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Sunday, February 08, 2009

From the LA Times: Faith forms a bond for a lesbian priest and a Mormon father of three

A documentary film about same-sex marriage and theology leads to friendship, admiration and new understanding.

By Duke Helfand

February 7, 2009

Who could have foreseen what would happen between the Mormon filmmaker and the lesbian priest?

Not Douglas Hunter, even after he took a leap of faith and trained his camera on the Rev. Susan Russell.

And maybe not even Russell, who had undergone a remarkable transformation from onetime suburban soccer mom to priest and outspoken champion of gay rights.

But the friendship that took root when Hunter asked Russell to play the central role in his documentary about same-sex marriage and theology would lead two people from different worlds to a new understanding of themselves and their faiths.

"We're all telling the same stories about God's work in our lives," said Hunter, 40, a father of three from Pasadena who discovered Russell on the Internet.

Technology may have provided the bridge, but it was an ancient religious calling that drew Hunter to Russell, a senior associate priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

Hunter felt a religious obligation to cross the same boundary Jesus is said to have traversed 2,000 years ago when he spoke of embracing the outsider.

No group was further outside Mormon circles, Hunter thought, than gays and lesbians. Mormonism, he knew, viewed homosexual acts as sins, and Mormons would become among the most generous supporters of California's Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage that was approved by voters last fall.

It was in early 2007, after the death of a close family friend, that Hunter decided it was time to put his religious ideals to the test.

Filmmaking provided the vehicle.

A freelance post-production supervisor for television shows, he had already made two films: a documentary about rock climbing and another short movie about a couple overcoming a marital infidelity.

His new film, he reasoned, would allow him to explore a subject considered taboo by many other Mormons but which he could no longer ignore.

"The engagement of the 'other' was so important in the teaching of Jesus that it had to have a place of centrality in my own faith," he said. "What's your reward if you only love people who already love you?"

Hunter didn't know where to start, so he turned to his computer. He typed in random search terms -- "Christian gay," "gay theology." The search led to a clip of Russell on YouTube and then to her personal blog, called An Inch at a Time.

"I was like, 'Wow, she's fabulous. She's here in Pasadena. She's practically a neighbor,' " he said.

Hunter sent an e-mail to Russell in June 2007, explaining that he wanted to make a short documentary about the personal and spiritual challenges of same-sex marriage. The finished product, he said, would be submitted to an international documentary project that would broadly address the meaning of citizenship.

Russell, 54, was accustomed to interview requests in her role as president of Integrity USA, an advocacy group for gay and transgender Episcopalians. She had few qualms about sharing the details of her personal story to further her cause.

With a command of Christian theology and a fearless streak, she had become a national emblem in the struggle for gay equality in the Episcopal Church, a spiky-haired priest in a clerical collar who turned up on CNN and such news programs as ABC's "Good Morning America."

A few weeks after Hunter's e-mail arrived, Russell agreed to meet him in her office at All Saints.

"That first meeting was about getting my foot in the door and letting her know I was for real," Hunter recalled.

By August 2007, Russell was sitting through several hours of interviews and camera shots at the church. That material -- indeed, the priest herself -- would become the heart of Hunter's 19-minute film, "The Constant Process," which also features family pictures, including a snapshot of a smiling Russell and her ex-husband on their wedding day, cutting their cake.

In the film, Russell tells how, after college, she settled into a privileged life in Ventura with her banker husband and two young sons. There was tennis and sailing and a golden retriever at home.

But Russell felt strangely agitated.

"I had this sense that I had everything I ever wanted, you know, this really blessed life, and then I had this imploding thought in my head. . . . Is that enough?" she says in the film. "I look back on that moment as the beginning of my spiritual U-turn."

Russell felt a call to the ministry. As she grew more spiritual, however, her marriage deteriorated.

The turning point came during a religious conference on the East Coast, where Russell met a woman who also was struggling with a troubled relationship, in her case with a female partner.

Russell and her new friend talked at length about their lives. When the woman asked if Russell might be gay, Russell answered, "I'm quite sure I'm not gay."

But the question weighed on her. Why hadn't she ever entertained the possibility? Was there something inherently wrong with being gay?

The next day, during a service at the National Cathedral in Washington, Russell heard a voice in her head.

"This is how I made you," it said. "Now I need you to go back and be the priest I made you to be."

The words seemed so loud that Russell looked around to see if anyone else heard them.

"I walked out of that service . . . changed," she says in the film. "It was just really clear to me that my life didn't look like what I thought it did.

"So for me, the coming-out experience really had nothing to do with a sexual act or even a relationship or a person," she adds. "It was about really, finally understanding my fullest, deepest self and getting all the pieces in place."

As Russell told her story to Hunter, he realized that he wasn't just filming, he was learning from her. He was especially moved by the priest's concept of romantic love, with its emphasis on spiritual and emotional intimacy as a precursor to physical expression.

"That resonated with me and gave me a renewed appreciation of my relationship with my wife," he said.

Hunter also felt his empathy growing for gays and lesbians, especially friends who felt compelled to hide their sexual orientation. Perhaps that was because he, too, held a secret: Hunter had been sexually abused as a child by two neighbors in his native Philadelphia.

He knew what it was like to hide a part of himself and pretend his life was in order. "I kept that locked away," he said.

Something else was occurring: Hunter and Russell were becoming friends. As election day neared last November, Hunter began showing up at "No on 8" rallies alongside his documentary subject.

Russell's initial curiosity about Hunter gave way to admiration, particularly over his decision to vote against the same-sex marriage ban and to speak out against it. She realized that she was sharing in his transformation. And that filled her with a sense of wonder.

"It isn't a risk for a priest from All Saints to go to a Prop. 8 demonstration, but it is for a devout, straight Mormon father of three," Russell said. "It just speaks volumes about how deeply Douglas walks the talk in terms of really putting his faith into action."

Hunter had to balance his new friendship against his obligation to his church, whose members, at the urging of church leaders, were contributing millions of dollars to help pass the ban.

Knowing he was walking the finest of lines, he told only a few close Mormon friends about his opposition to Proposition 8 and about his documentary, even as it debuted last fall at a gay and lesbian film festival in Chicago. The project also will be shown at afilm festival in Pomona in April.

"As a Mormon, I have a responsibility and commitment to listen to my church leaders," he said. "At the same time, listening to my church leaders does not absolve me of the ethical responsibility to listen to the voice of the other."

Hunter said he hoped the film would spark a thoughtful conversation about acceptance. "There are some things that Mormons are going to find challenging in the film, such as a lesbian priest saying that God is working through her," he said. "I think that is a good point of discussion."

And so he stayed his course, but not without turmoil, as tensions grew over Mormon support for the same-sex marriage ban.

Just days before the Nov. 4 election, Hunter joined Russell for an interfaith service in the ornate sanctuary of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral near USC. One by one, speakers took the stage to reflect on the proposed ban.

Finally, Hunter stepped forward. He spoke about compassion and about the universality of love.

"If as a straight man I find the tools for strengthening my marriage in the relationships of same-sex couples and of a dear friend, can I deny them a fundamental right that I benefit from and cherish?" he asked. "The answer is no."

Fist found on Susan Russell's blog An Inch At A Time (linked over on the right).

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