Bridging the Gap: Seeing Lent as an Opportunity to Welcome LGBTQ Christians Back to the Church

by Madeleine Roberts

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is a time of reflection and contemplation, a time when many Christians think about ways that they can become closer to God and to each other. To mark the season this year, HRC Religion & Faith Program Director Michael Vazquez sat down with Jesuit Priest and Editor-at-Large of America Media, Father James Martin.

Father Martin began his ministry to LGBTQ Catholics after the tragic shooting at Pulse that claimed 49 lives, most of them LGBTQ and Latinx, in June 2016. Since then, he has made it a priority to connect with and advocate for LGBTQ Catholics to ensure they feel welcome in the Church, and to encourage other non-LGBTQ people in the Church to do the same. During the conversation, Vazquez and Father Martin discussed how all Christians can take the opportunity that Lent provides to reach out and make connections with LGBTQ people in their church families.

Below are excerpts from their conversation. HRC will share a video covering more of the discussion as Lent continues.

How can the church use Lent as a means to engage more [with the LGBTQ community]?

Lent is a time to really prepare for Easter, but also to understand the sufferings of Jesus… And it's also a time for people to engage more deeply with LGBT people... the idea is when anybody suffers, Christ is suffering. And certainly LGBT people are suffering. And so one of the invitations for Catholics [during Lent] is to unite yourself with people who are suffering, including LGBT people. 

What opportunities do you see for the Church to engage and to move towards justice and towards equity? 

I do see a lot of places where the Catholic Church can really move ahead. And I would say easily, because some of these things are obvious. I think the decriminalization of homosexuality is a really important move for the church to stand behind. ...These are life and death issues for a lot of people.

Secondly, I would say for the church to combat teen suicides, LGBT, any kind of suicide. But of course LGBT people, as you know, are at a higher risk for attempting suicide. … And then finally the targeting of LGBT people who are fired from their jobs for being civilly married, when so many other people who are not following Church teaching are not treated that way. 

[How] do these [Gospel] stories compel folk to love the LGBTQ community and to support them?

The woman at the well, for example, is the story of Jesus coming upon a Samaritan woman who was getting water during the heat of the day. How does he encounter this person who feels like she's on the margins? He listens to her, he speaks to her, he hears her story. And then at the end of the story, he reveals himself to her basically saying, “I'm the Messiah.” 

So I would like to use that story as an example for Catholics of how they can treat people who feel like they're on the margins, i.e., LGBT people, right? It’s not, I’m going to condemn you for this or that, but it's let me listen to your story. It’s an example of what Pope Francis calls a culture of encounter.

Get to know [LGBTQ people], understand their stories, listen to them. And then treat them like Jesus did, with what the catechism calls respect, compassion and sensitivity. 

What kind of spiritual exercises would you offer Catholics trying to engage with the LGBTQ community, but they don't know where to begin?

The first thing I would invite Catholics to think about in their relationship with LGBT people is humility. There's a lot of misunderstanding about the LGBT experience. Can you exercise humility, which is a virtue during Lent, and listen to people that you might not understand? That may be people that you know in your life, what's your experience like as an LGBT person, but just reading about these things rather than kind of relying on old stereotypes. That takes a lot of humility to say, “I think I'm wrong in what I understood. I think I'm wrong in my experience, in my own knowledge about LGBT people.” 

I’d also say, can you be open to the fact that God may want to meet you through this LGBT person? For people that might be at odds with the LGBT community or sort of suspicious, the person you thought was different, the person you thought was other is actually the person who reveals God to you. 

Conversely, for LGBTQ Catholics, what kind of spiritual or contemplative exercise would you offer us as we go through Lent?

For the LGBT person, the LGBT believer or Christian or Catholic, I would say that one of the Lenten practices is to really ground yourself in the church, to ground yourself in the community and so often they’re made to feel separate from the community. … Part of Lent is sort of participating in Jesus's struggle and Jesus’s path towards Jerusalem. As he marches towards Jerusalem, what he’s doing is bringing people in all along the way. All along the way he’s healing them and restoring them to health and also to the community and he’s bringing people who are seen as other or different, who are on the margins and bringing them in.

It’s funny to think that the person you thought was condemning you is actually the person who’s inviting you. That’s Jesus for the LGBT Christian. 

What do you imagine possible for the future of the church in terms of our relationship between the church and the LGBTQ community?

I hope what’s possible is everything, and I hope it’s that the LGBTQ community can feel welcome in their own church.

People look to their faith as a source of guidance and inspiration -- and LGBTQ people and our family and friends are no different. The HRC Foundation’s Religion and Faith Program is working to create a world where no one is forced to choose between who they are, whom they love and what they believe. Thanks in part to this work, more and more faith communities aren’t simply engaging in dialogue around LGBTQ equality, they’re leading the conversation. They do this work not in spite of their religious beliefs, but because of them. Learn more here

For Lent, check out HRC’s Lenten Devotional campaign, which honors and celebrates the ways that religion and faith unite us -- in our places of worship and in our communities.