"Our Exodus was Actually a Rebirth"
It was in many ways like any other Sunday evening Mass. The 300 men and women gathered under the Gothic Revival arches of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church near Dupont Circle announced briefly their prayer petitions: "For addicts and alcoholics." "For new and enlightened leadership in the church." "In thanksgiving for my son, who has reached out again in order to try to re-establish contact." "For Mother Teresa."
The priest, standing at the front of the church, told the congregation, "Many of us have felt the pain and scorn of being cast aside. But we are thriving in the spirit of Jesus, in the spirit of faith." He went on to describe the people there as "justice-seeking friends of Christ."
The "friends of Christ" have many admirers. The service program carried letters of congratulations from Mayor Marion Barry and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the U.S. Congress. In the next room, a table held a letter with the simple heading, "The White House, Washington, D.C." "We must never believe that America's diversity is a weakness; in fact it is our greatest strength," wrote President Clinton. "I pledge that I will continue working to foster compassion and understanding so that bigotry and intolerance have no place in our country or in our hearts."
The need for such a pledge became evident at the beginning of the service. "You'll notice that we're filming this service," said Michael C. Morgan, president of Dignity/Washington. "Those of you who do not wish to appear on camera may move to the pews to the left."
September 21 marked the silver anniversary of Washington's gay Catholic group, and after 25 years of joining together for worship and community outreach, many members still do not wish to be filmed or to give out their last names. Even the celebrant of the evening was introduced only as "Father Tony." Mr. Morgan said joyfully, "In [our] journey, we have shared with the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ" – but his words were carefully chosen. Before the resurrection came the death, and Dignity members can state the exact date of that death. For 1997 is not only Dignity's silver anniversary; it is also the tenth anniversary of its eviction from a Georgetown University chapel.
CHURCH AND COMMUNITY
Many of Dignity's members know that episode only as history; they have joined the chapter during its period of resurrection. Like other chapters of Dignity/USA, Dignity/Washington is taking advantage of a burgeoning interest in the gay community in spiritual life. The result is that some of Dignity's members are not even Catholic.
Victor Wilson, for example, is a Methodist who continues to attend his own church. "My loyalty to Dignity is that when I take communion in the Methodist Church, I make the sign of the cross," he says with a laugh. He attends Dignity activities, he explains, because he benefits from the group's spiritual guidance – for example, a retreat which discussed how to deal with death and dying. Mr. Wilson went to the retreat at the time one of his friends was dying from cancer. "Dignity," he concludes, "has been like a family to me."
Beth Johnson is Catholic, though she was not born into the church. She began attending Dignity Masses with a woman she was dating, but stopped coming when the relationship ended. After a while, though, she felt something missing in her life and decided to give Dignity a second chance. All of the odds were against her staying. Dignity was (and is) a largely male organization; it has many members, and Ms. Johnson prefers small groups; and it is a gay organization, which made her uneasy. "My whole life isn't gay," she says.
She came to another service, though, and continued coming. Today she is head of the Committee for Women's Concerns, and at Dignity's anniversary dinner on September 20 she received an award for community service. It is community, she says, that draws her to Dignity: "I have never before been in a church that's been both church and community for me."
The community is large. The Sunday evening Masses draw up to 350 people, some of whom are not paid members of Dignity but enjoy the group's activities. Dignity has in fact outgrown its quarters. Though the group will continue to hold services at St. Margaret's, members are making plans to move out of what Mr. Morgan calls "a little cubbyhole in the basement" into more spacious social quarters.
It is hard, amidst all this good fortune, to remember that Dignity is the product of hard times. To ensure that its members do not forget, Dignity cast its anniversary homily in the form of a series of remembrances. Members described the grimly humorous events of old: the time that Dignity invited the local Catholic hierarchy to a Mass of Reconciliation, and none of them showed up; the time that Dignity tried to make its presence known by attending an important service, and the members found themselves sharing a pew with Catholic conservative Pat Buchanan.
There were five homilies in all, and much laughter greeted some of the homilies. But the congregation grew especially quiet as choir director Blake Velde came forward to speak. He was there to describe the events of ten years before.
ONE HOT JUNE EVENING
In June 1987, the big news in Washington, aside from the heat wave, was the Third International Conference on AIDS, which was being held at the Washington Hilton. The Washington Post, with journalistic thoroughness, set aside a section of the paper for AIDS stories, and editors went scouting for local tie-in stories: "Pregnant Baltimorean slain by arrow had AIDS virus," screamed one headline. In 1987, depressing AIDS stories were not hard to find.
The statistics of deaths that the conference released were somber; the lack of hope for a cure equally so. D.C. reporters visiting June 14's Gay and Lesbian Pride Day reported a subdued atmosphere.
It had been an especially bad year for gay Catholics. The previous October, the Vatican had sent out a letter entitled "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," which described homosexuality as "a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent." The letter added that Catholic bishops should withdraw support from any organization that "seeks to undermine the teaching of the church." In January, the Rev. Charles E. Curran was suspended from teaching theology at Catholic University in Washington, partly because of his favorable views toward homosexuality. In February, Bishop Francis Mugavero directed the priests of the Brooklyn Diocese to refuse homosexual groups use of church facilities for meetings. He singled out Dignity/New York for mention. By June, a dozen Dignity chapters around the country had been evicted from church facilities.
In mid-June, the news finally arrived that Dignity/Washington had been expecting: Archbishop James A. Hickey had ordered Georgetown University to bar Dignity from holding a weekly Mass on campus.
"That very hot, 1987 June evening in St William's Chapel on Georgetown campus, the 200 of us bravely faced the beginning of our apostolate." Mr. Velde spoke quietly to the congregation at St. Margaret's. "After Eucharist, those of us standing around the walls and in the choir sat down on the floor. We listened, we cried, we broke bread, we heard President Healy of Georgetown feebly apologize to us. But what we don't often remember is that our expulsion from Catholic space for worship was not sudden."
It was an expected shock, but that did not make it much easier for Dignity members to face. "What did this mean?" Mr. Velde remembered the members wondering. "How would we survive? Would we die as a community?" Amidst all the questions came "the lone sound of a mournful clarinet." It was being played by Mr. Velde, and the tune he played was a seventies folk song: "In remembrance of me, eat this bread. In remembrance of me, drink this wine. . . . In remembrance of me, open the door and let your neighbor in, let them in."
The door shut instead. A week later, on June 28, Dignity members returned to the chapel for a final farewell gesture. "We heard the hard words of Jesus to the Apostles in the tenth chapter of Matthew: ‘And if anyone does not welcome you or listen to what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from your feet. I tell you solemnly, on the day of Judgement it will not go as hard with the land of Sodom and Gomorrah as with that town.'
"We did," added Mr. Velde. "In true Dignity panache, we threw handfuls of kitty litter at the walls and doors of the chapel, and proudly held our paschal candle aloft and processed the whole way to St Margaret's. Half of us waited in vigil, singing and praying, awaiting the knock on the door where we were able to finally welcome all of us together at table once more. What we learned was that our community was more than just the structure. That like the early Christians under persecution we would find a way to worship. Our house is much stronger than mortar and stone. It is built on love and family."
Ironically, the two terrible incidents of that era – the 1986 Vatican letter and the 1987 eviction – served to increase Dignity's membership. Dignity/Washington had begun in 1972 with six members; by the late 1990s, it had 350 members; and today it remains the largest Dignity chapter in the country.
This is not to say that Dignity has been without controversy. The Washington Blade reports that Dignity/USA has fallen in membership from 5,000 in 1986 to 2,700 today. Some members were unhappy with Dignity's decision in 1987 to break from traditional Catholic teachings and say that gay sex could be "life-affirming." Certainly, the fact that Dignity no longer has official ties with the Catholic Church makes it forbidden territory for many gay Catholics.
But Mr. Velde sees the last ten years in a different light. "Our exodus was actually a rebirth for us," he said in his homily. "We were freed from the confining space [of the Georgetown chapel], freed from the Metro inaccessibility and handicap inaccessible space, freed most importantly from the watchful eye of the Archdiocese. I'm reminded of a recent article I read in my ‘Call To Action' newsletter. It seems our brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity in Georgetown are being threatened with the expulsion of the Jesuits for the following reasons: real bread, inclusive lectionary texts, inclusive music, and lay homilists, including women. When I think back at how we lived in the same fear . . ."
As Mr. Velde finished, the congregation paused to applaud him, and then the service continued with the "Song of the Body of Christ": "We come to share our story, we come to break the bread, we come to know our rising from the dead."
Homily on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of Dignity/Washington. By Blake Velde.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson