It was the envy of the documentary world. For a decade, the True/False Fest pulled off something that other progressive film festivals found impossible: Through a working partnership with an evangelical megachurch, The Crossing, it found a major sponsor that also reached across the political and cultural divide.
In 2019, The Crossing’s $40,000 donation accounted for close to two percent of the organization’s operating budget. Perhaps even more important: Nonfiction funders and filmmakers are desperate to find ways to reach beyond the elite liberal bubble of Sundance and the New York arthouses, and the adventurous and challenging programming at T/F found an open dialogue with a conservative community.
It was an odd-couple pairing that created some cognitive dissonance. The documentary festival celebrated films like “After Tiller,” a compassionate look at the lives of doctors who perform late-term abortions, while the staunch pro-life church preaches that heterosexuals hold a moral high ground. “The most major festival in America came to me,” said T/F co-founder David Wilson. “And said, ‘How are you making this work? We’ve tried this. We can’t get it to work. How are you doing this?'”
However, the 17th edition of T/F launched on March 5 without The Crossing. Last October, the festival’s parent organization, the Ragtag Film Society, cut its ties with the church following a controversial anti-trans sermon and months of internal discord. The outcome speaks to the messy challenge of a progressive arts organization trying to bridge the divide with an evangelical church that has become a major religious, political, and cultural force.
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Both T/F and The Crossing are based in Columbia, Mo., a college town that houses the state university, its revered Missouri School of Journalism, and some 120,000 residents. The film festival owes its success to the eclectic and dedicated local community. Last weekend, the packed theaters at T/F featured middle-aged and older Midwestern ticket buyers — the ones you don’t usually see at a doc festival — who encountered everything from the story of rappers growing weed in Colorado (“Crestone”) to a poetic meditation of the injustice of incarceration (“Time”).
Since 2009, the crown jewel in True/False’s ability to engage that wider audience has been its unique partnership with The Crossing. The Evangelical Presbyterian megachurch, which has some 4,000 congregants, was the sponsor of the True Life fund — a philanthropic effort in which festival audiences raise money for the subjects of a True/False film each year. (This year’s recipients were the LGBTQ+ citizens who risked their life telling their story in “Welcome to Chechnya.”) Over time, the church’s support expanded to include the Ragtag Cinema, the nonprofit organization’s year-round theater.
“What was exciting about the partnership is here’s a big group of people who don’t engage with films like this, who don’t necessarily engage with ideas like this,” said Wilson. “I truly believe that documentaries are actually a really great way to enter into a conversation. They allow people a level of comfort that sometimes just a standard, ‘Okay, let’s talk about this issue,’ doesn’t open the door for.”
Wilson, a secular-Jewish filmmaker, and Dave Cover, one of the founding pastors of The Crossing, made for a dynamic odd couple. They met for monthly lunches throughout the decade-long partnership and participated in joint interviews and onstage appearances. To the benefit of both organizations, they pushed the image of what was possible when two leaders looked past their ideological differences.
One of the more celebrated stories came in 2013, when Wilson convinced Cover to watch “After Tiller.” Cover declared it his favorite film at that year’s festival and would later screen it with Wilson at The Crossing. The film did not make Cover question the church’s position on abortion, but stated he celebrated how it opened his eyes to see the doctors as actually caring deeply about their patients rather than the pro-life stereotype of evil capitalists. The story gained traction as it was retold in several media outlets, and the idea of the evangelical church and a progressive film festival getting along became a rallying call for the potential of the documentary form.
However, on October 13, 2019, co-lead pastor Keith Simon gave a sermon at The Crossing addressing the subject of gender identity. “God seems to think that our gender is incredibly important to who we are as people, that it reflects something about him and his glory,” he said. “Gender is not a social construct. Men and women are foundational to God’s plan. God is not pleased when we blur genders.”
He then drew a contrast between the way today’s culture responds to violence and aggression, versus a gender identity crisis. “You know what we tell them today, ‘Get therapy for that aggression,’ right? ‘You need to get therapy for that, that’s not good. We can fix that though,'” said Simon. “‘This gender-identity thing, that’s for sure you, do that, pursue your authentic self.’ So you see what happened was the only thing that changed was the culture. What era did you live in, what did the culture affirm?”
Behind him, a screen cut to an image of hundreds of thousands of Nazis at a rally in 1930s Germany. “Be careful if you follow culture,” he said. “Here, in this culture in Germany in the 1930s, the culture said something that was horrendously wrong. Be careful where culture will lead you.”
In an interview with IndieWire almost five months after giving the sermon, Simon said he wishes he’d been clearer, but doesn’t regret the sermon itself. “I’m always learning,” he said. “If I had the chance to do that sermon again, I think I would still give it, but … I wouldn’t do it the same. I think I’d say that about almost any sermon I give, but this one specifically. … I don’t regret doing the sermon, but on the other hand I would for sure nuance it or clarify.”
A sermon condemning transgender people while conflating gender identity with Nazism got a lot of attention. The service was live-streamed and lived on The Crossing website. Word quickly spread on Facebook, resulting in a Change.org petition signed by over 1,100 people calling for T/F to sever ties with the church. In an interview with local news, Wilson distanced himself from Simon’s sermon, but preached compassion. On Twitter, many in the film community offered support to the festival’s founder.
The controversy picked up steam as an art gallery severed ties with the church, and the University Theater department issued an ultimatum (later pulled back by the school administration) to drop The Crossing as a sponsor. On October 18, 2019, the Ragtag Film Society cut ties with The Crossing, stating, “A recent sermon has crystallized an unbridgeable difference between us.”
Long before the October sermon, Wilson and Cover both saw their organizations lose supporters as result of the partnership. Most of the initial resistance stemmed from those inside the church who questioned supporting a festival with such liberal programming, but in the 24 months leading up to Simon’s sermon, many inside the T/F community grew uncomfortable with the partnership and openly questioned its benefits.
Sources tell IndieWire that 2017-18 was a turning point for those inside T/F who grew to oppose the partnership. That summer The Crossing and T/F, led by Wilson, launched another partnership, the Alethea Project, a 10-week traveling documentary screening series hosted by large evangelical churches around the Midwest and West. Meanwhile, T/F executive director and Crossing parishioner Jeremy Brown was elevated to serve as executive director or Ragtag Film Society. Now, he oversaw all aspects of the organization.
“When that was announced, that’s when there started to be some questions and some comments, and some employees and volunteers saying, ’I’m not OK with this, it’s a bridge too far,” said a T/F member of the Board of Directors. “People were starting to say these things publicly. I was getting comments on the street, and people were emailing me, ‘What is going on?'”
Wilson believed that the shift in the T/F community mirrored what happened nationwide after President Trump’s election.
“Looking back on what happened, I don’t want to discount the political shift in America,” said Wilson. “Regardless of how one feels about the end result of Obama’s tenure as president, it felt throughout that there was a lot of progress made, or a lot of progress made toward social justice in America. And in 2016, we saw that process come to a screeching halt and start to move quickly in reverse in ways that are obviously still scary. And so if you are in that camp politically, I think the stakes start to feel really different between 2013 and 2017, or 2018. And I think that in part led to people feeling like, ‘Wait a minute. What are we doing? Are we somehow as an organization helping to facilitate this backwards movement rather than fighting it?'”
After 15 years building T/F, Wilson left his position as festival director in April 2018 to pursue a filmmaking career full-time while remaining a consultant and board member. He says he doesn’t understand the complaints: To his mind, Alethea was a side project he would oversee, and it is disingenuous to view Brown’s positions as allowing The Crossing to “infiltrate” the festival.
“True/False wouldn’t exist as a solvent project or organization were it not for Jeremy Brown,” said Wilson. “[Co-founder] Paul [Sturz] and I were pretty bad at managing the business of running a festival. To judge someone solely based on where they go to church, because there’s no other actual actions that Jeremy has ever taken, words he’s ever said, that would give you reason to judge that. Yeah, I think it’s gross.”
No one who spoke to IndieWire for this article disputed the importance of Brown’s contribution. While Wilson and Sturz are politically connected — Wilson is the son of a former state representative, while Sturtz would become a member of the City Council and later worked for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign — they were ultimately two cinephiles with a dream. It was largely Brown who oversaw the creation of a self-sustaining nonprofit with a core staff of over 70 employees and contractors.
The cracks started to show when the T/F staff first learned about the Alethea Project at an October 2017 meeting. T/F management found themselves surprised by pointed questions regarding funding and priorities. Staff members who were at the meeting told IndieWire they felt that T/F leaders shut down any conversation about The Crossing.
In the weeks following the announcement, a diversity consultant who was already under contract with the festival conducted an in-person and written survey of the staff. She also attended The Crossing, which meant the forum for discussion and concerns about the relationship with The Crossing were often being led by, or directed to, someone who was part of The Crossing community.
“I just felt like it was so weird,” said one prominent staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, “considering the number-one complaint was about the relationship with The Crossing. But we were telling it to someone who was a congregant of The Crossing.”
The surveys included questions about religion and sexuality, which many on the largely progressive staff viewed as “awkward at best.” However, one of the biggest complaints about the expanding relationship with The Crossing surrounded the issue of diversity. While the festival did a remarkable job building strong ties with the community of Columbia, that largely extended to its white residents, who make up 76 percent of its population.
T/F had started education programs in the Columbia Public Schools, but by allocating time and energy to the Alethea Project in order to extend the relationship with evangelicals outside Columbia seemed like mission drift to board members and prominent staffers.
“Doing outreach within our own community of Columbia, Mo., for all of the non-white population that doesn’t attend the festival or other marginalized communities, that the festival has long claimed to serve, but hasn’t, was the priority for most of us,” said one staffer. “In the same year that they announced the Alethea Project, there was no outreach to those communities and what the festival did was start a tour of megachurches. It was the principle of that.”
In February 2019, the diversity consultant’s initial findings identified “communication and trust” as major issues, and that staff wanted management to become more transparent in communicating decisions. Community Partnerships Coordinator Lisa Harrison and programmer Abby Sun were tasked with digging deeper into the survey. In April, they presented their results: Mistrust stemming from The Crossing relationship ran deep.
In the survey 32% of the staff expressed concerns about inequality at T/F, including the belief that men rose quickly through the ranks with better job titles and pay. This made the church’s practice of Complementarianism — which relegates women to supporting roles within the church — a particularly sore subject. Staff members were also confused about the funding of Alethea, with some believing that it included monies diverted from the True Life fund (a claim that Wilson and the fest categorically deny).
“There were obviously a lot of deep rifts that were created or revealed when the Alethea Project was announced — especially how it was announced,” read a staff member’s anonymous quote in the report. “I believe there is a fundamental distrust among many members of Core Staff and the members of the organization who identify as Crossing members. I don’t know what to do about this, it’s just something that I have observed.”
Wilson told the staff he believed The Crossing was unlike most evangelical churches. When Cover first approached T/F about a partnership, Wilson said, another Columbia church reached out at the same time. “There’s an intellectual curiosity, and a real interest in the community, that I didn’t feel that from the other church,” said Wilson. “There is something going on here that doesn’t exactly match my personal stereotypes, and I had very, very strong stereotype of evangelical Christians and why they would ever be involved in a documentary film festival, and what they would want out of that, and what they would demand, and stuff like that.”
IndieWire talked to three core staff members who took Wilson’s advice to take a closer look at The Crossing. They watched the weekend broadcasts and read the church’s blog, “Every Square Inch,” where the pastors post. Rather than feel comforted, they were disturbed: The church used current events to talk about race, gender, and culture in ways that they found deeply upsetting.
Chris Boeckmann, who is now director of film programming at T/F, said he became obsessed with the “Every Square Inch” blog. “The posts are rarely easily assertable viral things, like in Simon’s sermon,” he said. “You have to read a whole essay and that’s the takeaway from it, ‘Denying the moral legitimacy of homosexuality’ was a line they used.”
Boeckmann said he shares Wilson’s belief in both the need for dialogue and the power of a good documentary to spark it. At the same time, he questioned whether the leadership of an evangelical church was the right place to start.
“I don’t think it’s a mistake to reach out to people who have different beliefs, or that that is bad thing,” he said, but “why would watching a movie shift their interpretation of the Bible? You talk to someone who has a different belief, you keep talking to them, you keep talking to them, and 10 years later [the Nazi comparison] comes out as a sermon? I think at that point it has to be acknowledged as a failure to some degree.”
Based on the discussions taking place among the staff in early 2019, Wilson felt compelled to text Cover to ask him to clarify the church’s position on gay conversion therapy. Cover denied the church practiced it, despite longstanding rumors to the contrary. However, the discussion of conversion therapy is a vital backdrop to understanding the eruption surrounding Simon’s sermon last fall.
The Crossing scheduled guest speaker Rebecca McLaughlin for an October 26 seminar on “Science, Gender, and Sexuality,” which triggered talk of protests on social media. McLaughlin had espoused anti-LGBTQ+ views and shared that while she was attracted to women, the church helped curb her desires. Meanwhile, just days before Simon’s sermon, the city council made Columbia the first Missouri city to ban the practice of conversion therapy.
Simon wrote an editorial for The Missourian five days after his sermon, claiming that it wasn’t meant to address current events. Nevertheless, The Crossing often uses news and political controversies in its teachings, and, according to a dozen Columbia residents who spoke to IndieWire, they interpreted the sermon in context of the city banning conversion therapy.
On the same day as McLaughlin’s talk, LGBTQ-supporting community organizers held Hate In Plain Sight, where Unitarian Universalist pastor Rev. Molly Housh Gordon addressed the conundrum presented by the relationship between The Crossing and T/F.
“They create a really fun, musical, coffee-fueled bookstore worship experience with a very happy, light message of love,” she said. “They go get their sponsorships with some hip community organizations so their message is out there, and that’s how they grow and spread the word. And they know that their theology is not so popular in the culture right now, so they hide it. They keep it a few levels below what’s happening at the surface of their congregation, their movement. And that can be good and all for their strategy, except that it’s abusive. It’s gaslighting.”
In the days surrounding Simon’s controversial sermon, the T/F community increasingly saw the partnership as part of that gaslight. The festival is a powerful cultural force in the community and a major source of pride, and many felt it served as a cloak of tolerance for the church’s fundamentalist beliefs.
Wilson acknowledged he has heard that complaint. “The Crossing is, at this point, around three percent of our city,” he said. “Like it or not, they are a very mainstream church. I think the views of the people who go to The Crossing represent mainstream America. I think I work and live my life to in part change the views of mainstream America. I don’t know how to do that if I’m not talking to them.”
The Crossing is the church of choice for many of Missouri’s conservative powerbrokers, including current Senator Josh Hawley. For Boeckmann — a gay man who grew up in Columbia and is now one of the most respected nonfiction programmers in the country through his work with Ragtag and True/False — that history is hard to shake.
“I think back to 2004 with the banning of gay marriage amendment that was so easily passed in the state, when I was a teenager, and being pretty positive that churches played a big part of that,” said Boeckmann. “And just continuing to live here, and it not being the best place to be a gay man, I feel like l’ve sacrificed on a personal level in some sense because of my professional reasons for staying here.”
The Crossing is also adept at publicizing its beliefs. “They’re better at PR than other other places,” said Boeckmann. “They are particularly adept at selling the love the sinner, hate the sin, which the sin is the existence of certain people in this instance. And part of me wants to put the film community’s feet to the fire for going along with and not questioning because the local community has been more skeptical than the film community.”
In May, Brown organized a “listening session” for the Ragtag board and staff. Brown told IndieWire that with two years left on the church’s sponsorship agreement, he knew the organization would need to take a hard look at continuing the partnership.
“A lesson learned for me is that it’s really important for an arts organization to have a clearly stated mission statement and a really clear set of core values,” he said. “So that you can take what you are doing and really evaluate that against those.”
Days before Simon’s sermon, Ragtag completed the six-month process of creating a mission statement and core values, which Wilson credits with helping him see why the partnership should end.
“I personally have always known that my personal core values differed sharply from those of The Crossing. That was never in question to me,” said Wilson. “As a small organization where it feels like, ‘Oh, my core values are True/False’s core values, I’m running it with Paul or whatever,’ it’s easy to overlook that one might need to make these kinds of clarifications and statements, and when the time comes, draw these sorts of lines. And I own that. I’m not saying that with pride or as an excuse. I think that’s a mistake. I’m just saying this is what led us to that mistake.”
Wilson said that while he wished the situation turned out differently, it may have been doomed from the start. “It probably shouldn’t have been structured as a sponsorship,” he said, while also acknowledging that in 2009 the money was vital to the fledgling organization. “When you enter into a financially dependent relationship with an organization and agree to promote them through that, you are certainly muddying the waters.”
Yet looking back, Wilson had few regrets. “On a very personal level to me, there’s someone I know really well who is a woman in her twenties, who goes to The Crossing, who believes very strongly in her religion, and who identifies as a feminist,” said Wilson. “[She] wrestles I think in a really healthy way with that, in part because of her proximity to the festival, and volunteering at the fest, and being part of the fest.”
For his part, Boeckmann hopes such interactions continue. “I don’t want to lose The Crossing congregation,” said Boeckmann. “I don’t believe they believe every single thing their pastor says, just like I work within an organization where I don’t believe in everything we do. There’s a lot of wonderful people who go to The Crossing and come to screenings. I think that drawing a line with their leadership in terms of ideology doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be in conversation with people who attended.”
Simon thinks the partnership was something special, and rare in these fractured times, but that doesn’t mean the dialogue or relationship has ended.
“Some people probably are disappointed or felt hurt in the process, but that’s not how The Crossing leadership feels,” said Simon. “We have encouraged those who want to continue to remain part of the festival in a way they feel comfortable with and I’ve seen some pictures from the first night of the festival and saw members of our church volunteering or attending, and think that’s great.”