Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reflections on the playing of Taking a Chance on God at the Woodstock Film Festival

I am just back from the debut of my documentary: Taking a Chance on God, at the Woodstock Film Festival. It was an extraordinary ocassion. So I want to make some reflections on it. First of all I owe a debt of gratitude to Brendan Fay who produced it. I played a role in Brendan's earlier documentary, Saint of 9/11. I was spiritual counselor to Mychal Judge. We became good friends and worked together in the Upper Room Aids Ministry trying to provide homes for homeless gays dying of Aids in the streets of Harlem. This picture is of Mychal {on the left) and me at a workshop on hospitality at the Catholic Workers community in the mid 80ies.
Brendan tells me many people suggested that he tell my story. For the past six years he worked on producing my documentary amid incredible hardships and almost a total lack of financing. Brendan's partner, Dr. Tom Moulton, gave him unwavering support and made his dedication to producing the documentary possible.

Brendan began by traveling around the country gathering close to eighty hours of taped interviews about me. He then began the process of reducing all those interviews into a one hour documentary. He also made a collection of television interviews with Tom Brokow on the Today Show on NBC, two interviews with Phil Donohue, two with Larry King and one with Russell Baker. The use of those interviews proved enormously expensive because of copyrights and Brendan came up with several creative efforts to raise the funds.

Three years into this process Brendan brought in the superbly talented Ilene Cutler to assist him as coproducer. Ilene brought a special sensitivity into the process, putting greater emphasis on the forty six year love story between Charlie and me.

We saw the documentary in earlier stages. The first was at the Europride festival in Rome where it made a great impact on European gay Catholics from all twenty-two countries in Europe. I remember fondly being pushed in my wheel chair in the Europride parade together with over three hundred thousand attendees at Europride.

The next stage was at the Dignity Convention in Wahingon D.C. There was already a remarkable improvement from the documentary shown in Rome. But neither of these earlier versions prepared Charlie and me for the beauty and artistry of the final version shown at the Woodstock Festival.

A major reason for that was the magnificent musical background created by Peter Wetzler. Peter saw a trailer of the documentary and offered to create a musical background. He then called me and asked me what my favorite piece of music was. I told him that without doubt it was Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Peter then took themes from Mozart's concerto and built them into the haunting, beautiful score that accompanies the documentary. Anothger musical contibution, which is heard at the marriage scene, came from Irish composer Liam Lawton.

I find it difficult to put into words what the experience was like for me, an 86 year old man, to watch my life played out onthe screen at the Woodstock Film Festival. Once again I saw my mother Mary who died when I was four. My aunt and step mother Katie marrying my father Charles. my siblings Charles, Tom, Framcis and my sister Marion who entered the third order Franciscans at St Mary of the Angels in Williamsville NY and bcame Sister Sheila. All of them are now dead, but by being included in my documentary all of them are immortalized.

The documentary records the history of my taking up the cause of gay liberation, my first gay lover in France Tony Janesco; The events that led to my publishing my first book challanging traitional church teaching on homosexuality; my dismmissal from the Jesuits; my founding of Dignity NYC; my twenty five years of retreats at Kirkridge Retreat Center; my consequent publications, Taking a Chance on God, Freedom, Glorious Freedom, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair. and, finally, Sex As God Intended. All the people who worked with me or supoorted me over forty years:Fr Bob Carter(May he rest in peace), Fr. Dan McCarthy, Fr Bernard Lynch,Andy Humm.Mary Hunt,Genny Apuzzo, Robert Raines, John Stassio, Ken Gomolka, Virginia Mollenkott, Bishop Gene Robinson, Kate Clinton and many otthers.

I recalled how my sister, not sure that my ministry to GLBT people was the will of God, asked God for a sign. A few weeks later a Sister from her convent who returned from a hospital in Africa came to my sister's room in the infirmary and asked her "Is John McNeill your brother? Why do you ask? Sis said. The Sister told her that all the orderlies at her hospital were gay men and she was not sure how to deal with them until she read my book, The Church and the Homosexual. That book helped her resolve all her problems. Sis accepteed this as the sign she had sought from God and decided to give my ministry her allout support.

Sis made a magnificent rainbow stole which appearrs in the picure above. She then called me and told me whenever I gave a retreat or preached to GLBT peole to call her in the infirmary and tell her the exact hours i would be speaking. She, in turn, would gather sick and elderly nuns in the infirmary, about thirty, and they would pray continuously that the Holy Spirit would use me to bring the message of God's love to my audience. So Sis and I had a collaborative ministry. The power of those prayers were palpable every time I spoke.

By the time the documentary came to a close, overwhelmed by all the memories I burst into tears and was filled with a spirit of gratitude to God. I believe it is almost miraculous that I, an eighty six year old man, via this film could launch a fresh worldwide ministry bringing the message of God's love for LGBT people.

Thanks be to God

John McNeill