Videos: At the Intersection of Catholic and LGBT

9-26-15 LEAD
Members of Saint Matthew Catholic Church's LEAD ministry march in Baltimore's gay pride parade on July 25. This ministry is one of a small few nationwide that accept LGBT members, and provides comfort amid a church environment that does not fully accept them. Eric Kruszewski

Catholic and LGBT are not labels commonly applied one in conjunction with the other. Catholic Catechism says that "homosexual acts are disordered, and under no circumstances can they be approved."

But in Baltimore, the LEAD ministry—which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Educating and Affirming Diversity—at St. Matthew Catholic Church was established in 2011 to provide a spiritual home and community for LGBT individuals and allies where the institutional Catholic Church does not.

Freelance photographer and videographer Eric Kruszewski, who is based in Washington, D.C., spent time with LEAD and interviewed several of its members in a series of videos.

In a Q&A, Kruszewski discusses his experiences learning about LEAD and its members. Edited excerpts follow:

What is LEAD?

St. Matthew is a Catholic Church located in Baltimore, Maryland, just north of the heart of downtown Baltimore. It's led by a pastor named Father Joseph Muth and within his parish, he and others had decided that the LGBT community that is in Baltimore and within St. Matthew parish itself needed a place to be heard and to commune.

It all started with one woman. Her name is Carolyn. She's the mother of six kids—four straight, and two that are gay. And it was her idea that, Hey, I want the same for my gay kids as for my straight kids. So is there something we can do in the parish, in St. Matthew? And that was the seed basically.

What they developed is what they would call a ministry—it's kind of like a subset of St. Matthew—that just offers a safe place for LGBT folks to gather, share stories, feel welcome, have a family, be able to be themselves. not be judged for who they are in the light of the official teachings of the Catholic Church. This is something a lot of them feel that they need. They don't feel like they're completely accepted. So what LEAD does is just offer this place of welcome.

There seems to be a tension between the LEAD group and St. Matthew more broadly—a number of the members say they may stop going to church with their children because of a lack of acceptance. Can you talk about that?

Gigi is one and Rachel and Vania, the lesbian couple, they say: OK, St. Matthew is a Catholic church, which has to kind of abide by the Catholic Catechism and rules set forth. Rachel and Vania can't really be accepted fully in the Catholic church. But they can be fully accepted by this outreach organization, LEAD. They're square pegs in a round hole with St. Matthew but they're a square peg in square hole with LEAD.

So they're going to go elsewhere and find their spirituality elsewhere. They can still go to LEAD, even though it's part of St. Matthews, but it's run by Father Joe, who is supportive, and there are these allies who are supportive and they've built a really nice community there. They want to feel fully accepted every day in the Catholic Church not just when they go to a LEAD function. So that's why some of them talk about still going to LEAD. They feel good there. And they get a lot of support, but they're not getting the support from the institutional church itself.

Which story resonated with you the most?

They all resonate with me—I want to make sure that's clear—for all different reasons. I would think that what happened with Gigi in terms of her personal story of going from a family to then being adopted to then being rejected by her adoptive parents and disowned to then suddenly being accepted by a "new family," which in her words, is LEAD, I think is extremely compelling.

LEAD doesn't care if you're white, black, gray, blue, green, red, and they don't care if you're LGBTQIABCD. They just care that you're a person, and they just love you for who you are. And she says it really, really eloquently. She says: I want people to love me for who I am instead of accepting me for who I'm not.

What themes stuck with you as you were interviewing these people?

A lot of people talked about: Hey look I was born and raised Catholic, I was baptized Catholic, I grew up in the Catholic faith. And then later on in life I come to find out what my sexuality is or how I truly identify. And their spirituality hasn't changed. They still want to worship, they still want to go to church, they still want to have a church community. So what, I've discovered who I am so now I'm no longer a Catholic even though I've had this faith for so long?

Most people felt that they're not welcome. Vania says it really well: You can sit at the table but you're not going to have a full invite, you're just going to get the scraps. You can come to church, you can pray but you can't be fully recognized in that Catholic Church environment. They talk a lot about a safe place. When it comes down to it they just want a safe place to worship where they're not judged, and they're just accepted.

You spent time with LEAD and LEAD members at meetings and otherwise. What was that environment like?

It just oozes with love. The red carpet welcome. The meetings happen in the basement, a small chapel slash meeting room in the basement of the church rectory. And once you walk in there, I think you can feel like any kind of fear can disappear for a little bit, any kind of worry can disappear for a little bit. The amount of hugs and pats on the back that I witnessed—it's phenomenal. Even when I walked in I felt super welcome, and I'm a straight heterosexual male, just telling the stories. And they were like: Yeah, come on in. Who are you? What do you do? We don't care, just welcome to our community.

There was a moment that was really unexpected where Henry was getting ready shortly thereafter to return to Africa, and they brought him into the middle of the room and started to bless him. And everybody got up and everybody shared their faith and blessing with him and I was amazed just how much of an outpouring there was.

The world would be a better place if everybody acted that way, I think. It was so genuine. I could really get a sense that people cared. When you spoke you were heard. When you entered you were welcomed. It was really beautiful.

Why do you think this is an important time to hear about these stories, as the pope—the ultimate symbol of the Catholic Church—visits the U.S.?

From what I understand from what the pope has said and talked about in the past and his demeanor and personality, he seems to be more progressive in his approach and more open in his approach than the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It seems like this is the right time for stories like LEAD to be in front of him and to be in front of the Catholic Church and to be in front of other parishioners. I can't predict anything. I don't know where it's going to go. I just felt like these people have fascinating stories and voices that should be heard.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching these videos?

I would just hope that viewers go into it with an open mind and open heart. These are individuals just like you and me. They are spiritual just like any other spiritual person. They have a faith and somebody to whom they pray. And just because they identify in another way sexually, so be it. Let them be who they are. Be sensitive to that. Be open to that. You might not agree with the lifestyle, but why can't they have the same right to have their faith just like everybody else?

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