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DignityUSA Convention Recap

By Mateo Williamson, DignityUSA member 

We celebrate the success of DignityUSA’s 21st biennial Convention, which marks over 42 years of ministry and advocacy for the LGBT community in the Catholic Church. Dignity’s call to reform and justice for those marginalized within the Church has now bridged several generations, and the fruits of this unceasing labor were evident at this year’s national gathering, which brought together nearly 300 attendees from across the country, with a span of over eight decades in age. This year’s biennial Convention was held in progressive and lively Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 4-7, 2013.

The Convention’s setting near the Mississippi River lent an allusive hand to its theme, “Let Justice Roll Like a River,” as well as to the powerful time of celebration and commitment to justice for those involved in recent successes. On May 14, 2013, Minnesota became the 12th state in the nation to recognize marriage equality into law despite the fervent efforts of Archbishop Nienstedt, who used over $600,000 from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to send DVDs to registered Catholic households telling them to vote "yes" on November 6, 2012, on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Minnesotans rejected this attempt to limit marriage equality by six percentage points at the polls; then, in 2013 the Minnesota legislature passed its marriage equality bill. Present at the opening ceremony of Dignity’s 2013 Convention were several key figures who helped make this success a reality, including marriage equality activist and DignityUSA Program Manager Jim Smith, Senator Scott Dibble, Senator Patricia Torres Ray, and Catholics for Marriage Equality of Minnesota’s director Michael Bayly. All gave emotional personal testimonies, thanking their fellow Minnesotans for upholding the human dignity of their LGBT brothers and sisters.

The festive ceremony on the evening of July 4th began with the traditional parade of banners from all involved chapters, caucuses, and organizations. Energizing introductions by DignityUSA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke, President Lourdes Rodriguez-Nogues, and Convention Chair Marty Grochala grounded attendees in the significant purpose for gathering from all corners of the nation to experience the communion of an affirming atmosphere and celebrate their Catholic faith in accordance with the open arms of the Gospel. Messages of hope and gratitude were relayed via video from Fr. John McNeill, Senator Al Franken, and retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, providing a strong sense of solidarity and connection in illuminating how every person’s contribution to justice creates the movement for change. Twin Cities-based songwriter Bret Hesla then concluded our first evening by leading us in song to the theme of justice, equality, inclusion, and peace.

Plenary sessions during the Convention expanded on the theme of “Let Justice Roll Like a River.” These sessions gave important perspectives on the theme of justice as it applies to our world and faith communities today, providing an overall context for all of the week’s events. Maureen Fiedler, Sister of Loretto and host of the radio show Interfaith Voices, and Jim Nickoloff, a liberation theology expert, shed light on the history of the Catholic tradition of the preferential option for the poor, and how our long-standing tenets call us to action on the issues we face today. The second plenary addressed key justice issues in our society and their intersection with the LGBTQ experience, with discussions by Jamie Manson and Nikki Young about how our stories of struggle and liberation should not isolate us, but rather bring us towards those who also yearn to know the fullness of dignity and equality in society and church. Finally, in the third plenary session, Patrick Cheng, Rebecca Voelkel, and Delfin Bautista provided insight into the challenges that we face in acting as witnesses to social justice in a complex and multicultural world.

Over 12 different workshops were also offered, covering a wide range of topics from “Misogyny and Homophobia” to “Asian American Lesbians and Gay Men in the Catholic Church.” Attendees even had the opportunity to engage the community through hands-on justice events, by serving a July 4th meal to youth of Minneapolis, or by engaging in a session with Jim Smith and Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry on using personal testimony to mobilize Catholics for LGBTQ dignity and equality. A centralized location in the heart of the city and a Mississippi River cruise provided the opportunity to connect with God’s great creation and the wonder of a diverse and vibrant environment.

Many key social justice figures were in attendance at the Convention, including Fr. Roy Bourgeois, longtime activist and founder of the School of Americas Watch. Fr. Bourgeois received the Dignity Risk Taker, Justice Maker award and gave a moving speech about his experience being forced out of the Maryknoll Order and laicized by the Vatican in 2012 for his public support of women's ordination. His presence was made even more poignant by the active involvement of Roman Catholic Womenpriests in the Convention’s women’s retreat, speaker sessions, and liturgies. His words reminded us of the call to live out justice every day, and to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized, even though we may face ominous consequences for doing so.

A record number of young adults attended this week’s events, and they gathered within a multigenerational group to direct a panel discussion on leadership and ways to increase young adult participation in Dignity chapters. The hundreds present also had the chance to break out into discussion groups throughout the Convention in order to address the needs of different communities, including Dignity women, transgender individuals, Defenders (leather-levi ministry), Latino/Latina/Hispanic individuals, and Parents of LGBT daughters and sons.

Many were held in special remembrance during this Convention, including Father Andre Boulanger, founder of the Dignity/Arizona chapter, and Jim Bussen, President of DignityUSA from 1985 to 1989. Jim was held in the hearts of all in attendance throughout the Convention, and he died on July 6th following a three-year battle with cancer. More about Jim’s life and activism work, as well as an upcoming Dignity Chicago Celebration of Life in his honor, can be found here: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/PASSAGES-James-A-Bussen-dies/43607.html

The riveting and energizing liturgies, the tangible sense of community and empowerment, and the uplifting feeling of unity that comes from placing oneself within that rolling, unstoppable river of advocates joined for peace and justice—every aspect of this year’s Convention spoke of the glory of God as we celebrated our nation’s steps closer to a more just reality for all.

The next DignityUSA Convention will be held July 2-5, 2015 in Seattle, WA. Opportunities to pre-register can be found at: https://www.dignityusa.org/civicrm/event/info?id=48&reset=1

The theme for the Convention is “God’s Love: Enduring as the Mountains, Endless as the Sea,” and a team of planners are already working to create a memorable and exciting experience for our next gathering. We hope you will consider joining us for a powerful time of justice, fellowship, and renewal as we surround ourselves with the wonder of God’s glory in the beautiful city of Seattle.