Ruminations and Reflections on A Place at the Table Conference
by Ann Marie Szpakowska, Dignity/Buffalo
When on July 6th, Jean and I flew to Boston for Dignity’s 23rd Biennial Conference, little did we know what a whirlwind affair it would turn out to be. We arrived and rushed to the Women’s Meet and Greet. Our travel plans had been set prior to the information on the time it would take place. We had connected with Rev. Barbara Zeman RCWP of Dignity/Chicago who along with her penguin would share our room and rushed off to the 1st of many choir rehearsals. Opening Ceremony started at 7:30 followed by the reception. We ran into James from Seattle, Washington and Tom Gregg from Durham, which completed Dignity/Buffalo’s contingency this year. We joined Dignity/Chicago for a very late dinner and hit the bed knowing Friday’s events would start with the Defender’s Mass at 7:30am.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
The Keynote Address titled “Table Manners for Hungry Radicals” was given by Dr. Pamela Lightsey author of “Our Lives Matter”, a book I had not finished reading having put it down after so much was an analysis of M. Shawn Copeland’s Womanist Theology in her seminal work, “Enfleshing Freedom”. Dr. Lightsey mentioned the horrendous killing of Black Trans Women taking place in our country. She urged us to bring our Freedom Fighter’s Card when we come to the table. I understood it to mean that we are called to have those difficult conversations regarding racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism that make folks squirm and raise their voice.
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ son
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”
Trying to choose which workshop to attend was nearly impossible and Jean and I stumble into “A Truly International Table” and listened to the most amazing speakers – Joanita Warry SSenfuka from Uganda and Lula Ramires from Brazil. Dignity/Buffalo had contributed $200 from our treasury to bring both of them to Boston. It was eye opening to listen to both our presenters and beginning to fathom LGBTQI issues as an international movement and struggle. Joanita was at our table when the Women of Dignity went out to dinner and we took the opportunity to continue the conversation and ply her with questions about the situation in Uganda as well as her impressions of the conference.
“That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.”
DignityUSA conferences are known for a multitude of speeches from our office holders recounting our history and our vision for the future. Our new president, Chris Pett and vice-president, Lauren Carpenter decided to share the podium and to make their remarks in tandem. I hope their remarks will find their way into our publications soon. I was impressed by Lauren’s vision of our movement. DignityUSA has made a concerted effort to support our Dignity Young Adult Caucus and we now see the flowering of wonderful young leaders.
Although perhaps not the largest of our gatherings, it was the first time I noted more middle age folks at the conference. I wonder what drew them to come and gave me hope that we had a future.
“To me young people come first they have the courage where we fail
And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale.”
“The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.”
I was anxious to reconnect with Rev. Irene Monroe at her workshop, “Intersectional Activism as a Spiritual Practice”. It had been 15 years since I had attended her workshop at Omega. Although we had continued corresponding via snail mail and email and I devoured all her writings on the internet, we had not seen each other. She did not disappoint. An amazing speaker and teacher she soon raised questions and refused to accept facile answers. She led us to deepening our knowledge of where progressive movements intersected and how we can participate in the ongoing conversations. She urged us to have those difficult conversations at our family table with the parents, siblings or family members whose presence we dread because of expressed opinions that so grate against our convictions.
I had chosen a late flight back to Buffalo on Sunday in the hopes that we could spend some time and was not disappointed. After a frustrating number of messages left on our cell phones we finally connected. Irene and Thea took Jean and me to brunch followed by a quick tour of a Harvard Square, and a stop at their favorite bookstore. At Irene’s urging, I purchased the biography of Czeslaw Milosz, poet, essayist, and Professor of Polish Literature. All the while we participated in stimulating conversations peppered by a million questions.
Rev. Irene Monroe penned an article which described Dignity's Boston Conference. Found on her and the DignityUSA's website, it is well worth the read reminding us that we are part of greater movements for justice and equality for all and that we bring our own gifts as Catholics. She and many others will participate in the Rolling the Stone Away Conference October 31st to November 2nd in St Louis celebrating five decades of LBGTQ+ Prophets.
“Not needing to clutch for power
Not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny.”
DignityUSA conferences never happen in a vacuum. Having been part of liturgy planning for a number of years, I know how arduous and contentious conference calls can become. Knowing when to express an opinion, give a suggestion or remain silent requires prayerful discernment and biting one’s lip at times. I will always advocate for greater inclusion of different musical genre. The dominance of one style limits our ability to witness to an inclusive table of blessings. If Dignity is serious about inviting other LGBTQI peoples of faith to future conferences it needs to have an honest conversation about its’ “Catholic” comfort zone as expressed in the musical, praying and preaching styles it continues to gravitate towards in its Liturgies. I was grateful to be able to “voluntold” Glenn into transcribing Carrie Newcomers’ “Sanctuary”. The music had not yet been put to paper by the composer.
“Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives.”
I’m looking forward to reading the homily given by Patricia Russell at the Eucharistic Liturgy. She did a tremendous job in distilling the scriptures and weaving them with our everyday lives and that of our movement. There is something about hearing a woman’s reflection. Perhaps it’s a recognition of a voice that has been muffled for too long.
Another more challenging voice that was heard was Krzysztof Charamsa, the Polish Monsignor from the Congregation of Doctrine of the Faith whose very public coming out led to his dismissal. As a theologian and Vatican insider, he shared his analysis of the inability of the Church to accept and integrate the insights found in modern studies of sexuality and gender, anthropology, psychology and sociology. The Church refuses to accept and use the vocabulary of these sciences. The Church exhibit an incredible fear of the power of our LGBTQI Catholic movement as well as feminist and womanist theologies. It is as if the hierarchy is replaying the struggle between itself and the scientists who insisted that the earth was not flat and revolved around our sun. Much of Fr. Charamsa’s work has come out in Polish, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. English translation will provide us with interesting reading and reflection. In the meantime, several articles and interviews have appeared in Bonding, the publication of New Ways Ministry. Despite his broken English and his accent, he was able to put across his passion for honest theological discourse. He shared his coming out process and the freedom that came from being truly who God created in love and for love.
“I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult; I’ll bow to no man’s word.”
Jean and I committed ourselves to the next Dignity USA Conference which will take place in Chicago in 2019 - "True to ourselves, True to the Spirit". We pray that our feasting companions, Greg, Jack and Steven will be able to join us. (Soon it will be time to prepare a new holy map.) I pray that other members of Dignity/Buffalo will also consider coming. It will be the 50th Anniversary of Dignity – half a century of Activism for LGBTQI Catholics. In the meantime, the challenge remains. How do we make our chapter an inclusive community whose table welcomes everyone? Let’s have that honest and challenging conversation.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” *
*"Ella's Song" by Bernice Reagon Johnson of Sweet Honey in The Rock.