The other night, I finally took the DVD of Call to Witness, Pam Walton’s documentary of three gay pastors struggling with ordination in the Lutheran Church. I am glad I did, but I had the same reaction I did to Trembling Before G-D; the action of the film is basically watching people hit their heads against a wall. What keeps me watching them is that the wall is built only of ideas, but ideas that are treated as immovable, unchangeable, and profoundly right. Based, of course, on text, ignorance, and discomfort.
This documentary centers on Steve Sabin, a pastor of a congregation in Ames, Iowa, who lives with his partner and his two daughters from a previous marriage to a woman; Anita C. Hill,, a woman hoping to be ordained as the first lesbian minister; and Jane Ralph another woman who was defrocked with no recourse. There are also interviews with three openly gay pastors from an independent congregation in San Francisco. In the larger congregation in San Francisco, the church knew it would be disciplined by appointing pastors who were unapproved by the Bishop, but did anyway, as it is located in the Castro, and felt its mission was to minister to gay men and lesbians. Smart move. The church was excommunicated from the whole, as expected, and has now formed a non-profit organization that helps other pastors who have come out, or congregations who wish to support their pastors and become independent from the larger church body.
We see Steve Sabin with his congregants, who are all supportive (at least the ones we are shown), and follow him on the time leading up to his hearing. He, of course, is defrocked. It is interesting to note, though, that his church refuses to fire him. At one point, a man on the board questioning him suggests that because he isn’t married to his partner, that he sets a bad example by living out of wedlock. As if that was an option. I love these people—I really do. Revered Sabin had the most emotional moment for me, speaking of discomfort, and that sometimes we are called to be uncomfortable and make uncomfortable choices. I also thought it was fun to see him with his partner, who is just a big gay nerd, in the best way—he plays piano at services. You can tell that Steve is not a huge fan of having so much publicity, but is truly invested in his work and his duty, which is inspiring in itself.
Anita C. Hill, as well, who has performed all the duties of pastor, including communion, is hoping in the film to be the first openly Lesbian minister. In my favorite example, she was shown wearing her sash sideways, like a beauty contestant. She was not allowed to wear it down, like a pastor approved by the Bishop. As predicted, she fails, but, having been the pastor at her church for twenty years, they decide to go independent rather than lose her.
These congregants are not revolutionaries. But what I came away with was the power of coming out. These people have deep relationships with their congregants. That was inspiring, to say the least. And it’s here where I can see how things can change. The more it’s everyday, the more people will change their attitudes. Of course it’s religion—it’s slow. And it’s scripture written about tribal hatreds and fears from 6 milleniums ago. But, the more people are willing to add their own stamp, the more religion has a chance to inspire and elevate.
I won’t get too deeply into my thoughts here, but I keep coming back to the idea of religions itself, and man’s impulse to praise, to wonder, to awe. A friend said there are theories now that awe is one of the basic human emotions, and the one that inspires religion. If that’s so, I hope that G & L people express their part of this when they need to. I try to look at this as positive, not as just a struggle of people beating their heads against an imaginary wall for someone else’s approval. Because as base I believe it’s not God making any of these decisions. And it never has been. If the divine lives anywhere, it lives in the congregants who are standing by the people who have supported them. That’s a brave, laudable, and divine act.
I have about six more documentaries on religion in my Netflix queue, so I’m sure there will be more. Yeeha.