A pastor in Durham, North Carolina has now reinvited a lesbian City Council member whom he had previously disinvited from a speaking engagement at the parish’s elementary school. Fr. Chris VanHaight, OFM, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, had cancelled the event as well as all classes at Immaculata School for February 8th, the day Councilwoman Vernetta Alston had been scheduled to speak.
Alston is a graduate of the school. She spent five years as an attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and succeeded in the high-profile case of Henry McCollum, a man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. The Councilwoman was scheduled to speak to students as a part of a Black History Month program.
“The theme for that Friday morning prayer was going to be a strong black woman. Vernetta Alston is that,” VanHaight told his congregation, as reported by WRAL. But he says he was unaware Alston was scheduled to speak until he started receiving emails from parents.
VanHaight said he was uncomfortable inviting a “pro-gay marriage politician” to the school and ultimately decided to cancel the event. After hearing about potential competing protests at the school, he decided to cancel classes, too.
Brad Williams, whose daughter attends the school told WRAL:
“I think you have to look at the whole person. You can’t just boil someone down to one part of their being. Vernetta Alston is a lot more than a gay person. She’s a lot more than a woman who is married to another woman. She is so active in social justice, which is such an important part of Catholic teaching.”
VanHaight originally stood by his decisions, although he did apologize for the way in which they were handled: Alston found out about the cancellation through a third party. Other scheduled speakers for the school’s Black History Month events have reported that the entire program is now cancelled.
At Sunday Mass, the pastor also told his congregation:
“One thing I want to say right now to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning brothers and sisters: Not only are you welcome here, you are valued here.”
He received a standing ovation after making that comment.
Alston, who is married and has a child with her wife, was one of six openly LGBTQ candidates to win public office in North Carolina in 2017. She told WRAL that she is hopeful the incident can serve as a basis for further learning and change in Durham. But she also wrote an open letter in which she frankly expressed her disappointment with the school’s decision.
The News & Observer reports the letter as saying in part:
“Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief conflicts with something fundamental to my own life.
“That said, adherence to that basic principle means that I can freely say that the Church, by depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGTBQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children – that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character. I reject that message.”
On February 14th, six days after Alston was scheduled to speak, she and VanHaight sat down to talk. Alston says that VanHaight apologized for the way things were handled and asked if she would still be willing to come to the school later this spring.
Alston told The News & Observer, “I made it clear I still want to talk to students. We’re working out the details.”
—Jonathan Nisly, New Ways Ministry, February 16, 2019