LGBT groups are told: Can't use church space for events during World Meeting

Posted: August 19, 2015

A coalition of four national groups representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics has been told it cannot use space it had been promised at a Catholic church in Center City for alternative workshops and gatherings next month during the World Meeting of Families.

So the coalition, known as Equally Blessed, is turning to the Methodists.

Equally Blessed had secured the use of St. John the Evangelist Church's parish center at 12th and Ludlow Streets this spring, said Francis DeBernardo, head of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, one of the groups in the coalition.

St. John's was to be home base for 14 families representing LGBT Catholics who are traveling to Philadelphia for the week of Sept. 21 to 27, and the site of a Sept. 25 workshop titled "TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity From Catholic Perspectives."

New Ways and the other groups in the coalition, Dignity USA, Fortunate Families, and Call to Action, had also planned a news conference for Sept. 22 as well as group meetings at the church, a few blocks south of the Convention Center, where the World Meeting of Families will be held.

The intent, the LGBT groups have said, was to provide supplemental conversation to the four-day meeting, which includes one presentation on homosexuality, led by a celibate gay man, among a long list of panels.

"There is a lack of information in the Catholic Church about gender identity, and this workshop was designed to provide information based on personal experience," DeBernardo said. "There was no plan to have a theological discussion about gender identity."

The apparent ejection from St. John's is the latest evidence of the divide between church leaders and LGBT Catholic groups as the meeting and the visit by Pope Francis draw near.

Organizers of the alternative events planned for St. John's were told last week by its pastor that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia disapproved of their gender identity program and they would no longer be allowed to use space at St. John's for any events that week, DeBernardo said.

As a result, he said, the coalition is looking into relocating those events to Arch Street United Methodist Church, also near the Convention Center. A secretary at the church confirmed that discussions were underway. The pastor of the Arch Street church, the Rev. Robin Hynicka, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ken Gavin, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said that administrators from the archdiocese had looked into the programming and provided guidance but that the final decision on use of space at St. John's was made by the parish.

Gavin said it was expected that "any parish-sponsored activities would feature content that is in line with church teaching."

"That expectation applies across the board to all matters," Gavin said in an email. "If archdiocesan administration were to become aware of any activities to the contrary it would be their responsibility to look into the matter and ask that appropriate corrective action be taken. Focusing on this matter as LGBT related only would be shortsighted."

The pastor at St. John, the Rev. John Daya, declined to comment.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Boston-based Dignity USA, said she was not surprised. She said that since its founding in 1986, Dignity's three dozen chapters around the nation have all been kicked out of a Catholic church at least once.

"I don't think it reflects in any way on the parish or on Catholics in the Philadelphia area, but it is more evidence of this horrible divide," she said. "Not being able to use our own church is certainly painful - it's symbolic - but we keep coming back to, 'The church is the people, it's not a building,' so we move on. There are other spaces."

Julie Chovanes, a transgender woman and a lawyer based in Chestnut Hill, was slated to speak at the workshop. She learned about the change in location Monday.

"So they literally kicked trans people out of the church? It's an amazing thing, especially if you're trying to show families we are a part of the human family," said Chovanes.

"I still consider myself Catholic," she added. "But apparently, the church doesn't."


jterruso@phillynews.com215-854-5506

@juliaterruso

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