The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature on this blog that highlights Catholic parishes and faith communities that support and affirm LGBT people.
Conversations about LGBT inclusion in the church often focus on bishops’ words and actions, particularly those of Pope Francis. But most church reform happens elsewhere, fostered by local communities. Today’s post lifts up one parish where faithful Catholics are building a church that is “home for all.”
The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently featured St. Matthew Church in Baltimore as part of their series “The Field Hospital,” focusing on the parish’s LGBT ministry.
The LEAD Ministry, an acronym for LGBT Educating & Affirming Diversity, has grown tremendously since its origins in 2009. Its mission statement explains:
“St. Matthew LGBT Ministry (LEAD) commits to modeling a community of faith and spirit that works toward openness and understanding; LEAD strives to offer justice, healing, and wholeness of life for all God’s people. We believe that the unique diversity of the Community of St. Matthew will continue to grow and demonstrate a unity of faith that transcends our differences and celebrates the gifts we are from God, our Creator.”
Led by Fr. Joe Muth, pastor for 25 years, St. Matthew’s “prides itself on inclusion”with parishioners from more than 45 nations. While the LEAD Ministry contributes to that overall vibrancy, it also provides a safe space for LGBT Catholics who’ve felt excluded by church. NCR noted that many share how they were unwelcome at parishes and rejected by family:
“Those finding a safe nest with LEAD continue to come forth with their stories: a woman who was disowned by her family after coming out as a lesbian. Another unable to talk for decades about sexual orientation with her lesbian sister. Another participant talked about her niece, who came out to her when she was 12, and who committed suicide when she turned 58. Such stories, say participants, can make support groups like LEAD a matter of literal life-or-death.”
Vania and Rachel Christian dos Passos, a married couple, are LEAD members living in the church’s tension around same-gender relationships. Vania said LGBT Catholics want to participate fully in the church, not just accept “crumbs from the table.” For now, the married couple attend a United Church of Christ congregation while being involved at St. Matthew. Rachel explained:
“LEAD is a safe space for us to be our authentic selves. . . [until] LGBT couples can be equal to straight couples in the eyes of the Catholic church.”
There is an evangelical component to the LEAD Ministry, too. Members not only support Catholics and welcome non-practicing Catholics home, they welcome other Christians and spiritual seekers. Gweyn Brown, who has a lesbian daughter, said LEAD meetings “could be a light for people outside the Catholic faith.”
The Ministry hosts monthly meetings and wider parish events, which have included a conversation on how families are impacted when a member comes out, and also a screening of “Saint of 9/11” about Fr. Mychal Judge. NCR‘s report continued:
“Committed to what participants call a safe place to gather, LEAD has been public in its witness. Its participation in this year’s Baltimore Gay Pride Parade elicited comments from onlookers surprised to see formal Catholic participation in an archdiocese led by Archbishop William Lori. . .”
Although there have been some discussions with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a cordial relationship exists between the ministry and the local hierarchy. Bishop Denis Madden, an auxiliary, has met three times with members and leaders even met once with Archbishop William Lori once. Madden told NCR he was “impressed by…good people” who enact locally Pope Francis’ more welcoming style.
The LEAD Ministry emerged following a presentation about Maryland’s marriage equality law. Carolyn Scheide, who has two gay children, asked how the parish could respond. From there, parishioners worked with Fr. Muth, parish leaders, and New Ways Ministry’s Next Steps program to develop the LGBT ministry that bears tremendous fruit today. You can more about the ministry’s history here.
You can also view journalist Eric Kruszewski’s video series on the LEAD Ministry, titled “The Lost Flock,” by clicking here. His videos feature interviews with several members and Fr. Muth.
There is a clear lesson evident in the LEAD Ministry’s good work, which I have witnessed firsthand, and that lesson is this: the Catholic Church is renewed and reformed most fully when the faithful own their faith and act upon it.
Put another way, Pope Francis’ call for mercy and inclusion will be meaningless without groups like the LEAD Ministry. The pope’s greatest contributions will likely be his episcopal appointments and the space which he is creating to go to the margins of our own church for ministry.
Reading about St. Matthew is an occasion to ask ourselves anew: What am I doing to build up a Catholic Church that is inclusive and just and a home for all?
Do you want to do something to help further LGBT equality in society and the Catholic church but are not sure what you should do or could do? If so, then you are a candidate for New Ways Ministry’s Next Steps program.
Next Steps is a weekend program designed to help people plot out a course of practical, feasible actions to further LGBT equality and justice that they can perform in their home communities. For more information, contact New Ways Ministry at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (301) 277-5674, or click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry