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Moving From the Familiar and Usual

A scholarship took me from my native Denver to the nation’s capital to start college. I will never forget my first August day in Washington, D.C. It was 98 degrees with 97% humidity. I had never experienced heat like that. I had spent the previous 18 years of my life living in a white,working class suburb of semi-arid Denver, Colorado. “Hot” there seemed downright comfortable compared to the sultry hot of D.C. I landed at National Airport after nightfall. I remember the sights from the taxi. Long blocks of houses all attached to each other. I had never seen that. Where were the lawns and yards? Most people were out on their “stoops” trying to find a cool breeze. And most of those people were black. My normal freshman anxiety was increasing with every block. The next day I was driven to a grocery store in nearby Hyattsville, MD. I was the only white person in that store! An irrational fear took over and I left the store. Within a month, I was quite comfortable in my new home. Within a few months, I was no longer noticing that I was a racial minority. I thought many times of Tim back home. Tim was an African American who moved in down the street from my parents. His father was a Denver cop. They were the only people of color in the neighborhood. What I had been feeling must have been what Tim felt then. No wonder he was standoffish at first. My move far away from home started a long process of discovering new places, new people, new customs and new perspectives that I will never regret.

Many years later in life, I found myself studying at The Ohio State University campus in Columbus, and attending Mass at the Newman Center, staffed by the Paulist Fathers. I loved the progressive experience of church I found there. That included hearing women preach on Sunday. We had to play some games to establish that tradition — having the homily delivered before the Gospel. Church law permitted only an ordained priest to deliver the homily, defined as a reflection following the Gospel. Needless to say, I had not heard a woman preach during Mass. One of the women on staff, Marie, was particularly skilled in reflecting on the Scriptures. One Sunday she told a story from her life to make a point. The story was from an experience as a little girl. I found myself translating it into my life as a boy. It wasn’t a smooth translation. In fact, I couldn’t relate to some of it at all. Then it occurred to me…I was experiencing what women had to do all the time!

In both of these situations, I was pulled from the familiar into the unfamiliar. My assumptions and beliefs were exposed and challenged as I got a glimpse from a very different window on the world. That is what can happen when we leave the security of home base.

The word “ghetto” was an original reference to an island outside Venice to which Jews were confined. It later described the section of European cities where the Jews were required to live. Eventually it came to be associated with inner-city slums inhabited by minorities. One meaning is “any segregated mode of living or working that results from bias or stereotyping.” In that sense, I was raised in a white ghetto. My entire education has been in Catholic schools…part of my Catholic ghetto. I see things as a member of the male ghetto, although my sexuality has certainly given me a different slant on that view! And believe it or not, there is such a thing as a gay ghetto. I once heard it said that America is no more segregated than it is on Sunday when we all go to Church to worship the God we created in our image and likeness.

DignityUSA and its local parts are not immune from this. We started as a ministry to the outcast. We became a sanctuary for refugees from hostile communities. We created our own faith communities and many have been fed by them. But over time, have we not become more comfortable, more rigid, and more locked into seeing and interpreting things through the narrow lens of our experience as an oppressed sexual minority?

Narrow is not what I think of when I think of God. Edwina Gately once proclaimed at a Dignity convention that God is immense and constantly streeeeetches us. As we approach our 40th year of ministry, I have been increasingly concerned that many of our chapters have acquired characteristics of the ghetto. How diverse is your community? What array of ages is present? What percentage is male? How many straight people are there? Married with children? How often do new people come and when they do, how frequently do they come back? How many “shoulds” does your community live by—“shoulds” that dictate how things have always been done and should be done?

In my humble opinion, all Catholics should be extended a warm and genuine welcome to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church and have access to its seven sacraments — this includes GLBT families; access to Holy Orders and ordination for women, and access to Matrimony and marriage for priests.

Your National Board of Directors has been talking quite a bit lately about the need to “enlarge our tent” by breaking out of the molds that have become hardened over time. Our future vitality requires it. We believe we must become more hospitable to the spiritual needs of women, of youth, of Hispanics, and of straight people hungering for a “parish” that lives what they value — a place that honors, respects and practices inclusivity as well as full participation in the life of the Church and community.

As we gather this summer in San Francisco, we will recall and celebrate what DignityUSA and its local communities have achieved. But your leadership will also challenge you to think differently, to consider scrapping the old wineskins, and to reach out to people we have not put the welcome mat out for before — people with a very different experience who can open our eyes and challenge our thinking. I plan for this to be one of the topics of discussion during our Convention 2009 Membership Meeting. I think the Spirit is calling us down some different paths that will require us to think differently if we are to thrive. I believe that staying where we have been comfortable is a sure recipe for a slow death. What do you think? Come to our convention in San Francisco and let your voice be heard.