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Faith journey leads Bemidji native to Israel

Harlan Hegna is working on his documentary "Finding Faith," a project that led him to the Middle East. He visited the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour, Palestine, where he filmed a 30-minute documentary about the four Lutheran schools there. Hegna said he was given a place to stay for a week in exchange for volunteering to make a film to raise awareness about the schools. submitted photo

BEMIDJI - A journey to discover his own faith has led Harlan Hegna to take a pilgrimage to Israel.

Born and raised in Bemidji, Hegna, 27, is an independent filmmaker now living in Los Angeles.

"When I was 9 years old my brother was killed in a car accident," Hegna told the Pioneer. "That was when I lost my faith."

The accident, on June 18, 1994, claimed the life of Terry, a day shy of 19 years old, and also injured another brother, Wes, then 15, when a car crossed the center line and struck their vehicle between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids.

"My family was very close and my brother was very much the ring leader of us five children," said Hegna, the youngest of the siblings.

"When Terry died, each of my family members dealt with their grief in their own way. I found a sense of peace and understanding in films.

"I spent a lot of my youth watching films and finding the answers that I was searching for, sometimes even on a subconscious level."

His mother, Sheryl Hegna, said the family learned firsthand that the loss of one person could have a profound impact on each member, and in different ways.

"(Harlan) started writing," Sheryl Hegna said. "Little did I know he was going to be a filmmaker."

The outpouring of support from the Bemidji community touched the family deeply, while the devastating loss shook their faith but eventually provided some focus, she said.

"I think what happened to (Terry) made everyone think, 'Life is short. You better do what you want to do,'" Sheryl Hegna said. "When you live in a community you can give to, and that gives back, it really is something."

In January, Harlan Hegna said he decided to rediscover his faith.

"I decided to check out a different denomination of Christianity every Sunday in a search for where I belong," he said. "Naturally, the filmmaker in me saw this as an opportunity to tell a story that is worth telling."

As a part of his documentary film "Finding Faith," Hegna is interviewing pastors, priests and youth leaders, and backpacking through Israel.

"I ask all the questions that plague many of today's modern Christians," he said. "We discuss everything from the Bible to dinosaurs, aliens and homosexuality within Christianity."

The project has led him to talk with Tim Tebow, the National Football League quarterback known for his displays of faith on the field.

"Though my personal faith journey was the motivation for the film, the film is about everyone's faith journey," Hegna said. "You don't have to be Christian, you don't even have to believe in God, but I think we are all on a faith journey whether we know it or not."

As part of his journey and filmmaking project, Harlan Hegna decided to backpack across Israel. His trip, which started May 28 and ends June 20, includes volunteering on a biblical archaeological dig, shooting a documentary at Lutheran schools in Palestine and hiking 40 miles from Nazareth to Capernuam.

He said filmmaking is possible through the support of others, particularly his wife, Tina, who also grew up in Bemidji, and his mother.

"In this business, perhaps the biggest asset you can have is someone that believes in you, even when you don't believe in yourself," he said.

"Though my brother's death is a major catalyst for my filmmaking, it is all of my family and friends that provide inspiration in my films."

Sheryl Hegna said her son's project caught her by surprise.

"It's a journey as a parent you never think your child will do," she said. "As a parent I wasn't prepared for it. It's awesome."

While mother and son hope the film will help others with their own faith journeys, Sheryl Hegna said it's an important step for Harlan.

"He had to have this journey to find out who he was and what his faith means to him," she said. "I'm really proud of him... He's following his heart and his dream."

Upon his return to the U.S., Harlan Hegna said he'll be speaking at First Lutheran Church in Bemidji later this month.

To further his film interests, he hopes to garner pledges through to cover some production costs, marketing and distribution. Donors can give from $1 to $1,000 by visiting the website and searching for "Finding Faith."

Those who wish to contribute can also drop off donations at the church.

He hopes to generate $4,000 to help complete the film.

Hegna also is chronicling the journey through a blog at

In April, his film "Inside Looking Out" won the Critic's Choice Award at Bemidji's Fathom Film Festival. It also won a Student Film Award at the 2011 Las Vegas Film Festival.

"All of my films tend to have an element that deals with death and loss," Hegna said. "My hope is that I can one day provide answers for someone the way that answers were provided for me."

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

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