Fortunate Families , a national Catholic network of parents of LGBT+ sons and daughters, has appointed Stanley Francis “JR” Zerkowski to be its first Executive Director.
A resident of Lexington, Kentucky, Zerkowski joins Fortunate Families after a long career in pastoral care and diversity topi cs. He is the Founder of Lexington UNITED Interfaith Encounters and Lexington UNITED Interfaith Dialogues. He designed and facilitated Lexington’s 1st Pride Interfaith Service at the Lyric Theater to close Pride week and the Lexington Pride Festival, bringing together 23 interfaith leaders: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well as civic and community leaders, including Lexington’s mayor.
In the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, he co-founded and co-leads LGBT Ministry “Together on the Bridge,” an LGBT ministry, and he founded and leads “Together on the Journey,” an LGBT Family, Friends, and Allies Ministry. He holds a masters’ degree from Villanova University in Church Management and Administration.
His monthly faith-based article appears in LinQ, the Pride Community Services Organization of the Bluegrass LGBT magazine. He has been a contributor to Pastoral Liturgy Magazine, Liturgy Training Publications. He has received two Mayoral proclamations for his interfaith work and, in 2017, received the Lexington Fairness’ Jonathan Barker Leadership Award given because in part because he “has taken the words of Pope Francis to heart and has worked to build bridges between the LGBT and faith communities.”
Fortunate Families’ mission statement describes the organization as “a resource and networking ministry with Catholic parents of LGBT+ children.” They “promote and facilitate personal, meaningful, and respectful conversation, especially within our parishes and with our pastors and bishops. We stress the significance of our personal stories as a source of grace within our families and as a witness for justice in our civic and faith communities.”
To learn more about JR, Bondings 2.o sent him the following five questions, to which he responded by email.
How did your involvement with Catholic LGBT issues start?
After the Orlando Pulse massacre, I sensed the moment was upon us to reach out to the LGBT community of the Bluegrass region, so I put together an interfaith event called “United in Spirit – a Concert for Orlando” at the parish where I serve in Lexington, Kentucky. I reached out to the LGBT+ community, especially, and engaged Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, civic leaders, community leaders, interfaith leaders and leaders within the LGBT community. We drew more than 450 people! At the fellowship after the concert, I heard the stories of our LGBT sisters and brothers; I was deeply moved. I was moved by their pain. They felt excluded and hurt by the Church I serve and love. I knew something had to be done to “build the culture of encounter” as Pope Francis said, and share some honest-to-goodness love with sisters and brothers who were certainly on the peripheries.
From there, the Spirit took over and miracles began happening: we began an LGBT Ministry and Family, Friends & Allies LGBT Ministry. I began writing a faith-based column for the LGBT magazine in the Bluegrass and orchestrated the first-ever Lexington Pride Interfaith Service called “United in Dignity” that ended Pride month and was the capstone event of our Lexington Pride Festival. Now, I am in discussion with others in three dioceses about how they can move forward with LGBT Ministry and Family, Friends& Allies Ministry. And, besides all that, I am now the Executive Director of Fortunate Families! I never saw any of it coming. I just responded in every instance– after prayer–as authentically as I could.
What role do Catholic parents and family members play in the movement for equality of LGBT people in the Church?
In the Rite of Baptism, the following is said to parents by the Church’s minister: “Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He (she) is to walk always as a child of the light. May he (she) keep the flame of faith alive in his (her) heart. When the Lord comes, may he (she) go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.” Parents are living sacraments of God’s unconditional love. If we believe that our Divine Parent loves each person with an unimaginable love, it follows that parents are given a special grace to build the culture of encounter between the Church and the souls of those precious ones whom they call “son” or “daughter.” The Church has a rich tradition of advocacy: in prayer we ask the advocacy of the saints and our Blessed Mother. Parents and families of our LGBT sisters and brothers have no agenda except that God’s love be mirrored by the Church they love to the children they love. Their voices combined with the special grace given to them is powerful in preserving the dignity of baptism and keeping the light of faith burning brightly for their LGBT children. Indeed, we are all responsible for one another; so, family – however you define the word – compels us to be a voice for those on the peripheries: those whose voices are not readily heard. If Eucharist, in fact, causes us to become Whom we consume, then we must be nothing less than the compassionate and passionate heart, hands and voice of Jesus.
What sustains you in your ministry of equality and justice for LGBT Catholics?
I have a firm faith in God and in the Catholic Church. For sure, as a Church, we still have “miles to go,” we have much to do, much to accomplish, much to understand. But, I believe our shepherds – when they hear the stories of parents, family members, daughters and sons – when they have that encounter with a person – when they engage in meaningful conversation with LGBT sisters and brothers – cannot help but feel a clear call to accompany them and learn to love them as unique persons who reveal diverse attributes of God and grace. From love will come a passion to work for equality, justice, and all kinds of miraculous outcomes! I have tremendous hope; I’ve seen miracles happen. I expect more.
Where do you see hope in the Church on LGBT issues?
We’re building bridges, we’re engaging in difficult conversation and we’re taking the mandate to live the culture of encounter seriously. The conversations we are having were unimaginable five years ago. That is a hopeful sign! I hear Catholic faithful in so many parishes and dioceses speak openly about their support for LGBT sisters and brothers. That conversation was unimaginable five years ago. More hope! And Jesus promised to remain with us always – what tremendous hope! So, I pray and trust and hope! We’ll find a new focus on Original Grace rather than Original Sin, I just know it!
What would you say to Catholic LGBT people and/or their parents and family members who are ready to walk away from the Church?
First, I’d like to look them in the eyes and apologize for whatever hurt or alienation they experienced that causes them to want to leave. Then, after a hug, and probably a few tears I’d say: “Don’t do it! If you walk away the conversation is over and we become a poorer Christian community. Stay, go to Mass, fortify yourself with the sacraments, become involved, serve with all your energy, love despite the hurtful things you may hear, never give in to ugly rhetoric or combative conversation, allow people to get to know you and hear your story. They’ll love you, I promise. It may take some time, but it will happen. I’ve seen it happen. It might be tough as hell to stay, but it is the only way. And pray. Pray “God, let me love like you love. Make my heart like yours.” Pray for bishops and priests, too – “God, help them love like you love. Make their hearts like yours.” And then trust God. Become involved with people who can support your choice to stay, like Fortunate Families. But, stay, be involved, continue to love generously, trust God and pray.”
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 4, 2017