rage ritual, I had forgotten they were there. 

And in that moment I was jolted back to reality: my primal screams were going to be on national television.

How it started

It all started with a social media announcement that looked innocent enough: 

“Are you at a crossroads in life? Do you feel like you need to find clarity or closure with an issue? Are you dealing with major life changes that you need help working through? Do you always speak your mind, and are you willing to try anything once? Are you willing to experience something completely out of your realm to invoke change? This innovative new TV series will be a life-changing wellness retreat where you can disconnect from the daily grind and embark on a life-altering journey!”

I looked at that announcement and said yes to every single question. I had just left a job and was currently looking for the next thing. Five years before that, my son Gideon died at birth; my newly-diagnosed chronic illness (MCAS) meant that it would be dangerous to try again. My husband Will and I had discussed adoption, but I kept putting it off because I didn’t want to deal with the fact that getting pregnant again was off the table. In addition to all of that, since the day that Gideon died I had struggled in my relationship with God. I felt like I was stuck and unable to move forward in multiple aspects of my life.

On a whim, I applied to Lost Resort—not thinking anything would happen. But the next day a casting director called, and just a few days later I had a video interview with a casting producer. It escalated quickly after that; there were psychological interviews and assessments, a deep background check, and medical tests and vaccines. Three weeks before the retreat was scheduled to start, I received a phone call from a producer, “Pack your bags! You’re going to Costa Rica!”

I knew that almost everything we did would be filmed, but I was more nervous about the retreat itself than the cameras. I knew that we would be doing alternative wellness and healing rituals, so I wasn’t really sure what participating in these rituals would be like as a Christian pastor.

How it went

The retreat was so much more than I could have expected. Though we participated in some rituals that I did not connect with much (and I had more than one setback on the journey), there were even more rituals that ended up changing my life forever. I literally found God again in a sweat lodge run by Peruvian medicine men and women. I finally dealt with the grief of not being able to have biological children in a session with Chrissie, and for the first time in my life I felt like I could move forward with adoption.

Through all of these powerful moments, the cameras were rolling. During rituals, the crew kept their distance so that we could fully participate. While in conversation with others at the retreat outside of rituals, the cameras were sometimes more noticable. We had cameras that were built into our living spaces, along with roaming camera operators; we were pretty much filmed 24/7, except when we were in the bathroom. We were often asked to do OTFs (“on the fly” interviews) after one of the rituals or when something notable happened, and we all had longer interviews throughout filming when we would comment on things that had happened over many days.

If you watch any reality TV, all of this probably sounds familiar; regular OTFs or pieces of longer interviews are typically edited in with footage of events so that cast members are able to give commentary on what’s going on. It was strange to be on the other side of the reality TV process, answering questions during interviews that would be used to round out the viewers’ experience of the show.

I’ve been told that crew interaction varies from show to show (some shows discourage the cast from interacting with crew members that are not producers), but I became just as close with the crew members as I did with those on the retreat. The crew worked insanely long hours, often lugging heavy equipment in 90-degree heat, and many of them were just as invested in our stories of healing as we were ourselves. After my life-changing session with Chrissie, two camera operators called me back to thank me for letting them be a part of it—which made me feel like crying all over again!

How it’s going

Just like being filmed 24/7 is not for the faint of heart, neither is watching yourself on TV. It’s both surreal and disconcerting to watch back the experiences you had that were instrumental in changing your life, along with those other times you were just not at your best. There were plenty of cringe-worthy moments when I wished I had said or done something differently; we all feel that way at times in our lives, but we don’t usually have to watch it all back (along with everyone else watching it at the same time and offering opinions). 

Though being filmed on a three-week retreat and having it air on national TV was by far the wildest thing I’ve ever done, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Here are my three major takeaways, that I hope may help you in your own spiritual journey:

1) God can work through anything.

It’s easy to assume that God only works through specific pathways in our lives, but I learned very quickly that God is able to work through anything and everything—especially in places we wouldn’t expect. I participated in alternative wellness and cross-cultural ceremonies and rituals, all while being filmed for reality TV, and God was powerfully present. Most people would think that reality TV is the last place God would be! But God did some amazing things in my life and in the lives of my fellow cast members through our experiences on Lost Resort. God can work through even the most unexpected occurrences in our lives.

2) Retreats can be a powerful spiritual practice.

In many places, spiritual retreats are falling out of practice—mostly because of the time commitment asked of participants being at odds with consumer culture’s push to be in contact and working during all of our waking hours. Retreats provide time away from our regular daily lives to have time set aside for experiencing God’s presence and reflecting with others; it is an intentional time set apart. There is something about being away from home and gathering with others specifically in retreat that opens us to the Spirit’s movement in ways that we wouldn’t normally be in our everyday lives. I have no doubt that my life-changing experiences were due in part to setting aside time away to focus on God and those issues I needed to work through.

3) Living your faith out loud matters.

One of the more unexpected outcomes of being on “Lost Resortwas when viewers commented on social media and in person how “different” it was to see an open-minded pastor shown on national television. A certain type of extreme Christianity tends to get more media coverage than other types, and many folks don’t even know that open-minded Christians exist. Living out our faith in public ways shows others that Christians can be loving and open rather than judgmental and intolerant. So live your faith out loud; you never know how God can use your faith story to make a difference in someone else’s life!

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Becca Ehrlich

Becca Ehrlich

Becca Ehrlich is an ELCA pastor who is a trained coach and serves on the ELCA Coaching Leadership Team. She currently serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at General Theological Seminary in New York City. She blogs about minimalism from a Christian perspective at www.christianminimalism.com. Her book, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, was released last May.

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