A couple of months ago I had an opportunity to watch the documentary film Compelling Love along with some friends as part of the Level Ground Film Festival. I have to admit that I was surprised by the film. In film school, I was taught to never rely on talking heads when telling a story, but in this film, “talking heads” is one of its greatest strengths.
The film allows individuals of varying sexual orientations and gender identities to tell their own stories about how they have tried to move beyond tolerance. After the film, we listened as Trista Carr, one of the interviewees in the film, explained how each person featured in the film had the opportunity the edit their own segment, which is atypical for most documentary films. The director, Kurt Neale’s trust of each individual helped accentuate his belief in the importance of compelling love, which, as he states,
“Is the experience created when truth and grace collide. It occurs when people are truthful in expressing their stories, values, and beliefs, yet willing to receive with grace those who differ, offend, or stand positionally “against” them.”
One of the stories that touched me the most was that of John Carswell. John’s emotional story centered around his sister and the close relationship that they once had. He shared how much he loved his sister, but when she eventually told the family that she was a lesbian, he thought the best thing he could do was tell her how wrong she was. I watched as John cried tears of regret over having a lost a relationship that was very dear to him, all because he thought he was doing the right thing.
I can relate to John’s story on so many levels. I know that I have alienated gay friends in the past because I thought they were wrong and I had been taught that the best thing I could do as their friend was to tell them so in order to save their souls. My ideology could not make room for people who were gay and might be Christians, or people who were wrestling with their faith due to the contradictions they had seen in religious talk of love versus misunderstandings clothed in bigotry and hatred. The irony of it all was that as a Bible-believing, Bible thumping, single Christian woman, I was sleeping around with a man that I thought I loved. The very same religion that was teaching me that homosexuality was an unforgiveable sin, was the same religion that would say I was committing a sin. So there I was, wrestling with how someone like me could ever throw stones at anyone, whether it be a gay person or a liar. I was shaken by the contradiction in my own definition of love. Peter Fitch in his book Learning to Interpret Toward Love states that typically in Christian circles:
"Theology sets the standard and people ought to be encouraged to meet it. Something in me believed right from the start that this was exactly the wrong way to pastor people. Instead, it seemed to me, my job was to encourage people to receive the love of God exactly as they were. No matter what they were working through, no matter how many addictions or issues, it was always the same: help them understand that God loves them now. There is nothing that needs to happen before they begin to feel His love."
Because of my own experience with God’s grace, I began to see that his love does not have qualifiers. Jesus never told anyone that he would not eat with them--except the Pharisees. It was this change in ideology that also began to change my heart. And as my heart began to change, so did my questions.
Was sex really a sin? Why should someone be shamed and ridiculed when they were born with a certain sexual orientation?
While I am on the road to resolving some of these questions in my own heart, I still wrestle with others. But I still feel as though I am in the same state as John Carswell. As someone who desires to be an ally, how do I go back and repair those relationships with LGBT people that I may have alienated in the past? John’s tears that he cried in the film for wanting just to speak to his sister again are the same tears I cry for the many times that I told someone that they could not sit at my table because of who they loved.
The film uses the table as a constant metaphor throughout the film, asking the question: “Who is the person that sits across the table from you?” In other words, who is the person that disagrees with you or whose opinions offend you.
I could say that the people who sit across from me are the ones who think like I used to think. The ones who condemn LGBT people and say that Jesus does not love them because of who they are. Those opponents do offend me, but the people sitting across from me that make me weep are those like John’s sister. I wish I could take back words I’ve said and exchange them for an embrace or a gesture, letting those who I once called friends know that even in the midst of my questions, I hear them. And just as Compelling Love has demonstrated, their stories matter. For now, maybe the best thing I can do as an ally is to extend the same grace and compelling love that Neale so poignantly portrays in this film.