Imagining the unimaginable
by Brian Jackle
A key line in a new film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, exploring the topic of queer people reconciling their faith and sexuality, occurs toward the end, when the father of a gay son getting married makes a toast saying, "This has been a journey for us as well. This isn't what we'd imagined for David." This quote summarizes the theme of the movie and reveals why it is so compelling. The situations encountered by the three gay and lesbian Adventists profiled here seem unimaginable, not only to them, but also to their friends and families. Yet everyone, in varying degrees, learns the meaning of compassion and unconditional love despite differences balancing identity, beliefs, and sexuality.
The filmmakers, a straight married couple, Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyre, find themselves at the margins of their own Seventh-day Adventist faith, a Protestant semi-fundamentalist denomination with two key beliefs: that Saturday, the original seventh day of the Hebrew week, should be observed as the Sabbath, and the imminent second coming (or advent) of Jesus Christ. They attend the only openly LGBT-friendly unofficial Adventist church in the U.S., not surprisingly in San Francisco. They were disappointed by the passage of Prop 8 in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in California, as it impacted the lives and families of churchgoers. They helped start an online petition called Adventists Against Prop 8, but they wanted "to spark a shift in consciousness" by showing the harm being done to LGBT members by their own church, deciding to make their film to tell stories "that would open eyes and hearts." Their movie got rave reviews at this year's Frameline LGBT Film Festival and an encore screening at the Roxie Theater in December. Seventh-Gay Adventists is coming to Netflix and iTunes, and Watchfire Films has just released the movie in digital, DVD, and Blu-ray versions at www.sgamovie.com.
The film follows the spiritual journeys of three LGBT Adventists who are trying to remain part of a church that doesn't fully welcome them. David Carlson spent five years in ex-gay therapy trying to become straight, but is now falling in love with another Christian man, Colin Evans. Marcos Apolonio is an Adventist pastor in Brazil fired for being gay after being outed by an angry ex-partner. He emigrates to the Bay Area and finds a partner in Obed Vazquez, a professor of sociology teaching at a local community college. Marcos wonders if he is being called to ministry again after the local LGBT Adventist support group, Second Wind, must close due to lack of funding. Then there are Sherri and Jill Babcock, a lesbian couple in Ohio, who want their daughters, Grace and Faith, to grow up in their faith, not knowing if their local church and new pastor will accept their family. The Adventists are tight communities that filter into secular life in school and social activities, so exile means loss of both one's spiritual home and social life. All three protagonists feel on the margins because their deep faith is conservative, which makes them suspect in the LGBT community, but their identity as LGBT is problematic for their church. But Akers and Eyre did not want to make an issues film. There are no narration, voiceovers, text, or intellectual and spiritual debate in the film. This is cinema verite in its purest form. We are brought into the mundane daily lives of three couples, culminating eventually in a marriage, baptism, and vocational calling. We hear their stories as they speak for themselves.
Activists say the path to transformation in embracing social change proceeds from active opposition to silence to tolerance to acceptance, then finally affirmation. Most of the friends and family depicted in this film are at the tolerance stage. David's brother, an Adventist pastor, and father, a church official, both have problems with David accepting his homosexuality. Yet in spite of their theological differences they embrace and love David, both participating in his wedding to Colin. Sherri and Jill's church arrives at a critical juncture when Jill volunteers to lead the Adventurer's Club for kids that no one else is willing to do. To cut off any potential criticism, the church board issues a statement supporting Jill in her ministry but acknowledging some congregants might disapprove. Yet since most LGBT people are hard-wired that way, they invoke a conscience escape clause, saying they will neither censor nor condone lifestyle practices, and not block gays' fellowship with God in the church, paving the way to allow Jill to participate as head of the Adventurers. In most Bay Area churches, especially LGBT ones, this statement of tolerance would be problematic, as only full affirmation is accepted. But in Ohio and in a semi-fundamentalist church, this stance is both loving and revolutionary.
The film reveals the path ahead in dealing with the conflict of LGBT people in churches: acknowledge disagreement or confusion, but move ahead by embracing the individual or couple and putting them ahead of any theology. While not fully affirming, these tolerant gestures are coming from a place of love. David's brother comments that when he gets to heaven, he would rather err on the side of being too accepting rather than too rejecting. Marcos comments that gay people give up on spirituality because they must continually come out and explain themselves as they seek new community. Yet Marcos believes that being part of a faith community, both to support and challenge one, is critical for any spiritual growth. David notes when he was at the point of renouncing his faith he heard a talk which reminded him that Jesus loved all the people everyone else hated. He felt that Jesus could love him even if he was with a guy. At David's wedding, his brother preached that for many of the attendees, this wedding was not what God intended, yet they were here anyway. "David and Colin need you to continue to keep wrestling with God on their behalf." One of the women at Sherri and Jill's church voices her position and that of the film when she says, "It is God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict, and our job as Christians is to love." This stirring film reminds us that rather than vilifying our opponents, if we love all people as children of God, we will be much closer to resolving emotionally charged doctrinal issues of the role of LGBT people in churches today.