Baltimore’s Progressive Catholic Church

It would be unfair to label Saint Sebastian’s Independant Catholic Church a “gay church”. But it’d be unfair not to mention that, perhaps, they are very into the gay happenings in Baltimore and minister to the gay community. While I am sure that Pastor Flaherty would be disheartened to think that Saint Sebastians is only a church for the queer community, the community at large would probably reference it as “The gay church”. I find this sort of thing unfortunate.

I wound up here by means of an Emergent Village book group that meets in Baltimore. I met Assisting Priest Joan Stiles, a bleached blonde short-haired middle aged woman, while discussing Claiborne’s book Jesus for President. The group discussed much and varied in theological belief tremendously. Disagreement’s abounded. Surprisingly, no one argued. I learned about Joan, her Catholic past, her current priesthood and thought, surely, if there was anyone I would disagree with it was female priest at a pro-gay church. But Joan, like much of the world, was full of surprises. I found myself captivated with her outlook on our faith, her impression of God, her passion for Biblical authority.

A few months later the Reverend Flaherty, the Priest at Joan’s church, even came to the emergent church meetup group. A tall man, who dwarfs me, with long fingers, he strikes me as the sort of person who is easy to get along with. Perhaps that same young idealism that runs in all young people’s blood still runs in his. I found him quiet, questioning, firm in his convictions yet willing to hear others out. It’s hard to not like him.

I kept promising Joan I would come to Saint Sebastian’s but one thing or another always came up. Finally I told myself I was going. My wife watched the kids and I headed out the door.

About 20 people were sitting inside First United Church, where Saint Sebastian’s holds service. About half, from my count were openly gay. There was one family with two children, who, through paying attention, I learned had attended for at least two years. No other kids could I see. There was no piano or organ either, instead a middle-aged man in vestaments played the guitar while we sang hymns.

David Flaherty’s sermon was short compared to my mennonite sermons. Maybe about ten minutes long. He announced that one gay couple in the church was choosing to get “married” though it is illegal in Maryland. At the end of the month the Reverend will perform a ceremony and unite the two women. Everyone clapped. David made no less than two Martha Stewart jokes, one joke about decorating, and he makes all the church’s vestaments. I thought this rocked.

I had some tears in my eyes that were hard to wash out. I was thinking of how difficult it must be to be gay and Christian. Or, hell, anything and Christian. We have made a point to create churches for every sub-culture in the country. Gay Churches. Churches for young adults. Churches for old white people. Churches for blacks. Churches for hispanics. The list is endless. One thing is for sure, while Jesus was good at seperating the sheep from the goats, Christians are really good at further dividing up the sheep. We’re like Babe the pig making sure we are all in the correct pens.

Holy fuck, I get aneurism just thinking about it. Is all of this really necessary? I wish we could get along better. I wish people in these sub-cultures felt welcome. I wish we felt comfortable in their churches. What the hell are we gonna do?

I hear all the time, from all types of people: “We need to get this subculture involved in our church.” But I never hear “I’m going to go over there”. We go where we are comfortable. I’m not sure this is such a good thing.

From what I saw I like what was going on Saint Sebastians. I wish they didn’t express the “progressive” thing so much just like I wish other churches didn’t express the “conservative” thing so much. I guess it’s all blowback.

A couple last thoughts:
How does the Mennonite Church become more welcoming?
Can we do it without sacrificing Biblical Truth?
Can we do it while maintaining our heritage?
If we become more welcoming will anyone want to come?

This last one I wrestle with. Every week North Baltimore’s (my church) doors are open to everyone. Yet, in my 18 months there, I’ve seen a handful of black people walk through the doors. Whites have outnumbered them 30 to 1. Nothing stopping blacks. Then again, nothing stopping my white self from walking into the First Gospel Tabernacle of Holy Jubilation either. But I don’t.

I don’t feel pressed to acquire a minority population of any kind like trading cards for my church. Yet, I feel saddened by the lack of unity amongst Christians as a whole.

Saint Sebastian’s is a place where homosexuals, and others, might be seperate from us now, but later, when it counts, they won’t be.

Is that good enough?

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4 Responses to “Baltimore’s Progressive Catholic Church”

  1. lukelm Says:

    Thanks for this post Tim.

    I used to care deeply about church, maybe in a similar way that you do now. That was during all my years growing up and then through college - almost eight years ago now. I saw the church as the source of God’s movement and work in the world, and trusted in it fully. This had to do with my own faith, my own trust in the Bible, and probably a lot to do with the lives I had seen touched & changed in the congregation I grew up attending. And my pain in giving up the church - being ripped away from it, it felt to me at the time - during my years of working through coming out of the closet at college - was deep and visceral, and I cried a lot for it.

    I view things quite differently now. Maybe being an outsider without so much invested in the church gives me an advantage in certain respects in seeing it. It’s a human organization like any other, with all the sames faults and tendencies that all groups of humans have, nothing more, nothing less. It touches and accesses a transformative core, a place where the divine enters the world and changes everything & everyone, but it in no way encompasses, holds, bottles up, controls, or even really understands that core. It has some stories that help guide it back again & again to that core, and it had some stories that get in the way. It’s never reached anything like perfection of love & unity, and it never will.

    I don’t have answers to your four questions, although they’re very good ones that I hope people in the church keep asking and working through. To tell the truth, I’m personally very split in my relation to the church and efforts to make it a better place. Part of me harbors dreams of a return to it, and part of me feels a little wickedly gleeful at hints of its demise. Just to be honest.

    Many might find it strange, but in losing the church I’m not sure I lost even the slightest bit of my relationship to God. My spiritual life feels deeper, fuller, more real now than it did while I was in the church - although of course a lot of that simply has to do with another eight years of life and probably would have happened within the church had it been possible for me to stay. New languages, new ways of knowing God, new scriptures come when they’re needed.

    The church isn’t the Kingdom of God. Maybe you should give up on the church. Why not? Did Jesus really care all that much about such things when he was here those couple years? Your eyes are open and you can see the Kingdom of God around you, in your church, at church with the queers, in an AA meeting. Maybe it’s better not to care whether the church lives or dies, thrives or shrivels, and instead just watch for the Kingdom of God, and reach out to participate in it wherever & whenever you can? It could be a shorter path to the unity you long for.

  2. Tim Baer Says:

    I have some mixed feelings with your comments, Luke. I really like some of them. The church isn’t perfect and it isn’t the Kingdom. I don’t think it ever will be, perhaps not even supposed to be.

    I too, have left the church. A hiatus. A good thing, really. Sometimes we need to refocus and get a breather. We become frustrated at the failures we see in the church and the people that are in it. If you asked me, I could rattle off ten complaints I have had with churches I’ve attended, not even theological ones, but personal ones. Stories of being ignored, or looked down upon, kicked out of youth group, not being given priviliges I thought we owed to me. The church has, from time to time, been more of a place of pain than a place to worship God.

    Yet, to abandon the church completely is nearly unthinkable. It’s full of people that I care about. The book of James warns to not talk poorly about our brothers and sisters in Christ or the church. What is it saying if we refuse their company? If we spend too much time complaining about the Church what does it say to unbelievers. I’ve had those conversations where non-believers express disgust at the Church and I nod my head in agreement and express my own dislike. I leave feeling sickened at myself. Aren’t I supposed to declare the healing nature of Christ? Yet, how can I do while tearing down the best tool God has to accomplish His will? I’m afraid that when those conversations end the other party leaves thinking: “See, even he cannot stand his own religion.”

    I go to church with a bunch of imperfect with whom I disagree upon nearly everything. I attend a very liberal Mennonite Church. I certainly could choose a more comfortable place to worship God. Yet, I wonder if that is what God wants from me?

    Shouldn’t I dare to step outside of my comfort zone? Engage those with whom I differ from? Learn from them? Teach them? Ask questions and answer them?

    The best place for a Christian to be, me thinks, is an uncomfortable place. I like God moving me and I like knowing that not everyone is the same. I feel at peace knowing that God has it in control and that I don’t need to be right.

    I just wish I could teach the Church that (and those damn people that go there every week!).

  3. DBGFlaherty Says:

    I am not sure which is more difficult and awkward, to read someone write and talk about the little community of St. Sebastian; my baby, my love, my life…or to hear someone refer to me as “middle-aged.” This old man, who once sat, scared out of his 20-some year old mind over in his room at 5400 Roland Ave at St. Mary’s Sem-University some 20 years ago could never imagined that all this would ever have come to pass. My heart is opened and encouraged by your questions! Live the questions! (That is not my line…wish it was) For church communities that have thrived on giving answers, I find that life comes these days just through the questions. Questions of faith, of inclusion; questions of deeper meaning and of relevance to the world around us. I believe asking the questions is enough…and finding places where one can do that in faith, in love and with abundant hope is the closest we can get to an answer. I believe the Holy Spirit draws us that much closer through our asking the questions together.

  4. Tim Baer Says:

    Ya know, David, maybe you’re right. If we become a place where people can ask questions that might be enough to get them in the door.

    Typically, churches take two approaches. COnservative churches might say: “My way or the highway.” and liberal churches might say “Any way is just plain dandy.” But a church that wants to be both truthful in its beliefs and open might say something like: “This is the way we think it is. Let’s talk.”

    Unlike the previous two, the third way is engaging. I’m glad your church exists, David, but I’m sorry that it has to.

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