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