Friday, September 3, 2010

Welcoming the (Gay) Stranger: Ongoing Challenge to Communities of Faith

So, we go out to eat last night, Steve and I, at the invitation of two friends we don't see often enough.  These are folks whose company we enjoy because they're articulate, informed, educated.  Our two friends happen to have doctoral degrees, as we do.  We're all around the same age.  

One of the friends shares Steve's and my academic background--has taught history at the university level for much of his professional life.  He's also the author of a very good book about the racial history of Arkansas from the Reconstruction period forward.  He's well-read and well-informed in that significant area (along with many others), and fascinating to talk to, because of the depth of his knowledge of the subject.

The other friend has a doctorate from Harvard and interesting longstanding experience as a Latino activist.  Like Steve and me, he grew up Catholic (well, I didn't grow up Catholic but became Catholic when I was a teen), and like us, is decisively alienated from the church.  These friends are a gay couple who have been together for many years.

So we get together at a Chinese restaurant we all like, a quiet place that often has quite a few gay couples eating there on weekend evenings.  Because the holiday weekend began last evening for many folks who decided to take Friday off and have a four-day weekend, the restaurant is relatively empty.

A family sits in the booth adjacent to us.  I pay little attention to them, though I'm facing them, since the four of us haven't seen each other in quite a while and are engrossed in conversation.  We have a lot to catch up on.

The conversation turns to John Paul II, Marcial Maciel, the Legionaries of Christ, the situation of the church in Mexico, the recent statement of the cardinal archbishop of Guadalajara about faggots adopting.  Since our Latino friend is Mexican-American and has relatives in Mexico, he knows a great deal about the church in Mexico and has significant information and insights to share.

We talk away.  As we do so, I look over my friends' shoulders and realize that the wife of the family behind him is listening intently to everything we say, and fixing us with a scornful look--actually, a look of withering hate would be closer to the truth.  Her husband is halfway twisted around in his seat to catch the dialogue better, a look of complete disdain plastered on his face.  Their hapless daughter looks as if she wants to be a thousand miles away from both of them.

Suddenly, they gesture for the waitress, get up, and demand to be taken to another table, muttering that we are going to burn in hell for rejecting the word of God and spreading hate.  I actually don't even hear or pay attention to any of this, until I see the look of shock on the faces of the two friends seated closer to the family, who hear plainly what they say.

And that's that.  We continue our discussion, they go to the other end of the restaurant where they can escape from our theological and moral contagion.  And we keep on talking about the Catholic issues we'd been discussing before we received the Catholic family's statement of anathema.

And I wonder what motivates any human beings to behave in this openly dismissive way towards other human beings, while citing the scriptures as their basis for their behavior.  As I think about last night's series of events, it strikes me that the treatment doled out by the Catholic family who eavesdropped shamelessly on our dinner conversation and then felt at liberty to tell us we were headed to hell because we don't consider John Paul II a saint is a manifestation of a syndrome that seems endemic to American Catholicism.  Or to some sectors of it.

This is a syndrome I've encountered this week in a blog discussion I've been carrying on with a Catholic living in the upper Midwest, who is convinced that his parish has no openly gay folks because gays have deliberately and maliciously chosen to separate ourselves from the church.  The pastoral challenge is not the church's or the parish's.

It's ours: to make ourselves welcome.  To fit in.  To swallow church teaching and the way in which Catholic pastoral leaders foment discrimination against gay and lesbian people, and to find our own repentant (and hidden and shamed) place in the community despite the malicious and dehumanizing rhetoric of many Catholic pastoral officials about us.

Not vice versa.  It's not a problem for parishes themselves, this dialogue partner proposes--not a problem for parishes to figure out whether they are welcoming of those who are different, and then to develop pastoral strategies to include and make a place for those defined as other.  The problem, the burden of inclusion, is on the shoulders of those reporting that we feel very unwelcome in the Catholic church.

And as I think about this entirely misguided (and exceptionally cruel) blame-the-victim approach to the pastoral challenge of making strangers welcome which faces Catholic parishes, I contrast this approach with what has happened after I blogged early this week about our experience at a Baptist church last Sunday.  At a church that houses two African-American congregations (I've now discovered that another black church is sharing this church's space) and my aunt's "white" Baptist church.

After I blogged early in the week about the ongoing challenge facing churches, the challenge to stop making those who are gay and lesbian invisible and unwelcome, members of two of the churches have contacted me to assure me that Steve and I are welcome any time in their churches.  That they want us to return.  That--in the case of one of the two churches--the church wants to begin a dialogue- and learning-process in which they are asking that Steve and I share our experience as gay folks pushed to the margins of church life.  And in which they learn from that experience how to be more welcoming to gay members.

I cannot help contrasting this proactive, warmly welcoming approach to my posting early this week on the part of two Baptist churches, and the reception Steve and I (and countless others who are gay and lesbian) continue to receive in many Catholic communities around the land.  Who do not wish to cope with the reality that, if gay and lesbian folks continue at all to be affiliated with Catholic parishes, they often do so by remaining invisible in parishes.

Because that is the wish of the parishes themselves.

And if they do ask to become visible, they--we--are likely to be told that we are not welcome.  That we are sinners rebelling against God's word, who are headed to hell and spreading hate.

Once again, as I stated in my posting about our experience last weekend when we worshiped with an African-American Baptist church: Catholic faith communities in the U.S. could learn valuable lessons from how evangelical communities of faith often deal with welcoming those who are other.

Pretending that we who are gay are just not in the room, that we are invisible, and then treating us as problematic when we dare to become visible: that is not a viable Christian approach to welcoming the stranger.  It is, to say the least, not to the credit of many American Catholic communities (and I know that there are also many exceptions to the rule I am citing here) that they continue to treat gay and lesbian human beings as invisible.  And unwelcome.

While they also seek to convince the culture at large that we have an exceptionally important ethical obligation to make the stranger welcome.

Addendum (4 Sept.): I've cross-posted this piece to the Open Tabernacle blog, and both here and at Open Tabernacle, readers have asked how I know that the family we encountered in the incident I recount above were Catholic.  I don't, of course.  What I can say is that they indicated that they had a more than passing familiarity with John Paul II and Catholic issues, and were incensed that we were questioning John Paul II's sanctity.  In our part of the world, it's highly unlikely that anyone but Catholics (and perhaps disaffected Anglicans) would be familiar with those issues or would care deeply about them.

As I have thought about the question the two readers are raising (and it's a good one), it occurs to me that the encounter may possibly reflect some events that have occurred in the parish in which this restaurant is located--which is also my parish, or would be if I were an active Catholic.  (It's also the neighborhood in which I grew up until I was 8 years old, the neighborhood in which my grandmother lived, and the neighborhood in which I myself now live.

It's a neighborhood I know well, that is to say, and I can also confidently say that this encounter was unusual for our neighborhood, which tends to be a live-and-let-live community with a significant number of gay folks.  We're regarded as the most liberal neighborhood in the entire state, in fact.  The shock that our friends' faces showed when they overheard the family behind us damning us to hell reflects, in part, the sense we all share that this neighborhood--in which one of the two friends also grew up; we had the same first-grade teacher, in fact--is simply not normally unwelcoming to gay folks.)

And here's what strikes me as I continue thinking about the encounter I discuss above.  In the past year, there has been an upheaval in the neighborhood's Catholic parish.  This made news locally, and articles about the upheaval appeared in the local media.

What happened was fairly straightforward, though never explained to the satisfaction of many parishioners: the pastor of the parish, who was nearing retirement age and was much loved, was suddenly canned by the local bishop and, as I understood, sent away for treatment.  The bishop stated publicly that the pastor needed treatment for alcohol abuse.

But when this happened, a strong rumor circulated (and was discussed openly on the blog of at least one secular newspaper) that the priest was fired because he had been about to release a statement criticizing the church's lack of welcome of gay folks, as he approached retirement.  I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true.  I am repeating this gossip here only because it was made public on a blog at the time the priest was dismissed--and, as I note, it's gossip I'm repeating, though friends of mine in the parish assure me it is based in fact.

What I do know and can say with confidence is true is this: the sudden and mysterious firing of this priest produced much disaffection among some members of the parish, who organized a Facebook group to support the priest.  I have heard, but have not verified, that some parishioners have now distanced themselves from the church as a result of the firing of this priest.

But there are also vocal groups in our local parishes who actively dog the steps of priests who seem to be wandering from magisterial positions and right-wing political viewpoints.  Though my brother's family live in the parish I'm discussing, they have preferred to go to liturgy at a contiguous parish, which is multicultural and multi-racial, and formerly had a vibrant parish community.

Until several years ago, that parish was pastored by a dynamic Irish priest, whom my brother's family found wonderful and considered a friend.  That pastor came under fire by the previous bishop after a group within the parish made a fuss about the fact that he permitted non-Catholic family members to receive communion at a Catholic funeral.

The real bone of contention, though, was that he had preached several homilies in which he made overt criticisms of stances of the Bush administration.  And so the local watchdog group targeted him and insisted that he be removed as pastor of the parish.

This split the parish.  About half the parishioners and the many folks who came to the parish from other parishes because of its good pastor sent a petition to the bishop asking for a meeting, and pleading for the bishop not to fire their pastor.  When the bishop ignored the petition and fired the pastor, the parish split, and a large number of people--including my brother's family--simply stopped going to Mass.

And the point of all of that: though many local Catholics are decidedly inclusive and welcoming in their approach to gay and lesbian folks, there is a vocal minority of local Catholics who move in the opposite direction.  Many of these folks worked actively, at the behest of at least one local parish priest, who has been explicit about endorsing Republican candidates and has not been punished for this activity, to help put an anti-gay adoption initiative on the ballot for our last election.

And controversy about the issue of gay inclusion or exclusion has, in recent months, roiled the parish in which we encountered this particular family the other evening, if the rumors about why the pastor of that parish was suddenly removed several months back are true.  Which is to say: if the family we encountered live in this parish and are part of the powerful, though small, group of local Catholics who want to raise a ruckus about the gays, then that would explain their behavior in the restaurant.

And I should also say that, like parishes throughout the U.S., even the parishes in our area that do not in any way openly exclude gay and lesbian parishioners nonetheless treat any gay and lesbian parishioners who continue to connect to the church as if they are invisible.  There has been no public dialogue that I know of in this area between the Catholic community and the gay community after the crackdown of Cardinal Ratzinger on groups like Dignity, which sought to minister to the gay community.  As I've shared previously on this blog, when Dignity was expelled from all Catholic premises in our diocese following Ratzinger's "pastoral" letter on the church's response to LGBT persons, the whole chapter of Dignity converted en masse to Episcopalianism, in protest against the suppression of Dignity.

The graphic for this posting is from the Australian group of ministers, 100 Revs, who have started a group to apologize for the churches' lack of welcome of gay human beings.  A link to the group's blogsite is in my list of sites I recommend.

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