"The Gospel of Eureka": Inside the Small Town Where Evangelists and LGBTQ Folks Co-Exist Peacefully

"It’s too easy to make these films where you take somebody down," says co-director Michael Palmieri.

There are no villains in The Gospel of Eureka.

That’s important to understand when watching Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s documentary about life in Eureka Springs, a small town in rural Arkansas home to a thriving queer community. An estimated 35% of its population of just over 2,000 people identifies as LGBTQ. According to Mosher, queer people sought out the picturesque Ozark hamlet in the 1970s and ‘80s as they “moved away from the places where they were being harmed and found a safe space away the society that was oppressing them.”

In conversation with NewNowNext, Mosher describes Eureka Springs as a “funny little haven for the misfit toys.”

“I feel like in the south, the oppression is still the heaviest, the hardest, and the meanest, and progress is moving very slow, especially now,” he says. “But also the strongest, most scrappy resistance is happening there.”

"The Gospel of Eurkea"/Kino Lorber

From left: Palmieri and Mosher.

But on the other side, Eureka Springs is also home to a large evangelical community. On the outskirts of the town sits The Great Passion Play, in which a group of performers reenact the crucifixion of Jesus three times a week during the summer months. The Gospel of Eureka picks up in 2015, when the town’s disparate factions clash over a local nondiscrimination ordinance protecting LGBTQ people in hiring and employment. The ordinance eventually passed with 70% of the vote, but not before months of protests from local conservatives.

Mosher and Palmieri, however, aren’t here to make anyone the bad guy. When the filmmakers originally met with Randall Christy, executive director of The Great Passion Play and an opponent of the LGBTQ-inclusive ordinance, he had already been interviewed by dozens of reporters about his views. According to Palmieri, interviews with Christy had portrayed him as a “bigot” and “painted him with broad brush strokes.”

Christy was well aware of how he was being portrayed in news coverage, and as Palmieri recalled, he didn’t care. “They want a villain, so I'll just play one for them,” he said.

Instead of judging his beliefs, the filmmakers opted to the movie from “a place of love.” Palmieri, a lapsed Catholic, said making a documentary which essentially embraced the teachings of Jesus was “harder but ultimately more rewarding.”

“It’s too easy to make these films where you take somebody down,” he claims. “I don't see the value in it. We all know there are Christian villains. We all know there's plenty of reason to feel hatred against people who oppress other groups. But given that there's so much hate out there in the world, just giving a little bit of love is not going to hurt.”

The Gospel of Eureka resists easy targets in favor of the messiness of everyday life. Field of Vision, a self-described “visual journalism film unit” co-founded by Academy-Award winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, originally sent Mosher and Palmieri to Eureka Springs to make a documentary about the ordinance. That short came out in 2015. However, the filmmakers spent another three years in the town exploring the ways in which political and faith identities often confound expectation.

One figure profiled in The Gospel of Eureka is Jayme Brandt, the owner of the local Christian apparel store. When Brandt was a child, his parents divorced after his father came out as gay, which Brandt’s mother described as his father having a “sexual disease.” “I understood homosexuality to be the worst sin, this thing that transforms you, steals your identity, and turns you into this other thing,” he explains.

As Brandt slings t-shirts quoting God as saying “I Got This,” his message today is not one of intolerance, but acceptance. As he makes his children a cheese sandwich, Brandt explains to his young daughter that LGBTQ people sometimes have to hide parts of themselves to fit in or feel safe in their communities. He asks her if it would be sad to be forced to “lie” about herself. She agrees it would.

Even while digging into the culture clash at the center of the nondiscrimination ordinance fight, The Gospel of Eureka avoids stock characterizations. Speaking with religious conservatives rallying against the ordinance, a young man in a black cowboy hat is asked why he’s against LGBTQ rights. He isn’t sure. An elderly man in a pickup truck laments that Eureka Springs has become too “permissive,” not realizing that the two locals to whom he’s making this complaint are gay and transgender.

"The Gospel of Eureka"/Kino Lorber

“The joy of that scene was watching the townspeople have this strength in their own identities to be indulgent of this old crank,” Mosher recalls. “They just grinned and treated him like an eccentric.”

What emerges from The Gospel of Eureka is a portrait of two communities that may have more in common than is immediately apparent. LGBTQ residents of Eureka Springs regularly attend drag shows at Eureka Live, a gay bar described by its owners as a “hillbilly Studio 54.” Instead of Katy Perry and Madonna, the queens regularly lip-sync to devotional hymns and music with explicitly religious overtones—including the Maren Morris country song “My Church” and “Pray the Gay Away” by Broadway veteran Laura Bell Bundy. The film’s emotional climax is a performance to Yolanda Adams’ “Let Us Worship Him.”

“There's no camp and there's no irony,” Mosher says of the gospel anthem. “There's just a sincere love of the song and the experience there. We wanted to show the drag audience having a profound, church-y moment in the same way that the passion play audience has it.”

One of the most powerful realizations that Mosher and Palmieri had while making The Gospel of Eureka is that if drag shows function like church for the local LGBTQ community, then passion plays embody the ornate pageantry of drag. As the audience members fan themselves in the sweltering Arkansas heat, they’re treated to a grandiose stage show complete with costumes, makeup, and a booming soundtrack.

In Palmieri’s own words, the passion play merely takes “camp to a different place.”

"The Gospel of Eureka"/Kino Lorber

“It's two sides of a similar coin—where what's cheap and silly-looking is suddenly sacred,” he claims. “For gay filmmakers, that's the kind of thing that we found really exciting and interesting.”

The Gospel of Eureka will screen at New York City’s Quad Cinema until February 14 and opens in Los Angeles on March 8. Later this year, the Kino Lorber release will be broadcast on PBS as part of the POV documentary series. As the film rolls out to a wider audience, Mosher and Palmiere hope it encourages faith audiences and LGBTQ viewers to “see the humanity of people that they don't agree with.”

“If you can recognize human complexity,” Mosher says, “it's very hard to dehumanize other people.”