"...Perfect love casts out fear." 1 John 4:18
As Adventists, we are scared of a lot of things. We're scared of Sunday laws, sausage, our own salvation, sunsets, and, of course, sex. So when we set out to make a documentary film about gay and lesbian Adventists called Seventh-Gay Adventists, I should have been more prepared for the fear we would encounter, but I wasn't.
My wife Daneen and I started the project because we were living in San Francisco and attending a small church that wasn't officially Adventist, but it met on Saturdays and was run by two former Adventist pastors. Because they welcomed everyone, it became a refuge for gay and lesbian Adventists in the Bay Area who had been made to feel unwelcome in their local congregations. When Prop 8 (the ban on same-sex marriage that is currently being deliberated by the Supreme Court) came through California, the rhetoric around the issue of gay marriage caused a lot of churches to begin “purifying” their congregations. This resulted in a number of people being pushed out of their local church or made to feel unwelcome.
One couple we got to know was Linda and Jacquie, who had been active members of their church for over 16 years. They were involved in all aspects of the church including running the children’s program, maintaining the church website and newsletter, playing the organ, and leading out in the bell choir. In those 16 years, a new pastor had come, who apparently hadn’t realized that they were a couple. And then a young couple came to the area, convinced that God was telling them to rid the church of any gays involved in the life of the church. Gradually they were stripped of all her involvement in the church. Everything except for the bell choir, because that’s a specialized skill and they didn’t have anyone else who could lead it. She was told she could still lead out in the choir, but she couldn’t turn and face the congregation.
When I heard this story, it made me angry. For me, this is a family issue. I was born and raised in the Adventist church. While I always thought that I was only a fourth generation Adventist and Daneen was a fifth generation Adventist (so clearly I was not as Adventist as she), I found out recently that I am, in fact, a fifth generation Adventist -- so I'm equally as holy. Hearing these stories made me question whether my daughter, who was about to be born, would be a sixth generation Adventist or not. How could I raise her in a church family that treated people this way? We knew we needed to make a film.
So we first set out on a 10,000 mile road trip across the United States when our daughter Lily was nine-months-old. We had a lot of righteous indignation and were planning to make an issue film, one of those no-holds-barred films that would have both sides arguing their side of the topic. We were planning to talk to pastors, theologians, psychologists, and others on both sides of the issue and then duke it out in a debate-style documentary.
Everywhere we went there was a palpable, quiet presence of fear. We met some pastors who were fearful of one or two of their congregants making a fuss if anyone started talking about this, many university administrators were fearful of nasty emails from their constituents (especially ones with large donating capacities), and lots of church administrators who were fearful to even discuss the issue. There were church thought leaders who had the courage to talk to us, but many didn’t, and a lot of places made it clear that we weren’t welcome. Maybe it was the idea that the church actually has gay members? Maybe is was simply that people are scared of the unknown and haven’t engaged on this topic before? What was telling though is that the average Adventist in the pew--and especially the average college student--really did want to talk about this.
Every Sabbath we’d visit a local church, and we’d often end up in the parents’ room with Lily. Usually the second or third question would bring up why we were on the road, and almost always people responded positively. They were seeing this topic in the news every other day, increasingly they had friends or family members coming out, and they really wanted to engage. The church has focused so much on defending a belief statement as correct theology, but we realized in talking to so many Adventists that there is a huge gap between the ideal and the lived reality of people’s lives. And they wanted to know how to show up with love, but none of their higher ups, by and large, wanted to start a conversation.
The only people who who did not seem to be fearful were the gay and lesbian Adventists who we talked to across the country in story booths we setup in homes near Adventist communities. They shared their stories with courage and honesty. And many had a level of trust in God that could teach a lot of other Adventists something. I think it came from a personal connection with the Divine that had been forged by the fire of rejection. When your church doesn’t want you, your relationship with God becomes that much more personal. Most were far “better” Adventists than I was, and I found myself challenged to show up with more grace and love because that was their witness to me.
Their attitudes changed us and somewhere along the way, the approach to our film changed too. We gentled. We decided to stop making an issue film and instead just focus on story. We wanted others to take a few minutes to stop fearing and start listening. We wanted to stop talking about and at this demographic and start talking with them. We wanted others to share their faith journeys and better understand that their relationships with God are authentic, vulnerable, and real.
Yes, we fear the unknown. It’s built into our DNA. And so we create monsters in our minds to fill in the blank areas where we have no personal experience. So the only way to erase the monsters is to replace them with real people, real events. Why are we fearful of others? Because we don’t know them yet. When we do, it changes us. We stop judging and instead leave that to someone who knows how to do it better than us.
Adventists may sometimes be scared, but I’ve also seen them be filled with great courage. And the biggest difference is whether or not they allow themselves to love in an honest and open way, to be affected by the journeys of others who share their faith tradition, and to trust that Love is greater than fear.