Starting a support group like Welcome Home became clearly worth it when a young man from northeast Arkansas walked into a meeting at St. John Center in Little Rock.
“Thank God I have a space where I can come and talk and be myself,” the man told members of Pax Christi Little Rock, a Catholic social justice group, about being Catholic and identifying as part of the LGBT community, said president Dr. Sherry Simon. “It was the true meaning of what Christ brings to it; the simple moment of acceptance can change lives.”
Welcome Home is a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, along with friends and family, who are in the Church or may have left and are exploring reconnecting with their faith.
“It’s like what Christ did; he just started out getting to know people,” said Father Mark Wood, a Pax Christi member and pastor of St. Theresa Church in Little Rock. He, along with Father Warren Harvey, helped with the formation of Welcome Home. “… The ultimate reason (for the group) is because of our faith in Christ and the mission I feel we have from Christ which is to bring Christ and his good news to people everywhere.”
The stirrings to create Welcome Home began when Pax Christi members read “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity,” by Jesuit Father James Martin, author of 12 books, consultant to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America. The priest gave a lecture to Pax Christi via Skype in September 2017.
“One of the most impactful things that Father Martin said was to really grow to love a person you have to fully understand them, get to know them, learn about them, learn their vocabulary, what they want to be known as,” she said. “We want to listen, we want to learn who they are, we want to get to know them better. We believe these are the folks that are marginalized in our society that Christ talks about.”
Father Wood said his takeaway from Father Martin’s book was the reality that “we have Catholics that identify as LGBTQ (Q, Queer/Questioning) and we also have family members and friends of those folks and we know that at least some of them are really hurting,” he said. “They are Catholic and love the Church but for various reasons sometimes they have not felt welcomed or accepted and not just in the Church but in their wider life.”
Since March, Welcome Home has met on the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. in Fitzgerald Hall at St. John Center. Anyone is welcome, whether they are Catholic or not.
Father Wood said organizers initially met with Bishop Anthony B. Taylor who supported the group’s effort and helped them zero in on a mission of welcome.
“He really kind of stressed himself what we already were thinking — it doesn’t have to be a place where we focus on Church doctrine or hash out issues,” he said. “It’s like he said, we’re all family … and just like a family, we try to keep the family together and stay in communication with one another.”
On average, about seven to eight people attend. Simon said it was especially impactful when the young Catholic man shared about his depression when faced with coming out to his friends.
“He was saying when you grow up Catholic you do hear negative attributes on people who are LGBT,” Simon said, adding he said he loved the Church, but did not feel accepted. “I believe that our Church is lessened when we don’t accept all of the people who are out there part of God’s creation … Having them at least have the chance to come in with Catholics where they can be themselves is a step in the direction to make us a more complete Church.”
Marian Paquette, secretary of Pax Christi and parishioner of Christ the King Church, pointed to a startling statistic: LGBT youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.
“My heart lies for the youth that are struggling with their orientation; I see it as a life issue,” Paquette said. “There’s very few places within the Church where you can feel safe and share your experiences and be open without worrying about being judged and treated with hate.”
Attendee Vickie Hendrix Siebenmorgen, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, has LGBT friends and family.
“I want to live like Christ wants me to live, therefore treat people the way he wants to treat people if he were standing in my footsteps … There were parents that told very tearful stories and experiences about how their gay or lesbian or transgender children were being treated in the Church” and society, she said. “I want to be that person when I turn around and share the peace of Christ behind me (in the pew) I want to make it very clear I don’t care what color they are, what gender they are, what gender they identify with — in my eyes and in the eyes of many they are children of Christ.”
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