Last Sunday before Mass, I was in the sacristy preparing for the First Reading that I would later be sharing with the congregation. The music director and Monsignor were there too, discussing Church-related matters. When they saw that I was there, the music director (who is really informally in charge of all operations) says: “Oh, Dawn, I saw you on TV the other night.” I responded with a smile and a subtle nod of my head. Monsignor asked: “Oh really, what for?” And, she answered for me: “She was at the City Council meeting talking about same sex partners.” Monsignor quickly walked away without further comment. And, I just sheepishly shrugged my shoulders.
She was right; I was on the news earlier in the week. And, I was on TV advocating for same gender domestic partnership benefits for City employees. I’ve been advocating on this issue for quite a while and I always advocate as a voice for families. I am a married mother of three children. I know how important health care and maternity leave is to our family, and I think that all families should have those same rights – regardless of the gender makeup of the family. For nearly a year, I’ve been working on this particular issue – urging our local municipalities (some of the biggest employers in my community) to recognize and extend benefits to same-gender domestic partners. I wrote the actual ordinance language that they will be passing and I have had many meetings where I have strongly advocated to our local leaders that this is an important issue for families and workplace equity.
But, in some ways, I felt exposed after being on the TV news for work that I have been doing quietly. And, while this level of publicity was strange – especially at Church, I must also admit that my faith and persona as a practicing Catholic has been at the center of this issue and my advocacy. My status as a married mother of three who is a visible Catholic made me an effective voice for advocating for my LGBT sisters and brothers. It has been an interesting circumstance of straight privilege. Because so many of our local leaders in this heavily Catholic community connected more with my social positionality than they did my fellow lesbian advocates, my voice (as not just a straight woman, but as a Catholic straight woman) has been integral to this local movement – even if it meant that I may be revealed in a different ways to my Church community.
A week earlier at Mass, I was upset because our Diocesan Bishop performed Mass. In his homily, he spoke about the extreme weather over the past decade – the kind of weather changes that many of us have categorized as evidence of climate change. Yet, he had a different hypothesis. He suggested that our extreme weather was really just an example of God poking us in the ear (yes, the ear) and urging us to convert away from our sinful ways – ways that include two men as a couple adopting a child. He referenced the show Normal Two, which he argued is exactly the kind of thing that has created this God-inspired bad weather. (This week I celebrate my 39th birthday and I have been a Catholic my entire life. This is the first time – in all of those years – that I sat in Church and listened to anti-gay messages being spewed from the altar.) As the Bishop was speaking his anti-gay rhetoric, my two older kids who were serving on the altar looked directly at me in the congregation. They knew I would be angry and they looked at me for some guidance in understanding this sermon. After Mass, I quickly whisked my kids away and, as soon as I closed the door to the car, I told them: “The Bishop is wrong.” My sweet daughter immediately responded: “I know.” As a family, we have marched in our local Gay Pride Parade. And, my kids are very well aware of my advocacy work, but it was important to point out that – even in Church – authority figures are not always right.
It was a strange and upsetting way to begin a week that would be – it turns out – devoted almost entirely to a very vocal, and sometimes angry, advocacy for LGBT rights. Despite many months of planning and relationship building on this issue, our local City Council – including personal friends – moved to table our ordinance indefinitely, without explanation and without allowing the nearly 60 people in the room an opportunity to comment. (The ordinance has since been salvaged and is moving forward with hopeful passage). In one of the media interviews that I did that night, the reporter wanted to talk to me about my Catholicism. I told him that I didn’t want to publicly put my faith in the middle of this conversation, so I chose not to say anything to him about the Bishop’s sermon the day before. The writer did acknowledge in his final article that I attend Mass regularly, which is a somewhat strange inclusion in a news story but also strangely meaningful when you are Catholic.
As much as I have tried to separate my faith tradition from this strain of my activism, they are inextricably linked – not just because reporters choose to connect the two, but because it is my faith that propels me to spend the countless hours and weeks and heartache advocating for the underrepresented. After the uncomfortable encounter in the sacristy before Mass, the actual service was a powerful reminder of what it means to be a social justice Catholic. We sang the Prayer of St. Francis:
Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring your love. Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord, And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.
Make me a channel of your peace. Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope. Where there is darkness only light, And where there’s sadness ever joy. O Master, grant that I may never seek So much to be consoled, as to console, To be understood, as to understand, To be loved, as to love, with all my soul. Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, In giving of ourselves that we receive, And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.
And, Monsignor ended his sermon with a reminder that God loves us as we are and as who we are. This is exactly the kind of Catholicism that has formed those of us who engage in social justice work. Our activism stems from our Catholicism, not in spite of it. And, I know that there are many in the Church hierarchy who would cringe at this, but I am an activist for LGBT rights because I am an active member of my Catholic Church. And, while the men who make the rules may disagree, I know that my activism is fueled by the Holy Spirit.
Dawn DiPrince is a writer, teacher, mother, and community activist. She is an outspoken and practicing Catholic and is a vocal advocate for motherhood issues, LGBT rights and immigrant rights. DiPrince is active in local progressive politics, including her own (very close, but still losing) political campaign in which she ran as a social justice Catholic and mother. DiPrince currently teaches writing and literature at Colorado State University-Pueblo and writes for her own blog Searching for Mary – an exploration of Catholicism, women and social justice.