Wendy Wilmowski has worked in more than 20 countries promoting Christian culture as a television and film producer.
With a career that took her from Steubenville, Ohio, to an Arizona prison, Jerusalem to Brazil, the Netherlands to the frontier of Hollywood, she lives now in Washington, D.C., where she is preserving culture in a new way – her top client is an anti-terrorism organization.
Wilmowski spoke with Register correspondent Ellen Rossini about how grace changed her life and has guided her in her career.
As a child, how were you aware of God?
I grew up in Chicago, in the Midwest primarily, and we always went to church. I experienced the Lord profoundly as a child. I always found him in nature; I was always outside.
I had a nice experience at confirmation where I really felt that God was calling me. [At that time] I was really struggling with [questions such as], “Who am I?” “Where was I before?” “Where am I going?” “Why am I here?” “Is there really a heaven?” – all those kinds of questions where you get kind of a tingle in your body thinking about them.
I remember opening a Bible, and I got this Scripture passage: “You did not call me; I called you.” So [I knew] God's hand was on my life somehow.
Did that set the course for your life from then on?
When I was starting my sophomore year of high school we moved to Arizona, and I went through a huge rebellious period. I was dipping very heavily in[to] the partying scene, drugs and alcohol. I still kept a 4.0 [grade point average], so my parents didn't really know. I was lying all the time to my parents about what I was doing and where I was going.
Then I had a profound experience of God touching my life when I was 18. It changed everything.
What was this profound touch of God?
My dad felt guilty that I was in a public school and wasn't getting any catechetical teaching, so he sent me to this youth group at our church that happened to be charismatic. I went out of obedience, but I hated it. I would get there late and leave early. Everybody was very free and open about how they were praying, which freaked me out.
My boyfriend at the time was from Santa Cruz, and he was a surfer; we were doing that whole partying thing together. I remember praying to the Lord one night, “If all of this is real, if you really exist and this stuff isn't just a figment of somebody's imagination, I want to quit doing drugs. I just don't want to have any desire for them anymore; I just want to wake up tomorrow morning, and that's it.”
I woke up the next morning and I had no desire, no withdrawals, nothing. So then the Lord kept tugging at my heart. Three or four weeks later, I was like, “If you're really real, and if all of this is not made up, then I just want to quit drinking.”
We drank to get drunk. I had done the little test, “Are you an alcoholic?” and I clearly was. So I prayed, “I don't want to have any desire for another sip of alcohol.” And bam – nothing.
By this time my boyfriend and I broke up, because of course there was nothing left that we had in common. I received my first persecution from him – he called me a “Holy Roller.”
Toward the end of my senior year, I was before the Blessed Sacrament. I had this very profound, deep peace that the Lord was really real, and there was some reason for my life. So I prayed again, “Okay, I'm not strong enough. I can't see my friends anymore. Just make it so I never see them. Don't have them call me, nothing.” From that point until I graduated, I never saw my friends. They didn't call. It was like I just had vanished.
Were you able to remain committed to your new way of life?
I didn't really like the youth-group friends too much; they were still a little bit too geeky for me. I was really lonely.
Around June or so, I said, “Lord, I've given up everything for you – my friends, drinking, drugs, everything. Where would I have been if I didn't do this for you?” I was stopped at a traffic light and I felt that I needed to look up. Across the intersection was a gas station and there were all my old friends, the ones I hadn't seen since April, and five cop cars, and they were all up against the cop cars getting frisked.
There were four of them, and I heard as clear as day, as if someone was sitting next to me, “You would have been No. 5.” That was it. I thought, “Okay, then there's no going back.”
I realized that with the Lord touching my life in this profound way, I needed theological formation, which is why I ended up at [Franciscan University of] Steubenville.
Your work as a television producer has taken you into more than 20 countries. What are some memorable moments?
I had to cover a story in southern Lebanon, and I couldn't get a cameraman to go. So it was me and another friend, and we had to leave our passports on the Israeli side, because it was illegal for Americans to go into southern Lebanon.
We had to cross a kilometer, carrying all the gear ourselves, and be met on the other side. The Israelis went through every single piece of equipment we had, checking cables, whatever, and it took forever to clear. So we got everything repacked and were walking across. The guys on the other side could see us – obviously we're in no man's land, nothing on either side of us – but when we get to the other side, it was the same thing all over again: We had to undo all the cables, everything. But we couldn't argue, we couldn't say anything, because we were lucky that we were able to get in there.
Our question was, what effect does constant war have on children and their Catholic faith, when they grow up only knowing war, only knowing hardship – which is still the story today in that region, unfortunately. [We filmed while] hearing bombs going off and gunfire, and being in the heart of where the battle was going on.
In the course of my career I've been in many situations like that. I was on the last commercial plane to leave Medjugorje before the [early 1990s Balkans] war. We saw the tanks rolling down the roads as we were getting out.
You've had a number of successes in Hollywood, including a film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, award-winning documentaries and several television programs. Why did you leave L.A.?
One of my “breaking points” if you will, was [when] I realized that my identity was so tied up with what I did. My identity was up there on the screen; if you liked what I did, you liked me, if you didn't like it, you didn't like me. That will cripple anybody. You can't have that.
Film and television really attracts wounded people. The business is so difficult that it really brings out the worst in a lot of people. It's not a loving, nurturing environment. If you don't have a solid foundation of faith or family, you're going to die, or you're going to turn into what a lot of people are – screamers, very unhappy, turning a lot to substance abuse. That's why you have all of that there; the pressures are enormous.
Your main work for now is quite a change from feature films. Tell me about that.
I moved to Washington, D.C., four years ago. I went on a four-month retreat and was taking a couple of classes at the John Paul II Institute. I just never left. I ended up getting my master's degree in theology, graduated in December 2000 and then found that I really liked the East Coast and decided to stay there.
When I decided to stay I ended up getting a job working with an organization that deals in counter-terrorism. They follow radical Islamic extremists from around the world, primarily in the United States, tracking them, keeping tabs on them.
And then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened.
That totally changed everything. I have other projects I'm working on the side, but [this organization] consumes most of my time. If you follow any major news story, whether it's about the charities the United States are closing, the whole direction that President Bush is now taking with regard to terrorism in the United States – our organization, which I can't name – has been largely influential in all that.
We are shaping policy, working with the FBI, helping them and the CIA and other government agencies see the broader picture in terms of how some of these guys are infiltrating American culture. They say one thing in front of the media, but we have them saying other things behind closed doors.
Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.