Catholic officials shouldn't forsake D.C.'s poor in gay marriage fight

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, November 13, 2009

In the gray rain -- where the only burst of color comes from the flash of an ambulance scooping up someone who is cold, sick and wet -- threatening to shut a door is the cruelest answer.

"They want to stop helping us?" asked the woman tucked completely inside her wet jacket.

She is staying at the nearby John Young women's shelter run by Catholic Charities on First Street NW. She'd heard that the Church is threatening to stop taking millions of dollars of the District's money for services such as this shelter, adoption and medical care unless the D.C. Council changes the same-sex marriage bill it is preparing to pass next month.

For folks on the street, those words are nothing more than the sound of a door slamming shut.

"I hear they gonna put us out," she told me.

"I don't get it. What do gay people have to do with the shelters? They're the Church; that's what they do. They help. That don't make no sense," the woman said.

That's right.

By trying to play political hardball with the District, no matter how carefully they word their objection to the bill, officials at the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities are telling our city's most vulnerable people -- homeless families, sick children, low-income mothers -- that they are willing to throw them on the table as a bargaining chip.

What the Church is doing is an uncharitable and cruel maneuver.

Amid a recession and on the cusp of a winter that is expected to be harsh, the number of homeless women and children in the city "is skyrocketing," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) when he spoke at a panel on homelessness this week.

According to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, 434 families in the District are on a waiting list for emergency shelter. This number jumped by about two dozen in just one week. For most people working in this field, it is the highest number in recent memory.

Catholic Charities runs nine homeless shelters using at least some money from the city. This is not a time to threaten any of the services those provide.

Although it won't be forced to perform same-sex marriages or make space for such ceremonies if the marriage bill passes, the Church would have to abide by city laws. In this case, that would mean extending employee benefits to same-sex married couples.

"If the city requires this, we can't do it," Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, told our reporters Wednesday. "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."

The problem is that taking a stand like this goes against the mission of the Church and the important lessons it has taught millions of followers.

I'm not going to make this an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Anyone who opposes such basic civil rights will find themselves on the wrong side of history. It's a civil rights issue, and I believe the argument should end right there.

But in this case, the message the Church is sending with its actions is wrong, and it has left me and countless other Catholics heartbroken.

I am not much of a churchgoer these days. But I will always hold dear the lessons I learned from the Church I attended in my younger days.

When Father Joe went bicycling and skiing with us, he taught us to love and respect the Earth. Father Grace, with his white hair and an Irish accent so hard the younger kids in catechism called him "The Big Leprechaun," was stern enough to make me think twice before sweating through another confession where I had to admit all the terrible things I had done to my little brother the week before.

But he was gentle in reminding us of the simple rules of forgiveness, love, tolerance and charity.

When I was about to snark about the folks coming for help at the church food bank, the priests told me not to judge, only to help. When I smugly pointed out the inappropriate wrap shorts someone wore to Mass one summer day, someone told me, "She is here at church; judge her no further."

I'll even thank the choir director, who told me it was very important that I sing "pianissimo" during Mass, because she taught me that someone as tone deaf as I should never attempt karaoke. Thank God for her, too.

In that awful rain Thursday, I talked to Eric Seegars, who is 47 and living in a family shelter on the old D.C. General Hospital campus. There is nothing pianissimo about the way he feels and expresses himself.

His wife, twin 8-year-olds and 15-year-old have been there for three months. The neighboring shelter is a women's place run by Catholic Charities, and they know the people who stay there.

"Where will all those people go?" Seegars asked. "They can't put people on the street."

I just pray he's right.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com

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