Our Lady Queen of Harlem: A Portrait of Faith and Rebellion. Directed by Trinidad Rodriguez. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2008. 17 minutes.
Born Again. Directed by Markie Hancock. Los Angeles: Seventh Art Releasing, 2007. 70 minutes.
As a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Council has shown, Christian affiliation is on the decline here in the United States.1 (That’s been true for quite some time in western Europe, as well, though trends run the opposite direction in much of the rest of the world.) Churches are shutting their doors due to shrinking membership and attendance and, thus, reduced financial resources. Specific causes for the decline are multiple, of course, but it seems to be rooted in a sense of theological and existential disconnection between ecclesial institutions and potential adherents of the faith.
The two documentary films reviewed here touch on topics relevant to this trend. The first, Our Lady Queen of Harlem, features the robust activism of a Catholic congregation in East Harlem in response to their archbishop’s decision to close their church. The second, Born Again, focuses on the tensions afflicting a family steeped in Christian evangelicalism when one member comes out as lesbian. Both would be very useful teaching tools in a variety of religious studies classrooms.
The cast members in Our Lady Queen of Harlem are parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels, a parish church staffed by the Capuchin friars that the Archdiocese of New York closed in 2007. The film gives viewers a taste of the loss and betrayal the parishioners felt as well as their remarkable resilience and resistance. (They continued to worship on the street outside the church—even in the winter.) In particular, the film offers viewers a case study in the leadership capacities of Catholic laywomen—including, notably, the late Dr. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, the creator of mujerista theology, a perspective rooted in and responsible to the everyday experience of Latinas (gleaned through ethnographic research) in the United States. The film could be very productively paired with either of Isasi-Díaz’s groundbreaking texts: Mujerista Theology or En la lucha (In the struggle) in religious studies courses at all levels.2
Born Again tackles the decline of Christianity from a more intimate and controversial angle. The filmmaker and primary subject, Markie Hancock, takes us through her personal journey from being born (to deeply evangelical parents) and born again (as a devout evangelical Christian herself), to yet another rebirth—out of “religion” (her word) entirely and into a committed, loving lesbian relationship (and a career as a filmmaker). That journey also takes her from life on her family’s horse farm to Wheaton College and, after a short stint at Princeton Theological Seminary, to divided Berlin (where she comes out as lesbian). Hancock then moves to Chicago and film school and finally to a contented relationship with her partner (in business and in life), Kathryn, in New York City.
Thanks in no small part to Hancock’s skill as a wordsmith as well as a filmmaker, the film captures our attention from the first frame and doesn’t let go. She incorporates archival footage—her family’s home movies and still photographs, news footage of historical events contemporaneous with and relevant to her story, an animated fairy tale—and contemporary videography (much of it her own) to create a powerful and moving account of her personal and familial journey over the last several decades. Hancock also makes very effective visual and verbal use of her journal entries from her younger years. These moments take viewers into the complex and profound intellectual and emotional life of this remarkably thoughtful and articulate—even as a young girl—filmmaker. Those unsympathetic to evangelicalism and/or religion of any sort may at least glimpse its powerful attraction in addition to the strength of its hold over Hancock and her family.
Viewers will, I think, be moved as well by the contemporary footage of Hancock’s interviews with various family members. Though faith used to unite the family, it now divides them. Hancock’s parents and her youngest brother remain deeply committed evangelicals while she and her other brother (she describes them as “Irish twins” born less than a year apart) are not. That division and the scars that remain are both physical and emotional. Hancock travels alone to visit her parents and her evangelical brother’s family because neither will allow her to share a bedroom in their homes with her partner. With said brother’s blessing, she is embraced by her niece as “Aunt Markie” and yet, he says, her partner would be simply “Kathryn.” In other segments, Hancock’s evangelical parents and brother openly express their grief and puzzlement at their kin’s loss of faith and worry about the consequences for them. They also express their hope—bordering on confidence, at times—that the prodigals will eventually return; clearly a pipe dream—or, better, nightmare—from the prodigals’ perspective. Similar complexities attend Hancock’s relationship with her now firmly secular brother. They clearly share a sense of the damage that their evangelical upbringing did to them even as they speak of how otherwise happy their childhoods were. One might think that having this common perspective would bring them closer to one another, but it hasn’t, Hancock notes, with regret. Clearly, then, the divisions are real, yet so are persistent and tender bonds of love that keep the family connected. These bonds are both valuable and vulnerable. As our body politic has become increasingly polarized, Hancock observes that the common ground sustaining those bonds has grown smaller and shallower. We watch as, consciously and unconsciously, family members attempt to balance personal integrity with care for the other as they navigate that terrain.
Like Our Lady Queen of Harlem, Born Again would be a useful resource in a variety of courses in both undergraduate and graduate religious studies classrooms. However, one would be well advised to prepare students ahead of time for the viewing. That is particularly true if one’s classroom includes students whose own experiences resemble those of the Hancock family. Still, the potential gain would be well worth any risk. Opportunities to humanize rather than politicize both sides of the divide between Christian evangelicals and the LBGTQ community—Born Again’s particular genius, in my view—are few and far between. Doing so would surely enrich whatever pedagogical undertaking followed in its wake. For example, Born Again would pair extremely well with Dawne Moon’s God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies, a text I have used in undergraduate and seminary classrooms to good effect.3 Writing an accessible and compelling ethnographic study of two Methodist congregations (one conservative, one liberal) struggling over their stance on homosexuality, Moon similarly humanizes those on both sides of these controversies. It would be fascinating and enlightening to compare the dynamics at play in the Hancock family with those at play in the congregations Moon analyzes. Students would emerge from this exercise with a much more profound grasp of the theological, affective, and sociological issues involved in this contentious issue, I suspect.
1 Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” pewforum.org, April 2, 2015.
2 Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996) and En La Lucha / In the Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, 10th anniversary ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).
3 Dawne Moon, God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).