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How Documentary Films In Communities Of Faith Can Transform Lives

As a movie and a movement lover who will be toggling between the Oscars this Sunday night and news of this nation’s tumultuous times, I wonder what it would look like if the power of film was maximized to equip communities of faith to advance justice.

I’m a documentary filmmaker. I have seen the power of documentary film to transform lives. I am also an organizer for justice in communities of faith. I have seen the power of communities of faith to transform lives. What I yearn to see is the full power of documentary films in communities of faith to transform lives.

My dad was a civil rights preacher.

My church is a sanctuary church, a part of our 21st Century underground railroad.

In this country, there are millions of progressive people of faith and tens of thousands of institutions living with the mandate to heal and repair the world. But all too often, communities of faith can’t or don’t see the struggles for justice of people and places they have not and may never come to know.

Documentary films can provide windows into these worlds.

And yes. In this day of Black Panther, the case should be made for using all kinds of film and media as organizing tools in communities of faith, but I want to lift up the particular value of documentary to provide windows into worlds folks need to see.

Recently, I have witnessed three examples that give me clues as to what powerful integration of film into faith-rooted organizing can look like.

Example 1: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Economic Justice

Last summer I was at a two-day teach-in and rally for the Poor People’s Campaign. 50 years ago, the activist community of which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a member was leading a campaign to liberate poor people in this nation, a campaign led by poor people. Today, a community of activists all across the country has taken up the mantle of that campaign and will be participating in 40 days of civil disobedience between Mother’s Day and Summer Solstice of this year .

At that state-based teach-in I attended, the facilitators shared clips from Orlando Bagwell’s Citizen King to remind us that grassroots movements led by poor people, all kinds of people, and people of faith have shaped this nation’s history.

These clips transported those gathered in the room – poor and working class activists, organizers and leaders of faith – into fellowship with those who came before us on whose shoulders we perch. Our imaginations were kindled to see what is possible as well as to grapple with the mistakes of movement that has come before us. The window into the civil rights struggle that Citizen King provided restored our hope, reminded us that times have been bad before, but still we have risen to the challenge, and fired us up for the campaign ahead.

Example 2: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Immigrant Justice

Around the same time, I attended a daylong civil disobedience workshop for leaders of faith and moral courage who wanted to put their bodies on the line and bring their communities and congregations into the movement for immigrant justice in the age of Trump.

The training was facilitated by leaders from the campaign to unseat Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona, renegade sheriff who was directing his police force to go after immigrants in ways that were outside the law.

In order to bring the gathered faith leaders into the culture and practice of that campaign, the facilitators opened the session with a clip from Daniel Devivo and Valeria Fernández’s documentary film Two Americans. It catapulted us into that movement moment, thousands of miles away and a year or so ago.

Again, the window through which we could witness the challenges and triumphs of the work made us believe we could win and showed us ways others have done so, leaders of faith offering up their moral authority in the community on behalf of most impacted people whose leadership they flanked. (The picture above is a still from Two Americans representing the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, a local Phoenix pastor committing civil disobedience. Rev. Frederick-Gray is now the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.)

Example 3: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance LGBTQ Justice

I have learned some lessons in my own work at the intersection of faith-rooted justice work and documentary filmmaking. The last film I directed, Love Free or Die, told the story of the church putting its life on the line for LGBTQ justice, following Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom, and the movement he was a part of that changed policy and culture in church and state in the U.S. and abroad.

We folded our national TV broadcast and 400 community screenings of the film into a strategy to advance the marriage equality work of 2012 – in particular the campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

At Auburn, where I work, we had participated in research for the previous two years on how to move conflicted Christian voters to support LGBTQ equality because they were Christian and not in spite of it.

During the year of our screenings, we used that research to equip those who attended the 400 screenings to engage their conflicted Christian friends and family in conversation to help them vote on the right side of history. We also worked with the state campaigns, in partnership with national LGBTQ justice organizations, to train leaders of faith to make the moral case for equality in public and in the press.

In all four states in which we did this work, marriage equality was won – not the ultimate battle for LGBTQ people in this country, but a step in the right direction. In the two states that conducted exit polls to determine what swung the vote, the Christian messaging and messengers were named as one of the top determinants.

I can’t specify what role our movie screenings, friends and family plan, and research and message training played in those victories, but I did see deep relationship between media makers, communities of faith, and movement workers, and that, in and of itself, was an advance in my own practice of engagement with communities of faith around a documentary film.

Key to movement work, to faith traditions, and to documentary film is right relationship – creating a practice and a world in which the full humanity of all is honored and the conditions needed for all to flourish exist.

May we filmmakers explore new and better ways to be in right relationship with communities of faith. May we share our stories of success and failure with one another, so that together we create a practice from which other filmmakers can learn as they engage communities of faith.

For justice to be won, faith communities and filmmakers need each other – to imagine the world as it should be and to bring it into being.


A version of these remarks was offered this past week at GoodPitch Local in Dallas in the company of filmmakers, organizers and funders committed to maximizing the power of media for positive social change. The Auburn team is profoundly grateful for the invitation to be a part of this transformative model of movement building.

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These Fierce Films from Sundance Give Us Hope in the Face of the Terrible State of the Union

The State of the Union is dreadful. Are there any signs of hope in this era in which the Death-eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic?

Just back from the Sundance Film Festival, I am struck by the string of great David-and-Goliath documentary films I saw there.

Taking on the NYPD: Crime + Punishment tells the story of twelve cops of color, a private investigator, a kid incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, and a mother who will not give up until her son is sprung. Together, they expose the widespread corruption within the New York Police Department, which has been pushing cops on the streets to fulfill quotas of arrests, to “get their numbers up” with extra credit for felonies, rather than focus on keeping the peace.

Taking on money in politicsDark Money reveals how big money is buying elections, focusing on a series of races in Montana for state senator and the governorship. An out-of-work reporter, a retiree lawyer, and a team of other everyday folk chart a path through deception and denial and discover evidence that leads to the conviction of the state Senate Majority Leader for breaking campaign finance law and to a renewed effort in the state of Montana for ethical elections.

Taking on corporations poisoning our waterThe Devil We Know investigates the history of the DuPont Corporation dumping chemicals into the Ohio River, promising that what was dumped poses no threat to humans, even as an entire herd of cattle is found suddenly dead near the waste dump site. In the one-company town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, too many children are born deformed. Seven deadly diseases are suddenly legion. And a handful of local red-state residents break from the company culture to take down the corporation.

Taking on warThe Oslo Diaries tells the little-known story of secret meetings that took place in Norway between representatives of the Israeli state and the Palestinian people. A handful of brave souls are sent secretly to meetings that, if they were to be discovered, might lead to the death of all involved and the undoing of all they hold dear. This small group of enemies attempts to broker the impossible peace that has eluded so many. In the process, they bond and through this unlikely bonding, Israel and Palestine come as close as they have to date to a two-state solution and to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now you might say: Yeah, but look what happened next. Hard-right Israelis assassinated Yitzhak Rabin or perhaps, as it is says in the movie, assassinated the possibility for peace.

But that’s not how I see it. Call me Pollyanna but I marveled at the bridge these political underlings almost built to peace in the Middle East. Sure it failed, but we would be foolish not to see the victory, or at least a possible path to victory, in the story. And possibility is precious right now.

And then there’s Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock in which indigenous activists refuse to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cut through sacred Lakotan lands and threaten the life-giving waters of the Cannonball River. Do they win? Yes. Is the pipeline built? Yes. So what’s the win?, you might ask.

Well, in Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock we see the birth of a new generation of activists willing to risk everything – I mean, everything – to decolonize their land, their bodies, their lives. 25 of those activists were at Sundance (weird, right?) and they named the frontlines on which they are currently laying down their lives – Bears Ear, British Columbia, the Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are not defeated. They are in movement.

In this gross time, in which we are led by gross leaders that bring out the grossest impulses in the Americans who support them, we need to have an imagination for winning, an imagination for taking down Goliath. We also need an imagination for the world as it should be. Watching the Israeli and Palestinian officials sharing ripe fruit and cigarettes together, seeing the fired journalist who has created his own online news source in the age of corporate-controlled media break the story that breaks the back of evil, witnessing the activist bring DuPont to it’s knees – the activist who was born with half a nose because his mother was faithful to the company that refused to recognize the sacrifice she made for their profit, I recover or discover the imagination I need to topple this evil empire in power.

Watching the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock where indigenous people from tribes as far afield as Iceland and New Zealand convene along with a next generation of activists certain that first nations people must lead us out of the hell colonization created, watching the dance, hearing the music, beholding the best in our human nature blocking corporation and state in the face of all violence, mace and mayhem, I recognized that we can do this.

We can do this.

Imagine that.

PS: I have linked the film titles to the filmmakers’ websites who made them. Write to them. Ask them how you can bring these films to your communities. Who knows how they will respond, but if you are like me, you need to see Goliath go down right about now.

PPS: And if you need help, write Sarah Masters at She runs the new Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn, committed to getting the best media to all you leaders of faith and moral courage to help you stand for justice.

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5 Life-Changers from SXSW and 1 from Sundance

By Macky Alston

Just back from Texas. The weather was as cold and weird there as it was in my snow-swept hometown of New York when I returned. Clearly, the world is coming to an end. Before it does, I have some gifts for you – some that may even help you prevent the looming apocalypse.

  1. The Work: Every once in a blue moon, you see a film that changes the way you understand life. The Work, a documentary that follows a four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison attended by men on the inside and the outside of the prison walls, changed my understanding of what it means to be a man, what it means to be human, and revealed the full humanity of incarcerated people in all their giftedness in a way that I have never seen before on film (including my own that I made for PBS back in 2007). I don’t want to talk about it anymore. See the movie. Then please – we have to talk. To put it plainly, this is one of the best films I have ever seen and if we get it out into the world, I think it can save a lot of lives.
  2. Van Jones: In a room of at least 1000 people, mostly privates in this moment’s #LoveArmy, Van read to us, his base, the riot act. He said that, while Trump is worse than he could ever have predicted – much worse, he has come to discover as he has traveled the country for his new show #TheMessyTruth that the people who voted for Trump are, for the most part, humans who are hurting. We on the left, according to Van, ignore their hollering at the peril of our movements, but also at the peril of our integrity as people who say we care about humans who hurt. Here is a ten-minute bit of his talk, but watch for its release in April in its full glory. To my mind, no one mixes humor, kitchen-table talk, political analysis, cultural critique, and love of all God’s unruly children better than Van. Maybe I am wrong, but when he does his thing, I feel it. The room was silent except for abrupt eruptions of laughter as people stared the uncomfortable truth of themselves in the face until the sermon was over, at which point Van received the only standing ovation I saw at SXSW and it was loud and it was long.
  3. Design Thinking, courageous conversations and the $1,000,000 prize for good: Design thinking is all the rage. At Auburn, where I work, it has changed the way we gather leaders of faith and moral courage to imagine how we can actually heal and repair the world. Two winsome young employees of IDEO, a consulting company that helps organizations integrate design thinking into their work, gave a talk at SXSW on how to have conversations with diverse groups of people, including folks in serious disagreement, in the face of today’s wicked challenges. What was the answer? Proceed with respect. Be curious.Tell stories. I know, it’s not rocket science, but you have to admit it isn’t that easy either. We at Auburn are testing different methodologies right now to help people build relationship across all kinds of difference. If you know of a “courageous conversations” workshop or framework that you would bet your life on, write me. I’ll give you ten bucks and do my darnedest to bring it to scale. If your budget requires a little more than that for the ways you hope to change the world, the IDEO duo is offering a $1,000,000 prize for the brightest idea to make the world a better place. I say we all go for it. Knowing the folks I have met in the multifaith movements for justice, we have no shortage of life-saving programs and who couldn’t use a cool million to take it up a notch.
  4. The Red Bull Amaphiko Academy: And so, to invest the million dollars you just received from IDEO in scaling your big idea, you might consider the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, an annual academy for social entrepreneurs from all over the world supported by Ashoka and Red Bull, yes – that high octane fuel that may kill you, but will get you through the night. For the first time, they are gathering changemakers in the U.S. this year – August 11-20th in Baltimore. Deadline to apply is April 30th. Can you imagine what it would be like to hang out with the biggest dreamers on earth drinking Red Bull for 9 days straight? Come on. We got to see that, right?
  5. Pulaski: Now you want to feel something? Need a little cry? Watch this for 6 minutes. This Andrew Bird video is one stop on the campaign Jason Rzepka and his organization Everytown created to reduce gun violence in America. I loved the panel on which the video’s director Natalie Morales, Amy Schumer’s co-writer Daniel Powell, and others discussed how big entertainment can partner with social change agents to address some of the most intractable problems of our time. It is time to capture the public imagination, wake us all up to the need to save lives and save our democracy, and its collaborations like these with the artists and activists of our time that give me hope.

There was more. The intimate documentary portrait of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community. The laugh-out-loud panel on the Secret Life of Muslims. The innovative visual storytelling at Huffington Post that’s changing the way we read the news. The way livestreaming is changing the way we watch the news.

And then there’s one film I just can’t get out of my head from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

  1. The Last Men in Aleppo documents a handful of everyday heroes who have chosen not to flee the city under siege, but instead to commit their lives to salvaging bodies, some with life still in them, some not, from the bombs dropped indiscriminately from above from God knows who and God knows where. Never again will I see faceless others when I read the news about Syria or some of these other countries whose refugees we are trying to ban from our shores. The average Joes of Last Men in Aleppo are just doing what they can to help. They are so relatable – like my Uncle Charlie, my brother-in-law John, praying to Allah as they navigate cars on fire in a sticky spot of traffic, just as I mutter prayers to deliver me from turbulence 30,000 feet up in the air or a taxi suddenly reckless.

God help us get out of the mess we are in.

Don’t you remember being told: God helps those who help themselves?

So help yourselves to these gifts. Let us use them to feel, to awaken, to create, to organize like we never have before, and to find our way together to the world for which we all long.

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The Women’s March, ACT UP, and the Life-Changing Power of Creative Resistance

That moment in The Wizard of Oz, after the tornado, when Dorothy walks out of the broken black-and-white home into the land of color “where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” that is what it was like to arrive in Washington, DC for the Women’s March.

Here’s the thing: If we haven’t tasted freedom, known it in our bodies first-hand, then it is easy for us to believe that it has never, does not, and cannot exist. 

The first time I walked into a room of queer people who were proud of who they were was the third weekly Monday meeting of ACT UP at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in 1987, 30 years ago.

When I walked into that door, I departed the black-and-white world of the closet, that death chamber that I was taught was the only place I could live, and entered the world that chooses living fabulously, even in the face of death.

The gathered largely consisted of people with a terminal diagnosis that, for years to come, our elected officials would not even admit existed. Terror like a tornado was tearing through our closeted lives. The gorgeous choice we made was to not let death have the last word.

Somehow we realized, in the words of the Movement for Black Lives, that we had to love and support one another, that we had nothing to lose but our chains, that it was our duty to fight for our freedom, and we did, with all we had – our creativity, our bodies, our voices, our resources – forging community across generation, class, culture and conviction.

ACT UP was not perfect, but weekly, as we gathered, organized, and acted up, we practiced embodying the world for which we longed, as we struggled over the years to bring it into being.

As Jay Smooth declared in the face of David Brooks’ disparaging remarks about last week’s Women’s March, this is what people fighting for their lives looks like.

Successful culture-changing tactics can only emerge from the revelation that we can thrive even in the face of death even as the tornado tears through our lives.

Without embodied knowledge that we can dance in the streets and survive, speak our truths and survive, look and love like we do and survive, then we are left isolated, living in fear that, if the world were to see us as we really are, it would be the end of us.

My colleague Lisa Anderson, in her work teaching women of color that it is their duty to God and country to thrive, recites regularly a passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. It describes the clearing, a space in the woods and in the hearts of Black slaves where, in the face of death, they gathered and danced and loved themselves and one another.

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. 

The lessons in audacity I learned as a scared young gay man 30 years ago from ACT UP taught me that life is precious. That, in community, we must show up, speak up, ‘fess up, and act up – that is, in fact, what it means to be alive, to be free.

20 years ago this week, I, one who before ACT UP thought I had no right to call myself an artist, premiered my first film at the Sundance Film Festival. It was about the cost of the secrets and lies we keep as a nation that has not reckoned with the legacy of slavery.

15 years ago I organized an illegal church wedding with my man and 250 of our nearest and dearest. The next year we adopted our first child. Three years later, we adopted our second.

When I came out, I was told that I would never be happy, that I would never have family, that if I named who I was publicly, misery, ridicule, and loneliness would be my only fate.

I had reason to believe that to be true, but somehow showing up in that ACT UP meeting that first time gave me the courage to participate in some of the most hopeful movement building of this generation.

Watch this video that my colleague, Esther, made of our bus ride to the DC March. You will meet Lisa Anderson teaching that for all to be free, you must be free, but only in a way that encourages and accommodates all others to be free as well.

In the video, you may notice two young girls sitting together on the bus. Imagine they have lived through an election season when one candidate represents the power of women and girls to lead, and the other represents the power of men to abuse women verbally and physically. Imagine this latter candidate has just been chosen by your neighbors in this nation to be first among us, the one we have been waiting for. And then imagine these girls rolling into Washington, seeing more people in one place than they ever have in their whole entire lives and these people are free.

The Women’s March gave my daughters a taste of this nation’s promise worth keeping, of God’s realm on earth, of how it is supposed to be. Now it is ours to bring that world into being – every chance we get – and for the generations to come.

This land was made for you and me.

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All I Have is a Voice

Here we are again. Stunned. Whispering in twos and threes via text, in office kitchens, swapping lines from poetry as if we are in Fahrenheit 451 or some sci-fi movie in which we can be arrested, deported, disappeared for having a heart.

Last night, I attended a gathering at my church of people who wandered in from the stupor. We hadn’t done this since 9/11. Same time. Same place. Same terror in our eyes. Same need to know that we are not alone and that it is not illegal to be human.

And before 9/11, there was the first time I walked into an ACT UP meeting, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, back in 1987. 200 terrified souls were gathered on a Monday night simply to know what the hell to do and whether or not we were still human, whether or not there was any value to that, whether or not we could save our lives so suddenly vulnerable, and how it felt to be together, instead of so terrifyingly alone.

Some of my moments yesterday were when my co-worker erupted in staff meeting and said that he is afraid his child will be taken from him, that his family is so fragile, it only having been made legal within the last five years.

In the same meeting, a workmate leaned over and whispered that another colleague thinks she will have to leave by January, rather than be deported.

Another was at the gathering last night, sitting across from my friend, who is Muslim, as she described the call she was going to be on at 10pm to determine how to keep Muslim families safe for the next seven days. I wondered, what happens on the eighth?

Another was dinner last night when I made my parents-in-law, Jews who feel like we’ve been here before, promise not to talk about the election, so that our girls — for whom I am terrified — could have a little peace and feel held by our love. I failed. I lost my temper with my mother-in-law for the first time in 24 years when she said that what I am doing at work is not enough to save us.

So what is enough? What do we do? And if we are not the ones who are in danger, then what do we do for those who are, before the new policies begin to float down these city streets like death eaters, those lethal jailers in the Harry Potter stories who steal our souls and rob us of our desire to fight for all that is good.

The answer, of course, is in the poem to which I have turned since I learned what it meant to be human.

All I have is a voice.

It is the time for poets and prophets and speaking our love for one another publicly, personally, politically, regularly, gratuitously, dangerously – to our neighbors, our workers, our estranged friends, our family members, the ones who voted with us and the ones who voted against us, who perhaps are just as terrified as we are and that’s how we’ve arrived at this moment.

We must have the moral courage to show up in places and for people we have not before yesterday bothered to visit. We must interrupt our routines and love one another. If we do not, we will find ourselves, as W.H. Auden writes in his poem, lost in a haunted wood, neither happy nor good.

I went to ACT UP because people everywhere were dying, people like me and not like me. The president and the mayor, along with most polite company, wouldn’t mention it. There seemed to be nothing to be done.

But entering a room of 200 people that Monday night, holding each other, doing things, lifting our voices, art, bodies made in the image of God – infected or not, felt like life in the moment, like hope in the lifting, like the world for which we longed in the room. And our coming together did change things, did save lives. Of course it did. That’s just how it works. We are only strong together.

And so last night we came together: the undocumented college student and the adopted child of gay dads, the Muslim mother of an American veteran and the singing rabbi, my friend from whom I am estranged who hugged me to tell me we are in it together, my husband, my broken-hearted pastor, and so many people I have never met before. I am praying we will meet again next week and until this nightmare is over.

For so many, it did not begin yesterday. May we gather, act up and speak out until it ends.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(W.H. Auden, from “September 1st, 1939”)

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You Have Something to Say That We Need to Hear

You have something to say that we need to know.

You were not born for nothing. In you, in the terrific, singular way life has shaped you, there is a truth that is yours to tell. You may say: Not me. You may think: What I have done in this lifetime is to follow orders well. Not true. There is an undercurrent. You dream. You have something to say that we need to hear.

I was the one at the table whose comments always disappointed. I was the one who never glittered. But like a geode, somehow even I knew that deeper within was a hall of chandeliers that dazzled, the place God designed, beauty beyond all estimation, who I really am.

Now I am a prophet whisperer. I wash the feet and the words of the visionaries of our time, listening them into their small, still voice, teasing it out and into a roar.

I am also a documentary filmmaker. My job has been to do justice to each real person I have filmed, to get inside that inner chamber with my camera and return with the footage that reveals God’s truth about the grandeur of each unique soul.

Smash a hammer to the geode that is you. Shine a light on what is most beautiful, heartbreaking, and real for you in life and in your heart. Then let this vision be known, let us be made right, made whole, be dazzled by your truth.

If you don’t, something better than diamonds, than all Rembrandts, will go eternally unnoticed. God, blaming no one but God’s self, will ransack rooms in heaven with rage.

I don’t know exactly why, but life has taught me this: There’s healing if you do. Flowers will bloom from your palms, your curved spine will uncurl like a stem straightened by the sun. Yes, it may also kill you or we may kill you when you tell the truth about us all, but better to live in the light of truth than to never live at all. Better for you and for us, I mean.

Tell me the truth. What is it? I need to know.

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The Power and Pleasure You Can Unleash When Your Inner Artist Joins Your Inner Activist

What would happen, do you think, if we unleashed our most creative selves as we’re considering what action to take to right the wrongs in this world?

Too often, we think of artists as freaks of nature. Fact is: we are all artists. We are born that way. Look at the stuff you drew at age three. It’s brilliant.

For most of us, shortly after age three, society, mean teachers, older siblings, and our own inner soul-crusher convinced us that the way we make art is inadequate, stupid, embarrassing, and so we left art-making to those who for some reason refused to listen to the mean voices within and without. But here’s the bad news: the price of kicking our creativity to the side may be the end of the world.

What makes me crazy about Oscar week is that it feels like it’s intentionally designed to make us, the viewing public, distinguish ourselves from the ones who should be allowed to create, the geniuses, the true artists. But Selma, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, tells a crucial narrative about unleashing the artist in every activist that we desperately need to hear and heed.

Selma is the story of a group of people collectively creating and performing the most powerful “ethical spectacle” they can think of in order to move American hearts and minds to support Civil Rights. Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism and author of the thrilling book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, defines “ethical spectacle” as an action that ravishingly “illuminates and dramatizes real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise tend to remain hidden in plain sight.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues knew that the only way they could get Americans to support the Voting Rights Act was to viscerally render inequality in the consciousness of those who had not experienced it firsthand. These activists did not go to art school, yet the devastating images of their protests in Selma that tore through mainstream media — the peaceful marchers brutalized by police on horseback during the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the determined multitude that returned to march again — were the direct outcome of the organizers’ aesthetic strategy.

And it worked.

Of course, the lesson to be learned from Selma is not that the way to advance every social cause is to put on a good march. Because people think they’ve seen it all before, most marches don’t even make the news today.

The lesson I am hoping that we do learn from Selma is that when we unleash our inner artists and create “ethical spectacles” so surprising, so fresh, so disturbing that they tell the whole story in one striking image or scene, we can capture the public imagination and inspire the public will to change the course of history.

At Sundance this past month, I saw two soon-to-be-released films that show how we can save lives and save the world when we marry our creativity with our activism.

Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger is a study in “ethical spectacle.” Kramer is an artist whose outrage incited AIDS activism in this country in the 1980s, humanized the way the medical industrial complex treats suffering people in clinical drug trials, and expedited the discovery of the medication that saved Kramer’s life and the lives of millions around the globe who are now living with AIDS. In the film, Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since AIDS first became part of our public consciousness, states: “There’s medicine before Larry Kramer and medicine after Larry Kramer.”

What Kramer and a host of artists and activists in New York (including myself) did was take art and theater into the streets. From putting a rather large condom on the home of the notoriously anti-gay, anti-sex-education North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to throwing ashes of our loved ones onto the White House lawn, we expressed our outrage in ways that the news and the public could not ignore.

In another Sundance documentary, Racing Extinction, film director Louie Psihoyos and his environmental activist friends are seen projecting gorgeous images of the animals we have lost or are likely to lose to extinction on buildings across the nation, including the entire exterior of the United Nations building in New York. The result is breathtakingly beautiful; it stops crowds, gets constant news attention, goes viral, and drives people in droves to sign onto the activists’ education and action campaign to save dying species.

As I write these words, I am sitting on a bench in the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as thousands of people stream by me to admire the paper cut-outs the old guy made while lying in bed. Over and over, I hear people saying: “I could do that” and I find myself wanting to cry out: “That’s right! You can!”

So I say to you, to myself, to all who believe in freedom: think of something that outrages or excites you, a change you pray might be made in the world. Now, with friends, in your journal, on Pinterest, or with scissors and construction paper, spend two hours imagining what kind of spectacle you might dream up to capture our imagination, move our hearts, make us care, make us act differently, make us act up. Then, with that same group of friends or flying solo if that’s your style, make it happen.

The fact is that our lives depend on all of us bringing all we have to our justice-seeking movements, including our creativity. And there’s a fringe benefit to marrying art-making to our activism. When we unleash our creative spirits, when we banish those soul-crushing voices that tell us that we’re not creative, we can unlock all kinds of joy and soul liberation. I could use a little bit more of that in my life and activism. Couldn’t you?

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Leaders Like MLK Are Not a Thing of the Past, But We Must Shape the Moral Frame of Our Day

Watching Selma in the middle of a crowded movie theater this week, I found myself doubled over in emotion. I knew the faces and their voices. My daddy was a white preacher who was run out of his North Carolina pulpit by the KKK for his civil rights support. In 1964, he and my mother moved to Alabama. She was a teacher who was among the first to work in the integrated schools. I was born the following year, six months after the Selma March and two years to the day after four little girls were murdered at a church up in Birmingham.

Not surprisingly, I got hooked at a young age on the power of prophetic witness. Today, I train leaders of faith and moral courage — as King called them in the film, “people of God and good will” — to speak their truth and stand for justice in the media. A documentary filmmaker with a theological education, I couldn’t bear the fact that the household names who spoke for faith and values in this country in the 1980s and ‘90s — people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed — bore no resemblance to the prophets who risked and often gave their lives to stand for freedom in the name of faith just decades before.

So I launched a program with my colleague Katharine Henderson at Auburn Seminary to identify and equip today’s voices of moral courage. What I have learned is that voices like King’s are not a thing of the past; they are courageously leading movements in communities all over America. Over the past ten years, we have trained 5000 of them — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist and more. But I have also learned that the movement and its leaders must up their game to carry the moral frame over and against the mighty and monied Right. It is when the public will requires nothing less that our jaded and cantankerous congress and politicized Supreme Court are most inclined to stand for justice for all.

And so, I want to offer three recommendations to all who believe in freedom and are praying that 2015 is the year that future history books and major motion pictures show that we stood as communities and as a nation for justice for all.

First, lift up your voice. Much has been written over the last 10 years about the fact that this is not your grandparents’ movement and that there is strength in the decentralized, multi-vocal collective outcry that we see from Tahrir Square to Occupy to Ferguson and the streets of New York after the senseless slaying of our hometown neighbor, Eric Garner. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we all must unleash our inner prophet. What I loved about Selma was not just King’s testimony, but the power of John Lewis’ voice, the meaning of Viola Liuzzo’s and Annie Lee Cooper’s witness.

But second (and on the other hand), there is still a critical role locally, nationally and internationally for the singular prophetic voice who captures the public imagination and changes history.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II and his Moral Mondays protests have inspired the nation as he galvanized the people of North Carolina to mobilize against well-funded attempts to redistrict the state — a surreptitious move to effectively undo the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement by keeping the poor, people of color and the progressive majority in North Carolina from carrying the vote.

Sister Simone Campbell, when the Vatican came down on her posse of nuns for being too outspoken about poverty and not loud enough about abortion and homosexuality, took it as an opportunity. She purchased a bus to proclaim good news to the poor all across the land. Now, on any given day, you can hear her moral call across the media landscape; it seems to me that even the new pope has borrowed a page from the good sister’s book.

There’s Bishop Gene Robinson. For four years, I personally watched history tip in the wake of his moral stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In my 2012 documentary about the Bishop, Love Free or Die, we see policy dramatically change in church and state right before our eyes. He stood down daily death threats for the better part of a decade and stood up for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s first inauguration. I don’t doubt that he gave moral cover and framing to Obama when, at his second inauguration, he so famously put equality for LGBT people on the national agenda for the first time in American history.

And new prophetic voices are emerging. Last month I worked with two young Union Seminary students whose unequal treatment at the hands of the police — based on their different skin colors — made plain the racist state of affairs in this nation and in the NYPD. Their everyday story tore through the news cycle that week from the New York Times to MSNBC. I had the feeling that I was witness to the birth of two future leaders who we will be hearing from in the years to come, not unlike the young leaders in Selma whose early experiences in the Civil Right Movement led to lifetimes of history-changing service.

But third, and perhaps most important, no matter how important your point of view, you cannot expect the media to come to you for comment on the news cycles of the day. You’ve got to make your own news cycle. As it was in the days of the prophets who launched our faith traditions in the first place, so it is today. Where would Sister Simone be without her bus? Where in fact would she be without Sound of Music and Sister Act? She knows the role she is playing in the public imagination and public square and does not shy away from understanding how this news business works.

To grab headlines and capture the attention of national news cameras in 1965, selecting Selma, Alabama was an important and strategic move. King and his colleagues studied the various Southern towns, searching for the right backdrop and cast of characters — not unlike Selma‘s director Ava DuVernay had to do — in order to achieve success. What Selma and history show is that you have got to work to capture attention before you can move hearts and minds.

Walking out of the movie theater last night, I knew that my daddy needs to come and take my sixth-grade daughter, a girl of color named for him and my mother, to see Selma. I imagine he might make it real to her the strides we have taken as a nation in just a generation that make it possible for her, a Latina with two gay dads, to flourish. But in this land where still today too many are treated unjustly just because of who they are and how they look, my prayer is that my daughter Alice gets hooked as I did on this grand tradition of speaking our truths so that all may be free, and that in 2015 our cries for justice flow like a stream more mighty than this nation has ever known. Having worked with so many powerful voices in this current generation, I believe we can. May it be so.

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Filmmaking as Spiritual Practice and Ministry

Imagine this: for two years you have been filming a minister with cancer. She is convinced she has a long prophetic ministry ahead of her. She believes that, for God, anything is possible and, because she has this sense of call, she is sure to lick her cancer. As the months tick by, you film her speaking with power and faith from this place of pain, confusion and suffering. And then she dies. It appears that she was wrong, that her call was cut short. You edit your film. It is watched on television by millions in the U.S. and abroad. You tour with the film and listen to this minister speak from beyond the grave to the widest range of audiences. The tour continues. The film is rebroadcast to this day. She was not wrong. Her ministry is alive and well, thanks to your work.

Imagine this: you have been making a film for three years hand-to-mouth, believing that God wants you to make it and that God will help you do so against all odds. You have borrowed all you can. Your crew of eight has been alerted and knows that the project will shut down if money doesn’t show up in the next 24 hours. You cannot sleep. You cannot speak. You have played your hand. In your mailbox that evening, you find a check with no attached note from a movie star you solicited as a joke. The check is for exactly the amount you need to proceed.

And imagine this: you are showing a film about the faltering and flowering faith lives of a handful of New Yorkers—an African American Muslim, an atheist Jew, a gay Christian, a born-again Buddhist—at a rural college to an audience of one thousand white Lutheran teenagers from church youth groups across the state of Minnesota. You are asking yourself how it is that your film was chosen for this audience. You are wondering what kind of vegetables they have prepared to throw. Discussion is rich after the film, which feels like an act of grace, but the breathtaking conversations happen after most of the audience has left: with the boy who until that moment was convinced he was going to hell for being gay; the girl who was convinced she was crazy for having lost her faith; the gaggle of blond children who had never met a Muslim, had only seen them as terrorists in the movies and on the news, and, until your film, had been convinced they were plain evil.

Making and presenting a documentary is, in my experience, a religious experience. At a screening last week at Harvard Divinity School of my last documentary, Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian, a woman in the audience asked if documentary filmmaking is a spiritual practice. I had never called it such, but as I began to reflect on the process of making a documentary film—of tracking down the sacred in everyday life, sifting through hours of footage for truth and meaning, and then holding it up for the world to appreciate—I knew it to be so. In Questioning Faith, I explore how people reconcile faith with suffering and, in the course of the film, as I witness the heroic power of people to choose life in the face of death, I move in my own beliefs from great doubt to deep faith. The woman in the audience likened that movement to Job’s articulation of his conversion to faith: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you.” I have indeed found filmmaking, the act and art of seeing, to be a profound spiritual practice.

Filmmaking is not easy and confronts one with constant ethical challenges. It is hard to justify spending so much money on some idea you think might be good, but you know might not be. The moral quagmires are endless and ultimately impossible to escape clean. You observe people in your films believing that, by participating in a film, their lives will be transformed—that the film will make them stars, right the wrongs of their past, end the isolation they have known for decades. You know that all you can manage is to do your best to be kind and tell their stories responsibly, but you see how your films do change people’s lives—their stature in their communities and their sense of self—and it’s not always for the better. You see the ugliness in yourself. You harbor secret hope for dramatic twists in lives and history that will make your film come to life, often to the detriment of the people being filmed. You pray for guidance, and pray also that at the end of the day, their fates are not in your hands, but in God’s. Or at least I do.

In the best of all worlds, making documentary films makes you more honest—it forces you into worlds and situations you might never have known. You might live with a poor Muslim family in Harlem for a year. You might tell your Victorian grandmother you are gay on film after a lifetime of nuanced mutual deception.

And documentaries can change the world. The history of documentary is in large part the history of trying to make films that make a difference. Whether the topic is war and peace, corporate corruption, immigration, racism, homelessness, and most recently a McDonald’s diet, there are countless films that have served as the catalyst to changes of heart and of policy.

It wasn’t until I learned about this tradition, that I realized that my sense of dual call—to art-making and to justice ministry—might be integrated. Since childhood, I have perceived this vocational dichotomy. In college and at seminary, I careened back and forth between the study of religion and the study of art, always assuming that I would have to pick one vocational track at the expense of the other. It was only when I took a job on a documentary film, purely for the meager wage it offered, that I awakened to the possibilities of this work. To do it well, all my resources are required. All my limbs are exercised. And the world looks more vivid to my eyes from this road than from any other professional vantage point I have known.

Having made a documentary on faith and having taught courses on documentary film about religion to seminarians, I became interested in the specific category of documentary film on religion and spirituality—a grossly under-represented genre within the mainstream media. This prompted me to join the staff of Auburn Theological Seminary last year to assist in launching Auburn Media. A division of Auburn’s Center for Multifaith Education, this exciting new venture is charged with the mission of promoting, cultivating, and supporting programming about religion, spirituality, and ethics on radio and television.

There are extraordinary films that have been made over the last century about religious life that are largely forgotten and there are equally extraordinary films coming out each year that are often overlooked. I recommend the following as teaching tools, as art, and as windows into the most intimate human experience:

A Time for Burning (1967)
Director: Bill Jersey
85 minutes

This Academy award-winning documentary tells the story of the white, middle-class Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, which in 1966 struggled to reach out to the black community in their city. The congregation was divided between those who wanted to accept social change in the form of racial integration and those who thought the time was not right to build bridges across racial lines. A Time for Burning is exceptional for its honest depiction of how difficult it is for faith-based communities with the best intentions to cross-cultural divides.

Baraka (1992)
Director: Ron Fricke
96 minutes

What some have referred to as “prayer on film,” Baraka is a masterful cinematographic circumnavigation of the globe that meditates, through image and sound, upon themes of creation, civilization, and humankind’s apparent determination to self-destruct.

Chasing Buddha (1999)
Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
52 minutes

Nominated for “Best Direction in a Documentary” by the Australian Film Institute in 2000, Chasing Buddha portrays the life of Tibetan Buddhist nun, Robina Courtin, and her work with prisoners on death row in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Courtin faced considerable hardship in her own life before she became a Buddhist in 1977. The film follows Courtin’s continued quest to find peace in the midst of a world of pain. Chasing Buddha powerfully represents the manner in which lives can be transformed by spiritual practice and through connection with—and commitment to—others.

The Drums of Winter (1988)
Directors: Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling
90 min

This quietly beautiful film explores the traditional movement, music,and religion of the Yupik Eskimo people of Emmonak, a remote village at the mouth of the Yukon River on the Bering Sea coast. A rare dance language lies at the heart of Yupik Eskimo spiritual and social life; The Drums of Winter gives an intimate look at this art, of which most have never caught a glimpse. This film offers an exquisite representation of the resilience of an indigenous people and their religious practice in the face of over a hundred years of colonialism and westernization.

Essene (1972)
Director: Frederick Wiseman
86 minutes

Essene starkly and exactingly documents daily life in a Benedictine monastery as its members attempt to resolve the inevitable conflicts between personal needs and the institutional and organizational priorities of the community. Essene is a masterful documentary made by one of the great filmmakers of our time. It offers a beautiful and rare window into a cloistered religious community in which its members have vowed to share their resources and commit their lives to service and faith.

Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust (2004)
Director: Oren Rudasvky and Menachem Daum
85 minutes

Hiding and Seeking tells the story of a father who tries to awaken his adult Orthodox Jewish sons to the dangers posed by religious leaders who preach intolerance of the “other” and encourage the creation of impenetrable barriers between “us” and “them.” To broaden their insular views, the father takes his sons on a highly charged journey to Poland to meet the Catholic farmers who risked their lives to hide the sons’ grandfather during the Holocaust. Hiding and Seeking is noteworthy for its daring exploration of the complex dynamics of survival and resistance, hatred, forgiveness and healing.

Investigation of a Flame: A Documentary Portrait of the Catonsville Nine (2001)
Director: Lynne Sachs
45 minutes

Investigation of a Flame is an intimate look at a ragtag band of religious activists—the Catonsville Nine, which included the renowned brothers, Fathers Phillip and Daniel Berrigan—who, in a poetic act of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, incinerated service records. The film explores this protest in the context of today’s times in which foes of Middle East peace agreements, abortion and technology resort to violence to access the public imagination. Investigation of a Flame artfully examines how religious conviction can lead even the most unlikely citizens to radical action.

King of the Jews (2000)
Director: Jay Rosenblatt
18 minutes

Utilizing Hollywood movies, 1950’s educational films, personal home movies and religious films spanning the history of cinema, Jay Rosenblatt, a Jew growing up in a largely Christian community and culture, depicts with humor and pathos his childhood fear of Jesus Christ. King of the Jews is exceptional for its powerful depiction of childhood religious and identity formation, its intriguing look at Christian anti-Semitism in the US, and its creative expression of the universal need for forgiveness and healing.

Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian (2001)
Director: Macky Alston
84 minutes

Questioning Faith follows my quest, while completing a graduate degree in theology and working as a hospital chaplain, to understand how people reconcile faith with great suffering. Upon the death of a seminary class-mate and close friend, my own faith headed into a tailspin. In Questioning Faith, I follow a handful of people representing a wide range of religious beliefs through their own faith struggles in order to witness how others makes sense of suffering.

The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche (1991)
Directors: Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam
62 minutes

The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche follows the Tibetan servant of a deceased rinpoche of great renown on his quest to determine whether or not a poor four-year-old boy hundreds of miles away is in fact his beloved former master’s current incarnation. [Editor’s note—Rinpoche: Tibetan, lit. “great jewel” or “great precious one”; honorific applied to reincarnate lamas (spiritual teachers) and other highly respected persons]

Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy (1995)
Director: Ellen Bruno
28 minutes

In a deeply personal and lyrical manner, Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy offers the testimonies of Tibetan nuns who for years have been staging demonstrations for independence against brutal imprisonment. This moving film explores the continued religious oppression and human rights abuses in occupied Tibet and the struggles of women who are spurred by their religious beliefs to life-threatening service on a daily basis. Satya beautifully portrays the resilience with which these modest women face down even the most intimidating foes.

The Smith Family (2002)
Director: Tasha Oldham
55 minutes

The Smith Family is the account of a Mormon family’s struggle to stay together after discovering that their father and husband is secretly gay, has had numerous affairs with men, and has developed AIDS. This film demonstrates the power of love and acceptance in the face of the temptation to judge and condemn. It powerfully testifies to the underlying themes of the Mormon faith—compassion, forgiveness and service—while simultaneously representing the complexities involved in claiming allegiance to a religious tradition and questioning many of its tenets. The Smith Family offers an extraordinarily intimate portrait of one family’s attempt to wrestle with the complex dynamics of religion and AIDS.

At the end of my film Questioning Faith, as I receive my Masters of Divinity diploma, I declare my intention to answer a call, whether it be bringing people together through film or some more traditional form of ministry—or both. Although I have pursued parish work and esteem that call, I found it impossible to abandon the art and practice of documentary filmmaking. This is my ministry.

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My Blessed Gay Marriage

I was a freshman in college in 1981 when I told my parents that I am gay. My father, a Presbyterian minister, mourned the fact that I would never marry, would never have children, would never be happy.

Already I had lived lifetimes of shame and anguish as a youth aware of his unacceptable sexuality, attempting to conform, bargaining with God for conversion–to being heterosexual. Later, during my years in seminary studying to be a minister like my dad, I returned to my shame and anguish and began to bargain with God once again.

And then, earlier this year, my father married me to Nick, my partner of 11 years. As I write this, I am caring for our three-month-old adopted baby girl named Alice (for my mother).

Our wedding was like an exorcism. It cast out our shame and replaced it with the recognition that we are capable of loving, that we are loved by God and our community, and that our love is good and God-filled. We needed bells. We needed fanfare. We needed a cheering crowd. We needed a wedding. And that’s what God delivered.

It has not been easy to get to this point. When the world tells you from your first children’s book that men and women, not men and men, marry, have children and find happiness, you take the world at its word. Sometimes I wonder how the human heart–my human heart–has had the strength to counter a world of wisdom with its own. I met Nick two years out of seminary. We fell in love right away. The conversion God offered me through loving Nick was one from shame to acceptance, from misery to happiness–the happiness that God promised when society did not.

And the conversion was painful. Still is. For 11 years, Nick and I, knowing we wanted to be together forever, fought with each other and in our hearts about whether or not we should marry. Commitment was challenging enough, but on top of it, we dreaded the thought of going before our family and friends and professing the love that still in most parts of the world “dares not speak its name.”

We are two social guys. We couldn’t just elope. We couldn’t just invite a few close friends and family members. It’s just not who we are, nor what we understand the purpose of a wedding to be. Either we were going to do this before church folks, colleagues, family and friends, or we weren’t going to do it at all.

Given the pressure from straight society not to wed (not to mention the price tag the wedding was certain to carry), what made us do it?

Well, we wondered what it would have been like for us to attend a same-sex wedding when we were young. It thrilled us to think that the children of our family members and friends would have us, two men in love, forevermore as an example of what love looks like. And in our circle of gay and straight friends, there are a number of gay couples also standing at the brink of marriage, wondering whether or not to dive in. We figured someone had to go first, that it might as well be us, and maybe if we jumped in others might be inspired to do the same.

But, in fact, neither of these reasons was the thing that made us finally take the plunge.

It was instead the sense that the thing we feared most–going public with our love and requesting a blessing–was essential to the flourishing of our love.And so we began to plan. We knew we wanted to get married at our church. We knew it would be big. Nick loves country food and I grew up loving to square dance, so we decided we were going to create the sense of a small-town wedding in the big city. Nick’s family is Jewish, mine is Presbyterian and Nick and I attend an American Baptist/United Church of Christ church. Our liturgy borrowed from all of these religious traditions. We asked my father the Presbyterian, our American Baptist minister and Nick’s mother’s Reform Jewish cantor to officiate and we asked 30 or so of our loved ones to sing as a choir.

Though our ceremony was certainly eclectic and utterly unorthodox, it was full of tradition. Each ingredient reminded us of the weddings of our loved ones, our friends, our parents and grandparents. The prayers, the rings, the kiss, the cake, the rice – it was all there.

We were nervous about how it would all go over. Would people consider our ceremony a mockery of heterosexual tradition? Would they fidget and cringe? Could the love that sustained us stand the light of day and the scrutiny of our community?

Here’s what happened. Picture my gay wedding.

Picture our nieces–flower girls garlanded with hydrangea, beaming as they fling flower petals into the laps of our mentors and colleagues and parents’ college roommates–the nieces we feared our siblings would not let us near because we are gay.

Picture our cousins from rural Georgia in the second row, crying because they are happy for us, Uncle Charlie, the toughest fella in Georgia who can fix a broken truck blindfolded, head bowed in prayer, offering thanksgiving for our love–the very family we were convinced would disown us.

Picture my father, whom I’ve heard preach the word of God from the pulpit virtually every Sunday of my life, offer my love as God’s revelation–the very minister, the very father who told me that I would never be happy.

The wedding effected a conversion indeed–as much in my own heart as in others. And the conversion was not limited to the folks who attended the wedding.

Three weeks before we married, the New York Times decided to announce commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples on the wedding page. In the history of time, ours was only the third union celebrated in America’s premier daily newspaper. It was like a dream. We had all said, “Not in our lifetime.” Yet there we were.

Upon reading the article, our parents’ friends from all over the world, in most cases having never acknowledged that their friends had gay sons, joined in the conversion experience. They called to celebrate our happiness.

When society has denied you something, you have a rare opportunity to understand its purpose, and its value. A wedding is a ceremony in which a union is declared and blessed by God.

On a good day, Nick and I know that, even before our ceremony, our relationship was blessed by God and we were blessed by God through it. But our lives were also cursed with the shame of being regarded by society as anathema. The amount of work it takes to overcome this self-image is enormous. I believe this work is something only love can accomplish.

Some may bristle at my use of “wedding” and “marriage.” I can hear them say, “Call it a ‘holy union,’ a ‘commitment ceremony,’ call it whatever you want, but don’t think that what you did was get married.” And in one sense they are right. I am not legally married. What Canada has recently recognized, our basic human right to love and marry who we want, has yet to be declared in the States. But it has been declared in my heart.

Perhaps more than anyone, I believe in the power of marriage to convert gay people from self-loathing to wellness, to being able to live and love the way God intends us to.

But that’s not all.

Something happened that day at the altar. Nick and I are not the same. To put it into words is not possible. But take it from me: our love was blessed then and there by God in a new way. We were wed. Those whom God hath joined together let no one put asunder. This is my testimony.