Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer, the husband-wife team behind the Seventh-Gay Adventists film, have started raising funds for a new companion film that they say will offer answers to the question "What is next?" for Seventh-day Adventists who have started important conversations about homosexuality. Seventh-Gay Adventists followed the lives and spiritual journeys of three Seventh-day Adventists in same-gender relationships as they struggled with tensions between the distinct cultural markers of their faith community and their identities as lesbian or gay individuals. They describe the film as a project designed to help Adventists engage in "the sacred act of listening." The new film project will serve as a companion and a follow-up to the SGA movie, they say. On the kickstarter fundraising page, they write, "we’re going to bring together a diverse group of people (pastors, thought leaders, and LGBT Adventists) for a weekend of listening and dialoguing about the next steps. We’ll film their conversation and share it with you all as a resource."
I asked Daneen and Stephen to talk about their motivation for the film as they begin collecting funds for production. Our Q & A follows.
Why a new LGBT-themed Adventist film project and why now?
This motivation for this companion film is coming from the huge amount of positive feedback we’ve had from people who have engaged with the stories in Seventh-Gay Adventists, and a lot of that feedback has been along the lines of—"My eyes have been opened to a group of being being mistreated and excluded. This isn’t what I want for my church, but what’s next? How do we move forward in positive and tangible ways when our faith communities and families often have different theological paradigms?" We’re particularly sensitive to pastors and lay leaders who want to make their congregations truly welcoming to all.
We’ve shared the story before of a small church in Canada. The founding pastor likes to tell a parable. He said that there are two different ways of keeping sheep. You can build fences and pens and guard the gates, or you can build a really great well, and then they all come there to drink. That’s the vision of church we have—the place where we all come to drink from the well of God’s love and the radical way of Jesus. And the divisions become much less central when we can focus on seeking the restorative water together.
The topic of homosexuality has been used as a wedge to divide families and congregations, but most people really just want permission to trust God, love each other, and experience a faith that is meaningful in the world. Can we do that as a whole community? There are hard questions, but they are seldom really explored with all of the voices who need to participate at the table. So we want to gather a diverse group of some of the most thoughtful pastors, thought leaders and LGBT Adventists to engage with each other around all of this over a weekend. We’ll film it, edit it, say a prayer, and share it with our community as a resource for the continuing conversations in their communities and families.
What links this project to Seventh-Gay Adventists and what will make it distinct from that project?
The Seventh-Gay Adventists film is a long-form, character-driven documentary that was filmed over more than two years. It’s an experience of stepping into the stories of those talked “about” and “at” but seldom “with.” It created a listening space, had broad reach, and screened widely. While we hope other conservative denominations just waking up to the reality of this conversation will find this companion film helpful, it is really a follow-up that’s specifically for the Adventist community. The conversation is well underway in the Adventist church, and a growing number of people realize that the status quo is broken and harmful, that the only “approved” narratives that they’ve grown up hearing leave out the experiences of the majority of LGBT Adventists, and our youth in particular are leaving the church because of perceived injustice and intolerance for people they know and love (See "Millennials leaving religion over LGBT issues"). But how do we move forward together, even when we still have differences in theology and experiences? How do we build that well where we can all gather to be nourished and sustained? We’re going to bring together some of the best voices we know who are able to engage respectfully and ask them to address those questions (and many more that will no doubt come up).
What are you setting out to accomplish this time around? Who are the people that you have in mind as you get started with this project, that is, who do you want to connect with?
We want to help model the dialogue that we hope to see happening more. This isn’t easy—there are big questions and reasons why this has become such a controversial topic. And yet real people, families, and congregations are being impacted, so we have to keep talking. It seems evident that our church could use some examples of how to have a healthy discourse around a lot of topics!
We have a lot of sympathy for pastors, who really do not have helpful resources but have an enormous amount of political pressure. Let me share a short story.
A woman who has agreed to be part of this dialogue is in a long-term committed relationship with another woman. When her partner got breast cancer and was about to go into surgery to have a double mastectomy, one of the pastors at the church where they attend, came to the hospital to pray—to be a minister. The partner without cancer was suspicious—this was someone on the Adventist institutional payroll, and the institution has increasingly been sending hostile messages to LGBT people and theologizing about them but without actually allowing their voices to be heard. And then a couple of days later the same pastor returned to the hospital with another pastor.
These pastors showing up to minister melted suspicions and helped created a respectful relationship that continues to this day. This is what she shared with me when I asked about her participation in this project, and it’s beautifully put--it’s what we hope would come of this resource:
I don't know that the senior pastor and I share common theology about sexuality: I've never asked in part because agreement is not required for the kind of relationship we have right now. Perhaps that will change in the future. I think the associate pastor is fully affirming, but am not 100% sure of points where we might agree and disagree. Either way neither pastor gives me any signal that they do not respect me as a moral peer. And both of them have found ways to set aside the institutional bind to prioritize the spiritual and physical health of people in front of them. That is their job and calling. And that's what I'm interested in helping congregational leaders to move towards.”
Your first press-release described the participants in this film as a "respected group of pastors, thought leaders, and LGBT Adventists." Can you at this point elaborate some on the cast of characters.
We haven’t wanted to disclose names yet mainly because we don’t want to get those on church payrolls into potentially hot water before this resource is available to evaluate instead of just to speculate about.
We have pastors and thought leaders who would self-describe themselves as “liberal” and “conservative”, and we have LGBT Adventists who actually represent the full spectrum of the gender and sexual minority demographic--some who are in committed relationships and some who have chosen celibacy. The key is that we are inviting people who have generous spirits and can engage in thoughtful, respectful dialogue. Most of them do not know each other, and we hope that they’ll be able to share parts of their stories with each other as they engage. Honestly, we already have more people interested than we can probably accommodate—but that’s a good problem to have. We really need to limit this weekend dialogue to around 8-10 people in order to have the time and space to make this a reasonable resource (60-90 minutes) and not a 10-part mini-series!
These are some of the people we’ve met on our many screening journeys with the SGA film, and we’ve often thought how amazing it would be to put them all in the same room together and witness the ensuing conversation. We’re excited to see what unfolds.
This project will broach a subject that has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years now, and will undoubtedly continue to go on for many more. What unique contribution do you anticipate this weekend of sharing and connecting will provide to the discussion?
This is definitely going to be a conversation that continues to mature and emerge. I am sure there will be many more resources, hopefully from a variety of thoughtful voices. We feel incredibly blessed to have been able to be part of bringing awareness to this conversation in a new way through the lens of real people and real stories with the Seventh-Gay Adventists film. This feels like a natural outgrowth of the conversation that’s started, and we think it will be an important resource, especially for pastors and lay leaders who do not have helpful resources that include the voices that have been excluded and marginalized participating alongside with pastors in dialogue.
What is the timeframe you have in mind for this project?
The trickiest part is going to be logistics and scheduling with people coming in from all over the U.S. We’re going to aim to film in late January or early February and have this edited and available by the end of March 2015.
How was the SGA movie funded differently from the way this project is being funded?
Seventh-Gay Adventists was largely funded through the ongoing contributions of individuals and two small grants. Way back in the very early days, we conducted a crowd-funding campaign using IndieGoGo, but it was very early in the crowd funding days, and it was mainly a way to accept monthly, tax-deductible contributions. Later, when IndieGoGo changed their platform, we moved to Network for Good as a way for those interested to provide ongoing, tax-deductible contributions.
Almost exactly a year ago, we used a different crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter to fund the DVD production stage of Seventh-Gay Adventists, and it was phenomenally successful. We were able to meet lots of stretch goals—like a filmed Q&A, translations in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, sharing the film for free widely to pastors and teachers who wanted to engage (we’ve given away over 8,000 copies), and more.
This time around, the project needs to be another all-or-nothing campaign (since we’ll have a lot of up-front costs like airfare), and we really wanted to truly test this idea to see if it’s what enough people want, need, and can support at this time. Using Kickstarter makes sense for that, and it’s extremely easy for those who contributed to last year’s campaign to pledge to the new one (http://www.sgamovie.com/kickstarter). This project will only be funded if at least $20,000 is pledged by Tuesday, November 25. Since it is an all-or-nothing campaign, if the entire amount isn’t pledged, nobody is charged and the project doesn't happen. That means we need a lot of help spreading the word. We will need about 300 people to back this project in order to meet our goal.
How has the San Francisco Film Society been part of the work you've done and will do on this topic?
Many independent films that are non-profit in nature apply for fiscal sponsorship under an organization like the San Francisco Film Society. Outside of the film world, the idea of a “fiscal sponsor” might seem like they give us money. Actually, the opposite is true! They simply provide non-profit status to us for Seventh-Gay Adventists. They take a small fee to process, issue receipts, and provide oversight. This Kickstarter campaign is a separate educational outreach effort though. The only ones taking a cut are Kickstarter and Amazon (who processes payments for Kickstarter and makes it very easy for anyone with an Amazon account to contribute).
Talk about the technology that goes into this project like this and about the process of producing the film.
A film is typically divided into three parts: pre-production, production, and post-production. Each one is driven by the overall story that you’re trying to tell. The planning process involves a lot of communicating and logistics planning no matter the effort. Often hundreds of emails and phone calls are made to bring together the right people, coordinate the logistics, and shape the experience. Filming for this one is different than some because we’re containing it all within a weekend. Still we’re planning to try and create as much of a cinema verité experience as we can to allow the viewer to feel like a participant in the experience. A single camera allows us to bring a perspective that’s both intimate and authentic. This is not going to be a three-camera, studio shoot since that would make it feel too stiff. This is the kind of filmmaking we like to make—it’s not as slick, but it often feels more real. The final step is editing the project, which is where a film like this is actually written. There are many choices that need to be made to shape the tone, pacing, and feel of the piece. We want the experience to be engaging and educational, but not boring. People watch films to experience how others made choices that they might one day face. We hope that by making this as honest as possible by the tools we choose to tell the story that this project will help model how to have a conversation about a tough topic no matter where we each are coming from.
On a personal note, you invested a lot of your life into the SGA film, and this one will likely require another large commitment. Aside from the fact that you are a film-making team and making films is what you do, why pour so much of yourselves into these projects in particular?
We started work on the early stages of Seventh-Gay Adventists when our daughter Lily was an infant. And she just started kindergarten this fall, so it’s been more than a five year journey for us. Even knowing the huge challenges, especially the financial ones, inherent in doing an indie project that had most of our close friends and family quite concerned for our souls at one point (that also has shifted significantly over the course of this project!), we’d choose to spend the last five years in the same way. Lily has grown up with her family’s work being “the love film” which is what she calls it—that can’t be a bad thing for her character development! And all of our lives are so much richer and more meaningful because of the deep friendships we’ve developed along the way.
It’s not uncommon for people to assume that one or both of us is gay—some people can’t fathom a heterosexual couple making this film and championing this conversation. But we strongly feel that the silence, shame, and rejection that has been the status quo in our church around this topic hurts heterosexuals too. Sure, non-LGBT youth don’t have four times the risk of attempted suicide (or eight times if they are from rejecting families), and non-LGBT youth aren’t likely to be homeless simply because they tell their parents who they really are, but when we marginalize in the name of God, that hurts us all and makes us complicit in the rejection, marginalization, and Othering that happens in so many faith communities. We couldn’t raise our daughter in this church without also actively helping to resist the status quo that marginalizes, so our story and our religious identity is part of this as well. We want our daughter to be part of a church that creates space for love, listening, and that space at the well for all of us to drink together.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6386