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Film shines light on woman’s struggle to name and claim her identity

March 29th, 2019

Wendi Moore-O'Neal

The final film in this year's KIPCOR series (Sun., April 14, 3 pm in Krehbiel Auditorium) looks at Wendi Moore-O'Neal's experience as an out lesbian working with Mennonite Central Committee in New Orleans.

Those who support and follow the work of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) may remember the personnel policy conflict that was the catalyst for the film This Little Light.

The Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) at Bethel College will present the 49-minute “diaristic film” as the fourth and final offering in its 2018-19 series.

The film screens April 14 at 3 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus. A talkback follows with Lois Harder, currently interim associate pastor at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, Goessel, and Heidi Regier Kreider, North Newton, conference minister for Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

The KIPCOR Film Series is free and open to the public, with a freewill offering taken to support the series and the work of KIPCOR.

Wendi O’Neal went to work with MCC in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in August of 2005, the resulting storm surge caused levees to fail, destroying lives and property in largely low-income and African-American neighborhoods.

Born and raised in New Orleans, experienced in community activism and organizing, O’Neal seemed like the perfect MCC service worker for the time and place.

But there was a problem. The MCC Personnel Policy requires “celibacy outside of heterosexual marriage,” and O’Neal was in a committed same-sex partnership.

She subsequently married her partner, Mandisa (taking the name Moore-O’Neal). In October 2014, MCC fired Moore-O’Neal via e-mail, citing violation of the so-called “lifestyle clause” of the personnel policy.

Moore-O’Neal filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sex. The EEOC agreed to investigate the claim.

Ultimately, however, the EEOC informed Moore-O’Neal that its investigation “found reasonable cause to believe that violations of the [federal] statute(s) occurred with respect to some or all of the matters alleged in the charge but could not obtain a settlement with the Respondent that would provide relief for you.” The case was dropped.

In the film, which Moore-O’Neal co-produced and co-directed with her friend, filmmaker Ada McMahon, Moore-O’Neal looks back on the years she spent professionally closeted in order to do good, her decision to come out to her superiors, and the discrimination case.

Throughout, she finds refuge in freedom singing, her spiritual link to a tradition of struggle. 

By her own description, Moore-O’Neal is a “Black feminist butch dyke from New Orleans.”

She is a dancer, “markers & scrap paper” visual artist, freedom-song singer and teacher. She currently runs Jaliyah Consulting, which seeks to connect and support people in challenging and transforming white supremacist culture, through freedom singing and story circles and by training groups in story-circle process, grassroots leadership and meeting facilitation.

Moore-O'Neal often cites her father as a deeply influential mentor and teacher. John O’Neal (who died this past February), co-founded the Free Southern Theater, a radical Black theater project that grew out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

In 1991, Moore-O’Neal helped found one of the first documented out lesbian and bisexual women’s alliances at a historically Black college, Spelman in Atlanta. It still exists as the group Afrekete.

McMahon is originally from Cambridge, Mass. From 2010-15, she lived on the Gulf Coast and made collaborative media in support of grassroots community organizing efforts. She currently studies and teaches filmmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This Little Light had its world premiere Oct 19, 2018 – almost four years to the day Moore-O’Neal received her termination e-mail from MCC – at the New Orleans Film Festival, where it was an official selection and received a Special Jury Mention for Best Louisiana Feature.

It was also an official selection for the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Festival, screening Oct. 24 in Washington, D.C., and was at the Milwaukee Film Festival Oct. 25 and Oct. 30-31.

“There’s a lot going on in this film, which tells the story of Wendi’s fight against being fired for being a lesbian (to oversimplify it),” writes cultural critic Sally Jane Black in a review.

“It’s in part a portrait of Wendi and the people around her (because as an organizer, she knows that no one isn’t reflected in the people around them). It’s in part a call to action. It’s in part an observation on filmmaking. It’s in part a showcase of her voice. It’s in part a work of art. And it’s in part the story of an injustice that came at a time and in a way that reflects where our society is at.

“All of that seems to be written into every moment of the film.”

The KIPCOR Film Series is funded in part through the KIPCOR Peace Lecture Endowment.

Bethel College is the only Kansas private college listed in the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, both for 2018-19. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.