Easter service at St. Clement's, where a group of parishioners have formed an organization, Affirmed, to build bridges between Catholicism and the LGBTQ community. Credit: Provided/Michele V Wagner Photography

LINCOLN PARK — When Katherine Abel held the first meeting for Affirmed, a ministry based out of St. Clement’s parish in Lincoln Park that welcomed LGBTQ Catholics, she expected perhaps a dozen people to turn out.

To Abel’s surprise, more than 40 Catholics from the Chicago area and Indiana showed up for a reading that focused on building bridges between Catholicism and the LGBTQ community.

“We had someone who was coming from northwest Indiana, so he was driving two hours,” Abel said. “But it was something that he didn’t have in his area, and he needed it so much that it was worth it to him once a month to come out and join us in person.”

Abel, who is a straight ally, co-founded Affirmed in 2019 in the hopes she could create a space where her sister, who is queer, would feel safe. She wasn’t afraid to approach her pastor about forming the group; St. Clement’s, 642 W. Deming Place, had a history of caring for members of the LGBTQ community, and Abel knew members of the church identified as queer.

The group gathered with members of other nearby parishes, including St. Vincent de Paul, 1010 W. Webster Ave.; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 708 W. Belmont Ave.; for the Affirmed meeting.

“I wanted it to be very clear and explicit: … We are accepting here, we’re inclusive and we have a space for you if you’re interested,” said Abel, 38.

After the first meeting, members decided to establish Affirmed as an opportunity for reading and faith sharing, whether that meant as a Bible study or book club. Affirmed members also started volunteering with youth experiencing homelessness, many of whom identified as LGBTQ.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Affirmed’s members paused their in-person ministry but kept up the book club. The tradition became a beacon of light not just for queer Catholics, but those seeking a sense of normalcy during COVID, members said.

“It was the presence of the book club, which was just something that always happens every week at the same time, that just gave me a sense of stability,” said member Hyunmin Park. “Especially during the pandemic, when everybody was so afraid and confused, this was an online space that we could all go to and somehow people were really committed to coming to this group.”

St. Clement’s, where a group of parishioners have formed an organization, Affirmed, to build bridges between Catholicism and the LGBTQ community. Credit: Provided/Michele V Wagner Photography

Going to church was a big part of Park’s childhood in South Korea, where queer communities still face discrimination and a lack of protections. She didn’t go to mass for a while after coming out as bisexual in her mid-20s, but she was looking for ways to get back when she discovered St. Clement’s.

“I knew that there are Catholic churches that are LGBT-affirming, but I wasn’t sure how to tell,” Park said. “I felt like whenever I went to a Catholic church space, there was always a chance that I would hear something that would make me feel unwelcome. Then I just didn’t want to expose myself to that sort of emotional risk.”

Park struggles with what the Catholic church says about her sexuality and believes the institution has harmed queer people. Yet she also said affirming LGBTQ communities is at the heart of Christian teachings to love your neighbors, and she thinks the church is progressing in a positive direction.

Ryan Zieman saw signs of that progress when he watched Old St. Patrick’s Church pastor Father Tom Hurley give the benediction at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration, he said.

“I’m like, well, if he’s doing that for our our new queer mayor, they must be a really open-minded Catholic parish,” Zieman said.

After researching LGBT-friendly parishes, Zieman discovered Affirmed and attended one of its earliest meetings in fall 2019. He was in his late 20s; before that, had never met or really heard of other young, queer Catholics, he said. Like Park, he has stayed with the church because he feels its traditions, order of mass and history provide a source of stability for him in a chaotic world, he said.

“I’m never not going to be Catholic for all of those reasons. I could join another … sect of Christianity that is more like ‘rah, rah, rainbows and unicorns, go gay,’ but that’s not who I am and that’s not why I have the faith that I have,” Zieman said. “I’m trying to do my little part to help progress the church and, at the very least, to be part of a space that is open and welcoming to queer Catholics or even just to let people know that we exist.”

Affirmed isn’t the first ministry for queer Catholics in Chicago.

In 1988, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin established the Archdiocese Gay and Lesbian Outreach. Bernardin was a pragmatic centrist who found a middle ground within the Church hierarchy on gay issues, said Michael O’Loughlin, author of “Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear.” At the time, taking a more conciliatory tone with the LGBTQ community and establishing a group was a unique move for a cardinal.

Bernardin was steadfast in his support for Chicago’s gay community, particularly during the AIDS crisis, said Joe Vitek, director of community outreach at Archdiocese Gay and Lesbian Outreach.

But the archbishop’s relationship with queer people was more complex. In 1986, he opposed a proposed ordinance in Chicago outlawing discrimination against gay people. The following year, he supported the decision of five local parishes to administer communal rites to those with AIDS. The cardinal also called upon Catholics to “open their doors and their hearts to those touched in any way by AIDS, as well as to their friends and family.”

For some queer Catholics, Bernardin’s words of comfort rang hollow. Rick Garcia, then executive director of the Catholic Advocate for Lesbian and Gay Rights, wrote in a 1987 Tribune op-ed that the archdiocese failed to provide meaningful outreach to those suffering.

“While other Catholic dioceses have provided funding for direct services to people with AIDS, opened hospices and taken leadership roles in AIDS education, the Archdiocese of Chicago has done virtually nothing,” Garcia wrote.

St. Clement’s, where a group of parishioners have formed an organization, Affirmed, to build bridges between Catholicism and the LGBTQ community. Credit: Provided/Michele V Wagner Photography

Parishioners at St. Clement’s did take action. Its location not far from Boystown placed it at the epicenter of the epidemic. The parish already served sick people who were unable to leave their homes, and adapted those services to HIV and AIDS patients, O’Loughlin said.

“What might have been unique about St. Clement’s and some other parishes around the country was they were willing to engage in ministry with a community that was so marginalized and the topic of homosexuality was so taboo in the church,” he said. “That took a lot of courage.”

St. Clement’s services were simple. AIDS would sicken patients to the point that they became homebound. Cut off from friends and family, parishioners would do grocery shopping, prepare meals and clean their homes for them, O’Loughlin said. Visits from volunteers also provided respite from the loneliness inflicted by the social stigma that came with AIDS at the time.

“You had groups at Catholic parishes like St Clement’s that would simply listen to those questions, engage in conversations about them, provide kind of pastoral care, maybe send a priest over who you knew would be non-judgmental and be present,” O’Loughlin said. “Those kinds of things, they sound kind of mundane, but they were vital, especially in those early years before pharmaceutical treatments improved.”

The church also became a refuge for people mourning loved ones lost to AIDS. In “Hidden Mercy,” O’Loughlin describes the AIDS Pastoral Care Network’s candlelight vigil held each Memorial Day Weekend. Starting in 1986, the vigil would begin at St. Clement’s, and subdued marchers would proceed through Boystown. Catholics, leathermen and an African American Catholic children’s choir sang, wept and prayed during an interfaith service held inside the ornate, Byzantine church.

Whether St. Clement’s today is an outlier in its attitude on LGBTQ issues or a leader in a gradual liberalization in the church is a difficult question even for queer Catholics in Affirmed. For every progressive parish like St. Clement’s or Old St. Patricks, there are more conservative churches.

“There’s always going to be these little internal struggles and movements, but this thing has been around for 2,000 years and it’s, God willing, going to continue,” Affirmed member Marty Malone said. “There’s been some good movement right now in the past maybe dozen years with the LGBT community, but it’s still so small on the scale…With that said, I’m still very positive about the outlook.”

Although there may be hints of change from Pope Francis, Affirmed member Brian Christ hasn’t seen enough evidence of progress at an organizational level.

“I think individually people feel very welcome. They feel part of their individual parishes and communities,” Christ said. “Perhaps that’s where the change will come from.”

For Affirmed members like Park, it’s the individuals they meet through ministry groups that bring them back to the church, not the message from Pope Francis, whom she believes should take a stronger, more affirming stance on LGBTQ issues. While not every Catholic community may welcome her full identity, she’s grateful to have found Affirmed.

“For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t exist in both spaces at the same time, or I couldn’t hold onto both identities at the same time, being Catholic and being queer,” Park said. “And it was just a matter of finding the right set of people. … So I just want to say that for the sake of other people out there who feel isolated and who feel like they they can’t hold on to both identities, just that it’s possible. You just have to find other friends who are like you.”

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