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California church plays role in ‘My Name Is Earl’ TV series

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kim Fry

A made-for-TV trailer park sits in the parking lot of Sepulveda United Methodist Church.
Nov. 28, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Kim Fry*

A tacky trailer park has been constructed in the parking lot of Sepulveda United Methodist Church in North Hills, Calif. Four colorful vintage mobile homes are lined up and fenced off, their yards decorated with pink flamingoes and old furniture and appliances.

It looks like people might actually live there, but this trailer park is one of the sets for the NBC television show, “My Name Is Earl.” And what a fitting place to shoot scenes for this show, the premise of which is, “karma: do good things and good things happen to you; do bad things and they’ll come back to haunt you.”

The Old Sepulveda Church, as it is called, has been providing spiritual guidance in this area of the San Fernando Valley for 80 years.

The church parking lot was first used for catering and parking by the show’s cast and crew during shooting in the North Hills area.

“The church staff was so hospitable that we decided to use their building in one of our episodes,” says location manager Ivan Schwarz.

“This has been a very fortuitous opportunity for our church,” says the Rev. Chuck Mabry, pastor. The church has received several thousand dollars for the use of its property. The income will be used to make capital improvements. A security fence is planned, and tree-trimming and other maintenance to the church building have already been done.

Redemption and forgiveness are the threads that run through each episode of “My Name Is Earl,” a comedy that airs Tuesday evenings.

Earl, played by Jason Lee, is a former criminal, a hard-drinking lowlife who, immediately after winning the lottery, gets hit by a car and loses the ticket. Lying in the hospital after the accident, Earl has an epiphany while watching “Last Call with Carson Daly,” in which Daly credits his success to doing good things for people. Earl discovers karma.

The law of karma, central to many eastern religions, suggests that a person’s actions, both physical and mental, impact his or her life (and future lives). While Christian teaching parallels this idea through the Golden Rule and other scriptural references to doing good — “For whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) — Christians do not focus as much on thoughts or intentions as on actual deeds.

Seeking to attract good karma, Earl makes a list of all the bad things he has ever done to people and sets out to make things right. By the end of each episode, he crosses off at least one item on his list, and sometimes two or three. But then he sometimes adds things to the list, so the list — like Earl — is a constant work in progress.

“We are very conscious about making sure Earl grows as a person by the end of each show,” says writer and producer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. “It may not be by leaps and bounds, but just a little bit each time.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of NBC Universal: Paul Drinkwater

Randy (Ethan Suplee) and Earl (Jason Lee) stand outside their motel room on the set of "My Name Is Earl."
Earl lives in a seedy motel with his loyal but dim-witted brother Randy (Ethan Suplee). Randy’s girlfriend, Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), works as a housekeeper at the motel, and Earl’s ex-wife, Joy (Jaime Pressly), spends all of her time trying to steal the lottery money that Earl has hidden after finding the lost ticket in the first episode.

On the show, Joy lives in the trailer park, the set for which was built in the back parking lot on the church property. The scenes of the motel where Earl lives are shot near the church on Sepulveda Boulevard, and a local high school was also featured in one show.

Sanchez-Witzel wrote the episode that featured Sepulveda United Methodist Church. In “Broke Joy’s Fancy Figurine,” Earl tries to replace a figurine he destroyed with a bottle rocket. The church was turned into a Home for Wayward Girls for one scene.

The camera panned from the cross at the top of the steeple down to the courtyard of the church, where a number of little girls were lined up for inspection by Joy, who plotted to adopt one of them in order to enter a mother-daughter pageant.

“It’s exciting to transform a place that people are used to seeing every day into something different,” Sanchez-Witzel says.

Pastor Mabry has been watching the action both on his television and in the church’s backyard.

“The primary motivation for Earl’s actions is commendable,” Mabry says. “Repairing and rebuilding relationships from the past is a theme that has value for how persons can live their lives.”

The Sepulveda church, built in 1925, has 180 members and also hosts the California-Pacific Conference’s only Hindi-Urdu ministry, a 75-member congregation led by the Rev. Lamuel Jacob.

Much of the church’s ministry is outreach to the North Hills community. The church houses a preschool program and the North Valley Caring Services, a multifaceted, nonprofit center that provides health and human services to the neighborhood.

“Several hundred families use our facilities every day, and the income from the ‘Earl’ show will allow us to provide better security and upgraded facilities for everyone,” Mabry says.

Within a few weeks of its Sept. 20 debut, the show — produced by Amigos de Garcia and Twentieth Century Fox Television — was deemed a hit both in the ratings and by television critics. NBC’s original 13-episode order was increased to a full season of 22 episodes.

Created by executive producer Greg Garcia, “My Name Is Earl” teaches lessons with good humor and without preaching. In one episode, Earl realizes that if he wants to be a good person, he can’t hang around with people who are bad influences. In another show, he learns not to hurt one person while trying to help another.

The Rev. Andy Mattick, associate pastor of Los Altos United Methodist Church in Long Beach, Calif., uses movie clips and scenes from television shows in his sermons.

“I’m waiting for the episode where karma doesn’t quite work out for Earl,” he says. “How will Earl handle it? When that show airs, I’ll preach on it.”

Sanchez-Witzel says at least one such episode is coming in which Earl does some soul searching about why his boss seems to be able to do bad things and still be successful.
That should provide Mattick with material for several sermons.

“We could all make a long list of things we’ve done wrong in our lives,” Sanchez-Witzel says. “We hope everyone in the world will open their eyes to see that redemption is possible.”

*Fry is the communications coordinator for the United Methodist Church’s California-Pacific Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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