It’s a phone call no parent ever wants to receive.
“There has been an accident involving your child. Please come to the hospital immediately.”
Not only did Joyce Smith receive this fateful message on a frigid January 2015 day, but upon her arrival to the medical center she discovered her son John had not had a pulse for 45 minutes. Furthermore, the medical staff was only waiting for her before declaring his drowning death at the tender age of 14.
But as John Smith lay lifeless, Joyce refused to give up. Her steadfast belief in God and fervent prayers in this tragic moment somehow delivered her son back to life after being dead for more than an hour. In doing so, John had just defied every scientific prognosis in history. Remarkably, he eventually made a full recovery and returned to a normal life.
From producer DeVon Franklin and based on Joyce Smith’s book of the same name comes the new motion picture Breakthrough (April 19th), an exhilarating reminder that faith and undeniable hope can move mountains and in this case defy science.
I recently sat down with Jason Noble (portrayed by Topher Grace in the film), the Smith’s pastor at the time to discuss the impact John’s drowning had on their church community, the power that prayer truly has on situations like this, and why this incident had such great impact on the cast and crew making the movie.
It’s fascinating how incredible true stories become works of art … in this case a movie. Did you ever think Joyce and John Smith’s story, something you were so closely associated to, would ever become a movie?
We had no clue that it was going to turn out to be a book or a movie. We were just walking through it and doing our best to be a part of what God was doing. And it’s amazing. We never sought it out. We never looked for it. God just kind of dropped the situation into our lap.
If we could talk about this story in real life terms, what was the impact on the local church community and the town during and after John’s experience of being declared legally dead?
It’s interesting because when we talk about calling it John and Joyce’s story, the narratives actually changed to a community story. There’s been so much ownership. A lot of people will say, ‘Did John go to heaven?’ That’s a typical question with these kinds of stories. He didn’t. We were praying about that and we said, ‘God, what’s your purpose with that?’ You know what I mean? Is there a purpose for all of that? Why didn’t he see you? And we felt like the Lord said, ‘This isn’t just about one person experiencing me. It’s about everybody that comes in contact with this movie experiencing or the story experiencing me.’ We didn’t know it was a movie at that point. And so I think from the very beginning it was about community. It was about people coming together. It was also happening during the Michael Brown stuff in St. Louis. And so you have one set of issues happening in a community that’s trying to tear it apart where you have another issue that will come on the national stage and it brings the community together. It’s very interesting to see 250 people sitting there in the hospital waiting room praying … people just holding the line.
As a pastor, I don’t think anything ever prepares you to be thrown into this kind of a situation where one of your parishioners, a teenager, finds himself in a life or death situation … and this case it looks a lot more like death. As a pastor, take me through your feelings in these moments you experienced when you heard young John Smith had drowned?
I knew that it was life or death. As you mentioned, it was more death than it was life. For me, I’ve always believed in miracles. I’ve always believed in the supernatural. I’ve seen people be healed in our ministries before, not quite to this level. What I always know is when you walk into a situation like this, you literally need to have God’s direction step by step. That was my prayer in this situation. “Okay God, what is the next step you want me to take? What do you want my role to be? What position should I have? What do I do in this situation?” I was reading a book just yesterday about the fact that Jesus never did anything apart from his Father. God would speak and give Him direction. And I think we had to get to that in this situation as well. God, what is your strategy? What are you asking me to do? I remember at one point, I was driving home from one of the first days because I was at John’s bedside 18 hours a day for the first eight days. Being a pastor, that’s tough. You’ve got board meetings, business meetings, you’ve got …
Why did you make the decision to do that?
That’s what the Lord told me to do. He said there are some times I ask you to leave the 99 for the one and that’s what I’m asking you to do right now. And I’m asking you to follow through with that until I release you. And He hasn’t released me still. I’m still very tight with the family. Very connected.
How did walking with the Smith family through this experience affect or galvanize your faith?
It just reminded me again, it galvanizes the fact that we can believe God for the impossible. We can position ourselves for miracles. We can see God show up. He still does miracles and that when we get into situations like this, we don’t throw our hands up, but that’s when we go to battle and just fight.
This movie packs some punch as there are some pretty big Hollywood names attached to it … Topher Grace, Dennis Haysbert, and Chrissy Metz to name a few. Why do you think this story/movie has such appeal?
Topher Grace plays me in the movie. He got the script and when he read through it, he’s like, ‘I want to play this.’ And it’s interesting talking to him after the fact. He had just done Black Klansman where he played David Duke. He remarked to me, ‘This is so refreshing to be a part of this kind of a project.’ Dennis Haysbert spent a lot of time as a kid in the hospital. So this resonated in his heart. People loved the script. The other thing is people love executive producer DeVon (Franklin). DeVon and Twentieth Century Fox has been a huge, huge blessing for us. When you have a major studio behind a movie like this, it just packs a lot of punch. I think the faith audience is going to be very proud of the people acting in this movie.
Speaking of DeVon Franklin, I understand that you worked with him to ensure the integrity of the story and to make sure the filmmakers got things “right”. What types of things did you discuss in terms of making sure this happened?
He has been a huge blessing in that aspect. He allowed us to provide feedback to the point where we could share our hearts. He’s so concerned that the movie portrays our life well. He’s been a godsend to our life. Sometimes you hear some horror stories when you are working with people from Hollywood. But I’ll tell you, God just sent us a perfect person to work with. What I love about DeVon is what you see in interviews is who he is personally. He is such a servant. He asked us to tell the story and to share the heart behind it. It’s been amazing. He gets it. When you work with somebody like that, they can read through it and he got it right away. And so we were able to talk through and share the story. He just got it. For us there were some big rocks that we kind of said, “Hey, this is important to us.” For the rest we said, “We trust you. Do what you need to do.”
What role does prayer play in the Breakthrough story?
I think it’s the only way that we saw breakthrough. It was prayer, and not only just individual prayer, not just Joyce praying, but a community praying. This truly demonstrates the power of community. When we come together and we pray, where two or more are gathered as Scripture says, there’s power. I think the idea of a community praying, people by the hundreds coming together, people by the tens or whatever, when people get together to pray, there’s power. That’s an important aspect. It’s not just single prayer, not just me in a room praying. It’s a community praying. There is real power in that.
This near tragedy happened more than four years ago. Tell me about John Smith today. What’s John like? What he has been up to since God delivered him from death?
John is now 18. He was 14 when this incident happened. He was an eighth grader. And so he’s now a senior getting ready to graduate. He’s struggled through the aftermath of it. It’s not something that’s just been easy. Kids at school have teased him. There were some kids who said, ‘Hey ‘miracle boy’, are you going out to try to walk on water again?’ Stuff like that. Stuff where the enemy is coming after him. He said that people ask him why did you survive and not my loved one? Why did God save you? Those are questions that a 17-year-old boy could never probably answer. They’re hard for us to answer. It’s been a struggle for him. Being adopted, that’s a whole other set of struggles. Why am I not wanted? Why didn’t my parents want me to begin with? So he’s walked through all of that and I’ve been able to walk through it with him by his side, to be able to kind of mentor him through it. We’ve gotten to the point where he really feels God has a purpose for his life and he wants to be a pastor, so he’s going to be going to Evangel University next year. I think we’d like to look at this and go, oh, everything was just perfect afterwards. But it wasn’t. It was a struggle. How do we work through this and how do we walk through it? There were times when John’s like, ‘I didn’t even want this.’ I just want to be a normal high school kid.’ So walking through all of that and realizing that God has a purpose has a challenge.
After people see Breakthrough, from a pastor’s perspective and as one directly involved with this story, what would you like viewers to take away with them after seeing the movie? What is your greatest hope for the film?
I hope that they find hope. I hope their hope tank is so filled. It’s been so interesting because when you are sitting with the audience, I’ve got to sit with a couple of audiences (during test screenings) so far, you just hear so many people being touched at such a deep level. They’ll come and tell you stories of grief that they’ve walked through. In some ways I hope they get hope, but I also think there could be some healing that God does. There’s so many different themes that go through the movie that it is amazing just to hear all of the stories of people after they’ve watched, how God just touches them in profound ways.
Breakthrough opens on April 19th in theaters in nationwide.
Watch a trailer for Breakthrough: