HBO Max’s 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 end on May 29, 2021, after two decades spent at its helm. With Part 2 of the documentary now streaming on HBO Max, here’s what happened in the plane crash, and what the status of Remnant Fellowship Church is today.
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.
How did Gwen Shamblin Lara die?
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.
Where is Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah now?
As Part 1 of The Way Down showed, Gwen’s daughter Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah took over the Fellowship immediately following her mother’s death. Not only did Elizabeth Hannah lose her mother and stepfather in the crash, but also her husband. "I know that a lot of you have wondered how I'm doing, and if I am giving up, am I throwing in the towel, after so much has happened? And it's a good question, after so much tragedy, after so much negative media, after so much persecution, after so much loss,” Elizabeth Hannah says in a recording from November 2021, five months after the crash, played in the doc. “I never stuck with my mother in starting this Church for the praise of man in the first place,” she goes on to say. “So I’m not about to start caring what man thinks now.” But in the months since, according to Part 2 of HBO Max’s doc, she’s been calling into Church virtually instead of joining in person. And per Remnant’s website, though Hannah remains in a leadership role today, she is now listed as one of many leaders instead of the head. Her brother Michael has also, according to Part 2 of the series, divorced his wife and left the Church since their mother's death. Though the website lists weekly services on an up-to-date calendar, The Way Down casts doubt on the Church's path forward without Gwen Shamblin or her children there to lead it.
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