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The St. Francis Vibe

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In a few weeks, I will celebrate a 25th anniversary I never knew I needed.

No, it doesn’t belong to my husband and me – at least not just to us.

Our 10th wedding anniversary will be in July, and it’s not until November that we mark 32 years together.

In June, it will be 25 years that a workshop at another church in another town led to the creation of the LGBTQ+ Ministry at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi.

For decades, this church in Raleigh, North Carolina has nurtured my soul, and strengthened my commitment to service.

This ministry in particular rewarded me with friendships that became among my most cherished.

I’d already been St. Francis parishioner since late 1993 after moving from South Bend, Indiana. A friend of mine in South Bend had gone to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she learned of my move, she said I needed to look up St. Francis.

She was right.

Nestled in what then was a fairly wooded portion north of downtown, the church had a barnlike appearance – certainly not like the Gothic churches of my Chicago childhood. And unlike South Bend, where the University of Notre Dame and its culture permeated life even for those who weren’t Catholic, St. Francis was more of a Catholic island in a Baptist ocean.

Early on, I learned that “The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi” wasn’t an affected way of saying “St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.”

Rather, these people formed a conscious, passionate community – not identified primarily through a zip code or part of town.

People came from Durham, Wake Forest and various sides of Raleigh. What united this community were a strong social justice commitment, a desire to encourage personal development, and an enthusiasm for engaging liturgy.

My paternal grandparents might not have recognized this community as Catholic. Their parish in a small town in Pennsylvania, which I attended in childhood summers, certainly was reverent. It was also quiet, obedient, deferential.

Not the St. Francis vibe.

At the time I joined, the pastor still interviewed each incoming parishioner – not to exclude, but to include. I was nervous because I knew I would come out to him in this interview. After all, I moved to Raleigh to join my partner who had returned to his native South. And I wasn’t going to lie about that.

The pastor didn’t blink. Instead, he asked me what I thought my strengths were. When I told him of the volunteering I did at my South Bend parish, he noted that the faith formation program had openings for middle school teachers, and asked if I might be interested.

I left a little discombobulated – this was not what I’d expected – but thrilled.

Six years later, I was active on the parish liturgy committee and a lector at weekend Masses. I’d completed three years of helping 7th-graders form their faith.

My partner, who had become a eucharistic minister, and I sat in the same spot each week, befriending people around us who did the same thing.

We were visible as a couple. But we weren’t sure a ministry catering to us was necessary.

This New Ways Ministry workshop in Durham (a half-hour or so from Raleigh) was called “Building Bridges,” and it aimed to show parishes how to be more intentional in including gay and lesbian people. (In the late ’90s, the community itself had yet to become as inclusive as it is today.)

There I realized:

For a lot of our community, between its dogma and its practices, the Catholic Church had made itself the enemy – not an ally and certainly not family.

Tom and I realized it wasn’t enough just to exist. We needed to be intentional, engaging with our siblings in the community.

We needed to be out.

It was at that workshop that Tom and I met four other St. Francis parishioners, Cathy, Jane, Gary, and Cayla. None of us attended the same liturgies as the others, so our paths had yet to cross. But from then on, we knew we were working on something our faith community – and we – needed.

For 25 years:

We’ve prayed, played, served, sung.

We’ve talked, met, counseled, learned.

We’ve laughed, cried, celebrated, mourned.

We’ve gone from “Gay and Lesbian” to “LGBT” to “LGBTQ+.” Our straight allies and families have broadened our ministry all the more.

Along the way, we helped our community weather the 2020 departure of the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province.

So instrumental in the development of the St. Francis community, they had to do their own retooling as the number of friars worldwide dwindled to the point that the province had spread itself too thin.

We have built relationships with our diocesan priests, and nurtured relationships with nearby Catholic parishes. These days, four parishes have support programs reaching out to LGBTQ+ Catholics, family and friends. (All of them welcome people as we are. None are “ex-gay” or conversion-style programs.)

Through the years, families with no LGBTQ+ members have come and told us that the existence of our ministry led them to St. Francis. They figured our presence was a marker of welcoming and acceptance that made them feel at home.

I love being a “gay face” in a Catholic community. I also love being a “Catholic face” in the LGBTQ+ community, when our parish participates in Durham Pride or OutRaleigh or the OutSouth Queer Film Festival.

Far from feeling bifurcated, I feel fully myself in these contexts and grateful for that gift.

Two memories loom in my mind and heart:

In 2014, the year that same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, we had an “after-Pride” party at the house of our friends Louis and Wyatt. Five couples who were now legally married were honored with a rainbow wedding cake.

Looking at the picture now saddens me a bit as three of my friends have since passed. Still, I can’t help but smile, as the joy of the night reverberates a decade on.

The other memory is more random but just as potent.

Members of our ministry often go to our 5:30 Sunday evening Mass, a youth-oriented liturgy with a more contemporary “praise” music style.

(@rollerboogie, I’m sure you know and probably have played the music I’m referencing.)

Tom and I showed up, I in purple and Tom in black. One by one, our friends Brian, Jack, Mary, Chris and Maryann joined us. As each person came, attired in another color, we began to chuckle and smile.

When Brian, the last of us to arrive, showed up in white, we burst out laughing, and made someone take a picture of us.

We had not coordinated this:

This rainbow, like all the best, was strictly of God’s making.

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Chuck Small

Journalist-turned-high school counselor. Happily ensconced in Raleigh, N.C., with hubby of 31 years (9 legal).

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rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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May 14, 2024 8:06 am

Thank you, Chuck, for sharing this. Your willingness to share your personal and communal faith experience does more to shatter any stereotypes of Catholicism as a monolithic culture than just about anything I can think of. I admire the work you and your church are doing and am encouraged greatly by hearing about it. And yes, I know of the music of which you speak, as it is featured quite often at all of our masses.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
Phylum of Alexandria
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May 14, 2024 8:13 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

#ShineJesusShine

rollerboogie
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May 14, 2024 10:11 am

That song was in rotation at a youth mass I was a part of in the late 90s-00s. Haven’t done it in awhile, but it’s a classic.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 14, 2024 8:13 am

Beautiful, Chuck. Community is such a precious thing to have, especially these days. You’re enriching the lives of the people you touch, and are paying it forward into the future.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 14, 2024 9:18 am

I love the last picture. What great serendipity!

Pauly Steyreen
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May 14, 2024 9:18 am

Chuck, I love the whole piece and especially the shirt coincidence. Higher forces were indeed at hand!

While I have no dog in the fight of religious beliefs, I do know very well the value of a supportive and welcoming community. Meaningful work among cherished peers and loved ones, that’s the good stuff of life. I’m so proud of you and proud for you, Chuck (as my great aunt used to say) for having found that place and those people where you can be a unified whole.

Ozmoe
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May 14, 2024 10:29 am

Enjoyed this as always, Chuck, and I just found out that you and I have a mutual friend in Brian! He’s been bugging me to do a book about 80s dance music for years. Maybe one of us should talk to him one time for ideas for blogs about that on here? Anyway, very moving story again, and happy anniversary to you!

lovethisconcept
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May 14, 2024 1:47 pm

What a lovely story. So glad that you have found such a welcoming group in your faith tradition. My own church, as a result of literally years of encouragement on the part of many, many people, has finally voted to remove all exclusionary language from our church doctrinal documents and become a fully inclusive denomination.

A huge reason for the change can be found in groups like yours. I thank you for your commitment to your faith, and your commitment to extending it to everyone.

stobgopper
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May 15, 2024 2:48 pm

This was an inspiration, Chuck. Would that there were more communities like yours around the world. Especially as the rhetoric becomes more heated and hardened. Still, hope!

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