"We knew these guys would be good parents. We weren't at all sure that even they would be up to the challenge they were undertaking," said filmmaker C Roebuck Reed about Greg and Stillman Stewart, the two gay dads at the heart of her new documentary, Preacher's Sons.
The film, made with her husband Mark Nealey, follows the family from their fostering and adoption of five "at risk" boys in Pasadena, Calif., through four interstate moves and five years of their lives. "We thought no matter what happens," Reed explained, "it's going to be a good story."
And it is. Greg is a Unitarian Universalist ( UU ) minister; Stillman is a former children's social worker now taking care of their sons full time. Arthur, adopted at seven, had 15 foster placements, three failed adoptions, and a history of abuse and neglect. The Stewarts were his last chance before an institution. Javonte, also adopted at seven, came to them with his five-year-old brother Dionte after nine foster placements. The brothers had learned to hoard food, but did not know how to use silverware. Allen, born with a cocaine addiction through his mother, came to the family when he was three, in foster care his entire life. David, the youngest, also came from an addicted mother, but was lucky enough to be placed with the Stewarts at two weeks old, his second placement.
When the family moved from Pasadena to the conservative heartland of Grand Rapids, Mich., for Greg's new job, the color of the boys' skin made them stand out even more than the gender of their dads. ( Arthur is Hispanic, the rest of the boys are Black and the dads are white. ) After months of stares and unfriendly comments, the family moved to a small farm near Reno, Nevada. Still feeling like outsiders, they then moved to San Francisco, where Stillman and Greg finally felt a real sense of community and belonging.
Reed and Nealey first met the Stewarts at the UU church in Pasadena where Greg was minister of religious education. Nealey was a filmmaker. Reed, a writer trained as a cultural anthropologist, wanted to make a documentary combining the methods of both ethnographic and narrative film. The Stewarts seemed a perfect subject.
The filmmakers wanted to do a revealing, long-term study, however, not just a "day in the life." The Stewarts agreed, even though they had rejected several inquiries from major media venues. Despite the intrusion in their lives, they trusted Reed and Nealey. They also had a strong motivation, and it was more than just gay rights. Greg notes the "staggering" number of children in our country who need homes, and asserts, "At the forefront of this whole endeavor ... is that children be adopted. I want people to see what a difference adults can make in the lives of children."
Over the course of the film, we see Stillman and Greg making that difference, as the boys slowly learn to trust them and each other. We see the challenges as well as the triumphs, however, and the strain this puts on Greg and Stillman's own relationship.
The secret to the dads' success? In part, their professional backgrounds helped. Stillman had worked for many years with the most troubled children in group homes. Greg worked with children as a religious educator. Still, Reed believes, the answer is simpler, "What [ the boys ] need is what all kids need: lots of love, lots of consistency... . I think that's the biggest source of the transformation you see in the film, that they are just always there for those boys."
The boys have continued to thrive since filming ended. Last spring, 16-year-olds Javonte and Arthur both made their high school honor roll, even though in the film Arthur was failing math. Reed says they are "feeling like and acting like pretty typical teenage boys, which is to me nothing short of miraculous."
At first glance, the film seems a lot like the 2005 documentary, We Are Dad, the story of Florida dads Steven Lofton and Roger Croteau and their five foster sons. The youngest had been born HIV-positive, but "sero-reverted" to negative, whereupon the state tried to place him with an opposite-sex couple who could legally adopt him. The dads fought back with a case that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court ( who declined to hear it ) .
The Lofton-Croteau family's legal struggles gave that film a more confrontational overtone, however. Many films about gay families take that approach, Reed says, which she feels is not as effecting in teaching middle America. Instead, she explains, "We made this [ film ] consciously very gentle, non-confrontational. I'd like to call it a 'love bomb.' It's just a portrait of a family that may be a little different from yours. We get into people's hearts through the kids."
Reed and Nealey finished editing the film two years ago, just before Nealey was struck by the illness that soon took his life. Reed put the film on hold to grieve, but is now moving forward to share their work. She is also developing a study guide for high school and college students and one for child service agencies to use in training foster and adoptive parents.
Public television series In the Life aired the first 20 minutes of Preacher's Sons beginning Nov. 1, and began streaming the segment on its Web site Nov. 2. See inthelifetv.org for details. The full DVD will be for sale at preacherssons.com shortly; for now, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( www.mombian.com ) , a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.