I’m at Santa Clara University. Nine Jesuit universities have sent delegations of students and advisors to the fourth annual IgnatianQ Conference – a student-led symposium focused on the intersectionality of faith, sexuality, and social justice at Jesuit universities. The talk I gave just concluded. And it’s Q&A time.
“I have a question.” Her hand reluctantly ascends from her lap, a nervous smile unfurling. “First, thank you for your talk. Your words about God’s love for LGBT students like me is something I really needed to hear.” The room booms with applause. “My name is Benita, I’m Cuban, I’m a devout Catholic, and I’m a lesbian.”
“Hi, Benita.” Her posture relaxes a bit, but her hesitant smile turns serious. Most of these students land somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ identity spectrum.1 Most are Catholic, many are Christian, some are Jewish, a few are agnostic. All are trying to understand how they fit into the worlds they inhabit.
“I feel like I can only be Cuban and Catholic at home. I can only be lesbian and Cuban at school, sometimes. My university is very white, with lots of privileged students – sometimes I have to work at being less Cuban.” Many students of color snap emphatically, a gentle action of affirmation. These tensions Benita describes are real and true. “My Catholic identity also gets sidelined with my lesbian friends, while it’s placed on a pedestal with my family. Is there even a place for me in the Catholic Church? Can I be Catholic, Cuban, and lesbian all at once or will I always have to choose between my identities?” The conference room of 120 students fills with claps, snaps, and cheers of agreement.
And I notice their eyes turn to me for an answer, pens and paper at the ready to write down what I am about to say.
As Benita speaks, my grandmother’s soft voice floats into my mind – “You are always representing something or someone, mijo, keep your head high.”
This idea of representing has never left me. And I have appropriated my grandmother’s philosophy into everything.
So here I stand, wise words reverberating through my mind, cognizant of all that I am. Benita’s question looms over me. And I’m profusely sweating. Heart pounding. Palms sticky. I’m in front of these students representing the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. And my school. And my gender. And my race. And my sexuality. It’s overwhelming.
Benita has finished asking her question. I’m nervous. I reach for my cup of water and gulp. Dry mouth. And she is leaning in, and they all lean in, waiting for me to respond.
I open my mouth, thoughts fall from my brain, hope rises from my heart, vocal chords begin to vibrate, and suddenly, sound is forming…
“I’m gay! And I’m Cuban!” A young man raises both his hands. “We should talk!” Everyone laughs and snaps.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I say, “absolutely!” Whatever was going to be said immediately departed from my mind. “You are Catholic. And there is a place for you at the Lord’s table, for all of you. Do not forget that, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.” I’ve never thought of myself as an authority on anything, but eyes are widening all around me. They are glued to every word. In this moment I can tell I am seen as some sort of an expert. I sweat even more. “Connect and speak to each other. Share your truth. Take advantage of this time together. And pray. By doing this you will discover how God invites others to answer the same questions you’re asking. And I bet you’ll uncover answers to other questions as well!”
Smiles are forming on faces. Pens frantically noting my response. Perhaps what I’m saying makes sense to them even if I feel my answer is incomplete. But, my answer pours out from my own experience of seeking support, or affirmation, or community. And it comes from those occasions I’ve felt disaffected or dismissed by the Church. Mostly, though, it comes from Benita’s bravery to ask the question in the first place.
Afternoon flight back to Chicago. The sky is amazingly blue. That moment with Benita runs through my mind. I close my eyes and say a prayer.
I recognize there is much work to be done in the Catholic Church to help marginalized peoples feel welcome in its pews. Recalling Pope Francis asking us to smell like sheep, maybe we don’t quite smell like sheep enough to admit how exclusive our Church can be. Many of the students’ stories and questions, like Benita’s, reflected an experience of the Church that still causes some confusion and pain, leaving them feeling alienated and lost.
As I gaze out across the sky, sipping my ginger ale, I pray these young adults keep persevering. I pray they remain in the Church and don’t leave out of resentment or frustration. I pray for their unanswered questions and uncertainties. And I pray for my own strength because I’m asking myself the same thing: how can I be all of me all at once in this universal church we call Catholic? I pray because I am with them. I pray because we are all just like them, never only one thing in this world.