A Kingdom of Tea and Strangers—A Documentary About English L'Abri
This post is part of the "Behind the Curtain" series in which creators share about the process of making their work and the deeper themes behind it.
Houston Coley and his wife Debbie are missional documentary filmmakers from Atlanta and Czech Republic. Houston is a YouTube video essayist, self-described 'theme park theologian', and the artistic director of a nonprofit called Art Within. Read more of his work on Substack.
Last summer, my wife Debbie and I spent three months at L’Abri Fellowship in Greatham, England. The two of us met there, so in many ways, it was like coming home. This time, though, we had a mission beyond the usual: we were making a feature documentary called A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers.
If you don’t know much about L’Abri, it may be because they deliberately avoid advertising themselves; in fact, when the staff of the English branch of L’Abri agreed to allow us to make a documentary, they did it under the condition that it would not be a commercial trying to get people to attend L’Abri. Hopefully, rather than putting the particulars of this place on a pedestal to market to the world, the film awakens spiritual imagination about a “way of being” that can also be embodied elsewhere.
L’Abri Fellowship was founded in 1955 by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in the Swiss Alps, with the second (and now, largest) branch opening in the rolling downs of South England in 1971. Among people who have been to L’Abri, it is infamously difficult to describe with one tidy label. I think the truest comparison might be Rivendell from The Lord of The Rings: a place for weary and wounded travelers to stop on their journey, to rest and engage with beauty and reality, to try and prepare themselves to head back out on their quest. Tolkien said, “Rivendell was the perfect house, whether you liked food or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” For the many people who pass through the creaky front door at English L’Abri, it can feel much the same.
English L’Abri is located in a 16th-century manor house in Hampshire, and students of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities come to stay during three-month terms—some for a day, some for a weekend, others for the entire term. A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers, the film that my wife Debbie and I shot last year, is a feature documentary chronicling one summer at English L'Abri. The film follows a group of students as they look for belonging, wrestle with doubts & uncertainty, and grapple with finding spirituality and community in their ordinary lives back home.
Making a Film About Community in Community
During the first month, one fact became clear: making a documentary about community while living in community was going to be a far more complicated task than we’d anticipated.
In French, L’Abri means “the shelter,” and as such, many of the people who come to L’Abri are seeking refuge from the busyness, distraction, trauma, or hardship of their normal lives; to make matters more complex, most of the students who were coming for this term did not know that we would be attempting to make a documentary during their stay.
Many of the great cinema-veritè documentaries involve a filmmaker becoming so invisible that they’re able to exist as a fly on the wall. In the early weeks of our time at L’Abri, our experience could not have been further from that one; every time the cameras came out, people seemed tense and uncomfortable. At L’Abri, students are encouraged to keep most media technology (computers, smartphones, etc.) out-of-sight in their room, except on Thursdays, the weekly day off. To some, our cameras often felt like a breach of the commitment that L’Abri would become a shelter for those who came through its doors.
Despite all of this, in the first few days of our stay, we attempted to be resolute. We were determined not to let a day go to waste without capturing something worthwhile on film; after all, we had two months ahead of us, but every day felt like a ticking clock of precious time (and potentially profound moments) going undocumented and unobserved.
Very quickly, however, the workers at L’Abri gave us some pointed and deliberate advice: they encouraged us to spend the first three weeks of the term without filming at all, using that time to be present with the community and get to know the students around us. It was difficult wisdom to hear, but we heeded it nonetheless. Slowly, gradually, we accepted that these early weeks would be for sewing seeds, not harvesting. Fighting our fast-paced productivity-driven inclinations, it felt like God was directing our attention toward “people” over “project.” We needed to work to preserve the sacred shelter of L’Abri that had made us want to make our film in the first place—and as we slowed down, we started to get closer to the community around us outside the context of filming.
As artists, it can be hard for us—all of us—to allow ourselves to be known without our cameras, paintbrushes, guitars, microphones, or the other instruments of our trades that can serve to give us a sense of purpose and identity in the face of a strange new community of strange new faces. But knowing a person’s art or knowing their skill with a guitar is not the same as knowing the person. For Debbie and I to gain trust, we first needed to be known also as dishwashers, as gardeners, as carrot-choppers, as guests at a lunch table, as volleyball players, as quiet listeners, and as friends.
About three weeks into the term, the workers at L’Abri allowed us to have one of the weekly film discussion nights to show the students our previous documentary, Love In The Time of Corona, and our concept short film for the L’Abri documentary featuring former L’Abri workers Andy and Lindsey Patton. It was the first time we’d ever shown any of our films to an audience of more than one—and both seemed to resonate deeply. After showing both films, we had an open discussion with the community about our documentary plans, engaged with questions and logistics of when not to film, and ended with prayer.
Going into the term, our clumsy approach to making the documentary had been to assume everyone was okay with being filmed unless they told us otherwise. In those early weeks of waiting, as we’d walked through the tunnel of overhanging trees on nearby Church Lane every day, it had become very clear that the more integral approach would be to assume no one was okay with being filmed unless they agreed to participate. As filmmakers, it was a difficult change of mindset to make, but one that would ultimately produce more fruit and personal trust in the long term. After our screening night, we requested that everyone come to speak with us personally in the next few days to tell us how they felt about being filmed, either in the background or in more focused interviews. What a huge answer to prayer it was when nearly everyone told us that they were okay with being onscreen!
Filming throughout the remainder of the summer remained a bumpy road; some who were usually at ease with cameras could change their mind from day to day, new students continued to arrive from week to week, and the advance scheduling of our filming times meant that spontaneous moments were more difficult to capture. Even so, with every passing week, relationships and dynamics—both in front of the camera and behind it—only became more natural, more trusting, and more full of grace and understanding. As trust increased, our opportunities to capture spontaneous moments became more possible.
As the summer drew to a close, there was more vulnerability in everything we shot—and a stronger dramatic question in every interview about returning to the “world outside.” Slowly, that question arose as one of the central questions of the documentary. Increasingly, the students were concerned about the challenges involved in leaving L’Abri to return home and try to embody it elsewhere. I don’t think we would have been able to capture these questions in the same way if we’d started shooting in the early weeks of term. It was because we’d been forced to slow down that our relationships were strong enough for our central idea to emerge.
We walked away unsure of exactly what story we had, but certain there was something powerful in it.
Sharing a Film About Community in Community
In the spring of 2023, we had the opportunity to work on the documentary from North Wind Manor, the building that houses the Rabbit Room. Every day, we set up our laptops beside the fire, put our headphones on, and got to work editing the more than 70 hours of footage we’d shot at L’Abri. Words cannot express the comfort and catharsis of being able to work on A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers at North Wind Manor, a place that could probably also be described as a kingdom of the same things.
Rewatching, transcribing, structuring, and editing has been its own tedious journey—one that we are still far away from finishing—but along the way, we found many reasons to praise God for the story he’d been telling beneath the surface of everything we captured. In a way we never understood at the time of filming, this is a story about spiritual imagination and the courage to pursue the vision of the New Creation even in your ordinary life.
This past month, we screened one hour of the rough cut of A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers to an audience of around 80 people at Hutchmoot, the Rabbit Room’s annual conference. It felt like a culmination of a film about community to show parts of it in community. The difference between experiencing something at home alone on your laptop and witnessing it with a room of other people in fellowship cannot be overstated. I think, in many ways, art experienced in community becomes fundamentally different art, more like itself.
The most cathartic part of showing A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers at Hutchmoot was the laughter. Contrary to the idea of L’Abri as a quiet, meditative monastery with little humor to be found, our documentary includes a lot of the whimsy and silliness of a typical term. Jokes and funny moments that made us chuckle during the editing process generated big, affirming laughs in the room at Hutchmoot. The more contemplative moments were elevated by people, too; watching a film in the presence of other people means that it’s difficult to check your phone when things get slow, forcing you to engage with patience and silence.
More than anything, our experience of art nourished by community—both in making the film at L’Abri and in showing it at Hutchmoot—has encouraged us to hold more gatherings to show the film at churches and homes all over when it’s finished. The connectivity of the internet can be a beautiful thing, and we still plan to release the film for free online, but the value of art experienced in physical fellowship cannot be replicated.
Funding a Film About Community in Community
Early on in the process of funding A Kingdom of Tea & Strangers, Debbie and I received an offer from a small streaming service to pay for the entire film’s budget if we’d release it exclusively on their platform. We considered it for weeks, and eventually politely refused. From the start, our hope has been that the film would be accessible, easy to share without needing to pay for a subscription, and that the funding would come from a community of people who care deeply about the ideas it explores.
Despite the finished trailer and preview at Hutchmoot, we still have a long way of editing, sound mixing, musical scoring, marketing, and touring to go. If funds allow, we’re even planning to do follow-up interviews with several L’Abri students again in their home countries around Europe. We’re also creating a L’Abri-inspired tie-in album called “Songs From The Shelter,” featuring music by artists who have had experiences with L’Abri—and our dream is to premiere the film at The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville in Summer 2024.
Because of this, we’ve launched a Kickstarter this week to raise the finishing funds for the project with a deadline of Friday, December 1st. Backers of various tiers can get the physical version of the film when it is released, attend various showings when they occur, and be the first to know about our progress as we work to finish in the spring. We’d deeply appreciate having you along for the journey.