Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Times, they are a change'n

Last night I received a message from a former parishioner at Holy Family Church in Visalia. The parishioner informed me that the Visalia City Council was about to pass a resolution commending and honoring the LGBT Pride Parade in downtown Visalia.
A Parade may seem like a small thing, especially in an Election year, but it represents a tectonic shift in hearts and minds on Main Street.

I had the honor and privilege of serving as the Pastor of Holy Family Church in Visalia from June 1993 through April 2008. An official directive regarding the education and formation of priests I once read as a seminarian stated that a priest was to be a catalyst for his parish. A catalyst is something that changes, without being changed.

As I reflect back on twenty-three years of service in active ministry I realize how absurd the idea of a priest as “a catalyst” is really. If you remain unchanged after hearing confessions, where people open their hearts in confidence and reveal to you what they reveal to no other person.

Parishioners opened their hearts to me; I am still in awe at the capacity that the human heart possesses to suffer in silence, not for a week, or a month, but for years and decades. Some of those parishioners were LGBT people. I did the best I could to counsel and guide them over those years. I recall some happy breakthroughs, reconciled family members and healed lives.

I also recall reading an Opinion to the Editor piece in the Visalia Times Delta in the 1990’s. Someone had written regarding an outrage against the LGBT minority in Visalia. Honestly, I don’t remember what the particular issue was per se there have been so many injustices over the years that frankly, it is impossible to remember them all. What I do vividly recall is that the author of the Op-Ed piece asked, “Where are the clergy’s voices?”

Those words stung at my conscience as I quietly ate my breakfast at Carrows restaurant on Mooney Blvd. across the street from Visalia Community College. I thought of all the “good” reasons why I could not publicly speak out. The work I had done and was doing with parishioners. Working to change the Church from within. These were subjects that came up periodically when speaking with other priests.

Frankly, there was also the question of my life. I had what one friend called “a recession-proof job” with health care benefits, retirement benefits, one month paid vacation per year, two weeks private retreat per year, paid housing, an expense account, a flexible schedule, and I really loved and enjoyed my work.

There was something I read that also caused me much thought:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

-Elie Wiesel

My parents left everyone and everything behind when they left Cuba, so that my brother and I could live in freedom. All of these thoughts and more importantly the flesh and blood human beings who I was privileged to serve over the years changed me. When the late bishop John T. Steinbock directed us to promote “Yes on Prop 8” I could not. It was immoral. It was wrong on every level. It remains a discriminatory law motivated at best by ignorance and fear, and at worst by hatred and bigotry.

So when I heard that the city of Visalia (in the heart of the “Reddest” part of California) had voted to pass a resolution honoring the LGBT Pride Parade in downtown Visalia; I smiled. I smiled for all the good people I was privileged to know and serve. I smiled for Eric James Borges a 19 year old who took his own life after a lifetime of suffering from the same hatred and bigotry that inspired Prop 8. I smiled for Robin McGhee, a professor in Visalia who founded GetEQUAL to push for Full Federal Equality for LGBT Americans, using the principles of Non-violent Direct Action taught by Gandhi and Dr. King.

Visalia may be a small town (by California standards) but it makes up in spirit for what it lacks in physical size. That spirit and the hope it engenders are opening hearts and minds throughout our nation and our world. It represents what is most noble in the human heart and mind. It is why we will not lose.


Anonymous said...

Yes, times are changing, even in Visalia. Perhaps especially in Visalia. I would like to offer one clarification: The action the city council took was to issue a proclamation, declaring June as LGBT Pride Month in Visalia.
Here's a link to the article I wrote about it -

Father Geoff said...

Dear Jimmiejoe,

Thank you for the clarification, I suppose a whole month is better than one day. I wonder if the folks from the Naval base in Lemoore will join in the parade?

Gary (NJ) said...

Times are changing, but inclusive/progressive churches need to speak out much more than they do. As a gay person who belongs to a fully inclusive Episcopal church, I cannot fault my agnostic gay friends (most of them) for criticizing us for this omission. The religious right has basically co-opted the word Christian and religion/religious to the point that most non-religious people, especially the young, assume that all Christians think that way.
If we want to attract more young people into our churches (and of course we do), we have to fully educate them that not ALL of us (probably most of us) are NOT intolerant, backwards, hateful, anti-science, uneducated fools.
On most gay blogs and websites that I read, the hostility towards religion is almost virulent and frequently to the point of being down right insulting. It makes me angry, but at the same time part of me completely understands why many LGBT people feel that way.
The loss of having some type of spiritual anchor in one's life is a large one in my opinion. Conservative religions can steal this from us only if we let them!

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent"--
Eleanor Roosevelt