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DignityUSA Mourns Passing of Past President James A. Bussen

By Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA President 

​Just as we gathered for the Convention opening song and first plenary session on the morning of Saturday, July 6, word came that Jim Bussen, DignityUSA President from 1985-1989, had passed away during the night. While Jim had battled a rare cancer for more than three years, and had been in hospice care for the previous few weeks, this news still shook many Convention attendees who had known and loved Jim, as well as people all across the nation who were inspired by his passionate advocacy. In a fitting tribute, those gathered repeated the morning’s anthem, We Shall Not be Silent, in Jim’s honor. Friends later gathered for an impromptu Irish Wake, sharing memories, laughs, and tears before that evening’s dinner dance. As Marty Grochala, a fellow member of Dignity/Chicago, told Windy City Times, "Many tears are being shed here today at the DignityUSA Convention in Minneapolis. Friends of Jim's from all across the country will take time this weekend to grieve, to remember, to laugh, and to share memories. Jim was a close friend, a mentor, a brother. Dignity, the Chicago LGBT movement, and the national movement have all benefited from Jim's righteous anger, his joy of life, and his wicked sense of humor. While his physical presence will be missed, his spirit will always be close to our hearts."

Tributes and remembrances of Jim have poured into DignityUSA from across the country. Jim is remembered as a passionate, inspiring, outspoken advocate for LGBT people, a wicked wit, a generous friend, and a fighter. Some recalled his enlistment of his parents to lobby the Illinois legislature for gay rights in the 1970s. Others called to mind his advocacy, which at one point caused Chicago Cardinal Bernadin to walk out of a meeting where softening official opposition to the Illinois gay rights bill was being negotiated. Most pointed to the impact his leadership had on DignityUSA. During Jim’s presidency, for example, DignityUSA became the first gay organization to take out a full-page advertisement in a national mainstream magazine. In April 1987, six months after the Vatican’s infamous “Halloween Letter” that labeled homosexuality as an “objective disorder,” DignityUSA placed an ad in Newsweek that read in large bold letters, “What Jesus said about homosexuality.” Underneath were empty quotation marks, followed by a cogent rebuttal of the Vatican’s arguments and a call for Catholic support of gay and lesbian people.

Martin Mendoza of the former Dignity/Wichita, Kansas chapter wrote about how Jimmy made a huge difference in that city. “We were beginning a chapter here in Wichita when the city council passed a civil rights ordinance to include sexual orientation. Bishop Maloney came out against the ordinance and stated that there would be no gay teachers in the diocese. Many gay Catholics, including my partner, Gene, a convert to Catholicism, felt as though they were being banished, that they did not belong in the Church. This was devastating to Gene; he became depressed. I told him that there were other bishops making other statements on our behalf. I called Dignity's president at the time and explained to him that we were a small group just trying to survive, and it was a very scary time. Anyway, he called Jimmy. And Jimmy came to our rescue with a busload of gays and lesbians from Chicago. They took to the streets, they leafleted the churches. They brought with them statements of acceptance, statements of compassion from other bishops and theologians. I remember the priests at the Cathedral, and elsewhere, with wastebaskets telling their parishioners to throw the statements away without reading them. I remember also there was one lesbian, a former nun, who went to Mass at the Cathedral silently sitting in the back, slipping statements into the parish bulletin. In the years to follow, I sat in the Dignity House of Delegates and did whatever Jimmy asked of us. Because of what he did for us, I believed that he would never steer us wrong.

I will miss Jimmy, his smile, his humor, but most importantly his courage. He was a good friend and a wonderful hero of our times.” 

Jim’s successor as DignityUSA President, his dear friend Pat Roche of Seattle, helped organize caregiving for Jim during the last weeks of his life. Pat spoke about the importance of Jim’s leadership to the LGBT Catholic movement. Pat said, "I believe that Jim's prophetic leadership in getting the 'Miami Resolution' passed was the most important event in Dignity's 44 year history (1969-2013). It spoke truth to power by strongly affirming Dignity's belief in the life-affirming, life-giving nature of our relationships. It eventually led to the eviction of all Dignity chapters from Catholic Church property, but left Dignity and our members with the knowledge that we had spoken with complete, unadorned integrity and honesty. no matter what the cost. I remember one delegate saying, 'If we won't stand up and affirm the goodness and holiness of our relationships, who will?'"

Roche continued, "Jim may have been in People Magazine as 'One of the people the Pope wouldn't be visiting on his trip to the United States' but he should also be remembered as a 'Faithful Dissenter' because he truly did 'love' and 'change' our Church. Because of his efforts, and those of so many others, polls repeatedly show that the majority of Catholics in the pews now support marriage equality, despite the ongoing resistance of popes and cardinals and bishops. Jim was my spiritual mentor and close friend for 30 years. Someone once said that for Catholics, the faith is always in us, even if we aren't always officially in the faith. In the end, Jim always believed 'We (the people, not the hierarchy) are the Church,' and he turned there in all of life's challenges. At the end, he received the last rites and, I believe, died with a peace that sometimes eluded him in his decades-long struggle with the Church hierarchy."

Chris Pett spoke about Jim’s death on behalf of Dignity/Chicago. "Dignity Chicago, and our broader LGBT community, has lost a significant voice with the passing of Jim Bussen who now lives eternally with our God. He was a prophet and courageous presence who could effectively challenge and demand accountability from Catholic Church leadership to recognize the dignity and inherent blessedness of God's LGBT people. But he also could, with gentleness and prayerful discernment, call the local and national Dignity communities, and others who share our mission, to claim respect for our lives and loves, while remaining faithful to God's call for us to live generously, justly and with total love for one another. We can only hope and trust that his legacy will continue to inspire people of faith within our movement, and those around us, to seek justice and continually speak truth into action."

"Jim inspired DignityUSA to become what we are today," said Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke. "He dared to stand up for us, called us to stand up for one another, and demanded that we stand against lies and injustice. Every horrid thing said by a Church leader pained and angered him, not on his own behalf, but because he knew the immense harm these words did to so many. And yet, he loved God, our Church, our traditions, and our rituals very, very deeply. He knew the Gospels inside out, and he followed closely in Jesus' footsteps."

Dignity/Chicago will host a Celebration of Life for Jim Bussen on Saturday, August 10, 2013 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster Ave., Chicago, IL 60640 at 11:00 am. A reception will follow the Celebration. Inquiries about the Celebration should be directed to dignitychicago@gmail.com.

Jim's family has requested that memorial gifts be made to DignityUSA, Dignity/Chicago, or St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 512 S Prairie St, P.O. Box 401 Greenville, IL 62246.