by Jeff Boyd
October 18, 2013
Viewpoints Interview Series #12
Documentary Filmmakers Stephen Eyer and Daneen Akers Interview by Jeff Boyd
Welcome to Viewpoints: Adventist Perspectives on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. Stephen Eyer and Daneen Akers are the producers/directors of the new documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins (https://www.sgamovie.com). They met in English class at Pacific Union College (and later taught there) and have been married for almost fifteen years. This is their second feature documentary film. They live with their four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lily, in San Francisco. You can learn more about their Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the wide release of the film by visiting https://www.sgamovie.com/kickstarter.
AToday: What led you to be interested in this film project?
Eyer: Our introduction to this intersection of faith and identity really began because we started attending a small church plant in San Francisco led by Greg and Shasta Nelson, who were formerly Adventist pastors. They created a community that met on Sabbath mornings, and although it wasn’t officially an Adventist church, word got out that if you were an Adventist on the margins in the Bay Area, this could be a spiritual home. There were a good number of gay and lesbian Adventists who started attending there because they had no other place to worship on Sabbath. We simply got to know LGBT Adventists for the first time, and our assumptions and stereotypes did not match the people we got to know and love.
Akers: Although our families go back five generations in the Adventist Church, it wasn't until Prop 8 came through California in 2008 that we finally became aware of how LGBT Adventists were being treated in the church. We eventually helped start an advocacy group called Adventists Against Prop 8. Along with a growing group of Adventists in California, we tried to make the argument that regardless of your theology about same-sex marriage, Adventists have a long tradition of believing in a very robust separation of church and state due to our eschatology and sense of being a religious minority because of our day of worship. Adventists of all people should get that we shouldn't have a religiously motivated definition of marriage in the state constitution.
The Religious Liberty department of the Pacific Union Conference was passing out bulletin inserts that had false and outrageous stereotypes about gay people. That really got to us. We had gotten to know and be known by gay and lesbian Adventists because we were going to this small church, so when we saw some of the anti-gay religious rhetoric that was going around, it lit a fire in our bellies.
Eyer: When Prop 8 passed, we were really disappointed. Daneen was eight months pregnant with our daughter at the time, and it really impacted us to think that she was going to be born into a state and church where many of our friends were not treated equally under the law or seen as people with valid relationships with God. We questioned what we should do now and realized that we needed a film. If people are going to understand this issue in a way that breaks through stereotypes and allows the conversation to move forward in a constructive way, it will only happen if people can get to know gay and lesbian Adventists in the same way that Daneen and I had.
Akers: When we started off, we were making an issue film. We had seen some truly horrific treatment of LGBT Adventists in local churches during all of the angst and rhetoric of Prop 8. Memorably, a woman who had been involved in her church for 16 years was stripped of all of her leadership roles because she had a partner. All of her roles except for directing the handbell choir because they didn’t have anyone else qualified to lead out. But she was told she could no longer turn and face the congregation from the platform. That sort of demeaning and dehumanizing treatment that we heard over and over again made us angry. However, we did not end up making an issue film, even if that’s where we began.
After asking ourselves and some trusted LGBT friends if a straight couple could make this film, we went on a three-month road trip around the United States when our daughter was nine months old. We stopped at most of the major Adventist population centers in North America and set up story booths to just listen to people's stories. People just poured their hearts out. It was really special. We felt, Wow, people are really trusting us with profound, deep and often painful, painful stories; we have to do them justice.
At the same time, we were interviewing professors, pastors, psychologists, theologians—experts. We thought we were still making an issue film at that point. We thought we'd have stories, but also experts talking like in most documentaries. We look back on that as a research phase of the film. Almost nothing that we shot during that trip is in the film, but it was really important for us as we were delving into all of this.
Talking to the conservative theologians really helped us realize that good, earnest, thoughtful people do disagree about their theological paradigms, but there's a lot we can do to listen better and stop talking at or about a particular demographic instead of letting them share their own stories. So we moved gradually into what the film is now, which is simply three stories. It is intentionally minimal in our editorial presence—there's no narrator, no soundtrack, no titles. It's just three people sharing their lives.
Eyer: It's been a privilege to get to know the gay Adventist community, to be stewards of their stories, and have the opportunity to take these stories on the road. It started with the story booths, listening to similar themes come up in stories over and over again. There is enormous sacrifice and often harm done when people cannot be authentic for fear of utter and total rejection. Almost everybody attempted suicide at some point, or at least thought about it seriously. You can't hear that and not do something about it. To me this has become a justice issue.
Akers: This film has never made sense on paper from a rational or financial standpoint. It's been a deep call. We felt these stories must be told.
AToday: How many film screenings have you done now?
Akers: Our first big screening was in Loma Linda in February 2012. Our first major festival premiere was in April of that year. Between festivals, church screenings and community screenings, we've done around 75 screenings. We estimate some 14,000 people have seen the film. To travel with the film, we had to give up having an apartment to make it possible, which meant that we spent a full year on the road traveling with our daughter to screenings (she’s now almost five and actually loves traveling.)
AToday: How have audiences generally responded to the film? What impact do you hope the film has on viewers?
Eyer: It's a remarkable experience to see people with very different perspectives come together, watch a film, and be able to have a conversation about it in a constructive way. That happened over and over. At the screening in Lincoln, NE, Chris Blake—a professor at Union College who moderated the discussion—joked that it was ironic a bunch of Adventists were able to create a sacred space in a theater of all places. But that’s really what has happened. We’ve seen it be really powerful for people to get the chance to step inside the lives and perspectives of people they usually know little about. It’s absolutely transformative, and that process of creating these sacred listening spaces all over the US, Canada and Australia has been one of my favorite parts of this entire project.
Akers: Even though there have been multiple times when we weren't sure how to make the next rent payment, we knew these stories had to be shared with the world because that culture of silence had to be broken. I feel like that's happened. I feel like we've accomplished what we set out to do, which was start a conversation through the lens of real people and real stories. When we talk after screenings, we make it clear that we’re not interested in theological unity; I don't think it exists—like you're never going to have political unity—but we do think it's vital that people take the time to listen to each other’s stories. So in our screenings we talk about a listening space, knowing that you're not going to agree with every aspect of someone’s life, but taking the time to experience their life a little bit and understanding that they actually have a relationship with God, That experience of bringing people with such diverse viewpoints together in conversation has been truly remarkable.
Compared with online venues, there is something different when we show up and connect with people in person. Whether or not we are in 100 percent agreement with each other, it is a profoundly healing, reconciling space.
And we just witnessed powerful shifts that have happened especially in the most conservative places. The screenings I was most scared of have been some of my favorites. There is such a distinct “before and after.” The people who hosted the screening in Keene, TX, were long-time residents of the community. They had been Adventist teachers for many years, and they said, “We're tired of our gay kids killing themselves.” They've known several gay and lesbian young people who have committed suicide, and they finally said, “We don't care what flack we take for doing this; something is going to have to change. We must start talking about this.”
At the end of the screening, one woman stood up and said, “I grew up Adventist, went to Adventist schools, but I haven't gone to an Adventist church in 30 years since I realized I was a lesbian. I miss the church so much, but I know I'll never be able to go back.” A pastor in the back piped up and said, “You're welcome at our church.” And then other people started inviting her to their Sabbath School or their home and apologizing for how she’d been treated.
AToday: You talked about unity not being required to be loving. Why is this an important distinction for you?
Akers: There was an article in The Atlantic recently that perfectly describes what I've seen happening in the Adventist church. Even conservative Christians everywhere are just really shifting. They're tired of being known as anti- this or that instead of being known for what they're actually for. I love Brian McLaren's quote, “Jesus didn't say, 'They'll know you are my disciples by your firm stance on divisive social topics.'” I think a lot of Christians are tired of these culture war fights. They want to have loving places where everyone is welcome. That doesn't mean everyone is theologically in the same place, but that's okay. They're really tired of these fights that tend to degrade and reject other people. They want to actually be about the priorities that God seems to have.
One conservative person wrote an open letter to me on Spectrum. At the end, he said, “You're winning. How are you going to treat those who disagree? How are those who win this going to treat those who still disagree?” I think that's a really profound question. I think it's tempting to “other” those who have “othered,” or to disown those who have disowned or hate those who hate. We turn around and do the same thing we're working against.
I really do hope the film fosters more love and more compassion for everyone, not just those who are on the margins, although that is obviously where we must start. I think this was the spirit at our screenings that so many people from the left, right, and middle responded positively too, and I hope that continues in our DVD stage too. The reason why this topic is often so contentious in religious spaces is because people are scared of what they don’t know, and they're scared of change. Most people are simply reacting out of fear, and when we can move to love we can stop being scared of people who are different from us. Perfect love casts out fear.
AToday: One of the strengths of the screenings is the group conversation afterward. When people watch the DVD at home, they'll miss this aspect.
Eyer: Yes, we're somewhat mourning the end of this phase of the screenings. We've done some small screenings, and they can also be very meaningful, although it’s not quite the same as watching quirky Adventist humor on the big screen with 200 other people!
Akers: We are going to film a small group discussion that will be on the DVD that we hope will be a helpful model and share some of the interesting things that aren’t necessarily in the film.
Our premise is that it is people in the pews who make change with these issues. It's not a top-down thing. It's people engaging a story with their heart, saying, “I don't know what to do with my theology. Maybe I don't have to figure it out right now, but I can see that person is seeking Christ like I am.” The church is not modeling how to have these conversations authentically and actually with the people directly implicated by our current policies and attitudes.
The people in the film, the way they respond to the church and their families, helps move us all into a better place. They're really good models. They show that people can have meaningful relationships without 100 percent agreement. Of course we do this on a million other topics. We have hugely divergent theologies around creation, women's ordination, divorce and remarriage, the nature of Christ (Are you pre-lapsarian or post-lapsarian?), or atonement theory—really big theological questions. And we really have a big discrepancy around how we treat homosexuals and heterosexuals who don’t match the policy on paper. Our policy is still that if you get divorced for any other reason than your spouse committed adultery, you're not supposed to get remarried. But of course heterosexuals do. Technically they're “living in sin,” but we don't require them to leave their families and break up their homes before we allow them to be part of our church.
Because the vast majority of us are heterosexuals, even if we're not divorced, we can understand why one might be divorced. Likely we’ve felt tempted by divorce, so it doesn't feel so foreign and “other,” whereas if you're a heterosexual, you don't at all understand what it's like to be homosexual. And you really don't know what it's like to be transgendered if you're cisgendered. This is one thing you can point a finger at and there's no finger pointing back at you if you're a straight, cisgendered person. So I think we've found comfort in something that requires other people to change, instead of stepping into unconditional love, which requires us to change.
I do not agree with the vast majority of media portrayals of all Christians being bigots when it comes to this, at least that is not my experience. I think most people are really wrestling to know how to respond, given their understanding of scripture and the people in their lives whose life and witness are challenging that understanding.
The film has become a movement about listening, sharing and stepping into unconditional love without caveats or performance clauses, even if we don't always agree.
The one other big item I’d like for Christians to change is the current mantra of “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I have a problem with that line that is so often used just to dismiss and judge people. Having heard from those on the receiving end of that line, I can tell you that it’s only felt as hate. That line and “Go and sin no more” are the two things that LGBT people are likely to hear from Christians. It's ironic that in a story all about why nobody should throw a stone because nobody is without sin, we identify as being Jesus—the sinless one—in that story. It's God who says, “Go and sin no more.” Many sincere Christians do not read that story and assume that adultery and committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are at all similar, but even if one does, I think it bears emphasizing that it is God who says, “Go and sin no more.” There are no humans around to even witness that moment. It's a private moment between that woman and Jesus, yet we've identified as the God character in that story, not the woman or the people throwing stones. It’s rather telling!
AToday: Your Kickstarter campaign, which ends the evening of Oct 27, is raising a lot of money. Depending how much is raised, what are some of the special features you plan to add to the DVD/Blu-ray release?
Akers: We met our initial goal in less than four days, which was pretty amazing. And we're working on stretch goals now. The next major one will help us get it on iTunes, and the one after that will help us share the film and resource kits with Adventist universities.
Eyer: Since we've already met our basic goal, we are scheduling a Q&A as well as an intro to cover some of the most common questions that we've received during the screenings so people will have something if they want to watch in a small group setting. We're really hoping that the film can empower others to create these spaces of thoughtful conversation. Daneen is working on a discussion guide. We're going to include some deleted scenes, some that are pretty humorous.
Not only are we making DVDs and Blu-rays, we're making a digital version of the film too, which will mean that anyone in the world can download the film directly from our website, iTunes, Netflix, and other digital platforms soon. There are lots of places this film will finally be able to reach, and we’ve reached our goal to add six languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Russian, possibly Dutch, and maybe more as online versions in the future).
It’s both exciting and a bit frightening to see something we’ve been working on for more than four years be at this stage. We know these stories are going to impact a lot more people, and we’re hopeful about that. Seeing the enthusiastic response to the DVD fundraising campaign has helped affirm what we’ve been feeling this past year and a half screening the film—there is a huge desire to have this conversation in an honest way with real stories. And people are ready.