It's been about three years since my husband, Stephen Eyer, and I first realized that the best way to respond to our deep disappointment about Prop 8 (the same-sex marriage ban in CA) passing was to make a film that focused on the stories of gay and lesbian Adventists in an effort to change hearts and minds in the pews through the power of story.
I have a distinct memory of walking around our neighborhood park in San Francisco with our three-week old daughter, Lily, asleep in a wrap on my chest. Stephen and I had debriefed the night before with the others who had started the advocacy campaign, Adventists Against Prop 8, and Stephen kept saying that the only way people change stereotypes and perceptions is from knowing people, from really hearing their stories. I remember stopping at an intersection and saying something along the lines of, "You know, we could make this film. We are looking for a new film project, and this is something we're passionate about."
It took a while to let that idea sink in—mainly we wondered if two straight filmmakers could make this film—but, in some ways it wasn't a choice, it was an awareness of stepping into where we felt most called. And, especially being new parents, we felt like we owed it to our daughter to help make the world better.
It has not been easy, and I've personally come close to a breakdown at times because the nature of this sort of work is very day-by-day; we never really know until almost too late if funding is going to come through. At one point we were literally down to $2 to our name (this was while filming in Atlanta), and we realized we couldn't even pay our baggage fees to get home (and with a baby and camera gear, we had more than fits in an overhead bin!). Needless to say, we talked about putting the film on a back burner and finding other work, but within days, a check for $20,000 came into the San Francisco Film Society earmarked for our film, and we breathed again. The entire project has been a series of stories like that, much like the missionary stories I remember hearing in Sabbath School (somehow I can't imagine Eric B. Hare talking about the miraculous doings of this missionary project though!). Whenever we feel like we've hit the wall, another door opens. Now we're embarking on the final part of this process—screenings and outreach.
I am so happy to be able to say that the film is nearly complete. The final piece right now is finishing our color grade, updating our website with new artwork, and making a few final tweaks. If things continue to go according to plan, we'll finish this spring.
Speaking of miracles and doors opening, the way in which the film has been received so far feels like a huge answer to prayer. Even though we're still finalizing the film, we've had six private work-in-progress screenings: three here in the Bay Area, one in Columbus, one in Chattanooga, and one in the Loma Linda area. The response has been beyond what we have hoped and prayed for, and it's incredibly satisfying to see these stories that we've been transformed by start to work in the hearts of others. After a private screening here in San Francisco for a group of about 60 Adventist theologians and religion teachers, the feedback that we kept hearing was, The tone of this film and the story approach is the best way to move this conversation forward in a positive way in the church regardless of theological differences.
It's been affirming to realize that the story approach is absolutely the right one. People don't change from their heads; they change from their hearts. One of our biggest editorial choices as we've put the film together is to simply focus on a pure, character-driven narrative. I like to tell people before a screening a bit about how we came to make this film, and I say that three years ago, we definitely thought we were going to be making an issue film, one that responded in-kind to the truly brutal, de-humanizing, and decidedly "un-Christian" treatment we'd witnessed of LGBT Adventists during the battle around Prop 8 here in California.
But along the way we were gentled—and I think it was a God thing. Part of this is because a great number of Adventist thought-leaders, theologians, religion teachers, pastors, professors, and others were simply willing to talk to us, even though it's really not easy to agree to be interviewed on camera around a potentially explosive topic. People I disagreed with deeply were still willing to talk, and we witnessed in ourselves the power of truly respectful, authentic dialogue. It doesn't mean that people change instantly, but it means we can still respect each other as we continue to talk. I think that process is a huge reason why one of the film's strongest messages of hope is that people with differing theologies can live in community together. People with different theologies can love each other with the love that Jesus said would distinguish his followers from others.
I certainly know that choosing to focus the film on the stories we've chosen to go in-depth on is a big part of why the film's tone is bridge-building. The people featured in the film have so much love and grace (and longing) that we couldn't make a different film if we were true to our film subjects.
A long-time friend of ours from college who saw the film in Loma Linda had a great way of describing the film's tone. He quoted Hosea 11:4 when God is describing how God has led Israel, "I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love." He felt the film did that for the church, nudging viewers along with strings of love and kindness. That must be one of the most beautiful ways to describe how we feel the tone of the film fits with the overall goals. I can only hope and pray the film continues to be received that way.
Demand to attend the work-in-progress, private screenings has so far been huge. We haven't been able to accommodate interest yet. While I'd like to think that word is spreading about the quality of the film, I really think this huge interest shows that people are eager, very eager, to have this conversation through a new lens. The old way has often resulted in hurt and battered souls, and people really want a new narrative, especially given the prominence of marriage equality movements in so many states right now.
The power of five percent
Last year I heard a brain function expert explain how the Arab Spring was possible. She said that it only takes five percent of a population to have a consciousness shift for the entire population to feel the results. And my husband/co-producer, Stephen, a long-time worshipper in the house of Apple, likes to point out that a company that used to be ridiculed because it "only" had five percent of the marketplace has just become the wealthiest company on the planet. How many of us use (or wish we were using) Apple products today? Clearly five percent can be a powerful if small percentage. Five percent can change the way the world works.
When I think about what is possible in Seventh-day Adventism with this film, I think about the five percent. What if five percent of churches were welcoming congregations? What if five percent of us agreed to take an LGBT person out to lunch and listen to their story without interrupting? What if five percent of us said, "I don't know what to do about the theology yet, but I'm going to love this person in front of me and let them love me?" There's power when we share our stories—and that's equally true for allies and advocates—we have to "come out" as supporters of LGBT inclusion in our faith community too!
More screenings to come this year
As we put the finishing touches on the film, we're also submitting to film festivals. As soon as we know when our official premiere will be, we will be able to plan more screenings with interested Adventists. The screenings and discussions we've had have left us very eager to have more. We can't wait to share and discuss the film with you, and then let you in turn share it and discuss it with others. That's how the five percent will happen in the Adventist church.
I keep Margaret Mead's incredibly inspiring quote about how change happens printed out above my desk."Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The way a huge grassroots community has come together these past three years to make this film a reality has been breathtaking and courageous. As we enter the final stage of the project to plan screenings and outreach, I'm looking forward to meeting and talking to Adventists all over the country (and, hopefully, internationally) about this film, these stories, and how we can work together to make our church a more loving place for all who seek God.
—Daneen Akers is the co-producer/director of Seventh-Gay Adventists—A film about faith on the margins. She and her husband, Stephen Eyer, met at Pacific Union College in Honors English and now live and work in San Francisco with their three-year-old daughter, Lily, and their 12-year-old dog, Pali.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3839