Flossie McNeill sits in the small library at Chicago's Pacific Garden Mission, a large downtown homeless shelter, fighting back tears. She's recalling an episode last winter from Unshackled!--the nation's longest-running radio drama and a ministry of the mission. The episode focused on Daniel Radtke, a young boy who shared his faith with others during a battle with heart disease that took his life at age 14. Hundreds of people responded to Danny's story, McNeill says."We received a letter from a man on death row. He couldn't remember the last time he cried," she says. "But the night he listened to the show, he bowed to his knees, weeping, and surrendered his life to the Lord."This month Unshackled! (www.unshackled.org) celebrates 50 years of presenting stories of people who have given their lives to Christ. McNeill joined the staff five years ago. She is responsible for sifting through about 1,000 testimonials to choose the 52 stories that are transformed into radio dramas each year. Produced in English, Spanish, Romanian, Russian, and Arabic, the show is broadcast on 1,200 outlets in 147 countries and financed by Pacific Garden's annual $6 million budget. "We'll never know until we get to heaven what kind of impact Unshackled! has had," says Program Manager Dudley Donaldson. "We're not really into numbers."
Shaping the storyPerforming each Saturday afternoon, professional actors read scripts in front of a live studio audience, bringing the stories of Unshackled! to life. They tell of alcoholics who find sobriety and peace, murderers who discover forgiveness, and child abusers who experience healing. McNeill puts tremendous effort into the stories she evaluates. "One of the first things I look at: Is their salvation according to Scripture?" she says. "Then I ask: Is there enough drama in this story?"For all the stories we don't do, I let them know why," she says. Applicants must have been Christians for at least three years and have attended church for two years or more for a story to be considered. They must also demonstrate growth, McNeill says, by reading the Bible and obeying its teachings.A graduate of the Baptist Bible College of Indianapolis, McNeill examines if applicants are applying sound doctrine to their lives. "Even before I attended Bible college, I read the Scripture," she says with assurance. "It was just natural for me."McNeill estimates that she puts months of work into a broadcast that lasts only 29 minutes. "I'm trying to learn, 'Who is this person? 'I'm their representative, and it's a one-time shot."Unshackled! maintains its identity not only by its content but also by its style. Donaldson says the program, with interludes of organ music and old-fashioned sound effects, is "a throwback to the golden days of radio." The structure itself has not changed much in the last half-century.
Acting on faith"Now for broadcast around the earth," director/announcer Bob O'Donnell begins each episode, "here is Unshackled! The program that makes you face yourself and think."O'Donnell's own story has been produced on Unshackled! He was forced to think about his own salvation when he attended a Billy Graham crusade in 1952. "I drank my way through the service," he admits.Graham's gospel broke through O'Donnell's initial skepticism. Already involved in a radio career, he landed a job as an actor for Unshackled! a few years later.Although some of the show's actors have become believers by participating in the radio ministry, O'Donnell says he doesn't require people in his pool of around 100 voices to be Christians. "I use who I think is the best for the particular role," he says. "I'd rather have a good actor. It's the Word preached that's most important."Among those actors is Russ Reed, 77, who has been in more of the 2,600 episodes than any other individual. A Jewish convert himself, Reed says several Jews have become Christians by listening to Unshackled! "I haven't seen any of my family come to the Lord, though," he admits.O'Donnell appears undaunted by the politically correct who condemn his show for featuring Jews or homosexuals who "see the light." "We don't tell anything that's not true or scriptural," he says.Actor Karen Anglin, 31, says she benefits from the show as a Roman Catholic. "If you open up your ears and heart, there's always something universal," she says.McNeill says Unshackled! is about watching God at work. "All I'm seeking is what God has done," she says. "I'm following that scarlet thread of redemption in people's lives."
In 1997 Christianity Today ran a story about Latin American productions of Unshackled!.The official Unshackled! Web site offers access to ministry history, tour listings, and cast photos.Visit the Involved Christian Radio Network to listen to today's webcast of Unshackled!Read more about the history of Chicago's Pacific Garden Mission , including how Dwight L. Moody suggested its name.
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