I was at the first annual Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC) the first time I saw Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film About Faith on the Margins. It was a private screening with a handful of LGBT student leaders from four Seventh-day Adventist university campuses. Seventh-Gay Adventists documents the lives of three couples who identify as members of both the queer community and the very conservative Seventh-day Adventist faith community. A year and a half later I've seen the film in eight states across the nation. I've helped with every screening I've attended, manning the booths and representing IAGC. During these screenings I have become close to the dynamic husband-and-wife duo who produced and directed the film. Stephen Eyers and Daneen Akers are part of my family now. It has been such a blessing getting to witness firsthand the transformative power of their documentary. At every screening the crowd reacts differently, falling on unique points in their understanding of sexual orientation, gender, faith, beliefs, race, and backgrounds. It is always a special experience, but this past one was certainly my favorite.
Collegedale, Tenn., is known for being a primarily Seventh-day Adventist town. It is home to Seventh-day Adventist-owned corporations such as Little Debbie's and Southern Adventist University. It also used to be my home until my family moved a short distance south into Georgia. Recently, Collegedale has been in national news for being the first city in the state of Tennessee to offer benefits to the same-sex spouses of the city's employees. Kat Cooper, a Collegedale police officer, lobbied for these rights to be extended to her partner. The majority of the officials on the Collegedale City Council who voted to pass these rights were Seventh-day Adventist themselves. Therefore it was only fitting that the screening of Seventh-Gay Adventists be held in the courtroom where that historic vote took place.
I get nervous every time I watch the film. I never know how a group is going to react, and I can't help but feel that how the audience reacts to the film reflects how they feel about me. Sexuality is a controversial topic in my church, across the nation, and especially in the heart of the Bible Belt. Needless to say, this screening's location only added to my anxiety as I prepared to head down south. My worries grew after I learned that we had received some "weird" emails. After over 75 screenings, this was the first time that Eyers and Akers felt the need to hire security guards.
As I sat at the booth and took the tickets of the Collegedale audience, I recognized a lot of Southern Adventist University's students and churchgoers. However, there were a lot of people I didn't recognize, but I assumed that they were people who followed Kat Cooper's equality case. Our audience was a diverse crowd of different faiths, backgrounds, and generations, and I wondered who among the crowd might be hostile to our message.
Once the film started, my fears started to melt away.
The audience laughed in all the right places, was quiet and cried at the sad moments, and said "amen!" too many times to count. I could tell that we weren't there to argue or debate. We were there for something greater, for something our church had never seen. Everyone wanted to discuss this topic on a human level, and that started with attentive listening.
After every screening there is normally time left for discussion; the attendees give comments, observations, and personal stories from a wide spectrum. This screening was different: The first question asked was about when the film would be available on DVD to be shared "in every nook and cranny." Then there were only a few questions and comments, so Akers took the time to answer some of the FAQs. No one had anything else to say. To me, it wasn't that people were tight-lipped or uncomfortable; they were just sitting and soaking in the message and the moment. "We didn't come here to talk; we came to listen" was the feeling in Collegedale that night.
I decided to raise my hand and make an observation. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I shared that I was nervous about this screening, not just because it was being presented to Seventh-day Adventists but because we were in the South. I told our audience that this is the only part of the country where the word "faggot" has been written on my car, where I've been called an abomination while walking into a gas station, where I just didn't feel safe. I admitted that while checking people in earlier that evening, my skin crawled upon hearing the Southern drawls of the attendees. And then I told the audience how amazed I was at their reactions to the film and the authenticity of this loving space. I could not have asked for a better environment to share our message.
Akers, with tears filling her own eyes, thanked everyone for coming and ended the discussion. That's when something magical happened: The woman sitting behind me tapped my shoulder and said, "I'm Baptist, and I'm from the South, and I just want to say I'm sorry." Then she embraced me and continued, "I'm so sorry for the things you've gone through." Then another person came up to me. He told me, "Thank you for sharing your story, and I just want to say that I'm a redneck and I'm sorry." Eight people came by, one by one, to hug me, all with tears in their eyes as they said, "I'm Baptist [or Methodist, or from Tennessee, or from the South], and I'm sorry."
Something powerful happened on the night of Sept. 8 in the courtroom in Collegedale, Tenn. Cultural lines were crossed, biases were put aside, and for that moment together we just loved unconditionally. God healed a part of me that night through the love of those Southerners. I've never in my life felt so close to someone so different from me than I felt then. Our audience was sorry for things that they had never even done to me personally; they understood. They were sorry for a culture that has perpetuated homophobia, and in that moment nothing from the past mattered, and all was now forgiven. In the act of an embrace, all differences were set aside, and a redneck loved a queer.
From left to right: Krista Cooper, Kat Cooper, Eliel Cruz, and Daneen Akers