Chelsea McInturff and Samantha Curley were eager for a public conversation about film, gay sexuality and Christian life, but they weren't sure whether it was the right time — or the right place.
They stood nervously inside an auditorium at Pasadena's evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary last spring, worried the drama they were about to screen –— about a teen coming out as lesbian — would end up offending an audience of students and professors who didn't necessarily approve of its story line.
"Should we even do this?" they recently recalled wondering. "Maybe we should we just skip this one and move on."
But they held their breath and decided to show the film, after telling the audience what to expect and taking pains to explain that the soundtrack featured lyrics about female genitalia. When the credits rolled and the crowd began a passionate debate about identity and the harmful effects of marginalizing gays in the name of religion, McInturff and Curley knew their inaugural film festival had tapped into something important.
"It was eye-opening and amazing to hear people talking so openly, from all sides, and with respect for one another," said McInturff, 25, a Fuller student who struggled to come to terms with being gay during her undergraduate years at Pennsylvania's Messiah College. "It showed us that people could have a real discussion about their differences."
One year later, McInturff and Curley are at it again, only this time in a much bigger, bolder way. After attracting corporate sponsors and raising nearly $40,000 though an Internet fundraising campaign, they've moved off the Fuller campus and created Level Ground, billed as the world's first film festival connecting lesbian, gay and transgender sexuality with faith and evangelical Christianity.
Running through Saturday, the festival will screen 31 films at locations throughout Pasadena. Among them are "Bridegroom," a documentary about a gay man confronted with bigotry from the family of his deceased lover; "Desire of the Everlasting Hills," a portrait of three Roman Catholics trying to reconcile their beliefs with their sexuality; and "Reconciliation," a drama about a son struggling to reconnect with his gay father.
Cinema is a means to an end for McInturff and Curley, 27, an Illinois native who is straight, deeply Christian and an advocate for LGBT rights. Naming the festival after a passage in the book of Isaiah that speaks of meeting on sacred — albeit uncomfortable — ground, the pair hope to draw people with a full range of views on sexuality and faith and prod them to start talking, either informally in post-film panel discussions or in organized workshops.
"There's been so much polarization, so much anger," said Curley, who graduated from Fuller last year. "A lot of us are looking for a way to move beyond the pain this issue has caused. We hope to find a way to reconcile and find common ground without judgment."
McInturff and Curley started their festival last year, showing five films as an outgrowth of OneTable, the first student group at Fuller created specifically to discuss LGBT issues.
Level Ground — with its roots in a seminary whose relationship standards state that marriage is for heterosexuals — can be seen as part of a wider push among evangelical Christians to come to theologically acceptable terms with gay rights, Fuller professor Erin Dufault-Hunter said.
"What Samantha and Chelsea are trying to do is one of the major ethical tasks for the church," said Dufault-Hunter, who supports Fuller's standards. "How do we share communion but not necessarily convictions? We may disagree, but how do we disagree respectfully, because we are in this together? We share faith."