With Wonder: For many queer people of colour, walking away from the Church isn't an option
Sharon Lewis’s new documentary film With Wonder is a "spiritual love letter to queers of colour"
I came out as bisexual in my mid twenties and then jumped back in the closet in my forties. I didn't even know I had jumped back in until I was finishing up a documentary for CBC called Disruptor Conductor about the first openly gay Black classical music conductor in Canada, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser.
I had not really met anyone, with Caribbean roots especially, who was able to proudly claim both identities of being queer and Christian and that was something I personally struggled with in my life. As the queer community felt quite binary in the 90's, I always felt like I could only be queer and secular, so I often forfeited my spirtual beliefs for my sexual identity. As the discussion of pansexual, non-binary and the acceptance of a bisexual identiy became more mainstream in the last few years I felt an opening for myself to explore being able to claim all of me in a new way.
These factors prompted me to interview more Queer people about their struggles and victories over integrating the various parts of themselves in particular their love of God with being queer. What I encountered was that there was still so much homophobia in the church and in our communities that the conversion impetus and hatred of Christian queers was still so violently prominent. I met Maurice Tomlinson, a queer Jamaican activist, who was going down to Jamaica from Toronto to put on the first ever Pride Walk in Montego Bay and me being half-Jamaican, half-Trinidadian, I thought: I need to follow him.
As I interviewed people in rural Jamaica and people of colour, the narrative started to focus less on conversion therapy, and more on the love of God and for God. It seemed to me that the essential question at the bottom of all of this was: "Can you be queer and Christian at the same time?"
I set out to make sure the film was not going to fall into the category of trauma exploitation. It has been a struggle while documenting the stories to balance those sad, sometimes tragic experiences with hope and survival. I know that I could've made a film for the mainstream and really delved into the details of the torture and hate that many of the participants experienced, but I really wanted our stories to allow us to see ourselves reflected while seeing and feeling a sense of hope.
What affected me the most when I interviewed the participants was to witness the loss of love and connection to a higher entity that once kept them safe. The very thing that kept them safe, connected and guided, their connection to God, was also being taken away from them because of who they are.
What I experienced amongst white gay men was the survivalist reaction to just forgo the church and Christianity. However, for people of colour who grew up in small communities where the church is a vital part of your survival and not just something you do on Sundays, you don't always have the privilege of choosing to walk away. Because this film told the unique stories of LGBTQI+ Christian people of colour, who have roots in countries with Christian colonial histories, I specifically wanted this film to act as a spiritual love letter to LGBTQI+ people of colour. It is by us, for us.
We are not showing "both" sides, this film is consciously and purposefully a piece that will inspire hope. There are other documentaries and films that explore the dramatic extremes of conversion therapy and that incorporate biblical scholars who debate interpretation, but although we recognize the need for all different ways to shed light on this issue, this is not that type of documentary.
As in all cases when people feel alone, in despair, non-conforming, that barrier can often times lead to such pain that the only answer is suicide. However this is not an investigative or exposing "trauma doc", but rather a revealing of the peace, love, and serenity when a Christian is in a guided communion with God and not just the scripture.
I hope that audiences at least get a glimpse into the perspective that you don't have to choose between being Queer and loving God. Throughout the film, the sermon by Reverend Winnie speaks to the particular challenges people of color in the LGBTQI+ communities face and the courage it takes to walk back through the very church doors that once caused oppression. With Wonder asks the LGBTQI+ community of colour the very personal question: How does Christianity become our own? It starts with being less of a sermon and more of a sharing. This film really tries to gather and reveal the spirit, the core of why we try to connect, that feeling of freedom and love that happens when we connect to something bigger than ourselves.
With Wonder screens in Toronto at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival exclusively on its virtual edition and is available across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.