Daniel — a vulgar but charming Vietnam vet — has led me up the hill of Market Street in San Francisco to the front of Holy Redeemer parish in the Castro neighborhood. The sun is setting on a beautiful Wednesday evening as a crowd of people who are homeless slowly gather around the colonial style church for the weekly four course meal offered to those in need.
Holy Redeemer parish is a staple in the largely LGBT Castro neighborhood. In the 80’s they were one of the first places that took in people who had contracted AIDS to accompany them as they died. The church has grown to become a haven for LGBT Catholics.
I had taken a bus from St. Paul, MN to San Francisco to start my Jesuit pilgrimage here with nothing but my North Face backpack, 20 dollars, the desire to get to know this community and, and the hope of finding somewhere to stay indoors.
The people in charge let me jump in to volunteer, and I am cast as an assistant to handing out extra bags of food to those who cannot fit in the church basement. The regular volunteer is a man of about 50 named Jeff, who is himself agnostic but regularly helps at this weekly meal.
I tell him a bit about myself and that I am a Jesuit novice on pilgrimage hoping to get to know the parish. I cannot help but mention that I don’t know where I’m going to stay the night, and ask if he has any ideas. Unfortunately, he does not.
After talking for about 45 minutes or so he excuses himself for a moment to take a call as I continue visiting with guests in line. When he returns, to my surprise he says to me, “I was just talking with my husband and if you would like, you can stay at our place tonight.”
I am ecstatic and relieved, but also hesitant. I was deeply grateful, but my admitted unfamiliarity with LGBT individuals and fears about not wanting to cross Church teaching left me uncertain. Was I giving implicit support to their marriage? If I said no would they be offended? What did they think of me as a Jesuit in formation? Would they ask what I thought of their marriage? Would they ask about my own sexuality? Contradictory convictions and desires ping-ponged around my brain.
Despite this, after pondering for a bit in my mounting anxiety about having a safe place to stay, and seeing their generosity, I accepted his offer. So after finishing at the church, we drove to his home.
Upon arriving I met Jeff’s husband Randy, who greeted me kindly. They lived in a two bedroom house with an unfinished basement. They gave me one of the bedrooms with a queen sized air mattress. I soon learned they were also hosting Randy’s nephew and his wife downstairs in a makeshift 3rd bedroom.
They immediately offered me a shower, which after three grimy days of riding the bus, was like heaven on earth. I soaked for quite awhile. Only afterwards did they tell me of the mandate to conserve water. They didn’t tell me before because wanted me to take as long as I wanted.
The following morning I was greeted with fresh brewed coffee, San Francisco sourdough toast with cashew butter, and fruit. Jeff was up early, and we chatted for several hours. He asked about what I was doing, where I was from, and about my vocation to the Jesuits.
A half hour or so into our conversation, he said, “And just to let you know, you can ask me about anything: my faith, our marriage, our lives, anything.” I took up his offer, and like an open book he revealed his own history, his struggle with faith, and the joys of his marriage.
Never once did Jeff or Randy ask me to open up in the same way they were willing to. They didn’t ask about my own orientation, what my opinions were about Church teaching, or what I thought about the morality of their marriage. They put no condition on my staying with them. In fact, the first morning with them they told me I could stay another night, or for the entire 30 days of my pilgrimage if I wanted, no questions asked.
They took me on a trip they had been planning to Sonoma to see the Catholic missions along the way, and the town itself. They bought me lunch, offered me wine, took me on tours, and drove me through a beautiful redwood forest. Randy showed me a women’s Carmelite monastery he was connected with in town. They showed me the ocean, and took me to Golden Gate Park and Golden Gate Bridge.
Jeff and Randy were the most hospitable, generous, and welcoming people I met on my pilgrimage. Compared to Holy Redeemer parish itself, homeless shelters, a Catholic Worker House in L.A., a young adult Catholic intentional community in Denver, the Missionaries of Charity in Gallup, New Mexico, and other priests I met, nobody welcomed me with the unconditional generosity and openness that Jeff and Randy did.
Through my relationship with Jeff and Randy, I grew in the invaluable gift of empathy for LGBT persons in the Church. In them, despite the fact that their lives did not totally conform to Church teaching, I experienced undeniable beauty, love, and generosity.
However, Randy and Jeff were not simply the token “gay couple” I met in the Castro. Their gift to me reached far beyond empathy. They were the face of Christ on my pilgrimage. How they treated me, they welcomed the stranger, fed the hungry, comforted the afflicted, housed the homeless, and intimately shared their very selves. They brought me God’s truth and providence with their actions.
I hold Jeff and Randy in my heart when I see the current tumultuous climate for LGBT people in the Church. This is a time where gay and lesbian teachers are fired from Catholic schools, LGBT children continue to be bullied, ostracized, and left on the streets by religious parents, and gay priests are blamed for the horrible abuse crisis, among other things. In the midst of this demonization and discrimination, Jeff and Randy are a shining light to me of the goodness and love LGBT persons can bring to others. This has to be recognized in order to make prudent and loving decisions about these people’s lives in the Church.