HBO Max’s new documentary The Way Down begins with news coverage of a plane crash into Percy Priest Lake near Nashville, Tennessee in which several leaders of a Brentwood Church are presumed dead. But after the documentary spends the following three hours examining the cult-like Remnant Fellowship Church, an insular religious community that promotes weight loss through a reliance on God, the plane crash is all but forgotten until the very end. Gwen Shamblin Lara's leadership of Remnant came to an abrupt ending on May 29, 2021, after two decades spent at its helm. Here’s what happened in the plane crash, and what the status of Remnant Fellowship Church is today, four months after the death of several of its leaders.
The Way Down traces Gwen Shamblin Lara’s career from the outset of her Bible study weight loss program in the ‘80s to her 1997 book “The Weigh Down Diet” and eventual establishment of the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999. The documentary highlights her Church's emphasis on "helping people turn away from the love of food and toward a love of God,” touting that its members have been able to “[break] free from slavery to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, overeating, and overspending” through its programs. The church has over 1,500 members in 150 congregations around the world, and according to their website, its membership “has a combined weight loss of 30,000 pounds.” It’s a community where “leaders are PURE...Husbands are kind like Christ, women are submissive, and children obey their parents,” the website reads.
The obedience of children inside Remnant is also highlighted in The Way Down, which features ex-members alleging a culture where parents are told to hit misbehaving children with glue sticks and belts. The documentary tells of two Atlanta members, Joseph and Sonya Smith, who were convicted in 2007 of the 2003 beating death of their 8-year-old son Josef and are currently serving life sentences in prison. Although police raided Remnant in June 2004 during the investigation into the boy’s death, a solid link to the church was never established in the case.
Shamblin’s reign over Remnant came to a shocking ending on May 29, 2021, when the plane that her husband Joe Lara was flying crashed into Percy Priest Lake with her, their son-in-law Brandon Hannah, and four other Church leaders on board shortly after its take off. The group, which included Jennifer and David Martin and Jonathan and Jessica Walters, had been flying from Smyrna, Tennessee to a "We The People: Patriot's Day" MAGA rally in Florida. Although both Joe Lara and Brandon Hannah had pilot’s licenses, Lara’s medical certification was expired, and Hannah was not certified for the aircraft they were flying.
All the passengers on board died in the accident. Gwen Shamblin Lara was 66 years old at the time, and her husband Joe Lara was 58.
As The Way Down shows, Gwen’s daughter Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah took over the Fellowship in the wake of her mother’s death, with the intent of “continu[ing] the dream that Gwen Shamblin Lara had of helping people find a relationship with God." Not only did Elizabeth Hannah lose her mother and stepfather in the crash, but also her husband. Per her bio on Remnant’s website, Hannah remains in a leadership role today, and praises Remnant as “a place where we could lay down our addictions and worldly desires and be FREE to love only God.”
HBO Max’s series on Remnant Fellowship had been nearly complete before the shocking plane crash in the spring. According to the New York Times, in the aftermath of the death of some of the church leadership, more people from the community came forward to speak with the crew about their experience in the church. Thus, The Way Down concludes with a “To Be Continued…” slide, and two final two episodes are expected to debut in early 2022.
“There is a fuller story to be told,” said Lizzie Fox, senior vice president of nonfiction at HBO Max. “We just want to make sure that we can allow enough time for the story to progress and the investigation to pursue some answers and give us time to interview all the subjects. With a limited docuseries, if there’s ever a chance to have a second part, I think it’s something that people tend to get excited about.”