Amidst Indianapolis Employment Disputes, Local Catholic Sees Hope and Freedom

Meli Barber

Today’s post is from Meli Barber, a former director of religious education and youth ministry, who is currently a Catholic Worker, social worker, and an armchair theologian. Meli is a leader in the Dignity/Indianapolis chapter, and is Vice-President-Elect of DignityUSA.

As the new school year starts here in Indianapolis, two Catholic high schools are missing key faculty and staff who were terminated this past year because of their same-gender marriages. A third Catholic school lives under sanctions by the local archbishop for refusing to discriminate. But in these unjust situations, I find there is a certain freedom and a hope coming forth, too. These were evident in some unique events that accompanied the three schools’ opening days.

The two Catholic schools who fired LGBTQ employees are Roncalli High School and Cathedral High School. Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory is the school under sanction. Concerned for the wellbeing of LGBT+ students at both schools, Shelly’s Voice, Dignity/Indianapolis, and allies organized students, alumni, and friends to gather outside the two schools and welcome students back to class with signs of support. At Roncalli, we received the occasional thumbs up. Most of the parents dropping off their children drove past looking straight ahead, refusing to meet our eyes. In contrast, we were overwhelmed by the support at Cathedral. Cars honked and people cheered upon seeing us.

Across town, students at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School were also returning to class–to a school stripped of its Catholic designation by Archbishop Charles Thompson for refusing to fire a gay teacher. Does anyone believe that the Jesuit school is not Catholic? Still, the Brebeuf community has begun to live in a new, liminal space and the ramifications of their decision have started to surface. The formerly “All-Catholic Golf Invitational” was renamed “Guerin Catholic Invitational” and Brebeuf athletes were no longer eligible for participation. While Archbishop Thompson did grant permission for Mass to be held each morning before school in the small chapel, the school was barred from celebrating a traditional all-school Mass of the Holy Spirit.

In light of these sanctions, the group who supported students outside Cathedral and Roncalli reached out to Brebeuf. We wanted to thank and support the students, faculty, and staff for standing with the LGBT+ community. Brebeuf invited us to pray with the school community at the Come, Holy Spirit Opening Prayer Service held in lieu of the banned Mass of the Holy Spirit. As I pulled into the parking lot on a warm, sunny morning, I wondered and worried about the opening prayer. As one of my college professors put it, “We don’t go to Mass because we’re Catholic; we’re Catholic because we go to Mass.” I wondered  “What would it be like to start the school year without Mass? How would this affect the Brebeuf community? Would it change the character of the school?”

Supporters like myself gathered in the parking lot, donning rainbow pins and buttons to identify ourselves. The principal of Brebeuf greeted us and thanked us for being present, directing us to the visitor section of the gymnasium-turned-chapel.

As soon as the prayer service started and the students’ voices swelled in song, I realized I had nothing to worry about. The joy and celebration were evident. School president Fr. Bill Verbryke, SJ, shared a beautiful message of welcome, diversity, and inclusivity. There would be no Communion. Instead, we were all invited forward to receive a blessing. When it was my turn, the assistant principal placed both of her hands on my shoulders and said, “Meli, may the gifts of the Holy Spirit be with you today and always.” I was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence with me.

Make no mistake: the situation at Brebeuf is unjust, as are the firings at Roncalli and Cathedral. It is especially cruel to punish the Brebeuf community by banning a school wide Mass. And yet, there is a freedom that comes from standing with the God who is always on the side of Love, the God who goes to the margins to embrace those who exist there. As we stand in Prophetic Witness, living authentically, may we always feel the rush of God at our backs. May we be guided by the same Pillar of Cloud and Fire that led the Israelites through the desert until we reach the Promised Land of equality and inclusion together.

Meli Barber, September 2, 2019

2 replies
  1. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I was out of town, but I was with you in spirit. COME, HOLY SPIRIT! Most Catholics know that these firings and sanctions are wrong, plain and simple. Catholics must teach our children the practice and discipline of daily conscience formation. Because those who actually review their behaviors and intentions in the light of Jesus and the Holy Spirit would be braver. We would act on conscience. Thank you, Brebeuf, for being a shining example to all Catholics, and for naming it—by virtue of examined conscience, we cannot fire our beloved employee.


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