By Kenny Choi
The decades-long struggle for equal rights for the gay community included an unlikely transformation within a local Catholic church that is now thriving in San Francisco’s Castro District.
Members of the Most Holy Redeemer Church helped build and branch out the church that it has become today. You don’t have to be family, a bestie, or even a close friend, to be invited for a meal at this warm and welcoming home.
Almost every night of the week for years, Jim Laufenberg and Mike Daly chop, spice up, and cook. They invite neighborhood strangers while walking their dogs Fiona and Finn, fellow passengers on planes, and folks from their church, too.
“Sharing food is a great way of bringing people to the table,” said Daly.
They showcase countless pictures and share candid stories of guests from months, and even years ago. Everywhere you look in their dining room, you’ll see faces, young, old, gay, and straight, including one of Mike’s favorite relics of the Virgin Mary.
“I find peace at mass,” said Daly.
Mike and Jim don’t preach or politicize over dinner. But they do talk passionately about the day they met between ‘prayers in the pews’
“Heard you’re single. Looked up at Jesus and thought, ‘Where have you been all my life,'” said Daly.
Their faith is their foundation as a gay Catholic couple, even when their religion and homosexuality – in practice and theology – still don’t mix in many ways.
That tension between the Catholic church and the LGBTQ community reached a boiling point in December 1989, when protestors by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), stormed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to speak out against the church’s role in stopping condom distribution in schools and other policies.
“I would like to see church open up more,” said Laufenberg.
Jim and Mike vividly recollect the struggle for gay marriage. They got married eight years ago, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California’s controversial Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008.
But their hope for the Catholic Church to evolve even more, continues today.
“It is hard [being gay and Catholic], especially when I go to other churches that don’t feel as welcoming,” said Daly.
“I would love to see Rome change some of their ideas being less conservative in terms of diverse people receiving communion, women as priests, having priests have a life partner, whether it’s a man or woman. I don’t care,” said Laufenberg.
Breaking from thousands of years of Catholic tradition can be a difficult, daunting, and daring challenge. But that’s exactly what happened at Most Holy Redeemer nearly 50 years ago.
“The elderly of this parish started an AIDS ministry and outreach to the young men and it became an improbable faith family of the gay community and senior citizens and became known affectionately as gays and grays,” said church member and San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey.
As the AIDS crisis worsened in the late 80’s this church played a vital role as a support hub and started a hospice just across the street which ended up serving so many patients.
“They came here in the 80s and 90s just to have someone hug them and pray for them,” said Daly.
A scroll inside the church lists hundreds of AIDS victims, and so does a fountain in the courtyard to memorialize those who lost their battles.
“There would be pages of young people in their 30’s and 40’s who were dying,” said Daly. “It was a very black time.”
Daly has worked as a nurse for more than 40 years and saw patients struggling – and dying – at San Francisco General Hospital, including many connected to his church. His faith in a greater being gives him peace and new life, even in the shadows of death.
“It gave me the support to help others,” said Daly.
It’s that spirit to love others who need it most that inspires and drives ordinary men like Daly and Laufenberg to become pillars of this Catholic community in the Castro, a community that came to fully open its doors to the LGBTQ community and anyone seeking hope and meaning to life.
“I know it’s perfectly normal,” said Laufenberg. “What God makes is good. God made us the way we are. We didn’t choose to be gay.”
“The slogan [is] ‘God’s inclusive love is proclaimed here. Don’t leave anyone out.'” said Dorsey. “That was true even when it was really hard during the AIDS crisis when the church wasn’t as welcoming as it should be to members of the LGBTQ community to people with HIV and AIDS. This church and parish showed the way.”
LGBTQ parishioners are still denied rights other Catholics have. Gay couples cannot get married in the church by a Catholic priest.
Jim and Mike were raised following Catholic traditions and say they believe in the church’s message of love, caring, and concern. Their hope is to see the younger generation in the church continue to carry the torch.
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