A colorful spectrum of lights flashes across the screen as students emerge from the shadows with intimate defiance. This is their moment to share their truth.
“Part of the Kingdom,” a documentary directed by Makenna Cofer, a student at John Brown University, released on Dec. 17. The film takes a direct, yet personal, look at spiritual growth for college students in an environment that does not affirm LGBTQIA+ romantic relationships or marriages. Current and former JBU students and an alumna shared their struggles of seeking God, education and community during critical years of identity development.
“If I could talk to my younger self, I would want to tell her that I’m proud of her … You get a degree, you got to see the world, you got to travel, you get to live in a little house with a garden with some guy you love,” Jack Sloan, an alumna who graduated in 2019, says in the film. “You’re also going to tell your mom that you’re bi, and I know we said that we were never going to do that … but she tells you that she loves you, and it’s not what you think it is.”
The film includes additional perspectives from Michelle Satterlee, assistant professor of psychology, and University President Chip Pollard. A disclaimer at the beginning of the film noted that only the interview of Pollard “represents the university,” and the other interviews “do not necessarily represent or reflect the views” of the school or the visual arts department.
LGBTQIA+ individuals have faced difficult situations at JBU, including the expulsion of an openly gay student in 2007, according to The Brown Daily Herald, and the resignation of a gay professor in 2009, according to The Huffington Post. In 2018, five students and alumni spoke with The Threefold Advocate about their experiences attending and, in some cases, leaving the university.
The students in Cofer’s documentary seek to shine a light on their experiences to help others feel less alone on campus.
“This was something I really wanted to participate in … because there’s not that many non-conforming trans students on JBU’s campus. I wanted to be seen,” Emily Branum, senior Spanish major, said. “It was nerve-wracking for many reasons, but also deeply cathartic to be a part of the project.”
Jesús Madrigal, senior double major in marketing and international business, shared the limitations he faced as an international student from Costa Rica. “Coming from a different culture, especially because I’m from the city so we’re a little bit more open-minded, I had a lot of expectations about the U.S. I was not expecting this at all,” Madrigal said. “For me, it’s like I have a mask and then I have to take it off when I leave, and then I put it on again … It shouldn’t be like that.”
Josh Pitts, senior mathematics major, hopes that the film creates visibility for the LGBTQIA+ experience at JBU. “I hope it also serves to clarify where students may have some sense of confusion and where the university itself stands,” Pitts said.
Creating the film
As a junior digital cinema major, Cofer envisioned the project while brainstorming for her nonfiction film production class. After online harassment targeted her and other LGBTQIA+ students in September, she became increasingly motivated to share their stories.
Her idea received the most votes from the class, and the film proposal was sent to Pollard, which prompted a meeting. “We got some pushback from administration just as far as the ideas that I had because I really wanted to talk about the covenant specifically in the project,” Cofer said.
The Community Covenant, a list of lifestyle expectations that JBU students sign at the beginning of each academic year, states that “Biblical marriage is a covenant relationship between one man and one woman, and therefore romantic relationships are reserved for a man and woman.” It also states that by signing, students will value “the racial, ethnic, gender, and religious diversity of our community, honoring the unique gifts and dignity of each person.”
Before filming started, Cofer and Luke Travis, senior English major and the film’s sound designer, met with Pollard and Jake Stratman, dean of the College of Bible, Humanities and Arts, to discuss the context of the project. The students sought to communicate that “this is not a harmful documentary, this is not going to attack anyone … We wanted the administrative voice to be heard … We needed that balance in the documentary,” Travis said.
Pollard said that in the meeting, he expressed his willingness to participate, and he encouraged the students to have further conversations with him on the topic. He sought to clarify that there may have been a misunderstanding between the students and himself. “It was not my intention at all to say that I wasn’t willing to or that I would somehow have to be vague. I answer this question hundreds of times a year with prospective parents … We had a good and respectful conversation,” Pollard said. “I’m not upset with them at all for asking these questions.”
Stratman confirmed that Pollard wants to continue these conversations with LGBTQIA+ students. “The conversations that Makenna, Luke and Dr. Pollard are having are important and necessary, and I’ve appreciated any role I’ve had in being a part of that,” Stratman said.
However, Travis said that he and Cofer left the meeting feeling that an interview with Pollard would not be possible.
After the meeting, Cofer and Travis added Isaiah Schwane, senior digital cinema major and director of photography, to their team, and they began collecting student stories through personal connections and Instagram posts.
Cofer contacted Satterlee, who accepted an interview. “In the end, we decided that we’d be able to have a conversation … [about] what are some of the struggles that people face as they’re trying to integrate different experiences or ideas that they feel may come into conflict, what are some of the challenges that students, in particular, might face in a faith community depending on their background and depending on what their beliefs are,” Satterlee said.
Cofer also reached out to Steve Beers, vice president for student development, and Emily Moore, interim dean of student care, for an interview. “When they got there, they handed me some paperwork like 5 minutes before the interview happened,” Cofer said, “and it basically took away my rights to the film and my right to distribute and share it.” The students refused to sign the paperwork and canceled the interview.
In an interview with The Threefold Advocate, Beers explained his perspective on that interaction and the documents. The legal documents, written by the university, “would allow the university to review the section of our communication for the documentary and to allow the university to ability to edit those if it felt like what was portrayed was not in totality what we were attempting to communicate,” Beers said. “In addition, any additional footage from the taping would be owned by the university.” Beers shared that the concern was the potential misuse of their interview footage.
Cofer, while frustrated, remained undeterred. “I’d never seen a project in the cinema department have to face so many obstacles … which makes sense because I’m talking about JBU, but there was a lot we had to work through to make it happen.”
After hearing about the cancelled interview, Pollard then contacted Cofer, offering again to speak on behalf of the university. Cofer agreed, and Julie Gumm, director of University Marketing & Communications, attended the documentary interview with Pollard. “We asked to see a final cut of the film, just to ensure that the comments she did use and the final edit accurately represented Dr. Pollard’s comments and JBU beliefs,” Gumm said.
In the film, Pollard says, “The other thing I try to be really careful about is not to describe this situation as ‘a struggle with my sexual orientation.’ I instead say, ‘This is the question that they have …’ because I know that some students don’t struggle with the actual orientation. This is how they feel, but it still is a question about how they then are going to act on that feeling.”
While surprised by this answer and thankful for the clarity that Pollard offered, Cofer still pushes back against the university’s view. “There’s just so many levels to suppressing that part of yourself,” Cofer said, “and I feel like when JBU preaches that, it’s putting out this message where it feels like you can’t have this relationship with Christ unless you suppress your sexuality and steward yourself in that way.”
A flurry of support
The film’s release on Youtube prompted encouraging responses and reflections on social media, both from JBU community members and students from other Christian universities.
Liesl Dromi, assistant professor of music at JBU, commented on Cofer’s post announcing the debut. “This is such an important conversation for our community, and you handled it with such grace and love — while pushing us to listen better, learn more and open our hearts. Thank you for your bravery and your art,” Dromi wrote.
Canyon McGee, a junior at Oklahoma Baptist University, reflected on his experiences attending private Christian schools after watching the film. “Policies similar to JBU’s Covenant is something I’ve always accepted,” McGee wrote in an Instagram story. “To hear the ways that these policies shape what are supposed to be learning environments … [and] puts a barrier between them and a church community, reveals that this is a blind spot for many Christian universities.”
Sophie Ford, another student at Oklahoma Baptist University, also shared her reflections on Instagram. “[Cofer] made this video about JBU, but it really applies to a lot of Christian environments, and I really appreciate her telling these students’ stories,” Ford wrote. “I can only imagine the students at my school have had similar stories and [it is] a good reminder that even the best intentions can be misguided.”
A community that listens well
By putting their stories out in the open, the students recognize the risk they are taking. Madrigal stated that it should not be LGBTQIA+ students’ responsibility to create a safe campus. “This shouldn’t be the students’ work … If students feel better now … because of the idea of Makenna and Luke, it’s because of the same students, not because JBU was doing something about it,” Madrigal said. “I want to see what JBU is doing about it.”
Branum hopes that viewers will listen well, as Satterlee describes in the film. “That resonated so strongly with me because I am not accustomed to Christians listening well,” Branum said. “I want JBU students, faculty and administrators to be characterized as people who listen too well by the broader Christian community.”
Elaborating on her quote in the film, Satterlee shared how she drew from her experiences working with college students. “By nature, when I really come to understand someone else’s perspective, whether I agree with it or not, when I hear their story, it’s going to challenge or add to or build on my own understanding. I’ve seen that over and over in groups, especially with college students,” Satterlee said. “The traditional college student comes from a family of origin that is in a particular community or that maybe has moved around in a variety of communities. When they each bring that piece to the classroom … into the residence hall, or into a discussion group … part of the reason universities make that space, there’s such a strong potential for students to hear each other and to grow into their understanding of themselves and the world.”
For JBU and other Christian colleges across the United States, Travis hopes that the film inspires listening conversations for students and administration. “I’d love for the Christian community, in general, to feel like a space where LGBTQ people all across the spectrum can come and feel that they will be respected, listened to and loved, [and] that the kingdom on Earth will be a place where it feels safe to be known.”
Graphic courtesy of Alex Coroian