This past weekend, I was privileged to be with the DignityUSA community at their conference in Boston. The theme, “A Place at the Table,” lent itself to the power of shared stories, many of which were expressed in the formal sessions and the more informal hallway conversations.
In one session, transgender members of Dignity and one mother of a trans child shared stories of being faithful Catholics. Skylar Kelley, a panelist who uses they/them pronouns, explained what it means to identify as non-binary. They also shared how being assigned female at birth remains a part of their history that should not be erased. In light of the fact that some church leaders have been publicly speaking against trans lives, each panelist’s reflection on “Why stay in the church?” was a powerful testimony of faith.
In another session, Krzysztof Charamsa, a former priest and theologian who worked at at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who came out as a gay man right before the 2015 Synod on the Family began, spoke personally and theologically. He shared his coming out story as he addressed the institutional church’s treatment of homosexuality. He told those gathered, “When you want your community to change, you must change.” More pointedly, he echoed Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium saying, “We need to confront ideas with Christ, Christ who lived in this world.” Charamsa said clearly that this work is done well when LGBTQI Catholics who remain the church offer their witness.
Stories were central during a Saturday morning plenary which featured Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter, Louis Mitchell of TransFaith who is a Congregationalist minister, and Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team which broke open the clergy sexual abuse in the early 2000’s.
Mitchell spoke to the cost of noticing another person’s story, and the vulnerability required to share one’s story. He made a special appeal for attendees to take seriously the stories of transgender women of color who are “not victims, sex toys, HIV statistics, or some bad RuPaul joke,” but human beings with the fullness of dignity.
Speaking about self-care, Manson discussed how the work of seeking justice in the church can be lonely and even lead to despair at times. But, she added:
“What pushes me forward more often than not is that people are suffering, and they’re suffering at the hands of this institution. And they’re suffering in the Global South. . .It is the church that isn’t speaking when our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are being imprisoned for who they are.”
Another story shared was the history of Always Our Children, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata. founders of Fortunate Families, led a conversation about how the document came to be and its effect on the church. It is document, they said, that shattered the silence around homosexuality in the church, opened up new possibilities based on the lived experiences of lesbian and gay people, and helped empower parents and pastoral ministers.
These highlighted instances are just a few examples of the many stories shared over the weekend. What kept coming to mind as I listened to speakers and Dignity members was how I wished church leaders could be there, sitting in the back rows, simply listening.
What they would hear are real stories, the grounding realities of LGBT Catholics and their families. While some of these stories were about the trials of being marginalized by church and by society, others were also about how and why faithful Catholics live out their faith in community. All of these are stories that our church very much needs to hear.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 9, 2017