The life of a theatre major. Late nights. Long rehearsals. One evening, I hung around the theatre to walk the stage and run through lines, review my character, read my notes – the practices of a student actor. Eventually, I headed back to my dorm room. As I approached I saw something on my door. A mean slur in large handwriting. A pejorative about my sexual orientation, in red marker, with an exclamation mark. Who ever came up with the phrase “sticks and stones” had probably never been violently scorned.
This was the first time I had seen this word, live and in real time. Sure, in documentaries and movies about the past, but never in real life. It’s the spring of 2001, and I’m 22.
Apart from the word itself, I was made aware in that moment that I was hated. An uncomfortable knowledge, walking around campus, conscious that someone or some people, quite literally, despised me. My friends were great though. One friend published an article in the school newspaper condemning the hate crime. Another sat with me as I made a police report. Even my parents, whom I had just come out to, wrote a letter to the president expressing their anger.
But that word. That one word – it really did a number on me. Sure, I tried to save face by putting up a front, but it hurt. It hurt because that word attempted to sum me up. It dismissed me. It packaged me into a box and sent me on my way as that one thing. And I believed it.
Recently, the Theological College of the National Seminary at the Catholic University of America withdrew an invitation for James Martin, S.J., to speak at a symposium during their Alumni Days. According to their statement, the Theological College had been receiving negative feedback about their invitation from social media sites. To avoid distraction and controversy, they decided that retracting the invite was the best course of action.
My frustration about this decision stems from the vitriolic, hateful comments made to the Theological College in light of Martin’s book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Those comments – just words – backed the institution into a corner. Never mind the fact that Martin’s symposium topic was encountering Jesus, and not his recent publication.
I know how hard some decisions are to make, and I wish the decision would have been different. Even John Garvey, the president of Catholic University of America, openly disagreed with the Theological College’s decision. With that said, I respect people who, with love and good intentions, seek to understand Church teachings in concert with contemporary thought. I welcome the dialogue. It is, however, another thing altogether to continue giving weight to voices which seek only to tear down, to shame, and to reject the truth of Gospel love.
Disparaging voices force invitations of understanding and compassion off the table. Those voices say ‘no’ to the possibility of love. ‘No’ has the power to prevent a good and kind voice from being heard. Any response that begins with a ‘no’ robs us of an opportunity for dialogue. We will never have productive conversations about how to love LGBT+ persons if we don’t begin with ‘yes’ – a ‘yes’ rooted in our common call to love. Without caveats, without conjunctions – only love.
And this love is not same-sex love. It is God’s love – the first love there ever was. And, it’s about our capacity to respond to that love by simply loving each other. Person to person.
This love is the true topic of Martin’s book. On the inside jacket of Building a Bridge, he invites “Catholic leaders to relate to their LGBT flock…characterized by compassion and openness.” Going further, the book is filled with meditations, reflections, and tools to build a bridge.
Meeting, encounter and inclusion are one set of tools he offers. These are the foundation of community-building, which Martin reminds us was so integral to Jesus’s ministry. In my reading, I began to imagine what those bridges might look like with other communities – immigrants, divorced persons, people of color. Regardless of the community, bridge construction requires respect, compassion, sensitivity, mutuality, and invitations.
Not too long ago I received an email. And it began with this:
“Why does it seem that you Jesuits just love to reject church teaching on all things sexual…promoting homosexuality when the Bible and catechism are extremely clear in condemning what you are promoting….Do you honestly think St. Ignatius would promote homosexual actions which are condemned in God’s infallible Word?”
When words like these are directed toward me, it feels like I’m back in college, facing the vitriol scrawled out in red on my door. I read the email as an aggression and it makes me defensive. Maybe even a little scared. Perhaps I should’ve ignored the email. But I responded. I thought I could offer insight to what I felt were judgements. I’m sure similar ideas motivated the writer to reach out to me in the first place.
The thing about Gospel love is that it must go both ways. Much like the bridge Martin is promoting in his book. It requires both sides to begin with love. Then we can build and cross the bridge to meet each other as human persons. It is hard to lead with love. I replied to the email from a place of pain and hurt, carrying that broken twenty-something with a damaged heart like cumbersome luggage.
A difficulty of bridge building is the healing that must occur simultaneously. When it comes to the LGBT+ community and the Catholic church, I have wounds, raw and unbandaged. And sometimes it takes a moment for me to enter into a space of dialogue when there is a history of hateful and hurtful speech.
So, when I read about Martin and his revoked invitation, my blood boiled. Despite the level of support he was given by the Society of Jesus and Cardinal Blase Cupich, it seemed like hate was winning. I allowed upsetting voices to instigate feelings of resentment. And I became blind to God’s love.
Christ is my example. Even though I know Good Friday points to the Resurrection, when emails and letters and verbal dissonance are so loud, I still have to take a minute to remind myself that Christ is there too.
And then, I remember love. The love James Martin writes about, the love I share with my friends and brothers, and the love of God forever written on my heart.