In a bitterly divisive moment in our nation’s history, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus toured the Deep South – including a stop in Greenville — to spread a message of tolerance and unity through music.
Filmmaker David Charles Rodrigues found a perfect subject for a documentary.
“When I heard about the tour, I thought, wow, that is the most beautiful, positive, uplifting example of how we can create a bridge and bring this country back together,” Rodrigues said.
Greenville’s First Baptist Church plays a big role in “Gay Chorus Deep South,” Rodrigues’ award-winning documentary that will be screened at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 9, at the Peace Center.
A panel discussion will follow the screening, featuring Rodrigues, Gay Chorus conductor Tim Seelig, and First Baptist Greenville Pastor Jim Dant.
When the 300-voice San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus – joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir — toured the South in the fall of 2017, they were greeted with some protest and ill will.
But mostly they encountered a warm Southern embrace.
“The film highlights how human beings can move past divisive barriers and gain authentic community,” Dant said. “For me, that’s what happened on the night they performed at First Baptist.”
Stepping beyond fears
On tour, the chorus traveled from Mississippi to Tennessee, over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and through the Carolinas, performing in churches, community centers, and concert halls.
The final tour stop was First Baptist Greenville, which occupies an important part of the final minutes of the documentary.
“It was the first time a gay chorus performed in a Baptist church,” Rodrigues said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “It was really a profound and touching moment for the chorus and the congregation.”
First Baptist’s towering sanctuary was packed that night in October 2017.
“I was told that the church only sees such crowds at Christmas and Easter,” Rodrigues said.
It was First Baptist that had invited the ensemble to perform at the church.
“Tim Seelig, the conductor, had some anxieties about coming to a Baptist church,” Dant said. “My concern was dealing with community reaction. Our church is comfortable with who we are, but we always have to deal with some pushback from the community – not large numbers, but some phone calls and letters.
“But Tim and I agreed that we needed to step beyond our fears and do this,” he added. “It was a good thing, both for the chorus and our church and the Greenville community.”
The tour helped to erase lines that divide, Dant said.
“The chorus came to the South with certain assumptions about the South, and the South had certain assumptions about the chorus,” Dant said. “Everywhere they went there was such a mutual benefit for both the chorus and audiences. Our church realized it has been a good thing to be 100 percent inclusive and celebrate how God has created other people.”
The film has already won top awards at international film festivals, including Audience Choice awards for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Zurich Film Festival.
The documentary has been praised especially for telling a triumphant story of changing attitudes in the South.
“We had a few moments of contention and protest on the tour, but 90 percent of what happened was positive and celebratory, and that’s how I balanced the film, as well,” Rodrigues said. “Our vision was always to make a film about people connecting and finding middle ground, having conversations. We knew exactly the story we wanted to tell.
“It’s a message of love and acceptance, not just of the LGBTQ community but any minority community,” he added. “I think it’s a great example of how we can use music to create a dialogue.”
Rodrigues was given full access to the chorus and its performances during the tour. He and his crew spent a month before and a month after the tour in the South to explore community reaction.
What Rodrigues saw was churches advocating for greater tolerance and understanding.
“It was a really transformative and powerful experience for me to understand how uplifting and positive these congregations can be in creating positive change in communities in the South,” Rodrigues said. “It reinvigorated my own faith.”
He’s looking forward to returning to Greenville.
“I just fell in love with the town,” Rodrigues said. “I have great memories. I can’t wait to go back.”
Dant, for his part, has attended several screenings of “Gay Chorus Deep South” at film festivals and still finds a lump in his throat at the conclusion.
“It’s a great film,” Dant said. “I already know what’s going to happen and I still laugh and cry – a powerful film.”
If you go
- What: “Gay Chorus Deep South,” a documentary by David Charles Rodrigues
- When: 5 p.m. Sunday, June 9
- Where: Peace Center
- Tickets: $20
- Info: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org