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The Celebration of the Life of Jim Bussen

By Mike Hogan, Dignity/Chicago Member

On a beautiful summer day, family and friends of Jim Bussen gathered at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to honor and celebrate the life and achievements of Jim, a former national president of DignityUSA and activist in the LGBT community in Chicago. Jim was a prophet, an agitator, and a fearless champion of LGBT Catholics and their rightful position as beloved children of God.

It was a memorial that Jim helped plan. He chose the readings and requested that a male and female priest preside. The presiders were Rev. Barbara Zeman and Rev. Joe Lofy, who are both regular presiders for Dignity/Chicago. Jill Goldsmith, the music director of Dignity/Chicago, the chapter choir, and guest instrumentalists and vocalists provided the music. It was a powerful combination of vocals and instruments that Jim would have loved.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA Executive Director, delivered the homily. Marianne was a longtime friend and considered Jim to be one of her early mentors when she came to Dignity in the 1980’s. She spoke of Jim’s fearless challenges to power whenever it tried to marginalize LGBT persons.But the key was that during those really difficult times for the Dignity movement, Jim was a vocal champion for LGBT Catholics. He would talk to Church leaders face to face, armed with a theology of inclusion rather than exclusion. He would call them on their hypocrisy.

The offertory procession had some unique elements to it, including a copy of People magazine that listed nine people that Pope John Paul II would not want to meet when he was visiting the U.S. in 1987. One of those people was Jim Bussen, who was then president of DignityUSA. Jim was quite proud of that distinction! Another object that was presented was a copy of the April 1987 Newsweek magazine that included a full-page statement, the first of its kind, laying out DignityUSA’s position on behalf of the full inclusion of LGBT Catholics.

Jim felt that DignityUSA needed to make a strong statement affirming the rightful place of LGBT Catholics in the Church. Time magazine had turned down this submission. The full-page statement began with a question in bold print, “What did Jesus say about homosexuality?” The question was followed by two sets of quotation marks with blank space between them. The remainder of the page quoted affirmative statements about LGBT persons and God’s love for them, taken from the newly adopted DignityUSA Statement of Position and Purpose.

After communion, there was time for people to share stories about Jim and their experiences with him. Family members, friends, politicians, and members of the Chicago LGBT community shared humorous, poignant, and powerful stories. Among the most powerful was from Tracy Baim, the editor of the Windy City Times, which is the recognized LGBT newspaper in Chicago. Tracy has many years of advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community and is often the go-to person for LGBT media in Chicago. She spoke of her long-time admiration for Jim. From the first time she met him, she felt accepted as a female activist, which she said was not a common occurrence in the community in the 1980’s. Tracy also said that she considered Jim to be one of the top ten gay activists in Chicago over the last several decades and that his story needs to be told again and again. On a lighter note, Tracy mentioned that as a Jewish lesbian, whenever she was called upon to interview Cardinal George, she would channel Jim Bussen and walk into the interview full of confidence.

The service ended with a thrilling rendition of “City of God,” one of Jim’s favorite songs. The congregation then left the church singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which was reminiscent of Jim’s spirit but also a homage to many experiences in New Orleans.

A luncheon followed the liturgy, where a broad mix of people continued to share stories, laugh, and continue the celebration of Jim’s life. It was an incredible day from start to finish, and a true reflection of Jim, who he was, and the lasting impact he has made here in Chicago and across DignityUSA.