Seattle — In a filled-to-capacity social hall at St. Joseph Parish here, more than 200 people gathered Jan. 31 to attend a panel discussion focused on fostering healing and dialogue in the wake of protests and power struggles at Eastside Catholic School.
Cleve Jones, a nationally known gay rights activist, participated in the event and former Eastside Vice Principal Mark Zmuda, better known as Mr. Z, concluded the evening by announcing the launch of a new foundation -- Stand With Mr. Z -- dedicated to promoting tolerance through education and outreach.
The meeting was yet another sign that a movement sparked by Eastside students' Dec. 19 schoolwide sit-in and walkout to protest Zmuda's dismissal continues to gain momentum. The school for grades six to 12 in Sammamish, Wash., had terminated his employment in December following the discovery that he had entered into a civil marriage with his same-sex partner six months earlier and thereby violated his contract requiring abidance with church teachings. January saw the resignations of Board of Trustees Chairman Gene Colin and Holy Names of Mary and Jesus Sr. Mary Tracy, the school's president.
From students' initial posts and tweets over social media, the story has garnered international media attention. A petition sponsored by Faithful America with 21,000 signatures calling for the reinstatement of Zmuda was hand-delivered to Greg Magnoni, director of communications for the Seattle archdiocese, on Jan. 15. A related Change.org petition calling for the Roman Catholic church to change its stance on gay marriage has accumulated more than 46,000 signatures.
The Jan. 31 panel discussion was led by married alumni leaders Mary and Red Kopczynski. Announcing that "Mr. Z wants his job back and we want to make this happen," Mary recounted the increasing ways that an estimated 350 alumni have organized and become involved. A letter they co-wrote and sent to board members Jan. 17 asking for a meeting "to discuss recent events, future plans, and how we, the alumni, can assist in strengthening the school" was accompanied by the signatures of more than 100 alumni and other former community members. Alumni and parents of alumni have been invited to meet with board members on Feb. 6.
During the panel discussion, Jones (who founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt after the death of his friend Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city councilman murdered along with the city's mayor in 1978) thanked the students and said that the worldwide response "has confirmed for me that compassionate people can create change." Admitting that he once felt hostility toward the Catholic church due to its position on homosexuality, Jones spoke with deep emotion of the Catholic activists he has picketed with and marched alongside over the years.
St. Joseph parishioner Mary deRosas insisted, "Whatever divisions are used to categorize people are human constructs, not God's constructs." She cited Catholics for Marriage Equality Washington State, a local group formed in response to a 2012 campaign that would have overturned legislation allowing statewide civil marriage for same-sex couples, as a key factor in the increased awareness and engagement on this issue.
Zeena Rivera, a senior at Seattle's Holy Names Academy and self-described "Catholic queer youth" who participated as the third panelist, defined her two loves in life as her church family and the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. She explained that a typical Sunday routine could include a gay pride march followed by evening Mass. "Both of these communities are my home," she said. "It wouldn't be right that one could be split from the other, because that's not how my life works."
To conclude the event, Zmuda was introduced to resounding applause. Peppering his speech with quotations from Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Zmuda said that as a lifelong Catholic he believes in the Trinity, tries to obey the Ten Commandments, and prays daily for his husband, his faith and the school community. "I am not asking everyone to agree with marriage equality," he added. "I'm just asking that everyone be tolerant. I do feel that God loves all of his children [and] only God will be the one to judge us in the end."
[Julie Gunter is a Seattle-based freelance writer.]