By Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA Executive Director
In just the last few weeks, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to be with Dignity members literally from Florida to Washington state. The Board’s Fall meeting took us to Fort Lauderdale, where the local Chapter offered a gracious welcome, joined us for a liturgy and then a festive dinner at a local restaurant. We also had some visitors throughout the weekend, as Florida members stopped in to listen in on the Board’s work. As always, the chance to hear members’ stories and learn about the life of a local Chapter was a highlight of the weekend. Many members had relocated from northern climes, some having been committed members of other Chapters. In Fort Lauderdale, we found a community that offers a warm welcome to “Snow Birds,” and that provides tremendous support for people who are homeless and struggling to overcome addictions. The stories they told of lives transformed through their interventions were truly powerful and inspirational.
A couple of weeks later, our Seattle Chapter marked its 40th anniversary. During the weekend, I visited with national leaders from the Chapter, including three-time national Secretary Paula Lavallee and past national president Pat Roche. I also had the chance to tour the hotel that will be the site of our 2015 convention, and hear from the local host committee about the amazing local resources that could help shape what is sure to be a rich experience.
Dignity/Seattle takes great pride in the social justice work it has done, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for health care and hospice services through its annual Pride Breakfasts, and providing hundreds of hours of volunteer service at a local soup kitchen. The Chapter also hosts quarterly social events, where those who no longer attend liturgy can reconnect with friends.
Through this visit, I got a better sense of the true significance of the 1983 convention, which I had long known marked a pivotal moment for our organization. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen delivered video greetings to the more than 1,200 Dignity members and supporters who gathered for Mass at the Cathedral (the largest single Dignity event ever!), and that moment triggered the Vatican investigation of the Archbishop and his eventual removal as leader of the Seattle Archdiocese. Some draw a line directly from that event to the 1985 Vatican Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, directing the Catholic bishops of the world not to minister to dissenting organizations. The Seattle convention, held in the early days of the AIDS crisis, also launched the Sexual Ethics Task Force, which created DignityUSA’s landmark statement on ethical sexuality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Catholics (transgender sexuality was not part of the group’s charge at the time).
Like many of our communities, Dignity/Fort Lauderdale and Dignity/Seattle are the very antithesis of institutional Catholicism. They are small communities, numbering in the dozens rather than thousands. They rely entirely on volunteer administration, presidership, and financial support. They meet in rented or donated space, and seem to continually fear for their future viability. And yet, in both communities, deep commitment to the Gospel and living lives of service, a reverence for Sacramentality, and profound care for one another are unquestioningly obvious. And aren’t these the hallmarks we should find in all spiritual communities? These visits to our members and communities offer the opportunity to witness faith, hope, and love in action, and always reveal a new face of the Divine while deepening my conviction that what Dignity has is very, very special.