Most Catholics usually spend the weeks before Christmas preparing to open church doors to anyone looking to mark the birth of Jesus. But this year, with news that a Catholic diocese in Michigan may bar gay and transgender people from participating in sacraments, LGBTQ Catholics everywhere are wondering, yet again, whether we are welcome.
The Diocese of Marquette says that the policy, which could deny parishioners rites such as baptism and Communion, is simply meant to reinforce existing church teaching, and that queer people should still be treated with “dignity and respect.” But what it risks reinforcing is the decision of LGBTQ people, and their families, who choose to leave. As a gay Catholic, it’s heartbreaking to think of what both the church, and all who benefit from Catholic ministries, will lose.
When I read the diocese’s policy, my mind raced to one of the accounts in my book, which profiles dozens of Catholics who took on stigma and shame to fight for people living with HIV at the height of the crisis. The transformation of Most Holy Redeemer Church, situated in the heart of San Francisco’s gay village, from a mausoleum into a partner in the fight against AIDS was due to the tenacity of LGBTQ Catholics and allies who saw in Scripture a commandment to extend mercy to all.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the parish was full of young families. But by the 1980s, the neighborhood had become a vibrant destination for young gay men — a remaking that had hollowed out Most Holy Redeemer.
Cliff Morrison, a gay parishioner and nurse who would eventually help establish 5B, the famed AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, met with the pastor, Father Tony McGuire. He laid out a proposal: The neighborhood was bursting with the new arrivals, the majority of whom weren’t affiliated with any house of worship. “Most of these guys, they moved here from the Midwest and the South, and a lot of them are Catholic,” he said. “Why don’t we invite them back?”
So a team of parishioners created the “Come Home for Christmas” campaign. Young gay men who sought to add a dose of spirituality to the Christmas season worshiped alongside the remaining older parishioners — the “gays and the grays,” as Father Tony put it.
Thomas Ellerby, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, was part of Most Holy Redeemer’s holiday crew. He signed up for the parish’s “buddy program” when he became too sick to cook or do laundry. He attended the parish’s Christmas parties — elaborate affairs with ice sculptures, piles of decadent canapes and, given neighborhood demographics, a fair share of drag queens.
“That was the most fantastic escape from what was going on around us,” Ellerby said in an interview. For him, a gay Black man living with HIV in the Castro, the Catholic Church was a break from the barrage of discrimination, prejudice and heartbreak he faced each day.
The Vaticanpromulgated policies hostile toward LGBTQ people in the 1980s — ones similar to the Marquette proposal. But local church leaders in San Francisco tried to soften those messages so all Catholics would feel welcome. Had they not, ministries that touched countless lives in San Francisco would never have borne fruit.
And it wasn’t a one-way street, with only the LGBTQ community benefiting. Most Holy Redeemer itself was reinvigorated by LGBTQ Catholics, and its longtime parishioners — mostly older and straight — understood in new ways what it meant to follow Jesus’ command to love one another.
Today’s church, with LGBTQ people routinely fired from affiliated institutions and the Vatican still employing harsh language toward same-sex relationships, can feel far from Most Holy Redeemer’s uncommon example. It’s true that Pope Francis has reached out to LGBTQ Catholics and those who minister to them, but sadly he’s the exception, not the rule. Overemphasizing parts of church teaching that condemn homosexuality at the expense of parts that call for love and respect is too common.
That’s why such small, unexpected kindnesses from the church can go such a long way — and why actions such as the Marquette diocese’sfeel extra alienating. And each decision affects not only the relatively small percentage of LGBTQ Catholics but also their families and friends, coworkers and neighbors — anyone who loves them.
To Ellerby, Most Holy Redeemer was simply living out the Gospel. “They served the community,” he said. “It just so happened to be a gay community that was ground zero for HIV and AIDS. The parish was in the business of saving souls and saving lives.”
In December 1992, Phil Saviano was at the lowest point of his life. He was 40 years old, out of work and dying of AIDS. Leafing through the Boston Globe, looking for some last-minute Christmas gifts, he saw a small item that contained a familiar name.
He read that a Catholic priest, David A. Holley, had been arrested for abusing boys in the 1970s at a church in New Mexico.
“It was a life-changing moment,” Mr. Saviano later told the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “It was the day all the bells went off for me. I suddenly saw how naive I had been in assuming he had only done this to me.”
Almost three decades earlier, beginning when Mr. Saviano was 11, he had been repeatedly molested by Holley at St. Denis Catholic Church in Douglas, Mass. The abuse went on for a year and a half, until Holley left the parish.
With a strength born of desperation, Mr. Saviano found his voice and told his story to the Globe, becoming one of the first victims of sexual abuse by a priest to go public. In 1995, he reached a financial settlement with the diocese of Worcester, Mass., that amounted to $5,700 after attorney fees. He turned down a larger payout that would have required him to keep silent about his childhood trauma. He believed the only reason he didn’t have to sign a confidentiality agreement was that no one expected him to live.
“If I had not been dying of AIDS, I would not have had the courage to come forward,” Mr. Saviano told the Globe in 2009, “but at that point my career was over, I was on my way out physically, my reputation was shot in the eyes of many people, and I didn’t have a lot to lose. This was a final opportunity to effect some change and address this thing that happened to me when I was a kid.”
Soon afterward, he received a new HIV/AIDS treatment that helped him regain his health. He found a new sense of purpose as an activist and whistleblower and began to research sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1997, he founded a New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
With a background in public relations, Mr. Saviano approached the Globe with his evidence in 1998, but the paper passed on the story. But beginning in 2002, under a new editor, Martin Baron (later the executive editor of The Washington Post), a group of Globe investigative reporters called the Spotlight team published a series of stories detailing predatory behavior by dozens of Boston-area priests, coupled with a concerted effort by top church officials to conceal their misdeeds.
The Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for its articles, which formed the basis of the 2015 film “Spotlight,” in which Mr. Saviano was portrayed by actor Neal Huff, who became a close friend. Mr. Saviano advised writers on the screenplay and was onstage at the Oscars, along with the film’s director, producers and actors, when “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for best picture. (It also won for best original screenplay.) Executive producer and co-writer Josh Singer called him a “true hero.”
Mr. Saviano was 69 when he died Nov. 28 at a brother’s home in Douglas. He had announced on his Facebook page in October that doctors could no longer treat his gallbladder cancer. In the preceding months, he had also had heart surgery and a stroke. The death was confirmed in a statement by his brother Jim Saviano.
After speaking out, Mr. Saviano channeled his harrowing childhood experience into an effort to address wrongdoing in the church. By the time the Globe began its investigation, he had already identified 13 predator priests and hundreds of victims in the Boston area. When he examined church documents, he learned that many of the priests had been transferred to other parishes around the country without being punished. (The number of priests accused of sexual assault in New England eventually grew into the hundreds.)
Initially, as a gay man challenging the authority of the Catholic Church in the early 1990s, Mr. Saviano faced a backlash from church loyalists and even from members of his own family. His father “was angry and accused me of bringing the scandal to our hometown,” Mr. Saviano later said.
During his childhood in Douglas, a small town about 55 miles from Boston, Mr. Saviano enjoyed fishing and hiking. He also delivered newspapers, and one of the stops on his paper route was the rectory of St. Denis Church, where Holley had been newly installed as a priest.
Then in his 40s, Holley was popular with boys in the church, showing them card tricks and making faces behind the backs of nuns teaching Sunday school. When the priest asked Mr. Saviano and another boy to help move boxes of hymnals or do other odd jobs at the church, they felt honored. They received 50 cents apiece.
“He was grooming us,” Mr. Saviano told the Daily Mail in 2015. “The priest figures out ways to get closer to either the child or the parents. That gives him an opportunity to know what is going on in our family and in school. I felt pretty lucky that this guy was taking an interest in me. For us, he was God’s representative on earth, who could perform magic like turning wine into the blood of Christ and forgiving sins.”
Then one day when Holley was doing card tricks, the deck of cards contained pornographic images of people engaged in sex acts. When the 11-year-old Mr. Saviano tried to run away, the priest grabbed his wrist and held him back. Years later, Mr. Saviano could still recall “the coolness of the dark church basement, the smell of his sickly, sweet cologne” and “the sense of being completely trapped.”
Over the next 18 months, Mr. Saviano was repeatedly coerced into performing sexual acts on Holley. The priest once assaulted him behind a door as parishioners walked past, just feet away. Another time, Mr. Saviano saw the priest forcing himself on another boy at the church altar.
“How do you say no to God?” Mr. Saviano’s character says in “Spotlight.”
Mr. Saviano did not speak of his experiences until he was 40. Holley, in the meantime, went on to work at churches in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado before receiving a 275-year sentence in 1993 for the sexual assault of eight boys in New Mexico. He died in prison in 2008.
The Globe’s revelations, made possible in part by Mr. Saviano’s research, shocked people around the world and reverberated throughout the Catholic Church. One of the church’s most powerful figures, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, admitted that he had reassigned priests accused of child abuse and did little to stop the scourge. He resigned in 2002.
“Finally, victims are being first of all believed,” Mr. Saviano told the Globe that year. “And they’re being respected instead of ridiculed and criticized. Most of all, they’re seeing there is power in joining together and speaking out, and you can have results. Laws are being changed, [attorneys general] have perked up their ears around the country. These are changes that victims, myself included, could only have dreamed of.”
Philip James Saviano was born in Douglas on June 23, 1952. His father was an electrician, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Saviano majored in zoology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from which he graduated in 1975. He settled in Boston and received a master’s degree in communications from Boston University in 1980. He worked in public relations and fundraising for a Boston hospital and later had a concert production company from 1982 to 1991. He also collected and sold Mexican folk art.
His survivors include three brothers.
In addition to forming a New England chapter of SNAP, Mr. Saviano ran the organization’s national website for several years and served on its board of directors. He was also on the board of BishopAccountability.org, which documents sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He traveled widely to give speeches and counsel other survivors. He appeared at the 2019 Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“Every step they’ve taken,” he said of church leaders, “they’ve done it begrudgingly.”
Mr. Saviano’s experiences with the church caused him to lose all religious faith, and he considered himself an agnostic.
“I find myself envious sometimes of people who do have a strong faith,” he said in 2002. “And I don’t know what that’s like. There are days when I can’t do this on my own.”
Mr. Saviano received a diagnosis of AIDS in 1984, then in 2009 learned that he needed a kidney transplant. When no one in his family was a proper match, he asked for help from the network of survivors of clergy abuse. Several people volunteered, and he ultimately received a kidney from a Minnesota woman who said she had been sexually abused in high school by a former nun.
Among people who had been victimized by priests and church leaders, Mr. Saviano was seen as a valiant, eloquent and courageous champion who refused to be silenced. He also found respect closer to home and, at long last, had a warm reconciliation with his father.
“All those years ago,” his father told him, “you were right. Give them hell.”
Michael J. O’Loughlin’s ‘Hidden Mercy’ is an essential historical addition
BY Daniel Walden
Books about gay people struggling with their faith are more common than they ought to be. Most take the form of self-therapy for their authors and, as such, are concerned mostly with the interior life of the author. Unfortunately, in these late post-Stonewall days, we gays are by and large a pretty boring and well-assimilated bunch, and our interior lives tend to have all the magnetic fascination of a pair of pleated khakis. It was with no small amount of gratitude, then, that I read the introduction to Michael J. O’Loughlin’s book, in which he eschews such navel-gazing and instead reckons with his Catholic faith by giving his readers an oral history titled Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Mercy in the Face of Fear.
O’Loughlin has spent nearly 12 years as a correspondent for America magazine — an explicitly Catholic magazine run by the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. His background is immensely helpful here, because he intuitively grasps a principle that eludes a lot of reporters on the Catholic Church in the U.S., namely: the Catholic Church is very, very large, to a degree that there’s no real way to wrap your head around all of it, and the combination of that size and its division into dioceses run by bishops who answer only to the Pope renders it nearly ungovernable. This means, above all, that there is almost never a single “Catholic response” to a social question, only responses by Catholics. Perhaps the greatest strength of O’Loughlin’s oral history approach is that, by keeping close to the experiences of people both inside and outside the official Church hierarchy, he allows the tensions and contradictions that characterized the Church’s reaction to the AIDS crisis to emerge and to stand as they are, without trying to impose a structure or resolution that doesn’t exist.
Hidden Mercy is the latest in a series of high-profile histories of the AIDS crisis, and the first one to deal in any sustained fashion with the Church as a major player in the events of the period. The American cultural memory of AIDS has been shaped largely by two works of dramatic fiction: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both are powerful artistic responses written in the midst of the crisis, and both take severe liberties with the historical record to score their dramatic points. They are valuable records in their own way, but neither makes much time — Kushner none at all — for the role of the Catholic Church in the crisis, despite its inescapable influence on the lives of everyone in New York, where both plays are set. You don’t even have to be Catholic for the Church to shape your life in ways large and small — Catholic nonprofits operate some of the largest hospital systems in the United States, and in New York, many people still give silent thanks for the annual suspensions of alternate-side parking rules on the Church’s major feast days.
The two other recent books on the AIDS crisis, Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show and Peter Staley’s memoir Never Be Silent, are concerned primarily with ACT UP and its protest campaigns, in which the Church often appears as an opponent. But even Schulman and Staley’s books hint at a more complicated picture: their pages are full of Catholics at odds with bishops or pastors, and as O’Loughlin ably shows, even the thoroughly institutional elements of the Church were often at odds with one another. The stories he shares illuminate how people both inside and outside the hierarchy of the Church reckoned with their place in this institution that so often seemed both powerful and helpless at the same time.
Indeed, of all the narrative threads through which O’Loughlin moves, the two most prominent are stories of care. The first of these is Sister Carol Baltosiewitch, a Franciscan religious sister from Illinois who flew to New York to learn about treating AIDS patients; the second is Father William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest who began celebrating healing Masses for people with AIDS and continued ministering to them both officially and unofficially until 1990, when his Jesuit superiors asked him to step back from his AIDS work due to the stress it was putting on his health; though he left the Jesuits in 2002, he remains a priest. We also meet David Pais, a man who got involved with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and HIV education; and Ramon Torres, a physician who worked with AIDS patients and struggled against the restrictions placed on him by his working for a Catholic hospital; Michael Hanrak, a former member of the radical Catholic Worker movement, convinced the Diocese of Oakland to convert a home intended for sick priests into a home for low-income people with AIDS.
Institutions also emerge as characters: much of the action in New York revolves around St. Vincent’s, the hospital that was both the largest center for AIDS care in the country and the target of repeated protest actions for its official insistence that its doctors ought to provide top-shelf medical care to men who contracted AIDS through unprotected gay sex but could not under any circumstances tell those men to make condoms a part of their sodomitical recreation. And on the West Coast, O’Loughlin devotes an entire chapter to Most Holy Redeemer, a parish in the heart of the Castro that reinvented itself as a spiritual home for gay Catholics and developed the best homeless ministry in the Bay Area, because it turns out that concentrating San Francisco’s supply of hairdressers, salon workers, and childless physicians in one place gives you lots of ways to help people feel healthier and more dignified.
O’Loughlin is at his most effective in showing how the care and advocacy work of these people and these places was opposed at nearly every turn by other actors in the Church. There is no shortage of historical evidence on either side: American Catholics are politically divided in nearly identical proportions to Americans in general, and plenty of Catholics remain unashamed of the Church’s hostility to LGBT people and to AIDS protestors. They certainly don’t suffer from the moral amnesia that overtakes so many avowedly liberal institutions when asked about their conduct during the AIDS crisis. On top of this, since Catholic institutions are extremely long-lived and generally keep records, O’Loughlin can render these tensions and conflicts in much sharper relief than is usually available for other parts of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, given the outsize role of the Church in coordinating AIDS care in major gay epicenters like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, it may very well be the largest institutional holder of healthcare records from a time when methods and standards of care seemed to change almost monthly. It can be tempting to center AIDS history on large, highly visible protest actions and on the internal drama of the groups who organized them, treating other histories as sideshows. O’Loughlin’s subject matter is clearly not a sideshow: this book is an essential historical addition.
That said, this is still AIDS history, and that means there are gaps in our knowledge that can never be filled because so many are dead and those who knew them are dead or dying. Late in the book, O’Loughlin recounts being at a reception at a Vatican museum, where he spotted John Quinn, the former Archbishop of San Francisco who oversaw the archdiocese’s mobilization of resources for AIDS care and who strongly supported the gay outreach efforts at Most Holy Redeemer. Quinn was in his eighties at the time, but he seemed very supportive when O’Loughlin described his project. “‘Yes, there are so many stories,’ he replied, a note of sadness in his voice. ‘So many young people died.’” Then the bishop recounts a story of a young man who, after finding out he had HIV, told his mother he was gay to prepare her for what lay ahead. “‘Twenty-two years ago, my only mistake,’ the mother said, wrapping her arm around her son, ‘was not having an abortion.’” These stories, too, are worth preserving, and this one survives only through a chance encounter with a very old man. In one of the book’s most sobering moments, Quinn offers to talk with O’Loughlin again once they’ve both gone home to the U.S. Their conversation never happened: the archbishop fell a few days later and was admitted to the hospital. Within six months he was dead, and another link to history was broken.
This is one of the book’s two real brushes with the Catholic hierarchy, whose members lurk for the most part in the background of its narratives, stymieing the protagonists with unappealable decisions, like the 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the central body that adjudicates questions of Catholic doctrine — think Supreme Court meets Académie Française meets DMV, but with better robes and many more closet cases) that withdrew all official support for any LGBT Catholic organization that didn’t loudly proclaim the evils of sodomy. But at one point, Fr. Bill McNichols recounts encountering Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, whom Fr. Bill thought responsible for cancelling a conference where he was to present. It turned out that the cardinal knew nothing about it, and for the most part approved of Fr. Bill’s AIDS ministry. The picture we get, through Fr. Bill, is of a figure trapped by his office: less a Prince of the Church and more an affable company man. Certainly O’Connor, by all accounts, did care deeply about the suffering of AIDS victims, having visited thousands individually in the hospital.
Nice, caring people make superb functionaries for inhuman bureaucratic machines: they give a human face and voice to the whole enterprise, and so long as you keep suffering abstract and distant, they can run their pen over scores of ruined lives with a clear conscience. O’Connor was a kind man who responded humanely to the suffering that he saw; to what he couldn’t or wouldn’t see, he had no response at all. It simply didn’t cross his mind.
On my first read, I did wish that O’Loughlin had grappled more with the action and inaction of the hierarchy. That’s probably my own frustration coming to the surface, and a testament both to the effectiveness of the book’s presentation and to O’Loughlin’s disciplined refusal to abandon the concrete experiences of his subjects for easy polemic. The story of bishops’ misdeeds is the story of powerful men fucking up other people’s lives: that story has already been told. O’Loughlin would rather give us the daily struggles of ordinary people who tried to do some good, and who sometimes failed, and learned, and a few times really got it right. Those moments of grace, when transcendence breaks through and transforms the daily toil of mercy, illuminate why his subjects did this work: because the hungry needed to be fed, the sick cared for, the naked clothed, the dead buried. God seems to think that’s all very much worth doing, and O’Loughlin had the good sense to see that it was also worth writing down and remembering. I have to concede that he’s probably right. The virtues of ordinary people are often more interesting and more illuminating than the vices of the powerful, and I’m grateful that Hidden Mercy is unsparing about the costs, trials, and rewards of such virtue.
Even as the death toll rose, the Roman Catholic Church reinforced its stance and also opposed the gay and lesbian rights movement more generally, creating an ongoing tension. Despite this, some nuns and priests went against those teachings and worked behind the scenes to care for and sit at the bedsides of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.
O’Loughlin, a journalist who lives in Chicago, writes in the first chapter that for as long as he can remember, he’s been on a search. “I am gay and I am Catholic,” he wrote. “And I struggle continuously to reconcile those two parts of my identity.”
He wanted to speak with people who had lived through similar struggles, and in 2015 a friend who was a priest suggested that he speak to gay Catholics who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. He ran with the idea and began tracking down scientists and doctors involved in AIDS work — nuns and priests who served as caretakers to the ill, and activists, including those from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
He said he chose to focus on stories of compassion because he is interested in “people who had a lot to lose by taking on the power structure of the church but still did the right thing.”
“So, the priests who minister to gay men dying from AIDS, some of whom come out as gay themselves, and challenge the churches to be more welcoming and accepting,” he said. “The nuns who are really scrappy people who find the resources to learn all they can about HIV and AIDS and then do their own ministry. The gay Catholics who find themselves caught between their inclination to be part of the gay activism world but also remain part of the church.”
He said he kept asking himself, “How do they make this work?”
“I’m drawn to those stories because there’s something universal about summoning the courage to do the right thing when it would be much easier to do nothing,” he said, adding that this courage “applies to all sorts of situations even today.”
The book doesn’t attempt to “rewrite history” and also recounts how church leaders advocated against LGBTQ rights. But at the same time, O’Loughlin said he wanted to make sure the people who did extraordinary things and cite their Catholic faith as their motivation were also part of that history.
He noted that many of the people he spoke with said their journeys were complicated. Over 10 years, Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a nun and nurse from a small city in southern Illinois, traveled to Kansas City, Chicago and eventually New York City to care for people living with AIDS. She told O’Loughlin that she didn’t know any gay people before she began her AIDS work, and she had to reconcile the church’s teachings with her drive to care for people.
O’Loughlin said that it was at times painful for the people he interviewed, including Baltosiewich, to take a hard look at their prejudices and biases before their experiences changed them.
“When she began to learn about HIV and how it was affecting the gay community, it was sort of this whole new culture,” O’Loughlin said. “It was this clash between what she had known and something that was foreign to her, so she eventually learned and grew, but I think that some people are maybe hesitant to look honestly at that time, because there was so much stigma and shame that even the most well-intentioned people really couldn’t free themselves without making a conscious decision, which she did ultimately, but many people were just kind of in this culture that looked with such hostility at the LGBT community.”
Some of the people O’Loughlin spoke to experienced that hostility themselves. The Rev. William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest and an artist who attended the Pratt Institute in New York City, ministered to people dying from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1989, McNichols came out as gay publicly in a chapter for a book published by New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to gay and lesbian Catholics.
He asked the permission of his Jesuit superiors at the time, and they told him that it was his choice to make, but that if he came out he wouldn’t be able to work at a Jesuit high school, college or parish. As an illustrator who worked in a hospital, he wasn’t offended by the response and decided to write the chapter.
O’Loughlin said the LGBTQ people he interviewed all made a decision at some point to stay in the church “no matter how strong the headwinds they faced,” because it was their church, too.
“Once people made that decision, there seemed to be something — whether it was grace or just stubbornness — that kept them involved,” he said. “And that kind of spoke to me as I continue to figure out what place I have in the church and as I interview dozens and dozens of LGBT people every year going through something similar, that you have to make that decision to stay and then be prepared to fight to keep your place in an institution that isn’t always welcoming.”
O’Loughlin wrote Tuesday in an op-ed for The New York Times that conducting interviews for his book had a “profound effect” on his faith, so much so that he wrote a letter to Pope Francis to tell him about the book and the conversations he had.
In August, the pope wrote back. The letter was written in Spanish but was translated to English.
“Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from H.I.V. and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation,” Pope Francis wrote.
The pontiff added, “Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation, these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father and allowed that to become their own life’s work; a discreet mercy, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each one of us.”
O’Loughlin wrote that the letter won’t heal old or new wounds — the church still won’t bless same-sex marriages and teaches that homosexuality is immoral — but that it gave him hope that church leaders “will be transformed” in how they see LGBTQ people and “others whose faith is lived on the margins.”
Regardless of whether that happens, O’Loughlin said one of his goals for the book is to show LGBTQ people struggling with their faith that they aren’t alone, and that there are many people who came before them.
“By meeting people and learning about the struggles and learning the history, I’ve realized that this is not new at all,” O’Loughlin said. “The reality is, people have been grappling with these questions for forever … and there’s a lot of wisdom in these stories that have helped me realize I’m not alone at all.”
“This is not my first plague.” In 1982, Rev. Steve Pieters was the first minister diagnosed with AIDS in the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a denomination that lost a third of its clergy to the disease. In 1985, he was the first openly gay man and person with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker on ThePTL Club, a Christian TV show and cultural staple of the early Christian Right. Today he’s retired from ministry, locked down at home, and “trying to be of service over the phone and zoom” to people in his church facing another pandemic.
Pieters is part of a unique cohort for whom the current pandemic is both eerily familiar and puzzlingly different. LGBT Christian clergy who ministered in queer communities in the 1980s and 90s are engaging Covid-19 using some lessons learned from AIDS ministry in the years before treatment. They’re also grappling with the spiritual, political, and social lessons we failed to learn in that epidemic; lessons that are re-emerging in this one.
Bishop Zachary Jones re-experienced the feeling of being utterly absorbed in the immediacy of a medical crisis when taking part in the daily ritual of thanking New York health care workers. “While I was banging this tambourine I was like oh my God, I remember what it meant to deal with case after case after case.” Jones, a bishop in the Unity Fellowship, started his work in AIDS and LGBTQ ministry driving Unity founder Rev. Carl Beans to his seemingly endless hospital visits in the AIDS units of 1980s Los Angeles.
Rev. Penny Nixon, who ministered in MCC’s San Francisco congregation in the 1990s, felt bodily memories of AIDS ministry rise in the first few weeks of Covid and then recede in the face of the also-familiar need to put feelings away and get to work. “How we got through the last pandemic,” she said, “it became the reality. You put your head down and you do it.”
For Karen Ziegler, the political parallels have been almost uncanny. She was the pastor of the MCC congregation in Greenwich Village for a decade that spanned the emergence of AIDS. “I realized early on in the Trump administration that it felt like the 80s when Ronald Reagan was elected and then there was this sharp, visible turn to the right,” she said. Part of that rightward turn is the way that AIDS and Covid revealed the often implicit American political calculation of whose lives are valued. The contrast between the anti-gay backlash in the first years of AIDS and the backlash against people of color evident in both epidemics is “helping me to understand that the original lie of America is this white superiority and all the kinds of supremacy that allows some people to think that other people don’t matter. All of that has become so visible.”
There are big differences in the physical and social trajectories of the respective diseases. In its early years AIDS was a very visible disease and, as Rev. Jim Mitulski recalled, an ugly one. Mitulski ministered with Nixon at the MCC congregation in San Francisco. Jones remembered seeing people getting sicker and sicker, week after week. “Death was much slower,” he said. And for all of the losses of Covid, the length of illness, for most, is much shorter and the possibility of survival much greater.
When Pieters was first diagnosed there was no treatment for AIDS. He considered himself lucky to have a doctor who advised “if there’s a one in a million chance that you can survive this, why not believe that you are that one in a million? Just believe that. And act like it.” People with Covid have a much higher rate of survival. “Eighty percent, eighty-five percent will survive this. And that’s a lot easier to believe than one in a million,” he said.
“It’s baffling,” Jones said, “the difference stigma brings to a pandemic.” It’s the most striking difference between the diseases these clergy have noticed. An early AIDS diagnosis was often intertwined with sexuality, sometimes with substance abuse, and always with social shame. Clergy had to minister to all three in addition to the disease. Jones remembers it as a kind of spiritual triage where he was always trying to figure out the most pressing need to respond to in any given case. “There were times that we just didn’t know what we were dealing with until hindsight,” he said. AIDS, recalled Nixon, was “religiously stigmatized in a way this pandemic is not.”
Isolation and aloneness have been challenges of pastoral care and spiritual leadership in both epidemics, albeit in very different forms. In the early years, the isolation of people with AIDS was visceral. Many were socially—and sometimes medically—shunned. The pastoral challenge was to make congregations spaces where people with AIDS were seen, welcomed, touched, and included. Nixon remembered how MCC San Francisco shaped ritual around the experience of AIDS. “[W]hether it’s the men coming with their IV poles coming to church [or] laying on the pews, their bodies were recognized as sacred and holy in that moment. That was a powerful corrective to society. And to religion. And to church.” All the clergy I talked to made church environments that countered the fear of disease by bringing people physically close.
With Covid, Bishop Yvette Flunder notes, the challenge is to keep people connected when the virus keeps them physically apart. Flunder started Ark of Refuge, one of the first AIDS ministries in a black church, in the mid-80s. Today she’s the pastor at City of Refuge, a UCC/Metho-Bapti-Costal church, and leads The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a global community of churches committed to radical inclusivity. With AIDS, she recalled, people who looked sick were marginalized “because of the position that the church took that if you have this dirty disease you’re a dirty person. But in this particular environment it’s the church that’s the dirty person. It’s [coming to] church that can make church people sick. Which flips the script.” And flips the pastoral task.
Ministry in LGBTQ communities provided at least two tools that have been useful in that new task. One is spiritual grounding in what Flunder calls a “consistent ethics of self care.” “[W]e talked about barriers and condoms back in the day, and safe sex practices. I now talk about social distancing and masks. And for me it’s six in one hand, half a dozen in another. Protect yourself. Be responsible not just for yourself but for your partner. . . . It’s really not different.”
Another is the skill of ritual innovation, honed in ministry to people whose life passages were not ritually marked in the eyes of the dominant culture. “God didn’t go away” in either epidemic, said Mitulski. “Our ability to craft ritual, our imagination has not dissipated or dried up.” Queer churches have long had to create rituals to counter that exclusion and make the sanctification of queer life feel real.
This has translated into creative experimentation with making virtual church feel real. Flunder’s church has grown since the epidemic. “We’ve had all kinds of ritual online,” she said, including different sacraments from the African-American Christian church and the indigenous spiritual communities that make up her congregation. They’ve also experimented with outdoor rituals. “[We] broadcast through our radios and through cell phones so that we could see each other. . . . We gave people little disposable communion kits and we had communion on the parking lot and blew our horns something fierce… you know, made a lot of noise.”
Like all of us, these ministers are looking toward the time when science and medicine change the trajectory of the Covid epidemic. But they also remember the challenges that change can bring. One is the need to address the compounded grief and loss that can so easily be skipped over in the midst of crisis. Pieters remembers that “when the drumbeat of death slowed down in ‘96, ‘97, there was a palpable feeling of deep depression among a lot of people who worked in AIDS. A deep grief,” which he attributed to losses unattended to.
“Think about all the un-mourned people who’ve died.” Mitulski said. “And the fact that they died in solitude. We’ve got to deal with it or it’s going to fuck people up for a long time.” In a 1999 sermon, given three years after protease inhibitors changed the course of AIDS in his congregation, Mitulski reminded them that AIDS wasn’t over. AIDS still isn’t over. And it fuels his admonition that, if and when the course of Covid changes, we attend to its afterlives. And especially to the enduring inequalities that both epidemics make inescapably clear.