Gay Parishioner Told to Observe Mass from Crying Room, Expelled from Ministries

Bobby Glenn Brown, right, and his partner, Don Roberts

Bobby Glenn Brown committed himself to his longtime partner, Don Roberts, in a small backyard wedding ceremony. For that, Brown has been removed from several parish volunteer positions in his Catholic parish in Marquette, Michigan, and told he may observe Mass only from the ‘crying room’ at the rear of the church.

The couple gathered with friends and family last Saturday for eacxh partner to make vows to one another after 31 years together, even while Michigan does not yet recognize their relationship legally. ABC News 10 reported on the following morning’s events:

“Brown was an active parishioner at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Marquette as of Saturday, but an incident Sunday morning with Reverend Larry P. Van Damme caused him and several regular church-goers to boycott services in protest against the diocese. Less than twenty four hours after the a commitment ceremony, the couple’s tears of joy dried to heartbreak as Bobby Glenn Brown was all but blacklisted from participating in traditional Catholic ministries…

“Five parishioners at St. Michaels who were present at Sunday’s services accompanied Brown in the lobby before Sunday Mass then exited the building in solidarity after Van Damme confronted him about Saturday’s “fake”  wedding ceremony. Because of it, Brown said he was informed that clergy decided to restrict his participation.”

Restricted participation means Brown can no longer serve as a lector or music minister during liturgies, and he was removed from the pastoral council where he  had just been re-elected as was serving as acting secretary. The priest also told Brown “he now could only observe in the windowed section in the back of the church designated for crying babies.”

Parishioners rallied around Brown and Roberts. It was no secret that Brown was a partnered gay man during his years of service at the parish. Of the incident, Brown told ABC News 10:

” ‘It’s a mixed message, and I think it’s the wrong message…There is a psalm that says “loving and caring and forgiving are you, oh Lord”. That’s the message that needs to be brought to the students at Northern [Michigan University, which St. Michael’s parish ministers] , especially to a church that’s so close to campus and a place where they should feel welcomed and able to worship. And that message is being lost.’…

” ‘And my whole point was, I never was anything else and I always have been who I am…To be told that you can’t worship or aren’t welcomed somewhere to worship where you’ve been so welcomed, that in itself sends a mixed message.’ “

Many parishioners are upset that Brown’s dismissal will  drive younger Catholics from the Universityaway. It seems older Catholics are considering a move as well, with longtime parishioner Kathy Crowley Andel saying:

” ‘I just think it’s wrong…Everybody is supposed to be welcome in the Church and God is a loving God, and I don’t think we should discriminate against anybody because that’s not what God wants us to do. Even Jesus welcomed everybody.’

” ‘I’m not sure where I’m going with things. I am looking at options. I mean, I was born and raised Catholic and have been very active with things, but at this time I just feel very, very crushed with what’s going on because I don’t think it’s right. It’s like, who are we to judge? And they’ve been together 30 years. They love each other…it’s just not right what’s going on.’ “

For their part, Fr. Van Damme and Diocese of Marquette officials have remained quiet aside from a statement from Bishop John Doerfler citing the need for ministers to “give witness to the Gospel and the Church’s teachings.”

In moments of pain, like this exclusion of LGBT Catholics from ministry and even participation in the liturgy, it is important to look for hopeful signs and ways of building bridges. Pope Francis’ more welcoming tone seems to be filtering down through some of the hierarchy, as the English bishops and Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ recent remarks on sexuality make clear. The US bishops do not quite understand yet, but Catholics must not negate the profound and positive impact of lay people can have in righting these parish- and school-based injustices.

Though we cannot necessarily right the wrongs against Bobby Glenn Brown and his partner, this incident is a moment for all of us to pause and consider two questions:

1. How can we actively support LGBT parishioners in the present moment?

2. How might we respond to the exclusion of a volunteer or firing of a church worker at our own parish and school?

If you have suggestions for either question, please leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

29 replies
  1. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    This is a horrific disgrace and so appalling! Putting people in the crying room? What’s next???!! Sitting in the back of the bus. How disgusting and HOW ANTICHRIST! I am disgusted. Who these churches think they are following, I don’t know, but it certainly isn’t Jesus. Find another church. Start a church. Start a support group.

    • Isidore Bard
      Isidore Bard says:

      FYI here is the letter which the pastor of St. Michael’s parish wrote to the editor of his local newspaper:

      St. Michael’s pastor offers clarification

      I wish to clarify inaccuracies that have appeared in the media over the past several days. Among our members at St. Michael Catholic Church in Marquette we have valued parishioners with same sex attraction who serve in many capacities, including liturgical ministries. As their pastor, I love all of my parishioners whatever their circumstance. At no point have I instructed anyone to stand at the back of the church, the cry-room, or in the vestibule. Reports of this having occurred are a misunderstanding.

      In the Catholic Christian Church there is a well-known, biblically-based teaching that those who are attracted to the same sex live a life of chastity, and that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Jesus himself is our exemplar of chaste love. Chastity applies to everyone: the married and the unmarried, the divorced and widowed, those who have chosen a single life and those unable to get married. Within marriage, chastity means being faithful to one’s spouse, being open to life, and treating one’s spouse with dignity. For the unmarried, chastity means abstaining from sexual relations. This expectation is consistently made known to new members of the Catholic Church, and is freely chosen when they make the decision to become Catholic. With God’s grace and the prayerful support of others, living chastely can be a life of rich vitality, deep loving relationships and generosity.

      All Christians struggle and sometimes fail to live up to the teachings of Christ, myself included. Distinct from this is the case in which someone makes a deliberately thought-out life-decision to live in a manner which runs contrary to the teachings of their faith and of Scripture. When it becomes a matter not of failing to live up to the teachings of Christ, but of actively opposing them and celebrating their contrary, the situation calls for a particular pastoral response. More specifically, if a parishioner has chosen to celebrate and promote views contradicting the words they would sing in the choir, or proclaim from Scripture as a lector, then they are asked not to lead in the singing or proclamation of those words. However, they are still welcome to worship in the church with fellow members of the Body of Christ.

      As a Catholic Christian, I recognize my own unworthiness; I, too, fail to live up to the Word. All the same, I must not deliberately oppose It. As I strive to remain steadfast in faith, one of the most loving things I can do for my parishioners is ask them to be similarly faithful, and prayerfully help them strive for integrity when their personal choices and actions clearly contradict the faith we profess as Catholic Christians.

      In all sincerity, my prayers are with anyone who is confused or feels hurt by the misunderstandings that have taken place in the past several days. With many concerned parishioners, I don’t want to see anyone separated from our parish family or the Church.

      Rev. Larry Van Damme
      Pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Marquette

      • Friends
        Friends says:

        Fr. Van Damme says that the allegation he banished a parishioner to the children’s “crying room” is a “misunderstanding”. What, exactly, was the nature of this “misunderstanding”? He needs to provide a better explanation, not an ambiguous wishy-washy denial. Did he utter such a threat, or didn’t he? Again, here’s a link to Fr. Van Damme’s direct e-mail address:

        I suggest that we ALL e-mail him directly, and ask for a straight-answer clarification of what he said or did that produced such a controversy.

  2. Terence
    Terence says:

    How does discrimination and exclusion ““give witness to the Gospel and the Church’s teachings”? The Church cannot be, in Pope Francis’ apposite phrase, a field hospital for the wounded, while continuing itself to inflict the wounds.
    In stark contrast, is the example from the Presbyterian Church (USA), now unfolding at General Assembly, Detroit, where they are not only preparing to permit gay marriage in church, but are also sending out a strong statement on the global crisis facing LGBT people in many countries.

  3. Barbara Marian
    Barbara Marian says:

    As a sign of solidarity with the men I would wear a rainbow and participate in mass every Sunday from the cry room and invite others to join me in these two actions.

  4. Kathleen Fallon
    Kathleen Fallon says:

    As a catholic mother of a gay son it breaks my heart to know the Catholic Church allows this kind of thing to happen to its parishioners. Does Pope Francis know? I am so terribly saddened and confused by the lack of hospitality and fellowship with our gay brothers and sisters. Where do we go from here? I think we all must do what we can to educate ourselves and open communications on sexual orientation in our local parishes and pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to guide us in our missionary works. I have a meeting set at a houston parish to discuss related issues next week. My work begins. Jesus, I trust in you.

    • brianmhager
      brianmhager says:

      Kathleen, some years back I used to be a Seminarian. I eventually resigned from those studies because after far too many years of dishonesty I was finally reaching a crossroads where I had to face the truth of who I was. On the morning of November 12, 2010, I finally came out to my sister-in-law after I read Jeremiah 1:5. I knew then, Jesus was ok with me being gay, because that was who I was created to be. I consider myself an exile now, participating in an exile “church community” that used to be part of the Roman Catholic Church. I like what Pope Francis has been saying, but I am not ready myself to go back. How and when I leave to Jesus to tell me. May He abundantly bless you and your son.

      • Kathleen Fallon
        Kathleen Fallon says:

        Good for you Brian. Jesus doesnt want you to hide from the truth. He calls us all to love. I love my son as I know Jesus does. I pray one day he find himself back to a Trinity Church who sees him and accepts him as he is. Right now he stays on his spiritual journey other ways though he adds so much to the body of Christ. Thank you for your kind words and for rememinding me of Jeremiah 1:5. Thank you for your blessing for my son and me. I will need it before meeting with Fr. Mike next Monday. Peace be wiith you, Kathleen

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    Seems to be another example of the weeds in the clergy making life difficult for the good seed. But that’s what weeds do.

  6. Ghosty Wolfe
    Ghosty Wolfe says:

    I have no words to describe my disgust at the actions of the priest who acted in such a vile manner. I keep saying it and I’ll continue to say it until this kind of hateful behavior stops – There is NOTHING Christian about being hateful to LGBTQ people! That the RCC has become a leader in the “hate the gay” movement makes me feel, alternately, very angry and extremely sad.

  7. Jose Luis Sanchez
    Jose Luis Sanchez says:

    We can support LGBT victims of discrimination and respond to this type of exclusion by WITHDRAWING ANY AND ALL FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTIONS to the parish in question until the offending priest or minister is REMOVED from his post. We can also post the names and pictures of the offending priests ministers and their superiors in an electronic HALL OF SHAME, or in a physical bulleting board in the social hall.

  8. Joe Sacerdos
    Joe Sacerdos says:

    Dear Fr. Larry van Damme. I learned in Psychology 101 that “we most hate in others, what we most fear in ourselves.” Translation: The biggest homophobes are always the biggest closet cases. Always.

  9. Charles Bolser
    Charles Bolser says:

    How about giving witness to the Gospel – and just who are the church? The arrogance of some priest and the complicity of the bishops goes against everything that I find reading and reflecting on the gospels – This pastor is not a pastor – he is a functionary – more interested in imposing his power than feeding his sheep.

  10. Bill Keane
    Bill Keane says:

    I suggest that you show support for the sinless parish, its staff and council by volunteering your loyalty to those and only those who are willing to testify under oath that they have never been unfaithful in thought or act to their spouses or alternatively, if they are unmarried, that they are virgins (and can prove it)!!

  11. Rosa Buccellato
    Rosa Buccellato says:

    I am extremely hurt by this situation, because I know Bobby and I know what a lovely person he is. I was very excited to hear about his marriage. I cannot believe that a church I returned to could treat someone like him in such a cruel and hiumiliating manner. Especially in light of the fact that Bobby actually CHOSE to become Catholic in the last few years and was more devoted than a lot of people who have been brought up in the Church their entire lives. I cannot believe that this is really the message Christ would want to send to the world or the way he would want one of his followers to be treated.

  12. Michele Kerby
    Michele Kerby says:

    Giving witness to the Church’s teachings? Maybe, although that’s on shaky ground now if you consider the Pope to be the head of the Catholic Church. Giving witness to the Gospel? Not. Even. Close.

  13. Friends
    Friends says:

    This is beyond outrageous. It amounts to nothing less than pastoral malpractice and atrocity. If he wants to deny the man Communion, that’s technically his prerogative as a priest. But to engage in such an act of personal humiliation and contempt — by banishing him to the children’s “cry room” — is absolutely off the charts, in terms of being out of bounds.

    For the record, here’s a photo (and the direct e-mail contact address) for Fr. van Damme:

    My own hope / wish/ suggestion would be for us to try to make contact with the parishioners, and to urge that everybody who is outraged by this pastor’s gesture of contempt should join Bobby in the children’s “cry room”, and should stand there IN SOLIDARITY with him, for the entire duration of the Mass, until Fr. van Damme gets the message — if in fact he ever does. If he still refuses to “get it”, then I believe Jesus Himself would strongly support a mass migration of outraged parishioners to a nearby Episcopal or Lutheran Church, until and unless Fr. Van Damme gets the message, and properly apologizes for what he has done.

  14. Gail Atchison
    Gail Atchison says:

    My partner and I just got back from Italy where we were excited about seeing the Pope on three different occasions. One of the times was attending a mass that the Pope held on Pentecost Sunday at St. Peters Basilica. After hearing the Pope’s message I can assure you that the ministers involved in this situation with Bobby do not know or understand the Pope’s position, or they just do not care. The Pope talked about people being welcome and has said on more than one occasion he is not going to judge people. All are welcome to our church, at least according to the Pope.


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