Faith forms a bond for a lesbian priest and a Mormon father of three

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

February 07, 2009|Duke Helfand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filmmaking provided the vehicle.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Russell felt strangely agitated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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