Lifestyle March 11, 2013

Not as a stranger: how our churches can welcome gay people (and everybody else)

A gay person living a chaste lifestyle advises the Church

Eve Tushnet
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Eve Tushnet
March 11, 2013
© NOAH SEELAM / AFP
In the following, the writer considers the challenges of living a chaste life as a gay person and what Catholics can do to better realize our calling as God’s family.  
 
 
When I go to church on Sunday, I can look around and spot several other worshipers whom I know to be gay. We’re welcoming people at the door, organizing Sandwich Mondays for the homeless, serving at the altar, arranging flowers. This isn’t too unusual; gay people have spiritual lives and struggles like anybody else, and we often find that when we need to wrestle angels, we want to do it in a pew.
 
And yet, most parishes act as if gay people existed “out there,” where they push legislation through the state legislature or make sitcoms about sperm donors. When it comes to the people in the pews, we typically hear about – at most – two vocations: marriage and the priesthood. Everybody not called to one of these two forms of love gets a handshake at the Sign of Peace and a brochure for the Cardinal’s Appeal, and that’s about it. This is not enough guidance on how to build a life as a single person in loving service to others, and it leaves many people feeling unwelcomed and even degraded, reduced to a political football.
 
It would be easy to dismiss these feelings: “What, you want people to throw you a ticker-tape parade?” But the lack of welcome for gay Christians damages church life in several ways. (I should note that I’m saying “gay” here because that’s how I identify myself; I’m gay and therefore celibate. Other people prefer the term “same-sex attracted.” I tend to think the issue of self-identification is a distraction from the larger tasks of making Christian chastity beautiful, imaginable and fruitful.)
 
The first way welcoming gay Christians would help the Church is that it would make our witness more Biblical. The Church should be the place for prodigal sons and rejected stones, at least as much as it’s the place for elder brothers and other respectable types. The early Church promised that those who gave up family or marriage to follow Jesus would find a new family, a new home, with fellow Christians as their brothers and sisters. Is that what happens to lay people who strive to live celibately today? 
 
From what I’ve seen, we’re mostly left alone. If you’re straight or people think you are, and you’re not yet married, you may get urged to spend time with the young adults’ ministry or the singles’ ministry or one of the other (necessary!) meet markets of the Church. I like these ministries and I like that they matchmaker. I don’t think they’re the catchall solution for unmarried lay people, though, regardless of sexual orientation. And so, people who genuinely want to serve the Church come away feeling exhausted or confused. They're pretty sure God doesn't want them to lead loveless, barren and miserable lives, and yet they have little sense of where they might give and receive lasting, sustaining love outside of marriage. The people who are already serving often feel unwanted or excluded; the people who aren’t already embedded in an ecclesial community have no idea where to start. This is an immense waste of love.
 
Furthermore, welcoming people whose callings don’t lead them into traditional family life will strengthen families. This isn’t a zero-sum game. Take as one obvious example a modern marriage: although marrying couples still ask their friends and relatives to gather at the wedding to support them, too often they feel like all the pressure of marriage is on their own shoulders – they’re profoundly isolated. Men, especially, can be left to do way too much emotional work by themselves in trying to figure out what she meant and what to do about it. Deep friendships relieve this unbearable pressure. Married people who have read this article so far thinking, “Wait, I don’t feel especially supported in my vocation, either!” might find that praising and supporting friendship as a devoted, equal form of love will make their lives better, too. 
 
What this welcoming and supporting looks like in practice can be really simple. It’s almost depressingly simple, really, when you realize how many little things we’re not doing! There are some “official” acts that would help: a homily on friendship as a Christian vocation (Jesus, after all, had friends but no spouse); a prayer for gays and lesbians, or for those who are same-sex attracted; a quote in the bulletin from “ Always Our Children,” the USCCB statement to parents of gay children; a talk on lay vocations outside of marriage, such as Dorothy Day’s service to those in need.
In the following, the writer considers the challenges of living a chaste life as a gay person and what Catholics can do to better realize our calling as God’s family.  
 
 
When I go to church on Sunday, I can look around and spot several other worshipers whom I know to be gay. We’re welcoming people at the door, organizing Sandwich Mondays for the homeless, serving at the altar, arranging flowers. This isn’t too unusual; gay people have spiritual lives and struggles like anybody else, and we often find that when we need to wrestle angels, we want to do it in a pew.
 
And yet, most parishes act as if gay people existed “out there,” where they push legislation through the state legislature or make sitcoms about sperm donors. When it comes to the people in the pews, we typically hear about – at most – two vocations: marriage and the priesthood. Everybody not called to one of these two forms of love gets a handshake at the Sign of Peace and a brochure for the Cardinal’s Appeal, and that’s about it. This is not enough guidance on how to build a life as a single person in loving service to others, and it leaves many people feeling unwelcomed and even degraded, reduced to a political football.
 
It would be easy to dismiss these feelings: “What, you want people to throw you a ticker-tape parade?” But the lack of welcome for gay Christians damages church life in several ways. (I should note that I’m saying “gay” here because that’s how I identify myself; I’m gay and therefore celibate. Other people prefer the term “same-sex attracted.” I tend to think the issue of self-identification is a distraction from the larger tasks of making Christian chastity beautiful, imaginable and fruitful.)
 
The first way welcoming gay Christians would help the Church is that it would make our witness more Biblical. The Church should be the place for prodigal sons and rejected stones, at least as much as it’s the place for elder brothers and other respectable types. The early Church promised that those who gave up family or marriage to follow Jesus would find a new family, a new home, with fellow Christians as their brothers and sisters. Is that what happens to lay people who strive to live celibately today? 
 
From what I’ve seen, we’re mostly left alone. If you’re straight or people think you are, and you’re not yet married, you may get urged to spend time with the young adults’ ministry or the singles’ ministry or one of the other (necessary!) meet markets of the Church. I like these ministries and I like that they matchmaker. I don’t think they’re the catchall solution for unmarried lay people, though, regardless of sexual orientation. And so, people who genuinely want to serve the Church come away feeling exhausted or confused. They're pretty sure God doesn't want them to lead loveless, barren and miserable lives, and yet they have little sense of where they might give and receive lasting, sustaining love outside of marriage. The people who are already serving often feel unwanted or excluded; the people who aren’t already embedded in an ecclesial community have no idea where to start. This is an immense waste of love.
 
Furthermore, welcoming people whose callings don’t lead them into traditional family life will strengthen families. This isn’t a zero-sum game. Take as one obvious example a modern marriage: although marrying couples still ask their friends and relatives to gather at the wedding to support them, too often they feel like all the pressure of marriage is on their own shoulders – they’re profoundly isolated. Men, especially, can be left to do way too much emotional work by themselves in trying to figure out what she meant and what to do about it. Deep friendships relieve this unbearable pressure. Married people who have read this article so far thinking, “Wait, I don’t feel especially supported in my vocation, either!” might find that praising and supporting friendship as a devoted, equal form of love will make their lives better, too. 
 
What this welcoming and supporting looks like in practice can be really simple. It’s almost depressingly simple, really, when you realize how many little things we’re not doing! There are some “official” acts that would help: a homily on friendship as a Christian vocation (Jesus, after all, had friends but no spouse); a prayer for gays and lesbians, or for those who are same-sex attracted; a quote in the bulletin from “ Always Our Children,” the USCCB statement to parents of gay children; a talk on lay vocations outside of marriage, such as Dorothy Day’s service to those in need.
 
Now and then, if you’re in ministry in any capacity, take a moment to remember that some of the people entrusted to your guidance are gay, and many of them, for a host of different reasons, aren’t going to end up in the only two vocations they usually hear about. What can you say to them to let them know that God is calling them, and that you are grateful they exist? These small acts of recognition and welcome are rarely forgotten – they mean a million times more than a sermon about chastity.
 
There are also deeply personal acts of welcome that can be done by one parishioner to another. A man in my parish hosts a Thanksgiving dinner every year for those parishioners, including many gay people, who don’t have a family dinner to attend. In recognizing the people in our parishes who are called to love outside the ordinary bonds of family, we make our own parishes more like the family Christ has called us to be. Here are some same-sex attracted Christians who can say it better than I can, describing the moments which have made them feel truly welcomed. In the first, a groomsman becomes a brother, and in the second, a godfather becomes more than a guest
 
These are the sorts of vocations that are rarely discussed but sorely needed, and there’s no time like the present to roll up our sleeves and get to it.
 
 
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. She is working on a book on vocation for gay Catholics. 

 
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