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2009 Dignity Convention President’s Address

My great grandparents immigrated to this country from Ireland and from Sweden. I’ve been particularly thinking of the ones from Sweden. It wasn’t too long after they settled in Minnesota that they decided to set out for a new promised land: Southern California.

I have often wondered what the westward push through untouched wilderness in this vast country must have been like. As many of you know, I grew up in Denver. Denver sits at the foot of the Rockies, which rise 10,000 feet above the plains.

If you have ever driven west from the great Mississippi through Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, you will have been impressed by the vastness of the prairie. At a certain point in Eastern Colorado, you come over a rise in the land and the vast front range of the Rockies come into view. I often imagine that those early settlers must have said something like “holy shit!” Denver sits at the foot of the Rockies because it was the place where people stopped, set up camp and pondered the question “So now what?”

In the New Testament, I imagine Mary asked the same question when she found the stone rolled back from the tomb where Jesus body was laid to rest. “Now what?” Imagine Fr. Pat Nidorf receiving 168 responses to the ad he placed in the L.A. Times in 1969 inviting Gay Catholics to a discussion group intended to lighten their spiritual burden in a hostile world. So now what?

This weekend we have gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the journey across the plains that Pat Nidorf started. We’ve been through tough times and good, and bonded in the shared adventures and sorrows. And we arrive at a threshold many of you thought you would never see – Dignity at 40 looking fabulous. As President of this organization I feel like those settlers at the base of the Rockies recalling the journey just ended and pondering the journey yet to begin.

I listened yesterday to a panel of nine former President’s of this organization reminisce about the Dignity journey. About the first convention which laid out our statement of position and purpose affirming our inherent God-given dignity. About hotly contested elections and raucous conventions. And about various financial crises. A common theme in their stories was a fear they would be the ones to have to turn out the lights. It is exactly what I feared I might be called to do when I said yes to the call to serve you in this capacity. But the Spirit has pulled us through once again. The energy I have observed at this convention tells me She still has work for us to do. The question is “What is that work?”

Again I think of being at the base of the Rockies wondering what lies on the other side and how am I going to lead this group over the mountains to get there. Crossing the plains was one thing. But this new landscape is entirely different. It is going to require us to do things we have not done before, to develop new skills, tackle new challenges, and find a different kind of courage within – drawing on the wisdom garnered through previous trials. “Do we really need to go on?” “Why not settle here?” Some WILL settle here. But most of us have not yet found the Promised Land we envision. And so we ponder how to get through this next set of challenges.

Mountains have something called “passes.” They are geographical features that permit easier passage through them. Often they follow rivers and streams that nature has carved as water moves from the highest to lowest point. If you follow them in reverse, they take you from the low point to the high point. The task before us is to find the pass that will lead us to our promised land. But we’ll be going through unchartered territory with vastly different terrain. We will not get to the Promised Land of a fully inclusive Church by doing what had brought us safe thus far. The Spirit is not a creature of habit. We must change our way of thinking.

We’ve done a lot of talking this weekend. Based on what I have heard, I will hazard to identify three substantial changes I believe we are being called to embrace.

The first change is embracing change. The willingness to be uncomfortable for some time as the Spirit leads us in new directions. Like my great grandparents – and yours, we are not content to settle where we are. In order to get to new land, we must first be willing to lose sight of the shore we have been on. And that is scary. It requires faith.

The second change is regards our mindset about our mission. Mary Hunt said it well. It is time to shift our focus from protesting Church to being church for all who seek full inclusion. Mary urged us to “Let the needs of the world be our agenda not the failings of the institutional church.” If we want to attract new people, we must change our conversation from a negative one of complaint and grievance to a positive one of hope and inspiration.

The third change is enlarging our tent to attract more talent and more resources for the journey. We are largely white, gay, male, baby-boomers. God is much bigger than that. By attracting and welcome others to join our path, we can only enrich our experience. We have abundant opportunity here. But it will require us to get much more serious about inclusion than inclusive language.

We have long held that there is no sound theological basis for the exclusion of queer folk. There is also no sound theological basis for the exclusion of women from the full sacramental life of the Church. The seedbed for homophobia is misogyny. We must challenge it at every opportunity. If we want women to come and to stay, we must make room for them at the altar, at the pulpit, and in our language. Although we have largely freed ourselves from limiting dogmas on human sexuality, we continue to deprive ourselves of abundant access to the feminine dimensions of the Divine. We will not reach the Promised Land until we change that fact. I agree with Richard Rodriguez when he said, “We must ally ourselves against the persecution of women, particularly in the name of God.”

Similarly, we know we need to attract younger Catholics. Their experience is completely different from my generation. To be a place that attracts younger people, we must come to understand what their spiritual needs and wants are and adjust. That means meeting them where they are: on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in and You Tube and talking about things they are passionate about. And that is not the lost reforms of Vatican II.

It is not clear to me HOW will navigate such changes, or that we will in fact succeed at them. Only the Spirit has access to such clarity. To find that pass to the other side, we will need the following qualities:

  • The ability to ask good questions

  • The ability to observe; to listen and to see

  • The ability to detach from what we have been used to and from the results WE expect.

  • The ability to put courage in each other.

  • The ability to build partnerships and alliances with other pilgrims on the path to a new Church.

  • An abundance of love.

Along the way, we will be called on to challenge dualistic categories that separate laity/clergy, male/female, GLBT/straight, celibate/married, the sacred and the profane, thus embodying the notion of the priesthood of all believers. To paraphrase Ghandi, “We must be the change we want to see in the Church. If we ARE the Church, then we don’t have to sit back and wait for the kyriarchs to make the decisions.

So now what? My sense is that Dignity is being called by the Spirit to one of many midwives in the birthing and rising of a new Church. It will be the Church where ALL are welcome to the table of Eucharist. It is that Promised Land we seek. It lies on the other side of the mountain.

We’ve had fun this weekend. But it is time to pack up camp and get on with the next leg of the journey. There has been many times in our past that we have nearly failed. But we didn’t. Our needs were provided for. And we will be provided for again – as we need it, often just in the nick of time. We’ve come a long way in the past 40 years, accomplishing much. With that wisdom and our faith as a guiding lamp, let’s get on with the building that City of God.

I’d like to close with an insight from a new book on Thomas Merton by Jim Forest. In it Merton talks about “detachment from results.” Merton was convinced that engagement was made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with a lack of interest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve.

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will at times be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, and the truth of the work itself. In the end it is the reality of our personal relationships that saves everything. We have a plan – but it is dynamic. We must not focus so much on results as on the journey. What we do in the midst of the journey. All the good that you do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth – and you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by inevitable disappointments. The real hope then is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see.”

The dinner dance last evening closed with a slow dance to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As I danced in the arms of my partner Chris, I tuned into those very familiar words and thought how appropriate.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

May the Grace of God be with us on our journey – and with you on your journeys home. Your leadership team looks forward to seeing you and many new pilgrims we pick up along the way when we camp out again in Washington in 2011!



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