As I stood on the White House lawn watching Pope Francis drive by and wave in his cute little black Fiat last week, I felt pride: for Catholics, for my daughter, for my LGBTQ sisters and brothers. This pope symbolizes hope for a deeper connection with the people of the world in a way that speaks to who I am, how I think and the way I live my life in the service of others.
Even from the earliest years in elementary school, I always had the desire to be a nun. I was raised Catholic in a very traditional West Indian family. My brother and I were the first in our family born in the U.S. I attended St. Teresa Avila Catholic School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, then Erasmus Hall High School in the Flatbush neighborhood. On weekends in high school, I worked in the rectory of our church and grew to have a deeper connection and love for the religious life the sisters lived. The nuns that I knew in my earlier days were predominantly teachers, but as I began a deeper exploration into the sisterhood, I found a group that better met my interest, which was social work. These women worked particularly with girls who couldn't live at home and were placed in foster care. I was intrigued by the sisters, the way they lived, their devotion and love for prayer and the people of God. I believed that I had a special calling to dedicate my life to God they way they did.
I tagged along with those sisters for the next ten years, trying to understand their life, working with them on weekends, doing a lot of praying. In the middle of that, I went to Maryville College in Tennessee and enjoyed what I would call normal and healthy experiences of young adulthood. I was an athlete and I played basketball and volleyball competitively through college. I had a great time, made wonderful lifelong friends, went to parties and drank a lot of beer. During college, I kept my desire to join the convent a secret. When I felt comfortable, I would tell classmates that I'd go on retreats with nuns during vacations and that I desired to become a nun after graduation. They'd be like, "What?! You're loud, you're funny, you're not typical nun-type." And this was the mid-'70s -- none of them knew any black nuns. Still I never lost the desire to become a nun and two years after graduation I entered the Brooklyn convent in September 1981. In my role, I served as a childcare worker in a group home for kids who were unable to live at home, as many had suffered various trauma and crisis. Years later I actually became the director of that group home. I did everything from waking up the children in the morning to putting them to bed at night and anything they needed in between. I stayed in the convent for over 12 years, making my first and final vows. At that time I truly believed it would be my life choice forever.
But over the years, I began to realize I was becoming more and more unhappy being a nun, something was missing. Just struggling with whether or not it was the right thing for me. It was becoming difficult to stay for many reasons: being the youngest of the sisters I lived with, being the only African-American women in the order, just to mention two. Then between the eleventh and twelfth year, I met someone, a woman I later fell in love with. She volunteered in my group home and was thinking about joining the order. It was in meeting her that I came to a major realization in my life -- I had to admit to myself that I was a lesbian, that I had deep feelings for this woman and that I wanted to be with her. I soon petitioned my superior to leave the order.
Nine years later, in 2003, we adopted our daughter. As her parents, we still considered ourselves Catholic, and from day one we wanted all the benefits of being Catholic for our child. We knew we wanted to have her baptized and raised Catholic as we both had been. After moving to New Jersey, we found an LGBT-friendly and inclusive church, and my daughter attended religious instruction and eventually took her first communion.
But she slowly began to feel uncomfortable with the things she was hearing in sermons and on television about the church's stance on gays in the church. About three years ago, we got a call from a Sunday school teacher saying that they had discussed Pope Benedict XVI and my daughter had openly asked her, "Why doesn't the pope like gay people?" She didn't understand why those around the pope weren't talking to him and encouraging him to allow gay people to marry in the Catholic church -- and why he didn't believe our family was good enough to be accepted like other families. Her teacher just wanted us to be aware of the discussion and how it might be impacting our daughter. As her parents, we were proud that she felt comfortable to speak her mind and express her feelings openly as we have taught her. But our church got a new pastor, and it was slowly beginning to feel more and more conservative. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify staying. Other people would ask me, "How can you still be Catholic when they don't support you and your lifestyle?" I would always say, "It's never been about the institutional church or about who leads it. I don't go to church for the pope or the institution of the church. I go for me, my faith, my family and the community life I experience in the local church." But truthfully, I wasn't feeling the support in the leader of that local church anymore -- and my daughter's struggles mirrored her parents' struggles. So we had to address the same question, "Why am I doing this?" Basically we slowly stopped going.
Some time has passed now and we have a new pope. Pope Francis is opening people's eyes in a different way all over the world. In early September, Family Equality Council, where I'm a board member, gave me the opportunity to be a part of arrival ceremony for the pope at the White House, to stand in witness as a Lesbian mother for what I hoped for the church and for families like mine around the world. Admittedly, I was nervous because the Pope's message isn't always reflective of our LGBT issues but I was also excited, as I believe he's opened a dialogue on so many things in a healing and positive way. His words are changing the way the larger church sees so many things - especially for LGBT folks.
The feeling in the air was electric as I stood there with the thousands, and he didn't disappoint even in the few words he did speak at that event, his first one on U.S. soil. He talked about the poor. He referenced Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, saying, "We can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it." That blew my mind, it showed how in touch he was with all of humanity. His holiness came through in such a profound way. He spoke of family and marriage, and his comments were heard by some LGBT advocates as opposing my family and those like mine. But I heard them differently. In the context of the long hard walk to equality and justice for so many people, this pope chose not to defame me. He chose to honor family and marriage, not limit which families and which marriages. And for this church, in the context of this pope's choices, that is progress. While he didn't say everything I might have hoped for it was a step and not a small one. I have lived through many changes and I know that life is a long journey made of many small and sometimes painful, hard and misguided steps. So looking back now I celebrate another step in the right direction.
At first, I was disappointed not to be standing in a big group of LGBT people. But in the end, it didn't matter who you were standing next to. We stood for hours waiting in great anticipation, talking with strangers about the pope's goodness. Everyone was excited to see a man who has come to mean so much to us -- all for different reasons. While I couldn't identify the other gay moms or gay dads, I knew we were there among the 15,000 guests, some joining me in representing Family Equality Council and the people we serve, off somewhere in the crowd. For me and the other LGBT parents in the crowd, this was our pope, too!
Looking at this new pope, I thought we've come a long way. This is someone who looks at the world's population and sees all their goodness, no matter what their circumstances. His words inspire all of humanity to want to do more to make the world a more welcoming place for all God's people -- no matter what their race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing, etc. Just knowing how conservative many in our church can be, I think the pope's stance on many issues will make a big shift in the American Catholic church and it will only help to change the way the church leaders speak about the LGBT people and our families. I felt happy and overwhelmingly proud of the pope, being Catholic and being gay all at the same time. I think his words and deeds will also give my daughter hope that she can have a place in a church that welcomes, accepts and respects her family.
I'm even considering going back to church again and taking my daughter.