Before I fell silent for a period of time at the end of February and in early March, I blogged about my decision to choose the Catholic church as a church home in the 1960s. As that posting indicated, I have long been predisposed to view this decision to leave my childhood family of faith for another family of faith in familial terms: I was choosing a new church family when I left behind my family's Southern Baptist church, in which I had been raised, for the Catholic church.
How could I not see this conversion experience in such family-oriented terms, when I grew up in a culture saturated with references to family, in which, as my favorite aunt, who influenced me decisively when I was a child, liked to say repeatedly, "Family is just about everything"? Hence, as my late-February posting says, the very deep pain of choosing a new family of faith in which I expected welcome, affirmation, and refuge from an often hostile world — all things we associate with family as its very foundations — only to discover, as I began to realize that I was gay, that my chosen religious family was no more welcoming or affirming of me as a gay person than the world around me was. To the contrary . . . .
This morning, these topics have been in the forefront of my thought as I read Carol Kuruvilla's article at Huffington Post on what she calls the "Marco Polos of religion," spiritual seekers who, before they reach the age of 24, leave behind their childhood faith for something completely new. As she notes, these decisions on the part of teens or young adults to leave their family's religious community are frequently attended by pain, both in the family itself, which feels repudiated, and in the person setting forth on a spiritual journey without familial support — often, with the active hostility of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents.
For an entire year, my father put me under a kind of house arrest. Unless I abjured my decision to become Catholic, I could eat meals with my family, at our family table, only with his express permission, with the recognition that he could, as he put the point crudely, "break my plate" any time he chose to do so. "You will drive only Baptist cars," he announced to me as he told me I could take one of the family cars to go to school and back — no place else — as long as I intended to commit myself to this arrant nonsense. "If you want real religion, for God's sake, you can choose a country Baptist church!" he declared. "They really do believe."
"There will be no Catholic literature in this house. Keep it hidden, or I'll burn it in the front yard." My maternal grandmother, always a loving, accepting presence in my formative years, was there to hear him utter that set of dictates. I could see her cringe as she listened. I saw her die a bit inside for my sake, as she heard my father utter those words. Her Irish-born mother had been Catholic, and her family felt none of the animosity towards Catholicism that my father's more institutionally Southern Baptist family felt. In fact, they felt great pride in their Irish roots and the Catholic faith of their forebears.
All of this was part of my own experience when I announced that I wanted to join the Catholic church in 1965. In 1965: my adolescent conversion experience and what impelled me to take such a large, painful step come rushing back to memory today, as I read Paul Murray's article in National Catholic Reporter about the considerable, very public involvement of Catholic priests and nuns in the Selma march in 1965.
In 1965: when I was fifteen years old. A year after the Civil Rights Act had been enacted. Two years in which longstanding racial barriers were crumbling all around me, in the small and very traditional Deep South town in south Arkansas in which I had grown up. In 1965: the year in which a group of African-American Baptists asked to join my family's Southern Baptist church, and all hell broke loose.
Our church held public meetings to discuss the request. This is how Baptists do things: each church is the church, and makes its own decisions as a church. Those meetings were . . . eye-opening . . . for me as an impressionable young adolescent. The venom, the outright hatred, that poured out of the mouths of one church member after another, many of these people with standing in the church, people engaged in various ministries in the church, who did not intend to see a black member cross the threshold of their church except over their dead bodies . . . . The bible says!
By a slim margin, our church voted to accept black members. But the church then split. The naysayers left to form their own smaller, purer, truer, bible-based church, as they hurled their anathema at the watered-down gospel we others had chosen to follow when we opened our doors to black members. Black members who never joined, since why would they, when it was perfectly clear that they were welcome in our midst in only the most grudging, tenuous way possible . . . .
Meanwhile, those priests and nuns were marching in Selma. And the Catholic church in our small Southern town had long since quietly integrated, so that black members from its tiny black mission church were worshiping without fanfare side by side with white members in the larger "white" parish.
When I begn to feel such a strong — an irresistible — pull to that integrated Catholic parish, which proclaimed to me that the Jesus I had been taught by my Baptist faith to love as my warm, constant companion and savior, made himself available not just as someone breaking bread with me (the root meaning of the word "companion"), but as bread himself, I asked to meet with our church's pastor. My parents forced me to take that step, though I had wanted it, too, since I wanted quite specifically to ask him how he justified the extreme temerity with which our church was approaching the question of integration.
All the barriers were falling immediately around us, the racial barriers with which I had grown up and which I had taken for granted all during my childhood and early adolescence as expressions of divine will (since I was taught to think this way by my family, my church, my school, etc.). Signs marking water fountains as white or colored were vanishing, black folks were sitting at the front of buses alongside white folks, the separate colored waiting room of my doctor's office with its broken-down furniture and tattered hand-me-down magazines from the white waiting room had been locked up.
Restaurants that had had only a service window for black patrons were opening their doors — under legal duress — to black patrons who were sitting down and eating with white ones. White schools were being forced to open their doors to black students. A black friend and I integrated one of our town's two movie theaters — the one of the two that had long admitted black moviegoers as long as they confined themselves to the theater's balcony. We had simply bought tickets, walked into the main part of the theater, and sat down. Though the silence around us was deafening and ominous, the walls of the place did not fall down. That was that; the theater was now integrated . . . .
I wanted to ask my church's pastor, then, why the church was not leading all of these developments, which seemed to so many people including me so clearly in line with the Christian gospels, but was following behind. His response: this is what the church does. This is what it's meant to do. It's meant to lag behind social developments, not to lead them. Leading them would place it in a situation of constant controversy that would tear churches apart.
The answer did not satisfy me. Despite my father's attempt for a whole year to break my spirit and beat me into submission (he did actually beat me up through that year of house arrest, once so brutally in 1966, when I was sixteen, that blood poured down my legs), I persisted in my determination to become Catholic, and when he finally relented and permitted me to take that step, I entered the Catholic church in 1967.
Only, as I say, to discover some years down the road that a church which had drawn me so powerfully to itself by the courageous witness of those priests and nuns who marched for human rights for the marginalized at Selma turned its back on me and other LGBT people as we struggled for our rights in the final decades of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. My new family of faith, in fact, did more: its pastors, the men who claim to stand in the place of Jesus the Good Shepherd for the Catholic community, actively campaigned against the human rights of LGBT people.
They gathered millions of dollars to use in blocking those rights, in spreading disinformation about LGBT people. They mounted campaigns to see LGBT people denied the rights to secure jobs in Catholic institutions. They even sought to block the rights of LGBT people to protection from discrimination in housing, employment, provision of medical services, hospital visitation, etc., in the world outside the Catholic church. They tried to blame the sexual abuse of children by priests and the crisis this caused in the church when it became public knowledge on gay priests.
And so how am I, and how are other LGBT Catholics, expected to feel today as we see the photos accompanying Paul Murray's article, of priests and nuns marching side by side with people of color to secure rights for that long-oppressed minority group in 1965? What would you feel?
The photo of priests and nuns at the head of the 1965 civil rights march in Selma is by Stephen Somerstein and is in the collection of the New York Historical Society; it has appeared at many news and blog sites, including this Huffington Post article by Lilly Workneh.