What Makes a Catholic Advocate for LGBT Equality Tick?

Francis DeBernardo
Francis DeBernardo

As one of the co-founders of New Ways Ministry, I’ve had the pleasure of working for more than 20 years with Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry and editor of this blog. Many New Ways Ministry supporters and Bondings 2.0 readers have had the opportunity to meet him as he travels around the country doing workshops and talks on Catholic LGBT topics.

But, even if you know Frank personally, you will probably see a new side to him, as I have,  in the recent in-depth personal interview conducted by The National Catholic Reporter’s Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM.  The interview is this week’s installment of the popular series “Conversations with Camille” which focuses on the lived faith experiences of unique Catholics.

Of course, if you want to get the full experience, you should probably read the entire interview, which you can access by clicking here.  In this blog post, I’ll provide some excerpts that may give you some insights into what motivates and sustains him in his work for LGBT equality and justice in the Catholic Church and civil society.

In the interview, Frank speaks candidly and lovingly of his early development within his family:

“I grew up in a large Italian family in Brooklyn. I was one of eight siblings. We lived in a house with members of my mother’s extended family, and Sundays and holidays were always filled with cousins, aunts, uncles and close friends getting together. Family was always a very important part of my life. . . .

“My mother died when I was 3 years old, leaving my father with six children, two of whom were newborn twins and the other four ranging in age from 3 to 10. My father remarried the following year, and our “new” family began a lifelong journey of bonding together. My new mother had two more children in the coming years, bringing my large family to 10 members. I learned early the responsibility, benefits and power of belonging to a strong family unit. . . .

“This unique family experience taught me powerfully at a very early age that love, not biological reproduction, is what makes a family. That lesson has served me well as my work at New Ways Ministry continues to place me in the midst of marriage equality debates.”

Frank relates the strange and humorous set of circumstances that brought him to New Ways Ministry:

“New Ways Ministry was only 2 miles from my house. When I wanted to start working on LGBT justice, they were the closest place for me to be involved. I started as a volunteer, and then I joined the staff part time. I had been teaching writing part time, too, but I was getting burned out from that work, and the work at New Ways Ministry was very exciting to me. It just felt natural.

“I always tell people as a joke that I started work at New Ways Ministry for the money. At the time, I had just received my first credit card, and in a few short months, I racked up what I thought was a horrible debt. I realized that I would not be able to pay off the bill unless I took a second job. Just at that time, New Ways Ministry was looking for a part-time worker, and since I had been volunteering there, I was hired.

“The funniest thing about this story is that my whopping credit card debt was $800. I’ve since learned that the average credit card debt in the U.S. is about $10,000. Since that time, I have paid off my balance in full every month.”

He speaks gratefully about what he has witnessed in his ministry with LGBT people:

“The main thing that attracted me to work at New Ways Ministry and has kept me here for 20 years has been the people that I have met as I travel. I have had the incredible opportunity to hear so many amazing stories of courage, love and faith. I’ve met a number of real saints: Catholic LGBT people who faced immense amounts of oppression, often from their church and its leaders, and who still continue to testify to the truth about themselves and to live in love the way they know that God has created them. . . .

“When I first started working at New Ways Ministry, I was reading a book called Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip P. Hallie. It is the story of the Huguenot village of Le Chambon, France, which sheltered Jewish people during World War II in open defiance of the Nazi regime. The courage of these French Protestants, who took literally the commandment “Love one another,” had a profound effect on me. And as I met LGBT Catholics, their parents, and their pastoral ministers who were speaking out for their human rights and their rights as baptized people, I saw the same courageous spirit as the people of Le Chambon.”

He describes how the challenging work of Catholic LGBT ministry brings him joy:

“People tend to think that I spend my days arguing and fighting with homophobes, and as a result, I must get really down. It’s not true. Most of the people that I come in contact with are Catholics who are seeking creative ways to ensure LGBT justice and equality. I find so much joy in my work because I see so much good happening. It’s like almost every day I get to learn about real miracles taking place. How can I not be lighthearted? I get to witness so much joy.”

And, perhaps most intimately, he reveals the inner workings of his relationship with God, including his favorite Scripture verse:

“Psalm 27: 8-9. ‘Of You my heart has spoken, seek God’s face. It is your face O God, that I seek. Hide not your face from me.’ Whenever I feel lost, this reminds me of the true direction of my life. I’ve also found it helpful when I have to deal with difficult people. It reminds me that they, too, are the face of God. . . .

“Lately, my image of God is a bed. A big, soft, comfy bed with lots of pillows and quilts and blankets where I can just relax and be myself. In that bed, I can be at peace and learn to deal with and respect my morning grumpies, my terror-filled nightmares, my most hopeful dreams, my anxious questions and challenges that keep me awake at night, and, of course, my moments of joy-filled bliss.”

In the full interview, Frank illustrates many of the turning points of his life with details and stories that are poignant and telling.  I think you will find the interview enlightening, inspiring and fun.   As one of the commenters on The National Catholic Reporter’s  website said:

“Thank you, Sister Camille, for this is a wonderful interview, I am so inspired by it! Francis DeBernardo seems like a a man I would want for a friend; a delightful person.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry



Progress Arrives in a Small, Quiet Way

Progress on LGBT issues is sometimes announced in bold headlines:  “Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ ”  “Same-sex Marriage Law Passes,”  “First Lesbian Wins State Election,” and other such important milestones.

Sometimes progress is shown in small, quiet ways, too, however.  Such is the case in a National Catholic Reporter online column which appeared this week.  Mercy Sister Camille D’Arienzo does a bi-weekly interview, exploring how relationships, experiences, faith, and spirituality take shape in an individual’s life.  They are powerful reading due to the immediacy and simplicity of the Q and A format, but also because Sister Camille, a seasoned journalist, knows how to ask penetrating questions that get to the heart of the matter.

Michael Moran and Hiroshi Okamoto

In this week’s installment, Sister Camille interviews Michael Moran, a gay man whose life has been spent in service to others, most frequently to the poor and dispossessed.  One thing that struck me as I read it was that this is an interview with a gay man in a Catholic publication, and yet his sexual orientation was not the focus of the story.  It was simply another facet of who he was.  The interview mentions his partner in the same way that heterosexually married spouses are mentioned in such interviews.

The casual treatment of a gay person’s sexuality in a national Catholic periodical was an inspiring milestone.  It signaled an acceptance and matter-of-factness that was refreshing to read.  Progress had been made in a small, quiet way.

Reading the interview was like a foretaste of the future:  when all will be accepted in our church, and where a person’s relationship with God and acts toward others will be the hallmark of a faith-filled life, not whether the person is male or female, gay or straight.

If you’d like to read the entire interview–and I recommend that you do–you can access it by clicking here.  I offer some excerpts to give you a flavor of this inspiring life story and to illustrate how naturally orientation are treated:

Sister Camille: Although you left the Franciscans, you seem to have carried their values with you through a series of professions. Please trace that journey.

Michael Moran: I was a teacher, guidance counselor, school psychologist, high school principal, campus minister, administrator in agencies serving homeless persons and people living with HIV/AIDS, and a hospital chaplain. I retired in July 2010 when I was 67.

Your impressive academic record cites four universities that prepared you for each of these important works. Is there anyone who shares your life?

I have a partner with whom I am celebrating 20 years of life together. He is Japanese, a former sushi chef who is now a caregiver. He’s a real introvert who balances my off-the-wall extroversion. His calm personality balances my sometimes frenetic activity. We seem to complement one another nicely.

. . . .

What is your favorite scripture passage?

Matthew 25:35-45

Does this passage, Jesus’ blueprint of how to care for our neighbor’s needs, make a difference in your life?

It means everything. I consider it my vocation — a blueprint for how I try to live my life.

What is your image of God?

Jesus on the breadline. I draw it from a Catholic Worker lithograph by artist Fritz Eichenberg. I see God as personally connected to my life and the life of the worlds he identifies with the marginalized and rejected.

. . . .

Michael, what do you want from the church?

Openness and inclusion. More dialogue between hierarchy and the rest of us. Openness to the ordination of women and same-sex marriage; more preaching on topics of social justice; compassion and justice for immigrants. I am concerned about the move away from Vatican II. I am very dismayed by the conflict between the bishops and the LCWR. I believe the sisters are our contemporary prophets and the best hope for the church. They should never compromise their rich values. What would our church be without their dedication? We should not allow the hierarchy to hijack our church.

What would prevent that?

Greater dialogue on all sides, open ears and hearts. I believe our church is missing out on the great contributions and gifts of laypeople and could benefit from encouraging these treasures. I would ordain women and gay people and highlights the leadership of laypeople.

What causes you joy?

That so many talented, sincere Catholics have not abandoned our church, but hang in there and do what they can to reinvent it.

What gives you hope?

Every year, I attend the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress with at least 30,000 other people, many of whom are young Latinos/Latinas. To be present at the rich liturgies, the marvelous keynote address and workshops, to experience the warm camaraderie — this is an experience of church I hope for in the wider church community.

Is there something you wish I had asked?

“Why haven’t you become Episcopalian?” My roots are too deep in Catholicism. My parents would turn over in their graves and my good friends, Patrick and Mary Ellen, would feel abandoned. I still have hope that things will change in our dear church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry