I was eight months pregnant with our daughter in November of 2008, and my husband and I were wondering if she was going to grow up to be a sixth-generation Adventist. Could we raise her in a church that marginalized our good friends? The answer was no, so the next step was wondering if we could help spark a consciousness shift.
A few weeks after her birth, while walking around on a sunny January morning in San Francisco, we realized that we needed to make a film. My husband had worked in film and television for 10 years, and we'd made an educational film together a few years earlier.
Our perspectives had changed because of relationships and stories, and we wanted to share stories to change hearts and minds in the pews.
We'd seen the wonderful "For the Bible Tells Me So" at Sundance two years earlier, but we knew that Adventists would never watch a film that wasn't by, for, and about Adventists (it's an Adventist bubble problem--if someone doesn't know "the truth" about Sabbath, why would we listen to them on any other topic?).
Three months later, after having the film get fiscal sponsorship from the San Francisco Film Society and getting the blessing of several LGBT Adventist pioneers that we could make this film even though we weren't gay ourselves (a concern at first), we began filming.
That fall, we embarked on a 10,000-mile, three month road trip (with our then nine-month-old daughter) filming various thought leaders in the Adventist church and setting up story booths in safe spaces around the country to gather stories, understand themes, and just get to know this intersection of faith, identity, and sexuality better.
Four years later, the feature-length, Seventh-Gay Adventists, a character-driven documentary that follows the raw, moving, and inspiring stories of three gay and lesbian Adventists trying to navigate the deep questions of faith and belonging that come with being part of a church that won't accept them as full members, is screening around the country (and internationally) at LGBT film festivals and for church audiences, often quite large ones. And the conversations have been incredibly positive with real attitude shifts happening.
It was important to us to engage both the gay community and the church community, as the people in our film often feel as marginalized in the LGBT community for their deep faith, particularly as part of a conservative church that isn't affirming, as they do in the Adventist church for their LGBT identity.
In a religious subculture as close-knit and defined as Adventism, it is as gut-wrenching to contemplate leaving one's church as it is to attempt embracing a life alone or orientation change (as one man in our film did for five years before realizing that it wasn't working and was actually deeply damaging). Even in the affirming church world, there is often deep suspicion of someone from a conservative and rather unknown religion like Adventism.
Just why would anyone want to stay?
That's one of the themes of the film that is helping bring awareness and compassion from both ends of this conversation. Of course many people can't and won't stay, and that's an incredible loss. But for those with good reason to leave who do stay--or try to stay--I've become a passionate advocate.
Why should someone have to change their religion if that's the language and view of God that brings them clarity and peace?
Despite the film's radically different audiences, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Somewhat to the surprise of festival programmers who have taken a bit of a risk in programming a film that isn’t as angry or dismissive of an intolerant church, their audiences have been connecting in very meaningful ways with the film’s subjects. As the Melbourne Queer Film Festival program guide recently wrote, “They share their stories with gut-wrenching intimacy and intelligence, and struggle powerfully to find a place where they can integrate identity, love and belief.”
And a story about integrating identity, love and belief is applicable to all of us, no matter our religious background. These are universal questions.
On the other hand, the discussions following church screenings (we'll be up to 50 by the end of the month) are transformational. Even audience members who are clearly deeply suspicious, likely dragged there by a family member, melt as they just get to walk in the shoes of someone they’ve had a lot of assumptions about. They realize that gay people love God and care about God’s will in their lives too. And, as simple as that seems to readers in this space, that’s a huge revelation for many religious conservatives.
The moveable middle is being very moved, and towards a stance of greater compassion and unconditional love.
My message in the church is that I understand and accept that good, earnest Christians have different theological perspectives around this topic. I don’t think that someone is homophobic, hateful, or ignorant simply because they haven’t come to the same conclusions that I have (some are, of course, but not all). But I do challenge our church audiences to look very hard and close at the vastly different way churches treat their LGBT members who don’t abide by what the church feels is ideal moral behavior in comparison to heterosexuals (i.e. divorce and remarriage, something that the church has long stopped enforcing for both practical and compassionate reasons).
Why the hypocrisy? And why has the church become known for obsessing over six verses that may or may not refer to what we now understand is a homosexual orientation (that they certainly did not when the Bible was written)? Aren’t there bigger things we share in common?
Does the church want to major in minors? Does it want to reject those on the margins, which is what’s happening. And how does that possible square with the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, who was radically inclusive?
This message is resonating in a profound way in the pews, and we’re seeing the ripple effects already. Of course there is some pushback--institutions don't change willingly or easily. But even in deeply conservative areas, the film is creating listening spaces and changing assumptions. The emails I get from people who had a radical transformation with their views, their family’s ability to accept them, even their own ability as a gay person to claim their relationship with God as their own, are what keep us motivated.
And this is where I choose to focus, on individuals changing their perspectives and assumptions. It’s where the church really lives, breathes, and interacts with people in ways that matter.
So that’s my tale of how I became an Adventist ally and advocate. This work is only just beginning—Linda and Jacquie still wouldn’t be welcome in the church they’d been a core part of for so many years. But they’re part of a new church in San Francisco, one that’s pastored by an Adventist pastor who was fired for being gay. And I find home and spiritual growth every time I worship with them.
I plan to use my posts here in the company of people whose work I admire a great deal to give readers a sense of how the equality movement is going inside a conservative denomination.
It’s happening. Change is coming, and is often already here.
Despite what the men in suits on the top floors of administrative offices want everyone to think, the real church--which is made up of everyone who walks through the doors on a Sabbath morning--is starting to have a new type of conversation.
To learn more about Daneen's journey to becoming an Adventist ally, click here.
Photo via Seventh Gay Adventists