Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A year in the struggle for justice.

One year ago, I made a statement from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Newman Center in Fresno. It is the Catholic parish, which serves California State University Fresno and Fresno City College. The Director of Adult Faith Formation asked me to address the question of Prop 8, because it was dividing our faith community.

The late Father Sergio Negro founded St. Paul’s in 1964 to serve the spiritual needs of students, faculty and staff at Fresno’s University and College. At that time, the Second Vatican Council was in session in Rome and Catholicism was undergoing a radical review and updating which was prompted by the Blessed Pope John XXIII.

Father Negro underwent a personal conversion because of the Council and endeavored to inculcate the spirit of openness and renewal at the newly founded St. Paul’s. Because of his tireless efforts and spirit of service, St. Paul’s was one of the first parishes in the very conservative Diocese of Fresno to have a Parish Council, Women Eucharistic Ministers, Female Altar Servers, and a functioning Parish Finance Committee. Father Negro also actively reached out to other faith communities in Fresno in a true spirit of Ecumenism.

St. Paul’s was established as a “Personal Parish” which meant that it had no geographic boundaries. The only people who were “automatically” parishioners of St. Paul’s were the Faculty, Staff, Students, and Dependants of those employed by or enrolled in CSUF or FCC. Everyone else could become a parishioner by registering as such. The results of this status and the progressive theological/pastoral style of Fr. Negro was that progressive Catholics from as far away as twenty miles registered as parishioners of St. Paul. Bishop Steinbock once quipped, “I’ll never allow another ‘Personal Parish’ in this Diocese.

When Bishop Steinbock aggressively promoted a political campaign to encourage Catholics in our Diocese to vote “Yes on Prop 8”, St. Paul’s became divided as a community. As Pastor, I was asked to make a statement clarifying a moral stance on Proposition 8. In all candor, I had initially decided to do what most priests in our Diocese did, simply remain silent on the subject in the hope that Prop 8 would be defeated and life would quietly continue.

The Bishop escalated his political campaign promoting Catholics to vote “Yes on Prop 8“, he recruited the Knights of Columbus, The Guadulapana Society, hired a full time religious to promote “Yes on Prop 8” and made editorials on the non-profit channel 49 TV station owned by the Diocese of Fresno. As events continued to unfold, some lay people in neighboring parishes jumped on the “yes on Prop 8” bandwagon and began to print political statements and circulate them parish to parish. This was the backdrop, which prompted the Director of Faith Formation at St. Paul’s to ask me, at a Staff Meeting, to make a statement to the whole St. Paul’s community.

As I prepared the statement, I knew it would be the end of my “career” and so, I carefully constructed the statement and reviewed it with a Jesuit priest in California, two attorneys, a Psychologist and a licensed therapist. I sent a certified letter to Bishop Steinbock explaining that I was taking a private retreat that Monday through Friday and would return to resume my duties that weekend. This is of critical importance, because the Bishop later claimed that I had “abandoned” my parish. I most certainly did not and he knew that.

My attorney retained a copy of the certified letter which was received by the Bishop which clearly stated my intent to return to St. Paul‘s and resume my duties that weekend. Yes, I removed my personal effects from my office and the parish house in anticipation of Bishop Steinbock’s response. My attorney had advised me that the Bishop would remove me as pastor and that I could remain living in the rectory. However, this would have placed the community of St. Paul’s in a cross fire between the Bishop, his appointee and myself. I did not want to subject my parishioners to such an ugly, protracted and destructive battle.

Bishop Steinbock acted exactly as I had anticipated he would. He removed me as Pastor of St. Paul’s Newnan Center and suspended me as a priest. I was forbidden to “publicly celebrate the sacraments.” My attorney invoked Canon Law, which states that a bishop must provide for his priests. The Bishop stated that the Diocese would give me “nothing except that which civil law required.” I responded to my attorney, “That elegantly expresses exactly why we need the right to Civil Marriage.” Bishop Stienbock simply brushed aside Canon Law and told my attorney “he should get a job.” Well, I did. My job over the last year has been to work, as the Catholic Daily News stated on their online site, as a gay activist.

Throughout the month of October of 2008, I worked with the “No on Prop 8” campaign. I must confess this was not without frustration. I recall filming two Public Service Announcement (PSA) ads for the “No on 8” campaign. One was in English language and one was in Spanish language. The leadership of the campaign decided not to air the PSA’s. I was told at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills “You are too controversial” I smiled, put down my knife and fork, looked around the table at the others seated at dinner and said “Newsflash, we ARE controversial.” When I was scheduled to appear on FOX News live with Rev. Jim Garlow, an advocate of “Yes on Prop 8,” I was instructed by “No on 8 campaign” to avoid any theological discussions. I complied with their instructions, believing that they knew best. As a result, Garlow’s misguided theological views went unchallenged.

Election night proved to be a study in contrasts. On the one hand, Obama’s unquestioned victory was an historic event which signaled a great victory in the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, election night brought news of the oppression of another minority group; same sex couples were stripped of their right to Civil Marriage in California.

In the following days public demonstrations erupted throughout California, and to my surprise, across the nation. People took to the streets demanding their civil rights. I found myself in one of those marches. An elderly woman told me “They [the people in charge of the No on prop 8 campaign] ignored the grassroots, we trusted them and they lost us our rights!” A few weeks later, at a rally in East LA we were informed that Delores Huerta said, “We lost the campaign because we didn’t do our homework! We didn’t reach out to People of Color.” As I struggled to comprehend why we had narrowly lost on Election Day, several points increasingly came into clarity regarding the Campaign.

The “No on Prop 8” campaign enlisted professionals to run the media campaign. They conducted a very tightly controlled and exclusive campaign, which attempted to avoid all controversy. They ran the campaign as if they were trying to sell automobiles or soft drinks. They trusted “the professionals” and forgot something. They forgot that this was a Civil Rights battle and not an advertising campaign. They forgot the words of Malcolm X who said, “No one ever gave anyone civil rights, you have to take them.” In short, they made the same mistake that many of us were conditioned to make as young people, when we first discovered that we were “different.” They tried desperately to be “good little boys and girls.” They thought that if they were squeaky clean and super polite; that then, they would earn a pat on the head and their rights like some sort of merit badge. Unfortunately, they made a huge mistake.

We all make mistakes and that is how we learn and grow; however, in order for the positive benefits to accrue, we must first admit that we made a mistake. To date, that leadership of the “No on Prop 8” campaign has not publicly admitted that they made mistakes, nor have they proposed how to correct those mistakes. It was later that I became aware of a group called Love Honor Cherish that was to give me new hope and restore my faith in the movement.

This group was different. It was a grassroots group. The first meeting I attended was at a synagogue. The sincerity and simplicity of both the synagogue and the members of Love, Honor, Cherish, impressed and moved me deeply. Every member had a voice, everyone could speak and each gave freely of his or her time, treasure and talents. Yes, there was the same frustration that all of us felt over the injustice of Prop 8; but, there was a constructive spirit at work here. “What can we do now?” “How do we pick up the pieces and work for justice?”

During this period, I was invited to speak at Kol Ami synagogue in West Los Angeles. Rabbi Denise Eger was very gracious. Through her assistance, I was able to secure a series of job interviews for the position of Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic justice-Los Angeles (CLUE-LA). I had lunch with a board member and he was very pleased with me. He stated that he looked forward to working with me as we left the restaurant. I had one more interview the following Monday which, I was led to believe, was a mere formality. I will always remember the charity and kindness of Rabbi Denise and the Jewish community of Los Angeles.

On Saturday morning I received a phone call from Rev. Conn he apologized and informed me that the meeting with the Board of Directors had been cancelled. He explained that they had received a phone call from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles threatening to disaffiliate from CLUE-LA if I were hired as Executive Director. I was shocked but not surprised. Cardinal Mahony is known for such acts of malice. Without Mahony’s interference, I would have been working 50 to 60 hours per week on labor rights and would have very little time to devote to LGBT issues in general and to repealing Prop 8 in particular.

I also became involved with the good folks at California Faith for Equality. This group represented voices of faith from many religious traditions in California who saw Prop 8 as a moral evil, which targeted a minority group in our state and stripped them of their Civil Rights. The fact that this was done in the Name of God was even more offensive and the impression that “Religion” was opposed to the “Immorality of Same Sex Marriage” and homosexual persons in general was the effect in the average Californian’s mind. California Faith for Equality sought to correct these all too common misconceptions. California Faith for Equality sought to reclaim a voice for the many people of faith, and the religious traditions in California, which do not subscribe to these discriminatory views and to the immorality of bigotry in the name of God.

In the summer of 2009, a summit meeting was held in San Bernadino, California. Representatives of LGBT organizations gathered to discuss how to proceed to regain the civil rights of same sex couples to marry. I served as one of the neutral moderators for the day. Our task was to help calm over zealous representatives and maintain order and a spirit of cooperation. As the meeting proceeded throughout the day, the organizations divided into two camps. One camp, whose leadership was conspicuously absent from this important summit meeting, favored a position of “Prepare to Prevail,” this group believes that 2010 is too soon to win back our rights. They maintain that 2012, or later, is more feasible and allows them more time to raise additional funds and begin unspecified “education campaigns.”

The other group commissioned studies; those independent experts concluded that we could win in 2010 by 52% simply by adding the provision to an initiative that no religious group would be required to perform same sex marriages. The result of that summit was that each group would proceed with its plans.

Courage Campaign challenged its supporters if they wished to proceed in 2010 then, they would need to raise $100.000.00 towards that goal within 72 hours. They raised well over that amount in 48 hours and Courage Campaign committed to go forward with 2010. They went on to host various training seminars throughout California. An all-volunteer corps began to canvass their neighborhoods and they engaged in door-to-door outreach to advocate for marriage equality. I became one of a handful of proponents to petition the State of California to place an initiative on the ballot to repeal Prop 8 in 2010.

We will begin gathering signatures around Mid-November 2009 and we will have 150 days to collect 695,000 signatures of registered California voters to place this initiative on the State’s Election Ballot for November of 2010.This is an all volunteer effort, which is important work because, unlike paid signature gathers, these volunteers are committed to this cause. They will not merely collect signatures, but will engage people in conversations to move them towards greater marriage equality.

This signature gathering also accomplishes several other things for marriage equality, not only in California, but also in Maine and elsewhere. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) ( has to consider the possibility of another political campaign in California. The last such campaign cost 38 million dollars. By qualifying for the ballot in November of 2010, we will force them to fund another very expensive campaign. As Richard Nixon quipped, “You’ve got to win California, it’s the Big Enchilada.”

That is 38 million dollars they will not have to fight us in other states, the repeal of DOMA (Defence of Marriage Act) or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That is 38 million dollars they will not have to contribute to the political campaigns of candidates that support their bigotry. Even if they managed to win, they would most probably have to repeat the process and the huge expense two years later. Eventually they will lose and they will have to appeal to financially fatigued donors repeatedly for the same doomed cause.

We lost by just over 2% of the vote last November. If we had won, most Americans would have dismissed that victory saying that California is the land of “fruits and nuts.” However, the loss in California sent shock waves through the LGBT community nationwide. It was the equivalent of Pearl Harbor and the confrontation of Rosa Parks in awakening the nation to the bigotry and calculated manipulation of the religious right. The Catholic hierarchy and the Mormon leadership used their wealth, intimidation, and a deceptive campaign to manipulate the fears of California voters in November of 2008.

They won a very narrow victory; but, simultaneously they awakened a national movement for justice. They won a battle but it cost them the war. Since that election, several states have passed full marriage equality laws. New York and California will soon join them in granting its citizens the rights promised by the equal protection clause of the constitution to ALL citizens. On October 10th and 11th large numbers of LGBT persons and their loved ones will March on Washington, DC and hold rallies throughout the nation demanding equality.

If you would like to help restore the right of Same Sex Couples to Civil Marriage in California, please visit


Michael Dodd said...

As a former priest, I wish I could be surprised or shocked by the mistreatment you suffered at the hands of the shepherds of the church. I know all too well, however, that such is more common than one would think or hope. I did not suffer at the hands of my religious superiors because of this issue, but I have seen the lives of good and innocent men destroyed as bishops tossed them to the wolves of the media to cover their own tracks in the turmoil over the abuse issue. The response seems to be to resort to abuse to distract from another abuse.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
[Ezekiel 34:10]

The word of the Lord.

Vic Mansfield said...

I continue to give thanks for your example and witness as I move forward, coming out more and more.