When A Redneck Loved A Queer

I was at the inaugural annual Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC) meeting the first time I saw Seventh-Gay Adventists, a film that documents the lives of three couples who identify as members of both the queer community and the very conservative Seventh-day Adventist faith community.

A year and a half later, I have seen the film in eight states across the nation.

I have helped with every screening I’ve attended by manning the booths and representing IAGC. During these screenings, I have become close to the dynamic husband-and-wife duo who produced and directed the film. Stephen Eyer and Daneen Akers are part of my family now.

It has been such a blessing to witness firsthand the transformative power of this documentary. At every screening, the crowd reacts differently, falling on unique points in their understanding of sexual orientation, gender, faith, beliefs, race, and backgrounds.

It is always a special experience, but them most recent screening I attended was certainly my favorite. Collegedale, Tennessee, is known for being a primarily Seventh-day Adventist town. It is home to Seventh-day Adventist owned corporations such as Little Debbie’s and Southern Adventist University.

This town was also my home until my family moved a short distance down south into Georgia.

Recently, Collegedale made the national news for being the first city in the state of Tennessee to offer same-sex benefits to the city’s employees. Kat Cooper, a Collegedale police officer, lobbied for these rights to be extended to her partner.

The majority of the Collegedale city council officials who voted to pass these rights were Seventh-day Adventists themselves. Thus it was only fitting that the screening of Seventh-Gay Adventist was held in the courtroom where this historic vote took place.

I get nervous every time I watch the film—I never know how an audience is going to react, and I cannot help but feel that the audience's reaction reflects on how they feel about me. Sexuality is a controversial topic in my church, across the nation, and especially in the heart of the Bible Belt. Needless to say, this screening’s location only added to my anxiety as I prepared to head down south. My worries grew after I learned that we had received some “weird” emails.

This was the first time—out of over 75 screenings—that Eyer and Akers felt the need to hire security guards.

As I sat at the booth and took the tickets of the Collegedale audience, I recognized a lot of Southern Adventist University’s students and churchgoers. However, there were a lot of people I didn’t recognize, but I assumed they were people who followed Kat Cooper’s equality case. Our audience was a diverse crowd of different faiths, backgrounds, and generations, and I wondered who among the crowd might be hostile to our message.

Once the film started, my fears started to melt away. The audience laughed in all the right places, was quiet and cried at the sad moments, and said “Amen!” too many times to count. I could tell that we were not there to argue or debate. We were there for something greater, for something our church has never seen. Everyone wanted to discuss this topic on a human level, and that started with attentive listening.

After every screening there is normally time left for discussion—the attendees give comments, observations, and personal stories from a wide spectrum. This screening was different: the first question asked was when this film would be on DVD to share it “in every nook and cranny.” Then there were only a few questions and comments, so Akers took the time to answer some of the FAQs. No one had anything else to say.

To me, it was not that people were tightlipped or uncomfortable—they were just sitting and soaking in the message and the moment. “We didn’t come here to talk, we came to listen” was the feeling in Collegedale that night.

In this spirit, I decided to raise my hand and make an observation.

With tears rolling down my cheeks, I shared that I had been nervous about this screening, not just because it was being presented to Seventh-day Adventist people but because we were in the South.

I told our audience that this is the only part of the country where the word “Faggot” has been written on my car, where I was called an abomination when I walked into a gas station, and where I simply did not feel safe.

I admitted that while checking people in earlier that evening my skin crawled upon hearing the southern drawls of the attendees. And then I told the audience how amazed I was at the reactions of the crowd and the authenticity of this loving space. I could not have asked for a better environment to share our message.

Akers, with tears filling her own eyes, thanked everyone for coming and ended the discussion. That’s when something magical happened.

The woman who sat behind me tapped my shoulder and said: “I’m Baptist and I’m from the South, and I just want to say I’m sorry." Then she embraced me and continued “I’m so sorry for the things you’ve gone through.” Then another person came to me.

He told me: “Thank you for sharing your story. I just want to say that I’m a redneck, and I’m sorry.”

Eight people came one by one to hug me, all with tears in their eyes as they said: “I’m Baptist, I’m Methodist, I’m from Tennessee, I’m from the South, and I’m sorry.”

Something powerful happened on the night of September 8, in a courtroom in Collegedale, Tennessee. Cultural lines were crossed and biases were put aside. In that moment, assumptions melted away, and we began to love one another unconditionally.

God healed a part of me that night through the love of those Southerners—I have never felt so close to people so different from me.

Our audience was sorry for things they had never even done to me personally. 

They were sorry for a culture that has perpetuated homophobia, and in that moment, nothing from the past mattered and all was now forgiven. They listened, and they understood.

In the act of an embrace, all differences were set aside, and a redneck loved a queer in a small town in Tennessee. 

Photo via Eliel Cruz

Comments (8)

This brought tears to my eyes, too, Eliel. It's wonderful to know that one of the bastions of Adventist conservatism is joining the many other "Adventist ghettos" that have opened their minds and hearts!

Wow. I have chills. Thank you so much for sharing that. It made me cry. I grew up Baptist. No one has ever apologized for all the hurt. I don't need anyone to anymore, but I'm so blessed to live in this time of change, thankful to those who came and suffered before us, and touched by the straight allies who continue to be kind, loving, and supportive.

Thank you so much for powerfully and articulately sharing your experience of last week's screening in Collegedale. It was truly a transformative space, and I'm so glad you spoke up and shared. It was that miraculous space that opens up when people actually listen and connect.

Thank you for sharing your story. I felt the same hatred by some of the men in my ministerial class because I was a woman. I hadn't been able to let that go for a long time. It was by being around loving people in Kinship that the forgiveness finally came.

We are so lucky to have Steve, Daneen and Lily in our lives because they are bringing people together to talk. I so wish they had been around in 1981 when I was rejected in a very horrible way by the church. I can so relate to your story. I think there are many previous members who can relate to the rejection you experienced. I was threatened too. And made fun of. I knew that the ministry of Kinship, along with Seventh Gay Adventist, were meant to be in my life, to heal me from the previous hurts. I can't imagine coming back to church for any other group or reason. I am safe there. And I am glad you could feel safe and loved that night.
Your story brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad I got to read it. I feel privileged to know your story. We will keep on in our quest until the church leadership remembers what Jesus said for all of us to do "Love one another."
I doubt it will be easy and I hope it doesn't take as long as they have taken to change their views on ordination for sure. We will change them though. You can see it happening already. Slowly, but surely. We will have equality.

I was at the screening in Collegedale. Thank you for sharing this with us at the screening. I pray you will continue to experience love from all around the country.

Eliel: tears of gratitude and joy here too- for your experience-for your writing about it.
writing as a Canadian Anglican, I can only wish countless more moments of transformative healing/connection for you and your Church. to quote one of the saints of my own tradition- blessed Gene Robinson (bishop)- "we are a people of hope," so keep on keeping on my brother.

So maybe they weren't so different from you, after all.

Eliel, your story brings tears to my eyes. How neat that you followed your heart and shared your story and your pain. It seems that you were not the only one who experienced healing that day.

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