Dear Mr. Standish,
In your May 4, 2013, editorial in the South Pacific Division’s RECORD entitled “A Tale of Two Movies,” you compare our feature documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins, with a short film made by Avondale University students which both deal with the issue of being gay in the Seventh-day Adventist church. We have deep respect for the stories shared by the students. The more people within the church start talking openly about this topic, the more we all grow in compassion. However, there are a number of errors and omissions in your article about our film that we feel we need to address.
First, we think it’s important to point out that the reason you have not seen our film is because you chose not to come to a screening. As you know, but did not include in your column, you were personally invited by both of us to attend one of the three screenings in your area (including one that was only a few miles from your office) while we were doing our Australian tour in March. The reason you gave for not attending was “because I don’t want my attendance to be used to promote the film.” Of course, we never had any intention to use your attendance to promote the film, but we are only screening the film at community (and church) screenings right now. And we still hope you’ll choose to watch the film one day. It’s especially powerful to get to experience it with an audience so you can see how the film is being received by your fellow Adventists. At most screenings, we do have a Q&A session afterwards, but it’s not a “required directed discussion” as you wrote. Nobody is required to stay! However, many stay, share their thoughts, hear more about how the people in the film are now, and just linger in the listening space that the film creates. Actually, while some have wanted us to tightly control the conversation by limiting the questions or controlling who can speak, we’ve always pushed for an open and honest discussion because this is something that is vitally missing in most of our churches.
Given the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had from the many church leaders, pastors, teachers, and just average Adventists who have come to see the film (from the left, right, and middle), we can assure you the film is much less scary than you seem to think! These are good Adventists caught in a very real dilemma, and they share their stories with deep honesty and authenticity—and there’s a lot of fun Adventist humor along the way! As Dr. William Johnsson, who is a fellow Australian as well as widely respected thought leader in the church and the retired long-time editor of the Adventist Review said after seeing the film at one of our first screenings, “The movie, which simply tells stories rather than taking an advocacy stance, is powerful. It can, I believe, do much to make Adventists more compassionate in this controversial area.”
Second, we have not received any funding from the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), as you wrote. The SFFS acts as our fiscal sponsor which means that they are able to receive tax-deductible donations from people and organizations on our behalf who want to support the film. Almost all our funding (except for one small grant from the Pacific Pioneer Fund) has come from supporters within the Adventist community who are looking for ways to make the church more compassionate and loving. Absolutely no funding has come from groups outside the Adventist community “advocating for the redefinition of marriage”. And, yes, in some ways we are activists, if you define that as people caring deeply about those who are most marginalized in our church. We believe we all have a responsibility to take action to stop the staggeringly high suicide rate among gay Christian youth and to be more compassionate and loving to all those in our church, particularly those stories who have not been heard.
Finally, we made this film simply so we can hear the stories of our members who are struggling to be both gay and Adventist. There is a lot of fear-mongering, stereotyping, and misinformation about this issue, and sometimes it’s good to just sit and listen, to walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes. We made conscious creative choices while making the film to allow those stories to be raw, honest, and authentic. If you’d seen the film, you would have discovered there is no “sweeping music” (in fact, there is no film score at all which was done intentionally to limit the editorial bias), but rather just people living their lives, which look a lot like yours and ours.
So far over 11,000 people, most of them Adventists, have seen the film in film festivals, churches, and other screenings we’ve done in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. We’re currently working on a DVD and online version that we’ll be releasing as soon as our festival tour is over, so many others can see the film when it’s ready to be released.
We hope you’ll choose to see the film one day, as so many of your fellow Australian Adventists have (we love Australia!). The biggest issue with criticizing a film you haven’t seen is that it’s exactly what the institutional church typically does when it comes to everyone on the margins—judge, condemn, and talk about a group of people without actually listening to their stories and learning what their walk is like. That era is ending though, as more and more people are realizing that we must listen wholeheartedly to all of the stories around this topic, not just the ones that fit in our theological box. The reconciliation both Jesus and Paul call us to requires that we show up in genuine spaces of listening and love. And that’s especially true when it comes to those whose voices have not been heard.
We’ll look forward to talking more once you’ve experienced the journeys of Sherri, Marcos, and David, the main film subjects, whose courage, vulnerability, and genuine love for God even in the midst of a difficult situation have been moving Adventists around the world to greater love, compassion, and understanding.
Stephen Eyer & Daneen Akers
Photo: Seventh-day Adventists packed into a church watching the documentary.