Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church reaches out to GLBTs | Religious Left | Indy Week
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Scores of gay and lesbian Christians have left their churches because of isolation and outright condemnation of their sexual orientation.

Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church reaches out to GLBTs 

Scores of gay and lesbian Christians have left their churches because of isolation and outright condemnation of their sexual orientation. Catholics Jane Paris and Chuck Small are gay, but rather than leave the church they love, the pair maintain a ministry to help fellow GLBT Catholics and their families.

Members of Raleigh's Catholic community of St. Francis of Assisi, Paris and Small have used the parish-supported St. Francis Gay and Lesbian Ministry to encourage gays and lesbians to reclaim their Catholic identity. Gay Catholics are invited to participate in "Reclaim," a six-week program that says it "will provide a welcoming and accepting place for you to share your journey as a GLBT Catholic."

Reclaim assumes "an acceptance of GLBT people as a wonderful part of God's creation," says a promotional flier.

Reclaim is not an attempt to change a person's sexual orientation, Paris said during a Nov. 8 discussion at N.C. State's Doggett Center for Catholic Campus Ministry, but rather is designed as a support group for GLBT Catholics. The ministry, which includes a mission statement and a gay and straight steering committee, has been "viscerally integrated into the life of the community at St. Francis," Small says.

Foundational to the St. Francis Gay and Lesbian Ministry is a relatively obscure document titled "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers," a 1997 statement released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that affirms church teaching that gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual orientation, but rather they are gay "because of some kind of innate instinct."

"There is no immorality in this orientation because it is an innate instinct," Paris says.

Because the church deems marriage to be a sacramental bond exclusively between a man and a woman, same-sex couples are not permitted to marry, which means gay and lesbian Catholics are required to be chaste.

"It's the idea of forced celibacy that I have an issue with," says Small, who qualifies his comment as personal and not part of the ministry, which he says adheres to church teachings. "They are saying that I must be celibate as a consequence of my sexual orientation."

Says Paris: "We're an evolving church. The church does things over the course of centuries."

An information session about Reclaim is scheduled Sunday, Jan. 7, at 3:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi (11401 Leesville Road, Raleigh). For more information on Reclaim or the St. Francis Gay and Lesbian Ministry, visit www.sfaraleigh.org, e-mail tolliver@mindspring.com, or call 859-4889 or 847-7431.

Lozoff speaks and sings
click to enlarge Bo Lozoff has been on an extensive tour of the country this year, including 80 prison workshops, 68 public talks and 40 concerts. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE HUMAN KINDNESS FOUNDATION
  • Photo courtesy of The Human Kindness Foundation
  • Bo Lozoff has been on an extensive tour of the country this year, including 80 prison workshops, 68 public talks and 40 concerts.

Christians say good works alone won't get a person into heaven, but spiritual teacher Bo Lozoff also likes to remind people that the absence of good works may also keep a person out of the Promised Land.

Lozoff, who recently released a new CD titled Eyes So Soft, is known for his literal take on Matthew's Gospel, which among other things says a person's salvation is directly tied to her or his willingness to visit prisoners.

Lozoff's book We're All Doing Time has been called "the convict's Bible." It has been translated into five languages with 320,000 copies in print, most sent free to prisoners around the world. He recently returned to his Orange County home after spending almost 10 months visiting about 200 prisons in 26 states.

Lozoff, 59, founded the Human Kindness Foundation, a worldwide nonprofit organization best known for its Prison-Ashram Project, which helps inmates and prison staff throughout the world "turn inward and use their harsh environments to develop wisdom and compassion."

In the Bible Belt culture of the South, Lozoff is a breath of fresh air. With an interfaith, no-nonsense approach, Lozoff says religion works best when it's based on love rather than love of conflict.

"I consider myself a Christian with a Hindu background," he says. "I'm beginning to see as I get older that I honestly don't believe that you can be a good anything without being a decent everything. We spend so much time highlighting the few words of the Bible that can create conflict, like 'There is no other way to the Father but through me.'

"We seem to really love the conflict," he adds. "It's a lot easier to be religious bigots and to say that ours is the only true way than it is to actually practice communion and community and be a good everything."

All of the world's great religions share much in common, he says, especially the belief that to be holy, people must turn inward to God, and turn outward in love for neighbor.

"The inward teaching says there is something divine, absolutely real, not relatively real, much greater than we are, and yet mysteriously it dwells inside of each one of us," Lozoff says. "Every religion says that: There's something of God inside everybody. And so we're supposed to turn inward a little bit and commune with that quiet presence."

Most of his prison talks take the form of dialogues, Lozoff says.

"Sometimes I say 'shit' and 'fuck,' and there are some inmates who get very offended, some fundamentalists," Lozoff said. They accuse him of "disrespecting the chapel by using the Lord's name in vain. And I say, 'No.'"

Rather, when a televangelist says, "'Jesus wants you to be wealthy,' he's the one using the Lord's name in vain. You don't have to say 'Goddamn' to take the Lord's name in vain. Just get real with all of this. Religion is real. It's not about words. It's not about becoming a nice person. It's about becoming holy. It's real and this is a presence and a power that goes way beyond anything we can understand. Religion, to me, is very serious. It's very profound."

'17 years, eight months, one day'

After about 10 years of isolation on Florida's death row, Juan Melendez decided to end his misery for a murder he did not commit. Seeking the "tool" he needed to commit suicide, he turned to a prisoner trusty, known as a runner.

"He can supply you with a tool that you can take your life with, and he knows it," Melendez says. "All you got to do is give him four stamps or a roll of paper tobacco, the cheap kind, and he will give you that tool."

Melendez was in the Triangle this month for a series of lectures about his near-execution in Florida's electric chair.

In 1984, he was convicted of first-degree murder based solely on the testimony of a police informant with a lengthy criminal record. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, yet his trial and sentence took just five days. His hope waning, Melendez came close to suicide after 10 years on death row. The trusty gave Melendez the tool, an ordinary garbage bag that could easily be fashioned into a noose.

Before going through with it, Melendez decided to lie down on his bunk to think about what he was planning to do.

"I fell into a deep sleep," Melendez says. Asleep, he had a vivid dream of being "a little kid again" in his native Puerto Rico. In the dream, he was "doing things that made me happy, made me smile."

In the dream, a woman waved to him and smiled. "I know why she's happy. She's happy because I'm happy. That's my dear mother, and then I wake up."

Renewed in hope, Melendez said he flushed the noose down the toilet.

When he despaired, Melendez said he would often reread a letter from his mother. It said in part: "I say five rosaries a day thinking, looking for a miracle, and that miracle will come, but you've got to put that trust in God ... all your hopes have to be in him and that miracle one day will happen."

"Seventeen years, eight months and one day later," he says, "that miracle came true. Thank God for that."

Melendez was released from death row on Jan. 3, 2002, after a lawyer discovered a taped confession from a man who admitted to the murder. Melendez now speaks all over the world against the death penalty.

In North Carolina, Durham lawyer Jay Ferguson says he hopes to avert the Dec. 1 execution of his client, Guy T. LeGrande, 47, who was sentenced to death for the shooting death of Ellen Munford in Stanly County. LeGrande, who is black, received the death penalty while the white man who hired him to kill his estranged wife received a life sentence.

"Guy is so mentally ill that he won't cooperate with his lawyers," Ferguson says.

Defense experts say LeGrande is psychotic and delusional. At trial, he was allowed to represent himself. "He referred to his all-white jury as the antichrist," Ferguson says. "He basically said, 'Pull the switch.' He was delusional and believed that all Southerners and whites were racist, and he challenged [the jurors], and of course they lived up to that challenge."

North Carolina presents "two faces of justice," Ferguson says. "There's a white face, and there's the black face. The mastermind—white, estranged husband—gets life. The black gets death. Instead of prosecuting the mastermind of the crime, they go after the black face and that's the black face of justice.... This case is just truly the worst of the injustices."

Ferguson urges citizens to ask Gov. Mike Easley to commute LeGrande's sentence to life in prison without parole. E-mail clemency@ncmail.net, call 733-5811 or fax 733-5811 or 1-800-662-7952.

Abolitionists oppose Hussein's death sentence

Carrboro-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has joined with Vatican officials, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Premier Romano Prodi and other world leaders in opposing the execution of Saddam Hussein.

People of Faith issued an appeal to all religious leaders to call for an end to executions, said PFADP executive director Stephen Dear. "God made Saddam; God can take him away. Human beings have no God-given right to execute others, whether by their own hands or through their governments. This applies even to those who have committed crimes against humanity."

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