‘An Act of Love’ documents a minister defrocked for sanctifying his gay son’s wedding
When Tim Schaefer asked his dad, Frank (a Methodist minister), to officiate at his wedding in 2007, the proud papa eagerly agreed.
It’s the kind of request that happens a lot in families with a member of the clergy. What set this request apart, however, was that Tim wanted to marry his boyfriend … long before the Supreme Court made it legal across the U.S., and certainly in contravention of church doctrine. Frank did the wedding anyway, only to be defrocked years later.
Now, a documentary tracking the Schaefers’ experience, titled An Act of Love, is making its way around festivals (It premiered in October). But Tim, who works at the inclusive Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, has arranged for two local screenings of the film: On Feb. 22 at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth at 7 p.m. and at Royal Lane Baptist Church on Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. Both will be accompanied by a post-screening discussion and are free (donations will be accepted).
We spoke with the Schaefer men about the film, their relationship and how far the church still needs to go.
How did this documentary come about? Frank: In December 2013 — right after I was defrocked — [filmmaker] Scott Sheppard contacted me and offered to make a documentary based on our family’s story, especially the trial and aftermath. What moved me to work with Scott is his passion for the church — he is the son of a United Methodist minister.
Tim, you now work at Royal Lane Baptist Church; what was your own religious background like growing up? Tim: I grew up in the United Methodist Church. As a son of the minister, I was expected to be very involved in the life of the local church, which I was. I never heard the issue of homosexuality being discussed in my local congregation — it was only when my father took me to an annual regional legislative session of the UMC that I learned of the denomination’s anti-LGBTQ positions. When the pieces of legislation dealing with gay and lesbian persons came up for debate, the language was vitriolic. Both pastors and lay representatives were saying the most horrible things about gays and lesbians.
So when did you come out to your family? What was that like? Tim: When I was in high school, I was out to several of my friends. By my senior year, my entire school knew that I was gay, as did some members of my church. To them it was no big deal, however, I had not yet come out to my parents, because I wasn’t sure how they would react. I had shared with some of my close friends that I had struggled with my sexuality to the point of seriously considering killing myself. One of my friends told her mother, who outed me to my father over the phone, fearing that I might harm myself. I remember very vividly the conversation that followed when my father confronted me with the question of whether I was gay. After telling them my story, my parents and I sat in silence for quite a while. I think they were stunned. When my dad finally spoke, he told me that he was so hurt — not because I was gay, but because I had carried all that pain by myself and didn’t feel I could come to them for help.
Frank, what was your initial reaction when Tim asked you to perform the wedding within the church? Frank: When Tim called me to asked me to officiate at his wedding, I didn’t even hesitate. I said: “I would be honored to do this.” After years of affirmations, I knew I had to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, even if my career was on the line.
Tim: I was initially nervous to ask my father to perform the wedding. It was important for me to have him perform it, but I also knew the consequences he faced if it became public knowledge. In the end, I decided that it wasn’t fair to make the decision for him, so I asked him, and without hesitation he said yes.
Were you both fully aware of the controversial nature of performing a same-sex wedding in the church? Frank: After I had agreed to perform Tim’s same-sex wedding, I came to the conclusion that I had to inform my bishop and district superintendent. I did so in writing and was surprised that I didn’t face discipline at the time of the wedding . I was equally surprised when I finally did face discipline almost six years [later].
How has your relationship changed since coming out… or since the marriage ceremony? Frank: If anything, our relationship grew stronger. As I went through the process parents of gays and lesbians typically face, Tim’s outing story caused me to become his cheerleader. Most of all, I sensed that Tim needed affirmation. He needed to find and accept himself for whom God made him to be, so I showed him love and support as a father as well as a representative of the Church, which should have shown him this kind of support.
Tim: I agree. This has brought us closer. I had kept a part of myself hidden from my family for so long, that it became easier to communicate more openly with them once I was out. Since then, both of my parents have supported me wholeheartedly. My father somewhat unwittingly became a national gay rights activist as a result of the ensuing trial and defrocking, and that makes me feel extremely proud of him.
Now that same-sex marriages are the law of the land, do you feel like pioneers, trailblazers… or like martyrs for the cause? Frank: Our story has certainly become significant within the North American church, especially United Methodist circles. A lot of our LGBTQ members and their allies have been cheering us on and have taken new hope from the uncompromising stance a father and clergy person has taken to oppose the exclusionary policies and doctrines of the church. Our story seems compelling also to many conservatives as the act of love toward my son is an undeniable expression of true family values.
Is there still a lot of “hearts and minds” work that needs to be done within the church to convince hardliners of the moral sanctity of same-sex marriage (as opposed to its legal recognition)? Frank: Yes, unfortunately. Most religious groups are lagging behind the recent developments with regard to LGBTQ and marriage equality. There remains much work to be done and hopefully, An Act of Love can play a big part in keeping the dialogue going within the church which will eventually, no doubt, lead to more acceptance of and rights for our LGBTQ constituents.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 19, 2016.