By Sheila Hagar, republished by permission from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, March 30, 2015: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has evolved on social issues since its founding in 1863. In official statements, it has taken stands for civil rights, opposition to slavery and for religious liberty, among other issues.
At the same time, statements have said leadership is “sometimes reluctant to take a public position.”
Adventist congregants, however, are more public — to the point of taking action themselves — when it comes to some things. And homosexuality is one of those issues moving toward the front burner.
On March 11 and 12, the Youth & Young Adult Ministries Summit at College View Seventh-day Adventist Church, across the street from Union College in Lincoln, Neb., hosted the first gathering of leaders of Adventist youth ministries to formally address lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
The event marked a significant step forward in the church, said summit leader Chris Blake, an associate professor of communications and English at Union College, an Adventist school.
The more than 100 participants in the “LGBT+: Is Loving Enough” event are in charge of church and state youth ministries, he said.
With young LGBT people and parents of LGBT children sharing their struggles within the church, the overarching goals of the summit was “authentic and inclusive dialogue,” said Justin Gibson of Beacon, an unofficial gay-straight alliance created by Union College students and alumni.
The idea was not to change anyone’s mind about how homosexuality fits within the church, but to “dismantle faulty stereotypes and build some communication bridges,” Blake said.
“The first duty of love is to listen,” he said, quoting Christian philosopher Paul Tillich. “Too often we talk, talk, talk. Listening helps us get beyond our biases.”
Hearing the hard stories face-to-face from people who have suffered due to Adventist doctrine opposing homosexuality produced some tears, but also started plotting common ground.
“I think what happened here was when we were listening to one another and asking hard questions, exposing our fears and hopes, we became real with one another and that’s good,” Blake said. “It suddenly becomes ‘right there.’”
The conversation is not a new one, but the need to create safe environments for LGBT members in churches and schools cannot be muted, he noted.
“In every Adventist university, something is leading to this point,” he said. “Every college is grappling to some degree with conversation and intersections of faith.”
Film a change agent
A willingness to start a new conversation is the audience reaction filmmaking couple Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer experience when screening their 2012 documentary, “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” Akers said recently. The film screened in Walla Walla in October that year, with more than 300 people packing the Power House Theatre.
“It was a standing ovation at the end, and that included administration and faculty from Walla Walla University,” Akers recalled.
The film follows the journey of six gay and lesbian Adventists who grew up in and long to continue to be part of the church. For each of the three couples, being attracted to the same sex partners has meant sacrificing at least some of what it means to be Adventist.
“Discovering you are gay in this community often means loss and exile from all that has been home,” Akers explained.
The feature-length documentary portrays the subjects as they struggle to find a place where they can integrate identity, love and belief. The work captures moments where those components collide, including the story of one young man who spent five years in “ex-gay” therapy trying to become straight, Akers said.
Another film subject is a Brazilian-born Adventist pastor who was fired for being gay. His family dissolved in divorce soon after. Relocated in America, he searches for that longed-for Adventist community and a way to fellowship and serve.
Akers and Eyer, who live in California’s Napa Valley, are steeped in Adventism via their families for generations — Ackers’ father worked in public relations at Walla Walla University in the late 1970s — and making their film created rifts.
“Because suddenly everyone is worried you’re going to be airing the dirty laundry of the church,” Akers said.
Her mother told her she wanted no part of the film. Until, that is, she saw it.
“The next week, she sent a check to the San Francisco Film Society, our sponsor, and said, ‘I want my name in the credits,’” Akers said with a laugh.
Her mother’s reaction mirrors those of audiences everywhere, she said. Adventists who have come to see “Seventh-Gay Adventists” are suspicious of it at first, until they walk with the subjects in the film.
“It doesn’t mean everyone had a theological shift,” Akers said. “But they have walked in the shoes of someone with the same background, who went to Pathfinders, went to the church pot lucks. You recognize someone you thought was ‘the other’ is your brother.”
The movie has not been a moneymaker for Akers and Eyer, but money was not the point in undertaking the project.
“This is measured in impact, not dollars,” she said. “These are our kids, our family members, our church members. We have got to find a way to start treating each other better. … This can be another thing we learn to talk about and still stay in fellowship.”
This article was published by permission of the daily newspaper in Walla Walla, Washington. Adventist Today has not edited it in any way.