Following the Courage of Her Convictions to a New Parish

Debbie Regala’s story is remarkable not because it is unique, but, I suspect, because it is becoming fairly common.  Hers is a story of a strong conviction in faith, and for paying to price of living out that conviction passionately.

Senator Debbie Regala

Ms. Regala, a Catholic, is not an ordinary citizen, but a state senator in Washington State.  Her faith commitment to justice and equality motivated her to vote for the state’s marriage equality law in the last legislative session.  However, after doing so, she received a torrent of negative reactions from fellow parishioners.  The experience made her question whether she and her husband were welcome at their parish, and so they left the community and found another, more welcoming one, in their hometown of Tacoma.

Sen. Regala describes her experience in an interview with Crosscut.com:

“Shortly after that vote [for marriage equality], and to her surprise, Regala received a flurry of emails from fellow parishioners — friends, acquaintances, and lesser-known church members — expressing criticism of her position on this issue. Well-versed in the process of responding to constituents’ feedback, both positive and negative, after almost two decades of experience as an elected official, Regala felt that these messages had entered, literally, a sacred place.

“Comments ranged from general disapproval to disappointment to outrage; according to Regala, one parishioner questioned her right to partake in the Eucharist while another scolded her for the years she had spent counseling engaged couples prior to their wedding ceremonies.

“Shaken by the intensity of these parishioners’ reactions, and uncertain of how her presence would be received the next time she attended Mass, Regala consulted with people she trusted inside and outside her parish; ultimately, these conversations led her and her husband, Leo, to the decision that it was time to move on. Regala’s belief that LGBT couples should be granted equal civil rights under the law, as a matter of conscience shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching, wasn’t up for debate. If such a perspective was unwelcome within her faith community, then it was clear to Regala that, by association, she was unwelcome too.”

Regala’s faith, and, I daresay, her conscience, have been shaped by her life experiences.  In addition to having a gay brother and a lesbian sister, she states that she has had many conversations over the years about LGBT issues.  The story of her own marriage also she light for her on the issue of marriage equality specifically:

“Though Regala’s parents were influenced to some extent by the stereotypes and prejudices of their time, they raised their children to believe that everyone is equal. It’s why Regala never listened to those who warned her, in 1968, that she shouldn’t marry her husband, Leo, who is Filipino. ‘God never intended for races to intermarry,’ one woman told her, disregarding the fact that interracial marriage had been legalized nationwide the year before. ‘That’s why He made us different colors.’ Confronting discriminatory comments at that time was an experience that deepened Regala’s growing awareness of the ways prejudice and insensitivity can permeate social, cultural, and religious values and mindsets.”

Not surprisingly, her husband, Leo, supports the senator’s thinking and approach to faith:

“. . . Leo learned that Catholic men and women have the responsibility to inform and follow their consciences, and even question elements of their own faith traditions that may contradict personal beliefs or insights thoughtfully and prayerfully arrived at. Their deepening friendship introduced Debbie Regala to new (Jesuit) ways of thinking about faith, public service, and moral conscience that she found, and continues to find, socially inspiring, mentally challenging, and spiritually uplifting. In Leo’s words, ‘The Catholic Church supports free will, and I was taught to question.’ “

The interview with Regala describes leaving her parish as a “wrenching process,” because she never thought she would have to do so.  She has found a new home at St. Leo parish, Tacoma, and has also found the transition helpful to her spiritual journey:

“For Regala, changing locations for attending church hasn’t changed the essentials of her own faith, described simply though meaningfully at different points during our conversations as her ‘personal connection to God.’ Yet the process of rediscovering a community to celebrate this personal faith with has proved an enlightening journey, in that she has continued to learn about herself and others along the way. Parishioners at St. Leo have also affirmed their decision through smiles, embraces, supportive words.”

Regala describes receiving internal confirmation that her parish move was the right decision through a sermon she heard at the new parish.  It is a story worth repeating:

“[Rev. Byrne] told the story of a beloved Quaker nurse who died at the end of World War I in a Polish village. The parishioners asked their priest if she could be buried in the Catholic cemetery, the only one in town. The priest, feeling that the rule that only a Catholic could be buried in the cemetery must be obeyed, suggested the nurse be buried just outside the cemetery’s fence instead. The next morning, the priest discovered that the fence had been moved around her gravesite, so that she could be included among those she had served. Love had had its say. Byrne later explained, ‘Now this all flowed from the Gospel text of Jesus always stretching the boundaries to include those who were outcasts. It is this moving of the fence … that is the call of the Gospel.’ The homily confirmed for Regala what she had sensed in the deepest part of herself: she was right to trust her own conscience. Christ didn’t build fences. Neither would she.”

Have you had to move to another Roman Catholic parish to find a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBT issues?  What has your experience been like?
Please share your stories and experiences, and any other reactions to Regala’s interview, in the “Comments” section of this blog post.

If you are looking for a welcoming parish near you, you can consult New Ways Ministry’s list of gay-friendly parishes and communities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

April 11, 2012:   ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries

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9 Responses to Following the Courage of Her Convictions to a New Parish

  1. Kay Miller says:

    Thank you for this inspiring story of committment of love and compassion. It helped me today.

  2. pjnugent says:

    Jesus welcomed all comers. So sad that people who claim to be his followers are unable to do the same. What a commentary on the character and spirituality of our church today.

  3. Bede Baldry says:

    Hey, great. I value the story. Isn’t it sad that all Catholic churches are not welcoming?

  4. Wow. I can not imagine dealing with such intense reaction! I know I’ve been totally shunned by the priest (briefly my possibly closeted spiritual director) at a parish I used to attend. Won’t return my calls to emails anymore…and suspiciously everyone is busy when I’m around. I don’t know what’s worse…being shunned or being lectured! Good for her for taking the high road! If it was me I’d probably stage a protest at the altar!

  5. anglicanboyrichard says:

    Just last month, as a celibate LGBT male, I made the painful but liberating journey from Roman Catholicism into the Episcopal Church. It was a path I had taken briefly a couple of years ago but very temporarily, however this time I believe it is for keeps. I had a fairly popular blog going and the story regarding my return to the Church in 2005 was nationally known and shared via several Catholic apologetics venues, both written and on the internet, as well as on Sirius XM. Telling the people on my followers list caused me, eventually, to be pushed into changing my personal email and even then at least one person kept tracking me down in other ways to share more of his “concerns” for me and my decision making process.

    I had asked for prayer, if not approval, and almost instantly lost well over half my following and online “flock.” A few left without a word but most who left did so very publicly and not many at all stopped to say that they were praying and loved me either way. Some who even publicly stated that they cared about me “unconditionally” sent me privately scathing emails on the side. I had been naive enough to think that at least some of those folks would understand, even if they disagreed. Most did not or would not. One guy did write a one-liner to say to me “at least don’t receive the Eucharist okay?”

    It actually caused me to become stronger, all the while wishing to put my head inside the proverbial bucket at times. That part surprised me in fact. At first the reaction was very devastating and then I realized how cultish the more traditional branches of the Church tend to be. Not all, but many. I thought I would really miss it but this time I did not. I only am sad for those who proved that they were never really my friends in the first place.

    And did I mention it all started with being “unfriended” on Face book by a well-known priest who wrote that “seeing two men kissing made him want to spiritually vomit?” This was all in a post of his regarding the Chic-Fil-A protest, which he was encouraging people to participate in. I wrote on his page that, while protesting was and is our right, to please do so with prayer and honest love for the people that they disagreed with. I said it carefully and lovingly, writing and re-writing it to be sure I was not sounding “anti-Catholic” in any way. For that I was unfriended and blocked from his FB page without a word. I had been on his page for years and had written to him personally a few times, as well as daily using his prayerful CD on the “Divine Mercy.”

    I have never slandered this priest before or after the event, and then wrote him personally to explain my position, but received no response. I then searched my heart to be sure I was not leaving the Church out of anger towards him personally, and finally realized that this type of attitude was so pervasive that it was just a microcosm of a much larger problem. Catholic Christians are being turned into robots and if they do not follow, not just “Magisterial teaching” which I was already doing, but every whim or unkindness of well-known or less well-known “men of God,” they were being disenfranchised and fast. I learned it first-hand and it opened my eyes wider than anything had previously done since my return to Rome.

    Now I am at a parish where I am honestly welcomed. I had forgotten what that felt like during the time when my blog was being promoted by the National Catholic Register (part of EWTN) and THOUGHT I was being accepted, same-sex attractions and all, until I dared to speak up for my LGBT sisters and brothers, even just a little bit. I will be 57 in December and do not need to be treated as a child who has lost my way simply because I stand for what I believe is true and authentic Catholic teaching. I have studied and read and had come from a mostly conservative Catholic stance on most issues. I am still fairly conservative in many ways in fact. But I did not lose my brain or heart in the process, and some simply cannot deal with being daring enough to use my brain. I realize now that is their issue, not mine.

    It is still a work in process but I will never again knowingly surrender the “brain” side of my conscience from my heart. I have the right to work through issues my own way, whether regarding homosexuality or when and if it is a “mortal sin” to miss Mass on Sunday or not. It is no wonder so many conservative Catholics drink too much–and many do. Repressing the joys of living, whether sexuality or just daring to lovingly disagree with a priest without being slapped in the face for it, is pretty damn unhealthy. And it caused “catholicboyrichard” to become Anglican. I wonder how many more it has caused to give up on the Church and Christ altogether?

  6. anglicanboyrichard says:

    Reblogged this on anglicanboyrichard and commented:
    As I re-blog this excellent article, I find myself reliving the experiences of this summer. I shared the following comment on the Bondings 2.0 page in regards to it and in response to this powerful story of a very public figure who paid a price for being authentic. May we learn from it. Here is my comment, and be sure to read the article as well.

    “Just last month, as a celibate LGBT male, I made the painful but liberating journey from Roman Catholicism into the Episcopal Church. It was a path I had taken briefly a couple of years ago but very temporarily, however this time I believe it is for keeps. I had a fairly popular blog going and the story regarding my return to the Church in 2005 was nationally known and shared via several Catholic apologetics venues, both written and on the internet, as well as on Sirius XM. Telling the people on my followers list caused me, eventually, to be pushed into changing my personal email and even then at least one person kept tracking me down in other ways to share more of his ‘concerns’ for me and my decision making process.

    I had asked for prayer, if not approval, and almost instantly lost well over half my following and online ‘flock.’ A few left without a word but most who left did so very publicly and not many at all stopped to say that they were praying and loved me either way. Some who even publicly stated that they cared about me “unconditionally” sent me privately scathing emails on the side. I had been naive enough to think that at least some of those folks would understand, even if they disagreed. Most did not or would not. One guy did write a one-liner to say to me ‘at least don’t receive the Eucharist okay?’

    It actually caused me to become stronger, all the while wishing to put my head inside the proverbial bucket at times. That part surprised me in fact. At first the reaction was very devastating and then I realized how cultish the more traditional branches of the Church tend to be. Not all, but many. I thought I would really miss it but this time I did not. I only am sad for those who proved that they were never really my friends in the first place.

    And did I mention it all started with being “unfriended” on Face book by a well-known priest who wrote that “seeing two men kissing made him want to spiritually vomit?” This was all in a post of his regarding the Chic-Fil-A protest, which he was encouraging people to participate in. I wrote on his page that, while protesting was and is our right, to please do so with prayer and honest love for the people that they disagreed with. I said it carefully and lovingly, writing and re-writing it to be sure I was not sounding “anti-Catholic” in any way. For that I was unfriended and blocked from his FB page without a word. I had been on his page for years and had written to him personally a few times, as well as daily using his prayerful CD on the “Divine Mercy.”

    I have never slandered this priest before or after the event, and then wrote him personally to explain my position, but received no response. I then searched my heart to be sure I was not leaving the Church out of anger towards him personally, and finally realized that this type of attitude was so pervasive that it was just a microcosm of a much larger problem. Catholic Christians are being turned into robots and if they do not follow, not just “Magisterial teaching” which I was already doing, but every whim or unkindness of well-known or less well-known “men of God,” they were being disenfranchised and fast. I learned it first-hand and it opened my eyes wider than anything had previously done since my return to Rome.

    Now I am at a parish where I am honestly welcomed. I had forgotten what that felt like during the time when my blog was being promoted by the National Catholic Register (part of EWTN) and THOUGHT I was being accepted, same-sex attractions and all, until I dared to speak up for my LGBT sisters and brothers, even just a little bit. I will be 57 in December and do not need to be treated as a child who has lost my way simply because I stand for what I believe is true and authentic Catholic teaching. I have studied and read and had come from a mostly conservative Catholic stance on most issues. I am still fairly conservative in many ways in fact. But I did not lose my brain or heart in the process, and some simply cannot deal with being daring enough to use my brain. I realize now that is their issue, not mine.

    It is still a work in process but I will never again knowingly surrender the “brain” side of my conscience from my heart. I have the right to work through issues my own way, whether regarding homosexuality or when and if it is a “mortal sin” to miss Mass on Sunday or not. It is no wonder so many conservative Catholics drink too much–and many do. Repressing the joys of living, whether sexuality or just daring to lovingly disagree with a priest without being slapped in the face for it, is pretty damn unhealthy. And it caused “catholicboyrichard” to become Anglican. I wonder how many more it has caused to give up on the Church and Christ altogether?”

  7. Katherine Daida says:

    I started dating a Catholic man who happened to live in Tacoma, and one Sunday, he took me to St. Leo’s for the service. I was so moved by the experience…the sanctuary and service were beautiful, and the people are welcoming and warm. Life took us away from Tacoma and Catholicism – we are both divorced and we would have had to petition to have our marriages annulled in order to marry, but the kindly attitude of the parishioners at St. Leo’s did help me to eventually turn to progressive Christianity. I will never forget the welcome I received there.

  8. Rita says:

    I’m currently in the process of trying to find a welcoming parish. My birth parish has been ‘taken over’ by a younger priest who constantly preaches against homosexuality (my son is transgendered and gay!) and about death and hell, never about God’s mercy or about joy or forgiveness. He once told us in a sermon that ‘anyone who doesn’t agree with all the teachings of the Catholic Church is not in communion with the Church and is going to hell.’ I had been supporting my son and his civil right to marry and this priest had me in a panic attack and in tears at every Mass. I have a major depressive disorder on top of everything else so I wasn’t equipped to stand up for myself. I agonized over how I might be going to hell as I dealt with a cancer scare and had surgery hoping I wouldn’t die and go to hell. Amazingly, while in the hospital, I met up with my pastor from 30 years ago and sobbed my heart out to this dear friend. He assured me I was doing nothing wrong and forbade me to go to my home church anymore while this other priest is the pastor. I am so ill most of the time that I can’t attend Mass anyway but I am looking for a new parish in the hope that I will get well and I will have a chance to go to Mass again. Prayers are greatly appreciated!

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