A Way To Encounter

An a-frame sign that reads: Hello Neighbor, come on in.
"These open arms are not new; indeed, the love Christ witnessed is the same love we witness moving in our lives today; it’s a love of radical inclusion."

This post is edited from its original, published on April 8, 2014 – Fine By Me: An All-Embracing Love

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The first time a friend came out to me, I was shopping for a Campbell’s Soup Can costume at a Target in St. Louis. As I searched for a means to disguise myself as comfort food he chose to reveal part of his true self to me. It might have been the environment or the context we were in, but I wasn’t alarmed by his revelation. Quite the contrary. It was an invitation to experience and understand my friend in a deeper way. Sometimes, we might need to keep ourselves hidden, but other times, the costumes must come off.

Growing up in Green Bay, I had a pretty homogenous worldview. Until I was about six,  I thought that every black man that I saw played for the Packers. It wasn’t until an embarrassing encounter in a Foot Locker (another story altogether!) that I learned otherwise. Admittedly, I had much to discover about diversity, difference, and privilege. My college years at Saint Louis University (SLU) were filled with nights of deep discussion about race and sexuality. My friends and I were grounded in mutual respect, honest dialogue, and a spirit of reconciliation. It’s a classic coming-of-age tale, really–guy goes to college, gets rocked by the vastness of the human experience, and strives to go further still in how he engages the world.

While I had several LGBTQ+ friends at SLU, it was still a relatively closeted community. When I began working and studying at UW-Madison many of the students I encountered identified openly as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Condoms were passed out readily by people wearing gigantic condom hats and there was a student organization called “Sex Out Loud.” Needless to say, it was much different than my preceding 17 years of Catholic education. My understanding of my friends’ unique and often challenging circumstances with their families, their network at the University, and their efforts to educate others about LGBTQ+issues grew tremendously. I became an active supporter of LGBTQ+ student groups and programs – an ally, if you will. I quickly learned that being an ally comes with its own risks and challenges.

During Lent my first year in Madison there was a PR program through the LGBT Campus Center. The catch phrase for the campaign was “Gay? Fine by me.” I wore my bright blue t-shirt often and pinned a small yellow button bearing the slogan on my backpack. I believed in what they said. Since it was Lent I was attending daily Masses. One day I visited the chapel around noon and set my backpack down beside me in the pew. When the time came for the sign of peace an older professor type (a daily Mass regular) offered his hand. He pulled me close and said quietly, “You should be ashamed to display that pin in here.”

I abandoned daily Mass for the remainder of Lent because I was unwilling to remove the pin from my bag. I was also unwilling to face the shame I felt because of his comment. I looked at the world around me–Madison, the liberal capital of Wisconsin – and felt guilty for the comfort I experienced in that environment as a Catholic man. I deeply wanted to be supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, but because of that one comment it seemed that my own faith community couldn’t affirm me in that desire. It was a hard time for me to be Catholic.

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June is Pride month, and Pride is a big deal in Chicago. Twice this month I’ve eaten something that was prepped specifically to resemble the rainbow flag – a bowl of ramen that boasted yellow corn, green onion, red pepper, purple cabbage, and a donut frosted with a kaleidoscope of colors. I didn’t seek this stuff out – the world simply offered me a way to encounter.

I’ve been a Jesuit for eight years, and as a member of an all-male Catholic religious order, I’m lucky to have heard other voices in my community of faith. So many never have the chance, or choose not to seek those voices out. I’m grateful when, as conversations around sexuality, gender, and Catholicism arise, people listen first and try to understand. I admire reasonable dialogue around pronouns and gender-neutral bathrooms, and I appreciate when people take the time to recognize that we serve LGBTQ+ people in Catholic spaces whether we like it or not.

When I look to the history of my church I realize that we have a community of believers whose arms have been opened wider and wider by the movement of the Holy Spirit. These open arms are not new; indeed, the love Christ witnessed is the same love we witness moving in our lives today; it’s a love of radical inclusion.

Every time I walk into Church, the image I’m met with is one of a God whose arms are spread wide, a God crucified for love. This God tells me that no one is turned away, not because of a pin on their backpack, who they hold hands with, or how they reconcile their own lives with a world that can at times bear hatred and discord. In that image lies a model for Christian love and my own hope. In this Church I pray for the willingness to wrap my arms around even those who withdraw in fear from the work being done and the hard work yet to do, all in the name of love.

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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