Bobby Glenn Brown committed himself to his longtime partner, Don Roberts, in a small backyard wedding ceremony. For that, Brown has been removed from several parish volunteer positions in his Catholic parish in Marquette, Michigan, and told he may observe Mass only from the ‘crying room’ at the rear of the church.
The couple gathered with friends and family last Saturday for eacxh partner to make vows to one another after 31 years together, even while Michigan does not yet recognize their relationship legally. ABC News 10 reported on the following morning’s events:
“Brown was an active parishioner at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Marquette as of Saturday, but an incident Sunday morning with Reverend Larry P. Van Damme caused him and several regular church-goers to boycott services in protest against the diocese. Less than twenty four hours after the a commitment ceremony, the couple’s tears of joy dried to heartbreak as Bobby Glenn Brown was all but blacklisted from participating in traditional Catholic ministries…
“Five parishioners at St. Michaels who were present at Sunday’s services accompanied Brown in the lobby before Sunday Mass then exited the building in solidarity after Van Damme confronted him about Saturday’s “fake” wedding ceremony. Because of it, Brown said he was informed that clergy decided to restrict his participation.”
Restricted participation means Brown can no longer serve as a lector or music minister during liturgies, and he was removed from the pastoral council where he had just been re-elected as was serving as acting secretary. The priest also told Brown “he now could only observe in the windowed section in the back of the church designated for crying babies.”
Parishioners rallied around Brown and Roberts. It was no secret that Brown was a partnered gay man during his years of service at the parish. Of the incident, Brown told ABC News 10:
” ‘It’s a mixed message, and I think it’s the wrong message…There is a psalm that says “loving and caring and forgiving are you, oh Lord”. That’s the message that needs to be brought to the students at Northern [Michigan University, which St. Michael's parish ministers] , especially to a church that’s so close to campus and a place where they should feel welcomed and able to worship. And that message is being lost.’…
” ‘And my whole point was, I never was anything else and I always have been who I am…To be told that you can’t worship or aren’t welcomed somewhere to worship where you’ve been so welcomed, that in itself sends a mixed message.’ “
Many parishioners are upset that Brown’s dismissal will drive younger Catholics from the Universityaway. It seems older Catholics are considering a move as well, with longtime parishioner Kathy Crowley Andel saying:
” ‘I just think it’s wrong…Everybody is supposed to be welcome in the Church and God is a loving God, and I don’t think we should discriminate against anybody because that’s not what God wants us to do. Even Jesus welcomed everybody.’
” ‘I’m not sure where I’m going with things. I am looking at options. I mean, I was born and raised Catholic and have been very active with things, but at this time I just feel very, very crushed with what’s going on because I don’t think it’s right. It’s like, who are we to judge? And they’ve been together 30 years. They love each other…it’s just not right what’s going on.’ “
For their part, Fr. Van Damme and Diocese of Marquette officials have remained quiet aside from a statement from Bishop John Doerfler citing the need for ministers to “give witness to the Gospel and the Church’s teachings.”
In moments of pain, like this exclusion of LGBT Catholics from ministry and even participation in the liturgy, it is important to look for hopeful signs and ways of building bridges. Pope Francis’ more welcoming tone seems to be filtering down through some of the hierarchy, as the English bishops and Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ recent remarks on sexuality make clear. The US bishops do not quite understand yet, but Catholics must not negate the profound and positive impact of lay people can have in righting these parish- and school-based injustices.
Though we cannot necessarily right the wrongs against Bobby Glenn Brown and his partner, this incident is a moment for all of us to pause and consider two questions:
1. How can we actively support LGBT parishioners in the present moment?
2. How might we respond to the exclusion of a volunteer or firing of a church worker at our own parish and school?
If you have suggestions for either question, please leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry