When I first walked through the doors of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church (MHR) in San Francisco, I felt like I entered the best possible parallel universe. The church is situated in the heart of the Castro, and eighty percent of its parishioners identify as LGBT.
The parish motto is “God’s inclusive love proclaimed here,” and the sanctuary features a beautiful stained glass window depicting the Savior peering down upon us with open arms.
I was there to witness the baptism of my gay Catholic friend’s adopted baby daughter. At the beginning of the service, the priest noted that “all are welcome,” and indeed people of all sexual orientations, races, ages, and genders were present. Everyone was met with open arms and outstretched hands. Gay couples sat next to straight elderly widows and single twenty-somethings. Seated at the front were my Catholic friend and his husband absolutely glowing with joy, their teenage son, their beautiful baby daughter all dressed in white, and her lesbian godparents.
Towards the beginning of the service, the priest invited the whole clan up to the front of the sanctuary. After the parents publicly committed to love their daughter and raise her in faith, he asked the entire congregation to affirm their commitment to assist the parents in this journey. When the actual baptism happened, the joy in everyone’s eyes was clear, the love from the congregation was palpable, and the spirit was strong. It felt like everyone—God, the clergy, the parents, the congregation—was coming together to support this child and her new family.
The atmosphere glowed with love, joy, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, faith, and most of all a profound sense of peace. In the homily, the priest spoke about how we are all pilgrims on a journey that is long, difficult, and sometimes filled with disappointment, but we must stand together and stand with each other. During the service, there was a portion where we all joined hands and said The Lord’s Prayer. Some of the rituals were unfamiliar to me, but I loved this symbolic gesture of standing strong together.
As I spoke with members of the congregation after the service, it was clear that all this talk of unity and inclusion was more than just empty words. I learned about what they were doing for trans day of remembrance, of their suppers for the homeless, and of their young adult outreach and HIV support groups.
What amazed me most of all was that this is a Catholic church full of people who have faced a difficult road of rejection of marginalization within their faith. MHR itself occupies a precarious position in the broader environment of Catholicism. Its inclusive environment sometimes clashes not only with the traditional messages from Rome but also with the conservative perspective of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who has taken several actions over the years to defend the traditional family at the cost of alienating the LGBT Catholics. On the other hand, I heard nothing but love and admiration for Pope Francis when I attended, and even Cordileone has been known to quietly serve food at MHR’s weekly suppers for the homeless.
Throughout all of this, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between MHR and our own struggle with inclusion in Mormonism. Both churches face a tension between leadership that takes a firm stance against same-sex families and a membership that is increasingly more sympathetic to the struggles of its increasingly vocal LGBT members. MHR does not represent a sea change in Catholic theology; it’s just a little parish trying to stretch Catholicism’s tent a little wider. Would it be so impossible to create this kind of environment in Mormonism? I know there are plenty of faithful, active members and leaders who are working to make that become a reality.
And yet, especially in the wake of the policy change, such a vision appears less and less attainable. The day when a gay couple can stand at the front of an LDS chapel to rejoice with their ward in the blessing of their baby seems impossibly far away. How can a ward provide a welcoming environment for same-sex families when leaders are required to greet them with a disciplinary council?
On a more personal note, how long can gay Mormons be expected to beg for scraps from the table when we could be welcomed with open arms to a feast next door? Why should we be expected to stay when there are so many more opportunities to serve, contribute, and partake of God’s love free of shame and stigma in other churches and other communities?
I don’t have answers to these questions. All I know is that these days I struggle to find God in a faith that was once so precious to me. Seeing my friend’s daughter blessed and baptized at this beautiful church with its welcoming and supportive community where all families are loved and valued is to me a perfect embodiment of everything the LDS Church sacrificed for the cause of defending one particular definition of “the family.”
As Thomas S. Monson once said in conference, quoting John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”