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The Grace of Small Chapters

by Marianne Duddy-Burke

While on business in western New York State this week, I had the great honor of having family dinner with some of the members and leaders of Dignity/Integrity Rochester. This is one of only a couple of jointly affiliated chapters in our network. It will be marking its 37th anniversary during October 2012. Naturally, much of our conversation involved people sharing their memories of significant moments and movements over the course of those many years. They told me about the days of having 120 or more gather regularly for worship. They were such a large group that they qualified for official recognition as a Catholic congregation at a diocesan synod, where members participated alongside parish leaders. They recalled people who are no longer around: those who moved out of the area, those who became parents and sought out congregations with more children, those who are comfortable in one of the welcoming parishes, and those so hurt and angered by Rome that they have renounced Catholicism. They told me of the challenges of coordinating four completely different liturgies each month (two Episcopalian, two Roman), and scrambling to figure out what to do with those fifth Sundays that roll around a few times each year. They wondered what impact the upcoming change in diocesan leadership, given the submission of Bishop Matthew Clark’s letter of resignation, will have on them. We discussed the challenge of remaining connected to the larger Dignity family and movement now that the Regional structure is no longer in place. (This is something we hear quite often, and is a focus for national leadership moving forward.)

Mostly, though, they told me about the people who make up Dignity/Integrity Rochester. They delighted in the couple who will celebrate their 25th anniversary in December by getting married. They congratulated a musician whose choir will be featured on a local radio show, and asked whether another would be playing dulcimer in the near future. They told me about treasured members of their community who come from other faith traditions. They described a member returning after 30 years away, who wept through his first liturgy, back after burying his partner of 46 years. They discussed the challenges faced by another member, and the plans put in place to provide support. They told me about their bowling leagues, pets, and families, and a longtime member’s upcoming ordination in another state. They asked about people who had not been around for several weeks.

It was clear to me that this community was tightly woven, committed to one another, and intimately familiar with one another’s eccentricities and gifts. At times, I was clearly an observer during an ongoing domestic conversation, and it was a gift to be in that role. While we often raise up the gifts of our larger chapters, who have the resources to offer many programs and services locally and nationally, the evening I spent in Rochester reminded me how blessed Dignity is to be a diverse organization, with members and chapters that have, in the words of I Corinthians, “varieties of gifts, but one Spirit…and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God that empowers them all in everyone.”

Happy 37th Anniversary, Dignity/Integrity Rochester. Thank you for your powerful and profound ministry, in Rochester, NY and across our DignityUSA community. Thank you for welcoming me, and for witnessing to tenacity, grace, and community. I look forward to celebrating your 40th anniversary with you in just a few years.

And to all our smaller chapters, thank you for the ministry and witness you provide, week after week, month after month, year after year. The ripple you make in the water spreads wider than you know.