On Martin Luther King Day: A Parish’s Work for LGBT and Racial Justice

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great African-American leader of the civil rights’ movement of the mid-twentieth century.  He would have been 88. In the United States, tomorrow is the legal holiday for this occasion, but today is the actual birth date.

Rev. Martin Lutlher King, Jr.

Therefore, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the connections between the African-American civil rights movement and the LGBT civil rights movement.  Perhaps there is no better place to start than St. Vincent de Paul parish in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. It’s a parish where a painting of the 17th-century St. Vincent hangs alongside a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In December, The National Catholic Reporter featured the parish’s emphasis on social justice, which covers the gamut of issues.  A partial list of those issues was included in the newspaper’s story:

  • An emergency food pantry;
  • Participation in the “New Sanctuary” movement, assisting immigrants to gain legal status;
  • Welcoming to gay, lesbian and transgendered Catholics;
  • A twinning relationship with a parish in El Salvador;
  • A program focused on racial reconciliation;
  • Assistance to poor parents who send their children to Catholic schools;
  • Shelters for the long-term homeless, those transitioning to work, and for former convicts;
  • A Catholic school whose enrollment has increased from 225 students to 425 over the past four years, drawing parents — many non-Catholics — seeking an alternative to the hard-pressed Philadelphia public schools;
  • Active membership in Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), an ecumenical organization devoted to social justice concerns, such as minimum wage legislation and racial justice.
At St. Vincent De Paul Church, Philadelphia, pastor Sylvester Peterka (left), exonerated death-row inmate Harold Wilson (center), and other participants in a prayer rally against capital punishment join hands and sing.

This parish that prides itself on being known as “the social justice parish” understands welcoming LGBT people as part of its broader agenda.  Interestingly, this social justice focus seems to be a response to a history that has not always been exemplary.   The article states:

Begun in 1851, it began as an Irish parish, attacked early on by Know-Nothing mobs in anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant actions. In the style of many ethnic-centered Philadelphia parishes, African-Americans and, later, Italians and other later immigrants were discouraged from joining. One parishioner, Joy Wuenschel, was baptized in a nearby parish because her family was told that St. Vincent would not baptize those who were not Irish. Her background is half-Italian.

Working on the issue of racial and ethnic prejudice seems to be at the root of the parish’s justice-oriented focus.  The article described a recent program about racial reconciliation held in the parish:

“African-American parishioners told stories about the historical struggle of being black Catholics in Philadelphia, including accounts of being spat upon by white Catholics going to Mass, as well as recollections of rules that forbade black Catholics from many parishes. There were also the bright spots in Philadelphia Catholic history, such as St. Katharine Drexel, who ministered to both black and white Catholics in early Philadelphia.

” ‘It was one of the most moving experiences,’ said Browning, who noted, ‘We have the resilience of black folks who have endured.’ It’s a lesson, she said, appropriate for those discouraged by this year’s elections.

“The discussion process, which lasted over weeks, provided a safe space for all to share concerns, said Wiley Redding, co-chair of the parish council. ‘When you mention race, the room becomes quiet’ in many places, but not so at St. Vincent.”

A lesson that I take from reading about St. Vincent parish is how important it is to recognize that working against injustice on one issue often paves the way for the ability to see injustice operative in other issues.  In our interconnected, globalized world, we must remember that we need to be aware of justice issues beyond our own personal connections.  If we work on LGBT justice issues, we should also be open to working on justice issues concerning racial minorities, migrants, refugees, the urban and rural poor.

The parishioners and staff of St. Vincent recognize what Martin Luther King, Jr. said decades ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

St. Vincent de Paul parish is listed in New Ways Ministry’s catalogue of LGBT-friendly Catholic parishes.  To find a parish near you, click here

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 16, 2017

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2 thoughts on “On Martin Luther King Day: A Parish’s Work for LGBT and Racial Justice

  1. lynne1946 January 15, 2017 / 2:37 am

    This parish sounds like my parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Oakland, California. We, too, have a picture of Dr King in the sanctuary, in an alcove along with Dorothy Day. I’ve never before been in such a socially conscious and welcoming parish, and I love it!

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