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A Visit to Southern California's Di[g]n[it]yLand

By Jim Smith, DignityUSA Program Manager

Where’s the Drama?

I’m a lucky guy. My boss tells me to fly out to Southern California and pay visits to the four Dignity chapter communities there: San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Palm Springs. Their southwest coast perch can be isolating, and they are just too valued to be overlooked. So one morning I’m clambering over Minneapolis snowbanks to the airport and that afternoon I’m sitting in a small, beautiful ‘chapel’ in North Hollywood, CA. The Dignity/San Fernando Valley (SFV) community gathers every Saturday evening for Mass in a rented room they have lovingly and creatively made their own. And their worship matched the sacred surroundings: a liturgy thoughtfully planned for the Lenten season, comprised of intentional silences, full-throated song in both Spanish and English to reflect the diverse community, inclusive images for the God beyond names, and full participation from each person around the circle.

The community meeting followed, during which SFV’s President, Chris Cappiello, directly and lovingly challenged all members to increase their monthly tithe. At Mass, at meeting and at the Mexican restaurant meal that followed, I was honestly struck by the ease and contentment with which everyone related. One member offered this unsolicited comment later that night, “We get along so well. In fact, we could use more drama.” Careful what you ask for!

This is a small but vibrant community. I kept thinking there must be many in the north LA region who thirst for a spiritual, loving, worshipful community such as this. Dignity/SFV is a well-kept secret, but I hope not for long.

Historic Roots

The next day, it was south down an LA freeway to meet Dignity/Los Angeles. I crashed their Board meeting where the president’s role was transitioning to Frank Miller, an 81 year old with a tremendous young-at-heart spirit. He was taking over from Liz Larsen whose gifts to the chapter include re-energizing Dignity/LA’s special events and seeking Dignity’s collaboration with area LGBTQ centers.

Before Mass I peeked into the side chapel in the “Dignity Center,” (a building Dignity/LA actually owns). The little chapel brims with decades-long personality and life. Above the tabernacle hung a striking picture of a resurrected Jesus, painted by Dignity’s founder, Pax Nidorf. He was the honored guest at LA’s 43rd anniversary last year, and gifted this painting to them at the event. Dignity was born in LA. Members are conscious of their place in Dignity’s history, and their concern for the long-term viability of this historic chapter was palpable to me. During my three days with members, I came to know gracious and faithful people who have been solid ground in this community, some of whom are more recent members, and others who have been members for many years. New president Frank Miller brings his hopeful, loving spirit to the table and wants to see this community grow and thrive into a full future. LA stands as mothership to us all in Dignity. May our prayers and gratitude be spirited to them!

Melting Pot North of the Border

I was welcomed to Dignity/San Diego with a reception at a member’s home, and was struck by the presence of several young adults. San Diego’s president, Brian Kelly, has a passion to welcome younger folk and nurture their active participation. This was evident throughout the weekend of my visit. (photo at right, Brian Kelly)

Every Sunday evening, the community gathers for Mass in a chapel with huge-windowed views of a canyon. During the liturgy I attended, the sun took its sweet time to set behind the hills, providing some competition to the miracle at the altar. But it was still easy to focus on the prayer of this chapter. A great mix of members: straight couples, young, elderly, and middle-age LGBT persons, women and men--all comprised the People of God here. I found the prayers of the faithful particularly moving: prepared texts that called our attention to global communities and struggles, and spontaneous prayers that invited us to stand with members’ loved ones. We also had chance to speak aloud the names of our beloved dead.

This is a community on good ground and moving forward with good energy. If you’re ever visiting this beautiful part of the world, look them up!

Dinah Shore, Bob Hope and...Dignity

My last stop was sunny Palm Springs. The Dignity community here was founded some 10 years ago by LA members David Valenzuela and Bill LaMarche after they moved to the area. The seed was planted while on their way home from the DignityUSA Las Vegas Convention. Both were chewing on the same idea, and when one gave voice to it, the other chimed in, “Just what I was thinking!” With hope and courage, they planted a new community here. These days, the chapter council members wonder aloud why more residents in the area haven’t joined. It’s a familiar question in a number of chapters, and I suspect one of the reasons is that these days when it comes to “organized religion,” it’s no longer an “If you build it, they will come” reality. People are more hesitant to join a church, and for a variety of reasons. But there’s still a great deal of spiritual thirst everywhere, and Dignity communities have plenty of potential to attract. Pride in one’s chapter community, healthy and respectful relationships, a commitment to prophetic witness, and thoughtful and prayerful liturgies. All are foundations to an attractive chapter, and active and strategic invitation and recruitment must be the hallmark of communities that see growth. A couple of the southern California chapters are seriously discerning to apply for a DignityUSA strategic grant. These grants offer the cost of experienced facilitation in a process that brings a chapter to new levels of vitality.

Back to Palm Springs. The liturgy I attended was the their first to have a female presider. Nori Kieran-Meredith, who makes the rounds to several SoCal chapters, gave a stirring homily on “holy subversion” and presided with a joy that was absolutely contagious. By Mass’s end, I was so ready to “go forth to love and serve God!” But first we had to eat. Six of us broke bread together at a restaurant following the post-Mass social gathering , including a brand new member who recently moved to Palm Springs and found Dignity on the web. He was grateful for the invitation to join us for dinner, and hopefully he’ll find a Gospel home with this desert Dignity community.

Throughout my visits, I was met by truly generous home-hosts who offered me bed, breakfast, and best of all, good company. I am so grateful for my encounters with many, and blessed to be associated with this community of communities called “Dignity.”