Despite political opposition, two activists find common ground over guns

(CNN)Abigail Disney and Rob Schenck never expected to be friends. They never even expected to like each other.

The unexpected friendship that developed between two partisan opposites called into question many of the assumptions they both had about politics -- and their own beliefs.
"He was just really nice, and he listened, and he was thoughtful, and then I thought, shame on me for being surprised by any of those things. I mean, what a bigot," Disney, a progressive activist filmmaker, told CNN as she sat on a couch next to Schenck in his office.
"I had my own bigotry. Because, when I learn someone is a pro-choice activist, ardent liberal, left-leaning, politically ... " Schenck, an evangelical pastor, trailed off as Disney raised her hand.
    "I would never imagine that Abby was a mom of four children that she loved, and a relatively big family, and utterly committed," Schenck added. "This friendship was as much about defeating stereotypes and presuppositions and all those things that get in the way, that interfere with friendships, with building relationships."

    The risk of friendship

    Schenck and Disney's friendship inspired them to try to help others see past the traditional battle lines on issues ranging from gun violence to abortion.
    The two met while Disney was making a documentary about a topic she knows is incredibly divisive: gun control.
    Disney, who is the great-niece of Walt Disney, decided she needed to find somebody to work with "who was as far from me on the political spectrum as I could possibly find."
    When Disney approached Schenck, who she knew to be an outspoken anti-abortion activist, he was just beginning to question the conservative position on guns.
    Rev. Rob Schenck (L) debates with a pro-choice advocate at a rally in Washington DC in January 1995.
    His decision to participate in the film was partially influenced by the 2013 Navy Yard shooting just a mile from his office in Washington, where 12 people were killed.
    "To me, the pulpit is a place that delivers life, and that fosters and protects life," Schenck said of his beliefs. "[It] doesn't take life, or nullify the value of human life. So, for me, that was one of the reasons that it became imperative to take on the gun question."
    The resulting documentary, "Armor of Light," focuses on Schenck and Lucy McBath, who lost her 17-year-old son, Jordan, after he was shot and killed in 2012 during an argument over loud music.
    In one scene, McBath asks Schenck to use his pulpit to speak out about gun violence.
    Ultimately, he decided to break with much of the evangelical and conservative community in deciding he couldn't be both "pro-life" and "pro-gun."
    In the aftermath of the documentary, Schenck founded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute with Disney's help. It is named for the German pastor, theologian and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote extensively about the moral and ethical implications of Christianity in the secular world.
    The organization doesn't push for specific policies, but it encourages people in faith-based communities to question long-held beliefs about political issues.
    At one event CNN attended, called "The Gospel and a Sidearm," Disney and Schenck brought together people from across the political spectrum in the Christian community and screened scenes from the documentary.
    Abigail Disney and Rob Schenck listen to a panel discussing gun violence at the event "The Gospel and a Sidewarm," hosted by the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.
    Before the screening, Disney described her decision to focus on Schenck in the film: "I had no idea that we would find somebody with the deep inner courage that Rob brought to this project."
    "She was willing to take the risk of crossing over into my world," Schenck said, as the two discussed how to tackle explosive political issues after the event. "That was inspiring to me. I ended up taking considerable risk in stepping over to inhabit parts of your world."
    "We're both like Columbus: We crossed the ocean expecting to find monsters on the other side, and it turned out there weren't any," Disney said.

    Coming out of the trenches

    Schenck and Disney say their friendship helped them realize that changing people's minds isn't the only way to move forward.
    "When I first met Rob and we started working together, I had it in my head that the ultimate thing would be to change his mind on abortion," Disney said. "If I had actually changed his mind, I don't know how much I'd respect him. That desire to change his mind came from a lack of respect, and I'm glad I got rid of it. It taught me something really important."