In a tsunami of details and generalities, one has a tendency of setting a few thoughts aside for a moment when we can take a serious pause for reflection. Such was an experience from a few weeks ago.
Together with Grazyna, we watched a must-see documentary film about the crossroads between faith and sexual identity. Frankly, I didn’t go to see Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins (SGA) because I was seeking answers, nor because I craved a confirmation of something I already knew. Having a first hand knowledge where my church stands on this “topic of the day,” I went to see it to be a part of a conversation, and naturally, to hear stories.
I also went to see Seventh-Gay Adventists to engage with the story that lies beyond the cinema.
Aren’t the best films those that tell stories, especially when they are shot well, directed masterly, and acted convincingly? In SGA you don’t need actors. You are invited into the lives of real people, sharing their experiences about who they are, as they love and believe. You watch ordinary people who have ups and downs like you and me, except that they are living ostracized, left outside the church’s predictable activities.
In the film you also meet some family members, church goers, respected church leaders and pastors, many going through a transformative journey in how they relate, embrace, and opt for the side of grace. The film’s witness is that Christian belief needn’t to be compromised when you hug your loved one who is gay, perhaps a daughter, a son, a sibling, a grandchild, or close friend.
The film provides three stories. In effect, what you experience is several more stories, with the main one being a story of our church. The film is important because it deals with the reality of a community that is, like it or not, a part and reflection of society at large. One can give it a church-driven significance and how life is impacted by contemporary culture, but also one recognizes they are people who live in our neighborhoods, and see them as brothers and sisters and not simply being a topic of the day.
In Seventh-Gay Adventists we meet three couples. Their life experiences unfold in a world many Christians are aware of, yet all too often conscientiously avoid meaningful, civil discourse about it, understand it, or engage with it. A typical conservative Christian approach I was born into taught me to avoid that which was seemingly not a part of my own milieu – whether based on doctrinal beliefs, on one’s cultural or educational background, or shrouded in one’s tradition and family mesh.
Thoughts abound. How to deal with difficult issues that represent ever-present diversity? Should they be avoided or left for someone else to deal with it?
The film provides an unfolding experience of believers who, as Prof. Fritz Guy put it, “have to deal with two incurable conditions—you’re Adventist, and you’re gay. And it’s awfully hard to stop being either one of those things.” It also provides a snapshot of what is so often covered by silence.
The film’s producers, Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer, offered a spotlight on grace, and did so in a generous, open and reflective manner. They opted for staying away from advocacy. What they offered was a candid probe into a reality of my faith community that cannot be dismissed. What they were challenging – no matter on what side of the debate you are – is to do more listening rather than offering shotgun lectures.
Partly because of such attitudes, many gay people choose to be left alone. Someone I know well said, “I’m a private person because I treat my sexuality matter-of-factly.” The only time he feels uncomfortable about his sexual orientation, he told me, is when he goes hiking into the mountains “where there are people with no teeth and shotguns.”
The film was made for everyone. While the answers and change of attitudes are still to come, we do best to seek and find them together, reserving to God what we cannot comprehend this side of heaven. Thus, the film is an invitation to grow in understanding and drawn closer to each other; to live-out a life of grace, compassion, and acceptance - yes, acceptance - no matter what your own position regarding homosexuality may be, and doing it in a mature and transparent way.
Being silent about the reality of gay orientation is not a solution. Being selective in what we say about contemporary topics in society is what heartburn is made of. Our gay brothers and sisters will not disappear if we remain mum or choose to offer righteous comments about their predicament. We must not forget that we are dealing with people, not concepts, or Bible proof texts. What is apparent here is a reminder of treating all people with respect and with deserved dignity.
A private screening of the documentary attracted a full house of more than 200, among whom one could recognize a number of top world church leaders and colleagues. A short exchange with pastors from my Sligo Church congregation in Takoma Park, Maryland, offered a poignant moment. They turned up for the showing nearly in full force. In jest, I remarked that it’s OK to attend the showing since our spiritual leaders are also present. One of them replied, that this time it was the pastors who followed the members.
The showing at the Landmark Bethesda Row Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, included a bonus of meeting one of the film’s protagonists, Sherri Babcock, and her parents, for a post-showing Q & A section.
George Babcock, whose name is well etched in the world of Adventist education, shared his experience with Sherri’s coming out. His and Sherri’s mother’s initial reaction to the newly discovered reality was not much different from other such discoveries. What still resonates in my memory is part of his story from a couple of decades ago when two prominent church leaders, upon learning that Babcock’s daughter is a lesbian, asked him to disown her. Through sharing, he took us into a world of anguish and confusion as to whether the same God is being worshipped.
The film itself does not lobby on behalf of Adventist civil disobedience. It leaves it up to the viewer to reflect on his or her own attitude toward believers who are looking for a place in the church.
They may not call themselves Seventh-Gay Adventists, but they live among us. They also wish to experience their fellow believers as purveyors of graceful Christianity and messengers of respect.