New Ways Ministry director: Laypeople need to proclaim the Gospel with their lives

Francis DeBernardo, 55

Francis DeBernardo
Profession: Executive director of New Ways Ministry
Lives in: Greenbelt, Md.

Sr. Camille: Frank, you and I first met when you joined the staff of Brooklyn's Tablet in 1981. What brought you to that newsroom? What did you hope to accomplish?

DeBernardo: After graduation from college in the spring of 1981, I had a job as a cook at a Catholic camp for special education children. When that ended, I had a full-time job as a social worker, but I was looking for a part-time job as a cook, and I noticed that The Tablet often ran want ads for weekend cooks for rectories. While I was perusing the want ads one week, I found an ad for a reporter job at The Tablet, which was, in some ways, my dream job because I wanted to be involved in church-related work and I wanted to improve my writing skills. I applied but had no expectations that I would get the job. After the interview, I learned that I had a job offer. I think that was the most ecstatic moment of my 22 and a half years.

Do you have memories of stories covered, relationships forged or lessons learned?

I always think of my four years at The Tablet as my real religious education because I had the unique opportunity to see the church in action. At the time, the Brooklyn diocese under Bishop Francis Mugavero was one of the most dynamic in the country, with church people involved in every sort of ministry. The Tablet, under editor Don Zirkel, was the most exciting diocesan newspaper in the nation. It was not afraid to discuss any issue of concern, particularly if there was a justice element involved. It was not afraid to print all points of view on a topic.

I loved being a reporter. I think it is one of the best jobs for someone fresh out of college because it gave me a chance to survey all sorts of lives and career opportunities. Almost every day, I was experiencing something new and meeting an incredible diversity of people, all living out their faith lives in exciting and unique ways. And as a reporter, I got to ask them any questions I wanted. It was an incredible opportunity for me to learn! Religion leaped out of the church and off the liturgical pages and into real life. I developed a strong Catholic identity there because I saw that being Catholic meant being involved in the joys, hopes and struggles of the world.

Why did you leave that position?

I left The Tablet after four years because I knew that if I wanted to advance in a career of writing or a career in justice and peace, I needed to learn to write better. So I attended graduate school at the University of Maryland to study rhetoric and composition, as well as English literature, often focusing on topics dealing with religious language and writing.

Where and with whom did you grow up?

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.

The neighborhood in which I grew up also had a large Orthodox Jewish population, and some of my earliest childhood friends were Jewish. So early on, I developed a strong love of Judaism and a sensitivity for people who were considered "outsiders." I think that early exposure to another culture and people helped me later in life to be more open to new ideas.

Please share some formative childhood memories.

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.

I have always had a deep appreciation for my parents, which has grown with age. My father suffered a singular grief when my first mother died, but his love for his family and sense of responsibility for providing for them kept him going despite his sorrow. My second mother (I have trouble calling her my stepmother because she is the only mother I really remember) has also been a hero of mine. At 36, she gave up an independent life as a single woman to take care of six children who were not her own, plus give life to two more. I can't imagine that such a situation was ever in her life plan, but she accepted it and gave her heart to it. It takes an amazing amount of courage and faith for people to change their lives so radically midstream. Yet both my parents did exactly that with great love and grace.

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.

Another incident left a major life lesson for me at a very early age. I grew up in a neighborhood with Orthodox Jewish people, many of whom were European immigrants. The commercial street in the neighborhood had many shops run by Jewish merchants. Every August, my mother would take us all to a shoe store run by an elderly Jewish married couple to buy new shoes for school. We did not like the store or the owners. It was not modern like the Thom McAn store a few blocks away. And the couple spoke with thick accents, which my sisters and I would often make fun of behind their backs.

When I was about to enter second grade, we went to that store, and the wife was helping me try on a pair of shoes. It was a warm day, and she was wearing long sleeves, as many Orthodox women do. For a few seconds, she rolled up her sleeve and I saw a series of numbers tattooed on her forearm.

I had just been hearing about the Holocaust, and now here was someone right in front of me, right in my neighborhood, who I knew experienced that horror. That incident brought history into my life in a very powerful way. I never made fun of the couple after that day.

Did you have role models?

I didn't think of it at the time, but my parents were role models for me. I've only come to realize that fact in my adult life, when I recognize that so many of the values, patterns of behavior, and emotions in my life have come directly from them.

In high school, I was very close to the Marist Brothers of the schools and to Franciscan Br. Tom Barton. I was attracted by the communal life that the brothers shared. It seemed like a natural extension of the large Italian family in which I grew up. I loved, too, that the brothers were connecting their faith to the real world. That became a strong desire for me: to live out my faith as authentically as I could

My editor, Don Zirkel, was also an important role model for me. He showed me that you could be a layperson and contribute greatly to the life and ministry of the church. My faith life would be very different if I had not met him.

When I started college, I was asked on my roommate questionnaire for the name of a celebrity or famous figure that I would want to room with. I gave two answers: the comedian Steve Martin and the peace activist Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan. Both of them were my heroes as a very young man.

How, as a young adult, did you spend your summers?

In high school, my summers were spent at a Marist Brothers camp for special education kids, working as a counselor and in the kitchen. My work with handicapped people as a teenager became for me my strongest connection with church activities. It also made me see and appreciate people who did not live up to mainstream expectations.

What brought you to the state of Maryland?

I moved to Maryland to go to graduate school. My plan was to be here for two years. It's now 29 years later. I still consider that my heart is in Brooklyn, though.

And then 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.

People sometimes ask me if I felt called to this ministry with LGBT people. The way I became involved in the ministry didn't feel like I was answering a call. Things sort of just came together that made it both necessary and convenient for me to work here. It all just felt so natural. Maybe God calls us and we don't even know it is happening.

We recently mourned the passing of Fr. Bob Nugent, a New Ways Ministry founder. What characterized his approach?

Father Nugent and his colleague, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, started New Ways Ministry because they saw the need for a bridge-building ministry in the church around gay and lesbian issues. They had been doing direct service ministry for six years with gay and lesbian people, and they saw that the biggest problem was the lack of education that most church people, especially pastoral ministers, had in regard to homosexuality and the lives of gay and lesbian people. So the main thrust of New Ways Ministry was to educate.

Father Nugent's approach as a bridge-builder was to help present these two seemingly opposing camps -- the Catholic church and the gay and lesbian community -- to one another. He was very faithful to both of these groups. I think of him and Sister Jeannine as uncommon prophets. Instead of simply decrying injustice, they sought ways to build up a more just culture in the Catholic church and the world

Please describe your work.

When I first started working here 20 years ago, our main vehicle of work was in-person meetings, but now we do a lot of online providing of resources and information.

We help parishes and schools develop policies and programs to affirm LGBT people. We help individuals learn the best ways that they can help move their faith communities toward a more welcoming stance. We try to be a Catholic voice for justice and equality for LGBT people in the secular and political worlds. We urge scholars and theologians to examine LGBT issues in their work. We help to connect Catholic LGBT people and their families with one another and to build up networks of support and involvement.

One thing that I like is that for a good part of our work, we are in the background. Our priority is to enable others to step forward. We encourage people to do the work of LGBT ministry and give them the support and tools to do so. It's helped me see education in a much broader way than simply instruction. We don't just give information. We help people to become the leaders in their communities. I think that real education is a formation of people.

Does it reflect your mission statement?

When I was offered the opportunity to join the New Ways Ministry staff full time, I was reluctant. My faith and spirituality at the time had motivated me to want to find a job in the secular world. I felt that as a layperson, my vocation was to be out in the "real world," helping to transform it. I did not want to work for the church or a church group.

But the work at New Ways just fit me like a glove, and I realized that despite my intentions to do otherwise, this is where I belonged. I think it's still true that laypeople need to be out in the world, proclaiming the Gospel with their lives, but I also think laypeople need to participate actively in the life of the church, so that the community reflects our faith and values, too.

What have you learned as you travel to distant places to offer presentations about the people you represent?

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.

In the first workshop I conducted in 1995, I met an elderly gay Catholic man whom I'll call "Joe," who lived in the closet for most of his life. When he was a young man in the 1950s, he developed a committed relationship with another young man. About a year after their relationship began, Joe's partner developed a debilitating disease that required that he live, almost paralyzed, in a nursing home so he could receive 24-hour care. For over 40 years, Joe visited this man almost daily and let him know that he was loved. Yet because of the homophobia of the time, he could not let the staff or anyone else know about their relationship. It wasn't until the early 1990s that Joe felt comfortable "coming out" in the small Midwestern city where they lived. To me, his was a life of heroic sanctity.

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.

What support do you receive from fellow Catholics?

We receive lots of support from Catholics in the pews and from people we call the "middle managers" in the church: pastors, diocesan directors, college administrators, heads of religious communities. The single most supportive group has been U.S. nuns. Scores of congregations of women religious have supported us with prayers, donations and hospitality. Most of the places where we have held our programs have been institutions run by nuns. Without them, we would not have survived more than a year or two. This year, we celebrate our 37th year of ministry.

What more would you like to receive?

We used to receive more support from bishops, but that has trailed off as the last of the appointees from John XXIII and Paul VI retire or pass away. It would be great for bishops to simply listen to LGBT people and their families. I am sure the experience would open their hearts. I feel sorry for bishops who won't listen to them because they are denying themselves the opportunity to learn how faith is being lived in difficult circumstances yet filled with joy.

Can you name outstanding Catholic leaders who understand and support your mission?

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton has been phenomenal. Although he's a popular public speaker, when he is interacting with people, he does more listening than speaking.

Sr. Helen Prejean spoke at one of our national symposiums. To be honest, we weren't too sure what she would have to say about our topic, but we knew that she would be inspiring. She ended up comparing the indignity of an execution chamber with the indignity of being labeled "objectively disordered," a term in official teaching to describe a homosexual orientation.

A number of Catholic theologians have supported and encouraged our work. Most prominent among them have been Fr. Charles Curran and Sr. Margaret Farley, both of whom have been popular speakers at New Ways Ministry events. Their blend of intelligence and compassion has helped many of our supporters sort out their consciences.

I've always known you to have a great sense of humor. I often locate you by following the sound of your laugh. What makes you lighthearted in the midst of prejudice and misunderstanding about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community?

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.

From where do you draw your strength?

Many sources. I'll name just a few.

In my "old age," I am appreciating the gift of stillness and emptiness. I used to get my strength from connecting with people. Now, I find strength when I am alone. When I get a weekend with no events scheduled, I kind of jump for joy. I've really come to savor the opportunity to be by myself, to read, to meditate, to gaze at the birds and other wildlife in my wooded backyard.

As I've said, my family has always been important. One particular thing about my family that gives me strength is that my grandparents were all immigrants to this country. When I get down, I often think of the challenges that they faced. And then I remember that they are part of my emotional DNA, and I get strengthened by that.

I have a number of good friends who are always there to listen to me and support me. I don't know what I'd do without them. Every year on my birthday, I always get overwhelmed with gratitude when I think about all the people, family and friends who have been in my life. I always think of the line from the hymn, "You give marvelous comrades to me." That gives me great strength.

What is your favorite Scripture passage?

So many. I'll mention just one: 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.

What is your image 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.

What about your faith is most meaningful to you?

My faith means nothing to me if it is not something that takes shape in the real world of action. I'm not a person who's big on ritual and liturgy. I participate regularly at Mass, but I get more out of the communal experience of being with other people than I do out of any of the public prayers or rituals. I would really love a gathering every Sunday, where people would discuss how they tried to live out their faith during the past week and share how they succeeded and how they failed. Where did they encounter God and where did they miss such an opportunity for encounter?

How do you pray?

If I can achieve a couple of seconds of true silence during 30 minutes, I consider myself very blessed. Lately, I have been trying to find at least one time during the day, usually in the evening, where I can sit for a half-hour or so and just quiet myself down. It's a challenge, both to find the time and to really make myself quiet. I find that in our modern world of email, smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, that there is just so much information coming at me all the time. I value the experience of just being with God in silence, without words or stimulation. It's not easy to do.

What in our church encourages you?

I am encouraged by the fact that more and more laypeople are taking responsibility for their faith and for their church. I see laypeople really appreciating the gift of Catholicism and wanting to make sure that the institutional church lives up to its best ideals. I see lay prophets everywhere in our church, and they are giving people lots of hope.

Is there anything you would change?

I think the church needs to open its decision-making processes to the wider community of the faithful. Our faith is lived in so many diverse ways, and I think we need to pay attention to a lot more perspectives than we are used to doing.

What causes you joy?

Every year on the Fourth of July, I have a big backyard barbecue. I invite all my neighbors, friends, church members, colleagues, acquaintances. I'm always a little nervous how everyone will get along. But they always do. People who would not have met otherwise get to encounter each other. Having all my friends together and everyone getting along gives me the greatest joy. Heaven, I'm sure, is going to be one big party.

What gives you hope?

The knowledge that no matter how many mistakes I have made in my life or how many failures and sins I'm responsible for, God keeps loving me and taking care of me and continuing to surprise me.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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