'There's nothing gay about what we do here'

This article appears in the God's community in the Castro feature series. View the full series.

San Francisco — This is the third in a five-part series about San Francisco's Most Holy Redeemer Church. Each day this week, we will publish one part of this story. Find all parts here.

So what does it mean to be identified as a predominantly "gay" parish? Apparently, it's a double-edged sword. Gay and lesbian Catholics are drawn to Most Holy Redeemer, swelling its ranks. That said, some parishioners don't like the "gay rap." They say it stereotypes them. Gender identification seems to be a much larger issue outside the parish than within.

"We don't see ourselves as a gay community, but rather as a community that's open to gays," Bob Barcewski said. "There's nothing in this church -- no functions -- that are gay here. There's nothing gay about what we do here. It's an acceptance and a realization that people feel OK to be who they are that makes this place different. It's also a history of knowing that this was one of the few places anywhere, where people who were catching a mysterious disease and dying like flies, stepped up and responded."

Parishioner Dennis Callahan expresses a similar annoyance. "Whenever the Vatican or some bishop issues a statement dealing with gays, we end up with four or five satellite trucks outside. What's striking is that [sexual orientation] doesn't come up in conversation here. Yeah, there are some jokes. There's humor, gay jokes, straight jokes. But gender is never identified with the person."

"Once you've stripped away the thought that gender preference isn't important to anybody at MHR, everybody's accepted," Callahan added. "Straight, gay, no one asks if you've been to the bar the night before or want to go out for a drink. You're among friends. There are no barriers."

Jesuit Fr. Donal Godfrey, who says he is gay, frequents the parish and has written about it. He said that for older gay people, sexuality was the primary definition. For younger gay Catholics, it's less of an identity, less of an issue. Yet many still struggle with it, he added.

Shared gay experiences, including the pain that often comes from a sense of rejection and exclusion, seems to build parish bonds -- bonds of understanding and empathy. Callahan spoke of the "transparency" he finds at MHR. He explained it results from what he sees as common understanding that everyone who comes through the doors has been personally wounded at some time or another and better understands pain and vulnerability. These shared experiences, he said, allow deeper human bonding.

"I know very few churches where you can feel so comfortable talking so openly with other parishioners and pastors -- our current pastors included -- if you have a problem," Callahan said. "It's one thing talking to a priest in a confessional when you don't know who he is and he doesn't know who you are, but the wonderful thing about MHR is that you wouldn't think twice about sitting down with either of our pastors and saying anything or asking anything. That's different. That's really different from other churches I've ever been in."

Pastor Precious Blood Fr. Jack McClure sees his parishioners as intentional Catholics. "People choose to be here," he said. "This makes a difference."

Raising children

Talk to almost any parishioner and they'll willingly -- and proudly -- say what they think makes their parish unique. Nick Andrade, a parishioner for nearly two decades, lives with his husband. The men, like other gay couples, have adopted and raised children in the parish.

"When you look in our church and it's filled on Sunday, you have to remember that 90 percent of the people here were told at one time or another by their church that they were unwelcome." Andrade thinks suffering rejection and feeling such pain can make a person more empathetic to the pain of others.

Andrade was part of a campaign to raise $2.8 million to restore the church and other parish facilities in the late 1990s, a cost needed to make the church fit rigid earthquake codes. He is one of several parish members who have been active at the archdiocesan level, having been on the board of Catholic Charities for 12 years and is active on two school boards.

Some years back, his daughter fell into hard times, and so he and his partner agreed to take in her two young children, one with leukemia. That began an 11-year commitment.

It's common for MHR gay or lesbian couples to raise or adopt children, though the institutional church officially condemns the practice. Catholic Charities programs in several states, including California -- all receiving hefty public funds -- have chosen to opt out of adoptions altogether to maintain funding and what civil authorities view as discriminatory practices in refusing to place children with gay couples.

"One of the most personally hurtful things the leaders of our church have done," Andrade said, "is to say gay people are morally incapable of adopting and raising children. I've had bishops and archbishops around my dinner table with my grandchildren and they've watched me raise these grandchildren. Then these same men turn around and tell me I am morally unfit. They have no idea."

Gay rights groups repeatedly point out that no legitimate research has demonstrated same-sex couples are any more or any less harmful to children than are heterosexual couples.

Part four of this story will be published on Thursday, March 19.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is tfox@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: It is with deep regret that we have decided to end commenting on this series of stories. We gave a fair hearing to those who object or question aspects of this story, but too often, the same few points were being raised multiple times, which is against our user guidelines and was disrespectful to some of the people portrayed in the article. We encourage respectful discussion in our comments threads but reserve the right to close them when discussion is no longer productive, which has happened in this case.

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