FILM: Faith unites Mormon filmmaker and lesbian priest

February 23, 2009

Filmmaker Douglas Hunter didn't set out to befriend or even to film the Rev. Susan Russell when researching same-sex marriage for a new documentary, he told an audience at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, on February 22.

Rather, the 40-year-old father of three wanted to explore "the dynamic between religion and sexuality" and to engage those outside his own Mormon faith, which teaches that gay marriage is taboo.

Russell, 54, definitely fit the bill. The president of Integrity USA, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians, she campaigned last year to defeat California's Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage that was heavily supported by the Mormon Church.

"I discovered Susan as I started researching … and it led me to this path," said Hunter who eventually joined anti-Prop 8 rallies and spoke out publicly against the measure. California voters approved the ban by a 52-47 margin in last November's election.

That path led to surprises for both Hunter and Russell. They discovered a lasting friendship, a commitment "to never give up on each other" and the realization for which the film is named, that throughout life, change is "The Constant Process."

From suburban soccer mom to activist priest

Hunter found Russell after googling the words "gay Christian" but said he quickly recognized the depth of the story of the former suburban soccer mom and now lesbian priest activist and the power of personal stories to spark transformation.

"I thought, here is an interesting individual that embodies some very dramatic transformation in her life," Hunter said.

Initially, Russell was skeptical; convincing her to become his documentary subject required some effort, he told about 300 people who attended the All Saints screening of "The Constant Process."

In the opening moments of the film, however, Russell says she agreed in the hopes that "others might see and understand our truth has value."

The film describes how, raised by an Episcopalian father and Lutheran mother, she graduated from college, married a banker and tried to settle into a comfortable upper middle class Ventura County life. Yet the mother of two was plagued by an "internal agitation with no external reasons."

Although filled with the sense of having everything she'd ever wanted, Russell still felt a call "to make a difference" and to engage the issues of the day. That call eventually led to her coming out, which "had nothing to do with a sexual act or even a relationship or a person." Rather, it was about discovering and embracing her "fullest, deepest self."

She remembers feeling shocked the first time she saw herself described in print as "lesbian priest." Growing into her present role required courage and stamina, particularly with such personal attacks from bloggers and others as "Rev. Russell serves her flock and Lord Lucifer."

Russell also recalled, during remarks after the film, a former parishioner who told her that "just the idea of a gay couple standing in the spot where my wife and I pledged our lives to each other in my church makes me sick to my stomach. Nothing personal."

It helps "to remember the source of anger is fear," and hopes that all can arrive theologically at "not whodo you love, but do you love?" she said. "Jesus didn't live and die and rise again for us to create a club that we can keep other people out of," she added.

Transformation

Hunter, inspired by "Susan's description of her own sexuality," began the project in 2007. "She didn't put the physical first," recalled Hunter, a freelance post-production supervisor for television shows. He has made two other films, on rock climbing and a short movie about a couple overcoming marital infidelity.

"She talked about the emotional, the spiritual intimacy between two people. I hadn't hard that before," he said.

Much of the filming took place in and around Russell's Pasadena office. She narrated the 19-minute film, which includes photographs and other mementoes from her life. By the time the November 2008 election rolled around, Hunter was experiencing his own transformation.

He began appearing alongside Russell at anti-Prop 8 rallies and eventually felt compelled to speak out. "It wasn't easy," he said at the forum on Sunday. "But everything was pushing me that way," he said, adding that it would have felt hypocritical "not to speak truthfully about Susan's story."

His actions won Russell's admiration and lasting friendship. The film has received positive feedback from the Mormon Church, although Hunter still isn't sure how it will be distributed. It debuted last fall at a gay and lesbian film festival in Chicago and will be shown April 24 at the Smogdance Film Festival in Pomona, California.

Both Russell and Hunter said the experience taught them about not giving up on each other and "the necessity for humanizing ourselves to each other."

"When we find ourselves with what seems to be an impossible impasse, that's where real opportunities are. That's probably the biggest thing I learned through this, through speaking about Proposition 8, … (I am) amazed at the power found in being willing to ... speak from a place of vulnerability rather than a place of strength," said Hunter.

However, the status of gays and lesbians in the Mormon Church is "at a difficult place right now. There are many expressions of good will from the church leadership" but finding ways to translate it into embracing gays and lesbians on a local level is more difficult, he said.

But in the aftermath of the Prop 8 battle, "more progressive Mormons have started to find their voice and talk to one another, primarily through the Internet," he added.

Post-Prop 8 demonstrations at Mormon congregations were very challenging because "we've been so persecuted in our own history that we tend to make everything about how we're being persecuted," he said. "For a lot of folks it did confirm their worst fears that we as Mormons were considered ‘other' and that we were being attacked."

Audience members at the forum expressed appreciation, including "the mother of a gay son" who said she was "totally moved. It is very gentle. I think it might be possible for someone who's a very traditional religious person to see and hear what you have to say and that's very hard to do," she said.

Another woman, "from a non-Christian faith, a guest here today and the mother of a lesbian daughter married on September 14 by my rabbi," urged wide distribution. "We need to get this film out to the parents and friends of lesbians and gays. There are parents and children who face conflict and fear on a daily basis … we need to learn from one another and ease the pain of the coming-out process."

The film inspired actress Becky Kramer, who portrays Russell during her earlier years.

"I was so moved by Doug's transformation. I didn't know he was a Mormon. My view of the Mormon Church in the aftermath of Prop 8 was very negative," said Kramer, who saw the film for the first time Sunday. "To see, meet and know someone like Doug, who's willing to be open, willing to be change, has inspired me with a lot of hope."

 "Again I think it comes to telling personal stories," said Hunter. "Every individual truth has meaning and it's really important to remember that, on both sides."

"Being able to go and worship in different congregations and different communities … I see people moved to tears because of the power of God in their lives," he said, his voice breaking. "I see it in a conservative Mormon who's sharing his testimony and I see it here in community that has been created at All Saints and I see it in Susan. That is the glue that binds us together and I don't ever want to let go of that."

Russell mentioned amid laughter and applause "the great sense, not only in the community and the wider Anglican Communion about this ‘impossible divide between the Anglican Communion and the apostate heretic Episcopal Church', present company totally withstanding. Come on--if we can talk to Mormons, we can sure talk to Anglicans."