Santiago Gonzalez, a PLNU alumni who graduated just last year, is the subject of a newly released, short documentary titled Saltwater Baptism. The film introduces Gonzalez with shots of him surfing at Ocean Beach, praying while paddling out. He speaks about being a gay Christian who believes that “God loves me, regardless of my sexuality.”
“My sexuality is just one of many parts of me that I believe needs to be recognized and brought before God,” said Gonzalez. “I also value my own experience as a Christian and as a spiritual being in general. My experience is my experience, and it speaks deeper than anything anyone could ever tell me about who they think God is.”
Saltwater Baptism was directed by another PLNU alum, Jared Callahan (class of 2013) and was produced by Russell Sheaffer. The film was released as an Opinion Documentary on The New York Times website Tuesday, Oct. 17.
In 17 minutes, Gonzalez’ personal and vulnerable story is told in a raw, moving way as the viewer is brought into the complexity of a young man searching after his place in God’s heart while falling in love with a fellow student on campus.
“Sharing my story has been very rewarding,” said Gonzalez. “People seem to resonate deeply with it and the way that it conveys who I am without glamorizing me. People that came out at PLNU or that were afraid to come out at PLNU have thanked me for opening myself up as they have felt their own voices heard. The notion that even one person feels heard and validated in their experience through this film brings me joy.”
Callahan said that “making Saltwater Baptism was an exercise in listening.”
“I was humbled to be invited into the lives of Santi [Gonzalez], Austin, and their friend groups during such a big week,” said Callahan. “How do we make space at our tables for people who come from different backgrounds and hold different opinions? I am always too quick to share my thoughts, so for me, this piece invites me into another world and begs me to receive the vulnerability of another, and in this case, another Christ-follower.”
This film allows a space for viewers to listen and dwell in these “sacred spaces” with Gonzalez as he reflects on the many aspects of his identity, including being a first-generation college graduate within his Mexican-American family. The viewer is invited to see Gonzalez as a student, a son, a brother, a Christian and a lover.
“I hope that people recognize the complexity of our own individuality,” said Gonzalez. “That amidst social pressures, stigmas, cultural and religious norms, that people would remember to introspect and ask questions. Questions that may seem scary, but that can provide a deeper compassion and understanding for oneself and the people around us.”
Callahan was the first adult Gonzalez told about his same-sex attraction. At the time, Callahan was working as a pastor. Since then, the documentary filmmaker has been inspired by Gonzalez’ story, and began working on the film as Gonzalez was entering his final semester at Point Loma.
“I wish people got to see and hear more of the footage from that week of hanging with them [Callahan and Shaeffer],” said Gonzalez. “I had some of the best conversations of my undergrad experience.”
Gonzalez hopes to encourage students at PLNU and elsewhere who may be struggling with understanding their sexuality and faith by helping them to remember they are “not alone.”
“There are many people struggling around you, seeking the comfort of knowing that they aren’t alone either,” said Gonzalez. “Sharing your experience with people that aren’t going to judge you may allow you the freedom to be creative and inspire real change.”
Gonzalez’ story reminds us that God’s love has no limits, it’s radically transformative and without borders. It reaches into even the most uncomfortable and uncertain places in our lives.
“The only thing I can do is talk about my experience, humbly bring it to the table as we ask questions, and hope that others do the same,” said Gonzalez. “Regardless of how I express my sexuality, I believe God honors and nurtures our experience so that we can become the people that God intended us to be.”
At the end of the film, Gonzales is once again shown on the beach, floating in the waves, engulfed in the currents that brought him closer to God and to love. It’s his saltwater baptism.