I became Catholic because of gay pride.
My husband and I were recently married, and we were building a life together in a new city after his company moved us from New York City to Georgia. I was not looking for church to be a part of that new life. He was raised Catholic, and while not particularly devout, was clear that if we had children they would be raised Catholic. I was less than excited about this. I associated the Catholic Church with droning, dull services and the general oppression of women and other marginalized groups. High on the list of things I can’t stand are boredom and patriarchy.
I was not godless by any means. While not raised in a particular denomination, I got to know God later in life in church basements through a 12-step program after my first marriage fell prey to my ex-husband’s drug and alcohol abuse. I even began attending Sunday services in the East Village with a sober friend of mine and her wife. It was a progressive, non-denominational church with a congregation that ranged from aging, reformed punk rockers to a rainbow of young families to tough, downtown lesbians. There was a heavily tattooed pastor, an amazing band and the kind of slick visuals you’d see at a TED Talk or a Radiohead show.
When things got serious with my future husband, I would sometimes attend Mass with him. He lived and attended church smack in the middle of the Broadway theater district in New York City. Listening to the choir was like having a free ticket to a professional concert, but beyond that, I found Mass to be clinical and impersonal.
I was also uneasy about the lack of diversity I saw around me ― a stark contrast to the throngs of New Yorkers with whom I rode the subway each morning. Nothing about the experience moved me, and if I was going to go to church, it was because I wanted to fill up on grace, not simply to check a box on God’s report card.
When we moved to a new city in the South the problem temporarily solved itself. We were churchless. On weekends, there were so many other important things to do to get settled into our new life — farmers markets, shopping for furniture, figuring out which brunch spot made the best Bloody Mary. No time to look for a church!
Plus, I had a nagging feeling that if we hadn’t found a Catholic church in New York City that felt inclusive enough for me, there was no way that was happening in the South. I told my husband I couldn’t see myself embracing any place that didn’t openly welcome my gay and lesbian friends.
A friend told me about her newly formed non-denominational church, which sounded a lot like my East Village joint back in New York. She talked about the band and the hip, young pastor who lit a fire in you with his words. I told my husband all about it one day as we walked through the Gay Pride Festival in the park near our house. Then I spotted a booth with a banner for that very church.
“There it is!” I said excitedly. “And they’re handing out organic popsicles!”
We talked for a few minutes with the people at the booth and left with a glossy folder of information and some killer popsicles.
“What did you think?” I asked my husband.
He shrugged. “It seems cool. But they’re not Catholic.”
“Well then, where are the Catholics?” Annoyed, I flung my arms out toward the booths of Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and synagogues.
He was silent as we rounded the corner.
And there they were. Decked out in rainbow T-shirts, the members of Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a downtown Atlanta Catholic church, waved and smiled at us. We had a warm power chat, and they sent us off with bedazzled fridge magnets, T-shirts and our promise to check out Mass the next day. The church was only 2 miles from our house.
The next morning, we parked on an empty street in the hollowed out downtown neighborhood known mostly for its homeless shelters and decrepit government buildings. The church soared proudly upward in the midst of the decay. Inside, we encountered a packed house and a dull roar of pleasantries as people hugged and greeted each other in the pews. Nearly half the congregation wore rainbow T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the church. In the still-informally segregated South, it was the most mixed group I had seen — people of every race, young and old, gay and straight. Our pew alone felt like a New York City subway car (minus the smell).
The priest, a genial Santa Claus type, spoke passionately about Jesus’ love for all people. He closed by reminding those who planned to march in the Pride parade after church to wear their T-shirts and noting that the next LGBTQ church potluck was taking place next Friday. The choir nearly blew the roof off with a rousing spiritual that had everyone clapping and dancing in the pews. As the Mass ended, the priest and the deacons threw off their robes to reveal their own rainbow T-shirts and marched proudly down the aisle to wild applause.
My husband turned to me, wide-eyed. “I have never in all my life seen anything like this at a Catholic church,” he said.
“Great,” I replied. “Then this is our Catholic church.”
Our church is unique, but it shouldn’t be. Like many others, it suffered in the era when people fled cities for the suburbs. Instead of closing its doors, though, it flung them open to serve the community that remained. It became one of the first in the area to minister to those affected by the AIDS epidemic. There were weekly fellowship dinners for the sick and suffering, where the disproportionately impacted LGBTQ community was welcomed by the priests and members of the parish. These weekly dinners continued until the mid-’90s, and by then the word was out in the LGBTQ community that there was a place they would be welcomed to receive God’s love along with everyone else.
“If we truly want to move away from the corrupt and insular church of the past, we need a blueprint of openness and radical hospitality for the future.”
In this (latest) time of horrific scandal in the Catholic Church, it’s no wonder that attendance continues to decline. If we truly want to move away from the corrupt and insular church of the past, we need a blueprint of openness and radical hospitality for the future. Many other Catholics share this conviction. Not only are they horrified by the sex abuse charges currently rocking the church, two-thirds of them now support same-sex marriage. Yet, what we often hear from the pulpit and see in the pews does not align with these values. This cognitive dissonance is what keeps the Catholic Church rooted in its tarnished past.
When I look around my church, however, I see a future I want to be a part of. So although I never wanted to belong to a Catholic church, that’s where you’ll find me every Sunday. I baptized my son there. I do service there. I have a freaking bumper sticker with the name of our church on my car. I mean, I’ve been married twice but I’ve only ever had one bumper sticker, so you know it’s serious.
I guess you could say I’ve become, well, church-y.
This year when I’m marching in the Pride parade with others from my church, I’ll likely look around and sadly question the absence of other Catholic churches. I will also be filled with gratitude that, for now, I’ve found the place for me, where grace abounds and everyone is welcome to it.