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