Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
Though I received a review copy sometime around the world premiere in February 2011, I have for months neglected to write about New Spirits, Heave-Ho Productions’ feature length documentary following members of New Spirit Community Church, an LGBT-affirming congregation in Oak Park, Illinois. The film has been three years in the making, and I met producer/director Andrew Freer at a Killing the Buddha event in Chicago about midway through its production. Andrew seemed like a nice guy, and he’d been following this pro-gay evangelical movement while I’d been following an ex-gay evangelical movement, and we had too much to talk about for our five minutes at Quimby’s bookstore. We didn’t talk again, but I was happy to get a DVD in the mail a year or so later.
Andrew is a young graduate of Wheaton College, the highly selective evangelical liberal arts school I would no doubt have attended myself had my grades been good enough—and were it not for my niggling queerness.
I never became a Wheatie, though. Instead, I dropped out of suburban life, moved five hours north, and hosted weekend-long parties which my peers who had made the college cut attended religiously, mostly tucking themselves away to study until it was time for church. They were rigorous, those kids, and I thought it a little weird that they didn’t have much of a beef with Catholics11 The ubiquitous born-again beef was that Catholics were a bunch of Pope-worshipping baby-baptizers who prayed to Mary and spent way too much money decorating their sanctuaries. They thought wafers were actually the flesh of Christ and that if you died in a car wreck on your way to the confession booth you’d have to burn (at least a little) for your outstanding sins. In those Mike Warnke days, I could have said I was from a family of Satan-worshippers and seemed less doomed than when I admitted to the leadership at Bible church that I lived with my Catholic grandparents. We were called to “be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers,” and Catholics were figured as the most insidious would-be yokemates of all, pulling your row ever leftward even while invoking the name of Christ. and they even called some Catholics “Christians.” But they were all sports, and I was still a little jealous, or a lot, that they had this great Christian community with Fernando Ortega concerts and local theater companies and sweet editorial assistant jobs at Tyndale House publishing. I Did-It-Myself as best I could, and watched all my summer camp friends graduate with their Rings By Spring (or your money back)TM and not until later did I realize that this whole experience had given me a kind of Wheaton education by proxy. They chilled me out a little, those Wheaties. Liberalized me just a hair, and showed me what it was like to take novels and college exams seriously. And even though the experience was secondhand for me, I suspect Wheaton education was something of a gateway drug opening me up to greater depths of literary interest, self-acceptance, and friendship with Catholics.
So it’s not entirely surprising that a purported gateway film like New Spirits would come out of that place, and now that I’ve had my own rich and firsthand college experience, the oppressive jealousy is mostly out of the way and I’m happy to indulge some Wheaton nostalgia. Thinking I was ready for the movie—that I would watch it and appreciate it and quickly send off an easy endorsement—I phoned up some old friends (in fact, my old pastor’s daughter, now a professor of English, and her brother and husband and daughter and 17-year-old gay son and his lover) and we watched together in their killer basement theater, clicker at the ready so we could pause-for-discussion.
In retrospect, I’m glad I screened the film among others, and especially among folks with whom I’ve shared years of church experience. I think otherwise I may have slit my wrists, or at least carved out my shortribs with a rusty butter knife and packed the wounds with salt.
New Spirits is not the type of LGBT-affirming documentary that’s going to win a Lammy, or whatever the filmic equivalent of the gay-affirming literary award is. And, as my old pastor’s son pointed out, it’s unlikely to “bridge the gap” between the anti-gay evangelical old guard and gay-affirming youngsters.
The movie’s endeavor to bridge that gap is most blatantly represented by an interview with the Campolos, Tony and Peggy, who are ubiquitous these days on the LGBT inclusion debate circuit. The Compolos offer a self-contained traveling panel discussion, where together they lay out some of the ways the church has historically wronged LGBT folks, and then they discuss their differing opinions. Peggy says LGBT people aren’t going to give church another chance unless there’s a welcome mat with their name on it, and Tony claims “a conservative view,” noting that Peggy’s stance is “more liberal” than his.
The film features several interview segments with him but never spells out Tony Campolo’s more conservative position, and only after a discussion over spiked hot cider the following week at Jay Bakker’s Revolution Church in Williamsburg did I get a vague notion that perhaps Tony is more accepting than he admits and that perhaps the whole Campolo Roadshow is a kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop performance designed to provoke conservatives into open-heartedness. Tony himself notes that he and Peggy are a kind of metaphor for the church. An emeritus professor of sociology, Tony claims that “every denomination is on the verge of schism” over the gay question and he hopes that the church, like his marriage, can absorb disagreement on this front and remain intact. Tony says LGBT rights will be a minor issue 50 years from now, and he thinks that most evangelicals at that point will pretty much agree with his stance—the more conservative one that is never spelled out.
If the Campolo Roadshow is about making conservative congregations comfortable enough to open their hearts a little bit, the New Spirits film as a whole seems to be about making viewers of any stripe feel uncomfortable on nearly every level for 79 minutes.
For starters, try to keep a straight face sitting in a Christian basement screening an earnest documentary that opens with a close shot of a bearish, florid-faced pastor behind his lectern looking down through designer glasses at an open Bible and, in effort to explain how best to love and obey Jesus, lilting with no apparent irony, “Some things are best appreciated on our knees.”
That is the opening scene. Could the inclusion of that entendre have POSSIBLY been unintentional? Only if the filmmakers are good Midwestern Protestants with upbringings so purely vanilla they think BJ stands for blueberry jam, and even then, I’m just not sure.
Not much later in the film, three men are at a dinner party. Dan, a music director who we see from below as he’s rocking back and forth self-soothingly in an overstuffed recliner, is talking about having sex with men, how some people say it’s not really love it’s lust, how he believed that for a while, but how that view didn’t account for the emotional depth of his attractions to men. Dan considers himself a “political liberal and a theological conservative,” and he’s about to explain what the Bible really says about homosex when a voice from the kitchen says, “Dan, can I have you taste the meat?” and Dan loses his thought and rises just a bit from his chair, stuttering, “I like my… I like my meats.” Dan is blind, so there’s a little bit of awkwardness as Israel, a makeup artist who loves to model his own product, approaches the chair and slowly inserts a spoonful of meat into Dan’s widely waiting mouth. We see Dan’s nostrils flare and his gut stretch the buttons of his flannel shirt to their limits as he tastes the meat approvingly, bringing the conversation to a close.
Before we even get to the gay rewrite of “Amazing Grace” or the love offering given in memory of Vanessa’s ferret, one of my companions points out that this whole thing seems more like a Christopher Guest mocumentary than a serious effort to open communication between so-called “pro-family” evangelicals and those who think being gay is A-OK (as long as you’re married and monogamous). He’s got a point, and the whole basement viewing contingent laughs and begins drawing comparisons to Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.
But New Spirits is NOT a Christopher Guest mocumentary; it’s entirely serious, and when Bette Boop dies (that’s the ferret) and Vanessa can’t afford the $675 bill she’s left with and she’s sitting in an otherwise empty pew in a nearly empty sanctuary with her head hung down about 70 degrees as Pastor Bradley Mickelson quotes her written description of being “scared to death” and encourages the 15 or so congregants present to “dig deep,” I can feel my eyes welling up with the first tears my body has produced since I began hormone replacement therapy in 2008. My recent dose of testosterone and my deep aversion to lanky chicken-sucking vermin are just no match for the “great despair” described in Vanessa’s letter as she sits on that pew in an anguished silence rocking her head from side to side, hiding her face with her hand in what is perhaps a gesture of shame, or simply agony. The only words we hear her say are the ferret’s name, which she must repeat for Pastor Bradley to hear, and from the message he reads we know that, for a short time at least, she doubted she would be able to leave the house and come to church again. Not until the second viewing, when I’m fortified by a prophylactic increase in T dosage, do I do the math and note that even if each congregant gave $40—and, given the homes we’ve seen and prayer requests we’ve been privy to, $40 would be a deep dig indeed—Vanessa would still be left with a substantial bill and a dead best friend.
I force my way through large segments of the film only by telling myself that if its producers were brave enough to follow this congregation and sit with the stories for three years, I can surely take 79 minutes. But I also note that the filmmakers had each other, and, after the first viewing, I had no company at all.
I remember reading Night, Elie Wiesel’s gruesome Auschwitz testimony, for English class my junior year of high school, and it was such a thin volume that it was the first book I had finished on time, even early. I was one of few who had chosen the book and the next day my teacher, the barefoot chainsmoking composition maven Barb Fryzel, asked me how I was liking Night, and I said it was excellent and that I’d finished it already, couldn’t put it down. Mrs. Fryzel told me I must have no humanity whatsoever to be able to finish Night so quickly. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I thought, thoroughly shamed. I made myself read the book again, and I’ve never finished anything on time since.
Watching New Spirits, I’m so angry I want to force everyone else to watch it, slowly, several times over. I want every pastor, every middle class gay person, every liberal ally in America to have to watch that film at a public screening where Andrew Freer makes them dissect each scene in a lengthy Q&A session during which they cannot nod off and all wireless reception is scrambled and afterward there is a cake-and-punch social where they are forced to mingle with members of New Spirit Community Church while wearing clammy rubber masks and attempting to walk/talk in approximation of the hegemonic version of a gender that is not their own. I also want the Campolos to watch it at least three times, and I want Jay Bakker and Reverend Vince and Becky Garrison to block the fire exits while Andrew Freer asks Tony pointedly what he really thinks the church should do about the gay problem. In fact, the only people I DON’T want to watch this film are my mother and anti-gay evangelicals. And I guess my mother is covered in the anti-gay evangelical category, anyhow.
In every non-interview scene that does not take place in someone’s home or place of business, several faces are blurred to conceal identity. When Dan’s lover Sean, a short round man with a self-consciously high voice and round eyeglasses thick as a Dickens novel, gives his testimony early in the film, he somehow fails to convince me when he says, echoing advice columnist Dan Savage who created the viral “It Gets Better” campaign, “It took a while, but it did get better.” I hate to imagine it worse than it seems now, though Sean does seem traumatized by early fatherly rejection and he talks of spending an hour in the basement practicing a manlier walk in effort to impress his black/Filipino, traditionally-masculine dad. Two other members of Sean’s congregation, which the promo material describes as “a unique family … borne of hardship and a sincere desire to foment within its welcoming arms a new spirit,” point out that the hour of walking practice was a complete waste. At first I assume they mean it was a waste because Sean should be able to walk however he sees fit, but one of the congregants is quick to clarify that the walking was a waste simply because it was a failure. They tease Sean for his inexorable femininity and he sinks back into himself, hopelessly gay.
Whenever I meet an inexplicable D-bag, especially one who’s middle-aged and in a straight marriage, I hope that they’re gay. Coming out of the closet has transformed many lives for the better—has alleviated deep depression, mitigated anger, improved family relationships. Coming out is one of a handful of common rites that really shakes up life trajectory, even late on, and doesn’t carry with it the pain of disease or loss that other lifeshaking events do. People are better to each other when they are recognized and loved, so saying “God, I hope they’re gay” is a kind of last-ditch prayer of hope for D-bag repentance, and sometimes it turns out. But in this movie, coming out is no happy-ever-after. These people have some shit on their shoes.
Watching them, I am uncomfortable in the much way that I am uncomfortable standing on a narrow steel beam looking down at small workers dallying far below. It is a visceral dizzying terror. At every team-building course I’ve been forced to attend, someone notes how quickly I cross the tightrope, how quickly I scale a wall or rappel down a wall. Yes, yes. That is because heights make me sick with fear. My only luck is that I am not often paralyzed by fear; I am moved to action. I’ve learned not to stop, not to look down and remind myself just how narrow my foothold is, just how far the fall. Perhaps that is the difference here, and why I didn’t shrivel away on estrogen, forever a spinster-of-faith, why I didn’t redeem that Wheaton College rejection letter for a meth habit, why I’m not as downtrodden as the New Spirit congregants. Or maybe that supposed difference is simply a comforting fiction; maybe it’s luck of circumstance—economic class, ability, health, timing—more than anything, that accounts for my relative wellness. And yet, watching the film, I do not feel safe. I am standing on the beam, and I’ve never had great balance.
There is a man talking with cheese on the corners of his mouth. We see skin tags, scabs, frayed cuffs, stretched buttons. The light switch is dirty, and there’s a hole in the drywall underneath the thermostat. Fiberglass insulation is exposed behind a man who is smoking a cigarette, taking out the garbage, a man who believes he saw hell the last time he put a needle in his arm. We hear sniffles, breath, a spoon scraping teeth. We follow a blind man down a dark hallway toward a bathroom. People are wearing sweatpants, baggy shirts. The poet who rewrote “Amazing Grace” has a neck tattoo.
So Reverend Bradley is not ministering to comfortable middle-class people whose distress will fade once the battle for gay civil rights has been won. He notes that New Spirit is a spiritual hospital for many people. Peggy Campolo says the church has widely behaved as a hateful community, and that the infamous suicides of the bullied are just a few of the chickens come home to roost. “There are people who lose their physical lives, but there are a lot more people who lose the lives they could live for Christ in the church.”
Chris, whose church attendance waxes and wanes through the course of the film, talks about how New Spirit tends “to drain its faithful members” because of the need and pull and emotional hurt of its LGBT congregants. He suggested that the church needs another element: straight people. I am sympathetic to Chris, who is the user who saw hell, and I think Reverend Bradley sees it, too. New Spirit is not supposed to be a gay church, but simply a church with a ministry.
When 46 minutes into the film we hear a child whining, we basement viewers finally notice how conspicuous the absence of children has been. Christmas celebrations, home visits, and a public spaghetti dinner with nary a carpetburner in view. Instead we see a man approach a man who is applying makeup just before a prayer meeting and ask, “Can that concealer work on black skin, too?” and I am jarred back into an awareness of mainstream evangelical church, and how the openly gay side is not the only side missing something.
What straight people of means care to go to a mainly gay church? Why, when they can merely absorb the fringe elements into their own congregations, stowing them away with the extra folding chairs until they need an assistant choir director or a couple of wise men for the live nativity scene?
Exodus International, the so-called “ex-gay” ministry, gets this, and on my most generous and tricky days I suspect that Exodus exists to get the queers a foot in the door, and that later the leaders hope the mainstream church will chill out and recognize gay relationships. Maybe not, but this is yet another comforting fiction, however speculative, and it’s not so different from the Campolo Roadshow.
In any case, at Exodus conferences I’ve attended, people are up. With the exception of some sullen teenagers who were coerced to attend and a handful of distraught wives who caught their husbands in man-on-man affairs, attendees seem to be having a great time. It’s like an Evangelical All-Star game. Nothing really at stake, but the best of the best come out to some savory American vacation destination for a week of wild summer fun. There’s Music and Theater—Exodus men are quick to note that church productions would be much thinner without their direction. People are friendly and single and not allowed to pair off. They discuss their sexualities openly, sway to hours on end of praise and worship music, take yoga classes together, throw around footballs, swap selp-help tapes, and parse scripture with rabbis. If you’re in need of a pickerupper, there’s no doubt a Braveheart screening right this minute, and what’s an ex-gay meeting without a Knighting Ceremony? That’s right: Sir Quince Mountain to you, bitches. Christine Sneeringer, an ex-lesbian who, by God’s grace, is now Professionally Straight, is also, by God’s grace, utterly hilarious. She emcees these conferences, and sometimes she slips into ad lib commentary that would rival anything at the best clubs in the Village. Unfortunately, Sneeringer always catches herself too soon, yoga eludes me, and I get the shakes whenever someone prays aloud while playing an electronic keyboard. But, for most attendees at least, Exodus is fun. And what people who have never attended invariably fail to visualize is that an ex-gay event is just a big gay party without all the sex and intimidating fashion. You don’t go home feeling rejected and shitty about your body, and that is something.
Ah, yes, but Exodus’ annual rager costs upwards of $300 plus airfare. Most of the attendees could cover Vanessa’s vet bill in a quick second. But none of them will because their paths are unlikely to cross. Exodus is a place where gay people go to have fun and fortify their sexual repression while New Spirit is a place people go to affirm their same-sex attractions while wading deep in one another’s misery. What’s the expression? You join the Army for your nation but you fight for your brothers-in-arms? Something like that. These people may have come to church to find God, but it’s the community that holds them. And, if we continue the military metaphor, Exodus guys are pencil pushers in support battalions while Reverend Bradley is running a cave-by-cave reconnaissance operation. Deadly, without the dope melody.
Church stabilizes their relationships, and they hold the church together despite odds, economic and otherwise. We see nearly every non-blurred New Spirit congregant do something for the community in this film. Sheree reads her poem; Lori gives a presentation on transgender life and sets up the silent auction at a fundraiser. She also rocks the leaf-blower in autumn. Dan plays the piano and leads worship; when he is absent, the a capella hymn-singing is lamentable no matter the tune. Chris arranges flowers; Sean gives testimony; Israel has his make-up ministry; Chico proposes a prayer (with his baseball cap on backwards); and Reverend Bradley Mickelson remains steadfast after 15+ years.
When I look down from this narrow beam I can’t stand standing on, I look for something crisp to focus on, but below to my left is a roiling mess of queer congregants. At New Spirit church, some faces are blurred, and some aren’t. Away from church, the congregant footage is raw, and often unflattering. Nasal passages are seen from below. People are cut off at the ankles. Their warty scabrous hands are filmed; they rock in and out of focus. We hear voices talking off screen. We see a messy countertop covered with a ketchup bottle, Wesson cooking oil, a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, ground meat, iceberg lettuce, a cool whip container, a crockpot, a vaporizer, A-1 steak sauce, Hershey syrup, and a green plastic piggy bank containing few coins. Books on shelves are stacked willy-nilly, spines sometimes facing inward, and a phone rings loudly (and is picked up) during an interview. Another congregant whose space is relatively neat and airy shows off her sculpture and collage work which features, among other things: the blurry figure of a woman, a piranha, and foam packing peanuts.
There is just nothing stabilizing on that side of New Spirits, at least for me, no place to sink into my gaze.
But if I look down to the right side, at the not-so-queer activists, my balance is no better. When I try to fix upon the authors, politicos, and professors who cast their votes on gay future (or not) of Christianity—the Compolos or the former Republican congressman from Arizona or the Oxford professor or the Wheaton professor, for example—I get the shakes. I can’t stand them for their clean lines and offices arranged just so. For sitting up in decent light and making their even-voiced declarations, legs crossed appropriately. For having been the bullies or perhaps the standers-by and now padding their ministerial résumés with armchair declarations. You, Dr. Gary Burge, for standing in a museum telling me that your brothers in Christ shouldn’t use such “mean-spirited language” and for talking about how to present the straight-mongering truth of Christ in love. Do you want to present Christ’s love, Dr. Burge? When you screen this film with your family, which parts do you show them? Did you send Vanessa a love offering for Bette Boop? Did you want to?
These queer congregants are praying for debt relief. They are praying for the energy to do their low-wage jobs. They pray to meet their mortgage payments, to help one another find their ways back to church, to be able to walk to the bus without anger.
When Dan’s dog gets too old, he is turned down by several helper dog organizations. And then when he finally gets a new dog, Emerson, he worries that the vet will return the wrong dog. “Don’t all labs look the same?” the sightless man asks, and his lover Sean reassures him. Emerson, for his part, reassures Sean that his partner will make it home from the symphony in Evanston without falling off the train platform. But who will be there to reassure Dan when Sean (who assured us in the beginning that “It does get better”) suffers a freak brain aneurism and is left unlikely to recover?
Is this turning into too much of a plot summary? If so, that’s all the film offers, and that’s why it’s brave. For all the ankle-cut framing and awkwardly long stills and the painfully-lighted interviews, New Spirits is worth watching because it shows LGBT Christian life in its desperation. No neat endings, just crisis after crisis offered up in matter-of-fact Protestant parlance while a bunch of people in bright offices talk about what should be done. The gap that must be bridged here is not merely some small inchoate Peggy vs. Tony Campolo difference of opinion. Between straight church and queer church lies a chasm deep and wide.