Faith Lessons Learned from Grace-Filled People Who’ve Suffered the Worst

March 14, 2012

I’m always inspired when people in the worst situations can not only survive the emotional trauma, but do so with grace and optimism.

In two recent stories where an ugly side of Catholic practice has harmed people–in one case, a gay couple, and in the other, a lesbian woman–both have become profound examples of this grace and optimism. In the first case, a gay man in Missouri was fired from two church music jobs (one at a school, and one at a parish) when it became known that he planned to marry his long-term partner in New York. In the other case, a lesbian woman in Maryland was denied communion at her mother’s funeral Mass. I blogged about both of these experiences in a post entitled “Is It Possible to Find Hope in This Week’s Painful News?”

This past week, there have been updates on both of these cases and they tell the stories of how these people’s grace and optimism have persevered over the ugliness that was used against them.

The update for the Missouri case came in the form of a blog post on The New York Times website, appropriately titled “When Love Conquers All, Even the Loss of Two Jobs.”  The post recounts the marriage ceremony weekend in New York that Al Fischer, the fired musician, and his now-husband, Charlie Robin, enjoyed recently. The description highlights the painful drama behind the simple exchange of vows:

“For the couple, the small ceremony, a commonplace occurrence in New York since the state legalized same-sex marriage last year, has uprooted their lives, and created a firestorm of controversy in which church doctrine, employment, love, law and the passions of school parents have all come into heated conflict.”

Yet, the story goes on to point out that both men remain committed to their Catholicism:

“Both men say they remain committed to the Catholic Church, though they plan to look for a new church to attend. ‘I’ve been Catholic all my life,’ Mr. Robin said. ‘It’s the way I know how to worship.’ ”

“Mr. Fischer said that even with his firings, he received nothing but support from the pews. Even of the people who fired him, he said: ‘These are good people in a tough situation, having to toe a particular line.’ ”

And Mr. Fischer has already

“. . .accepted a job offer from a secular private school for next fall and has received ‘solid offers’ of church work, he said, declining to name the school or the churches. He has kept his other two part-time jobs, as artistic director of a gay men’s chorus and musical director at a Reform synagogue.”

The update for the Maryland case appeared in a blog post on The Washington Post website, entitled “Barbara Johnson’s Buddhist Catholicism.”  The interview that reporter Michelle Boorstein conducts with Ms. Johnson reveals a woman of deep faith who has found guidance from Buddhist principles, while retaining her Catholic identity.  Boorstein comments:

“Johnson’s depiction of her faith mirrors that even of some clergy, including famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton who embraced and deeply studied Buddhism before his death in the 1960s. More recently, two Episcopal priests — including a bishop — described themselves as followers of Christianity and other faiths, one of Zen Buddhism and one of Islam.”

Ms. Johnson describes a faith development that has had its struggles, but that was rooted in Catholic practices, discussions with others, and, most importantly, her own life experiences:

“Barbara describes a deep if sometimes conflicted relationship with Catholicism, which she calls a basic, unchangeable part of her identity.

“In her 20s, Johnson remembers her growing doubt about Catholic institutions as she wrestled with accepting her sexuality, and later as she watched the clergy sex abuse crisis unfold. She went to services in other Christian churches: Unitarian, Baptist, Episcopalian.

” ‘During that time I found a lot of answers in Buddhist teachings and texts,’ she said.

“In the last decade Johnson returned to her alma mater, Elizabeth Seton High School, to teach art, a move she said was part of a process of coming back to Catholicism on her own terms. She describes long talks with colleagues about Buddhism and the Gospels. And of watching both her parents get sick and the power of their faith, of rituals like reciting the traditional prayer the Memorare with her dying father, of holding her mother and chanting ‘Hail Mary’ as the elder woman passed away.”

“ ‘This is so surreal because I was getting closer and closer to my faith,’ she said of those who assail her for seeking Communion with her blended faith identities. ‘I had really integrated my Catholic identity into my larger identity as someone who is very influenced by Buddhist teachings.’ ”

“Johnson says she never stopped seeing herself as a Catholic, and never stopped attended Mass or taking Communion – albeit not very regularly.”

The final part of the interview reveal that Ms. Johnson has maintained her Catholic faith and identity, despite her recent ordeal:

“ ‘The words in the Mass have been my guidepoint. It says, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” and these words, before Communion every Mass I’ve said those words with as much conviction in my body and soul as possible, and been guided by the feeling of what was in my body and my conscience. If I felt I wasn’t worthy, I wouldn’t go.’

“Today she says that Buddhism and Catholicism are both part of her identity. The two traditions ‘inform one another in this constant internal conversation,’ she told the Post.

“Johnson is aware of the criticism she is getting, and wonders: Does it disqualify her from her faith to challenge it?

“ ‘Wasn’t the doubting Thomas good because he was in dialogue with his faith? It’s not between me and other Catholics, it’s between me and God.’ ”

So many lessons to be learned from these three heroic people. When I read about people like Al Fischer, Charlie Robin, and Barbara Johnson, I pray in gratitude for their examples.  I also pray that I might be able to exhibit even a fraction of their grace and optimism were I to find myself in similar circumstances.  These examples of LGBT faith-heroism illustrate why the perfect symbol for our community is a rainbow.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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