UPDATE | SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 7, 2014 — The latest development in the story of Bobby Glenn Brown’s restriction from the Catholic diocese of Marquette: Brown received communion and carried the cross at Christ the King Catholic Church in Las Vegas Sunday morning. The priest in Las Vegas sent him a letter during the controversy back in June welcoming him to his church. Bobby Glenn Brown will also act as a cantor in a funeral for a family-friend on Wednesday.
MARQUETTE, Mich. — A parishioner at St. Michael Catholic Church for the past three years has been asked to step down from his duties. The move has sent shock-waves through the community and left churchgoers with more questions than answers.
Bobby Glenn Brown has been an integral part of St. Michael Parish ever since he was baptized there three years ago.
“He’s a very large presence,” remarked 27-year parishioner Kathy Crowley Andel. “He’s in the choir; he’s a cantor; he has a beautiful voice. He’s also been on the parish council. He’s a lector. He’s done more in the time he’s been at St. Michael’s than probably a good portion of the congregation.”
However, despite his years of service, St. Michael’s pastor Rev. Larry Van Damme asked Brown to curb his involvement in the parish recently after it was learned that he and his partner of 31 years exchanged vows at commitment ceremony.
“When I went to church, I was greeted by Father Larry, if you will, and was explained that, because of the fake ceremony that I had, that I committed myself to another man, that I would no longer be able to lector, cantor or sing in the choir, that if I wanted to participate or worship, I could sit in the vestibule and listen but that I wasn’t allowed to be part of any ministry of the church anymore,” Brown said.
Brown’s understanding of the conversation with Rev. Larry Van Damme was that he could now only observe in the windowed section in the back of the church designated for crying babies. In response to media reports that published this version of the incident, Van Damme issued a statement through a fellow pastor’s blog clarifying his decision. “Among our members at St. Michael Catholic Church in Marquette we have valued parishioners with same sex attraction who serve in many capacities, including liturgical ministries,” said Van Damme. “As their pastor, I love all of my parishioners whatever their circumstance. At no point have I instructed anyone to stand at the back of the church, the cry-room, or in the vestibule. Reports of this having occurred are a misunderstanding.”
It’s a confusing matter, given the fact that most people in the church knew of Bobby’s orientation days, months, even years before the falling out.
“The Bible that I know and the God that I know say — and I learned this in Sunday school a long time ago — ‘Jesus loves me; yes, I know, for the Bible told me so’,” Bobby said. “And my whole point was, I never was anything else and I always have been who I am. At one point, they asked if Don and I could live together as brothers. No, I couldn’t, because in those words, I feel it’s incestuous and that’s not what I want. That’s not who I am and that’s not what we were together for. I mean, several of our family members have been married and divorced several times, and a lot of them have asked us for advice and we give it willingly. Like I said, we spent 30 years together and we want to live another 31 together! To be told that you can’t worship or aren’t welcomed somewhere to worship where you’ve been so welcomed, that in itself sends a mixed message.”
Although Father Van Damme is one of the designated leaders of the church, not all of his followers were on board with the decision.
“I just think it’s wrong,” Andel said. “I felt so bad; I just turned around and left also. Everybody is supposed to be welcome in the Church and God is a loving God, and I don’t think we should discriminate against anybody because that’s not what God wants us to do. Even Jesus welcomed everybody.”
Five parishioners at St. Michael accompanied Brown as he exited the building in act of solidarity after Van Damme confronted him about the commitment ceremony, which had taken place some 24 hours earlier. Prior to the incident, Brown was acting secretary of St. Michael pastoral council, and was recently re-elected by fellow parishioners for a second annual term. The pastoral council acts as visioning body to St. Michael and advises the church by offering feedback on the pastoral issues facing the parish.
A few days later, in the online opinion editorial posted to Fr. Ben Hasse’s blog, Van Damme explained that the distinction for Brown’s situation was the commitment ceremony. He said that when someone makes a deliberately thought-out life-decision to live in a manner which runs contrary to the teachings of their faith and of Scripture, the situation calls for particular pastoral response. “More specifically, if a parishioner has chosen to celebrate and promote views contradicting the words they would sing in the choir, or proclaim from Scripture as a lector, then they are asked not to lead in the singing or proclamation of those words,” said Van Damme. “However, they are still welcome to worship in the church with fellow members of the Body of Christ.”
“It’s a mixed message, and I think it’s the wrong message,” said Brown. “There is a psalm that says ‘loving and caring and forgiving are you, oh Lord’. That’s the message that needs to be brought to the students at Northern, especially to a church that’s so close to campus and a place where they should feel welcomed and able to worship. And that message is being lost.”
Bobby Glenn Brown has since decided to leave the parish in search of a more accepting place of worship, and a few others might be following suit.
“Other people that I have talked to are very upset about it,” Andel said. “They can’t believe it’s happened, for one thing, and I’m not sure where I’m going with things. I am looking at options. I mean, I was born and raised Catholic and have been very active with things, but at this time I just feel very, very crushed with what’s going on because I don’t think it’s right. It’s like, who are we to judge? And they’ve been together 30 years. They love each other, and I know a lot of other gay and lesbian couples that have been together, have loving families, have children, and it’s just not right what’s going on.”
Most Reverend John Doerfler, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Marquette, provided a written statement after hearing of the situation. It reads, “Everyone is invited to follow Jesus Christ and invited to be a part of the Catholic Church. One of the qualifications for public ministry within the Catholic Church is the willingness to give witness to the Gospel and the Church’s teachings. Such ministries include serving at Mass as a lector or cantor. The inability to serve in a ministry does not disqualify a person from being a member of the Church.”
Bobby Glenn Brown and Don Roberts had been a couple for over three decades before deciding on a commitment ceremony. On their 31st anniversary, the two men commemorated their partnership. However, because the state of Michigan does not officially recognize same sex marriages, vows were not exchanged in a courtroom or via a municipal document. Instead, they pledged their continued commitment to each other in a Christian-themed ceremony on their back porch in Marquette County surrounded by family and friends.
Another former member of St. Michael who also celebrated a same-sex marriage outside the parish said he was especially saddened to hear about the incident. In August of 2010, when former parishioner Brett Hetrick married fellow groom Mark Nardone, the couple returned to Marquette to celebrate their vows.
“The policies administrated at this particular parish are very concerning,” said Hetrick. “For Mark and I, this is very frustrating and sad to hear. From the prospective of growing up in St. Michael’s, the exclusion of people like Bobby may represent a broader problem, one affecting more young people looking for spiritual guidance when coming out.”
According to Hetrick, the simple geographic location of St. Michael Catholic and the parish’s proximity to Northern Michigan University make any closed-door policy to gays and lesbians more consequential. “Statistics indicate that the majority of people who come out are between the ages of 18 – 22 years old. When young people are discovering or questioning their orientation, the need to feel welcomed is fundamental to the process. It’s a time when they are seeking spiritual guidance and council. If the Catholic student population fears being shunned from ministry participation at church, they could reject positive outlets like Christianity entirely and lose their moral compass. It should be the role of St Michael’s and NMU’s campus ministry to welcome members of LGBT community, not exclude or seclude them.” Hetrick feels St. Michael Catholic’s affiliation with the Catholic Campus Ministry Center makes it the single largest influence to campus Catholics.
Acknowledging that although it is an incidental effect, Hetrick believes that rising suicide rates in young gay people may be prevented if Catholic exclusion policies didn’t exist. “It can potentially result in the worst case scenario for students. Without sounding too dramatic, who knows, this could even mean they have blood on their hands.”
Regarding the marriage laws in Michigan, since the time of Hetrick’s ceremony in 2010 and Brown’s in June of this year, the past 48 months of public opinion polls indicate significant increase in support for same-sex marriage in Michigan. Those in favor of same-sex marriage nearly doubled from 33% in 2011 to today’s 57%.
The Public Opinion on Michigan Gay Marriage
- A July 2011 Public Policy Polling survey found that 33% of Michigan voters thought that same-sex marriage should be legal, while 53% thought it should be illegal and 14% were not sure. A separate question on the same survey found that 62% of Michigan voters supported the legal recognition of same-sex couples, with 29% supporting same-sex marriage, 33% supporting civil unions but not marriage, 35% favoring no legal recognition and 3% not sure.
- A 2013 Glengariff Group poll found that 57% of Michigan residents support same-sex marriage while 38% oppose.
Policies of Roman Catholic Dioceses regarding ministry participation at each parish is not shaped by public opinion or state law. Yet, there is no official decree regarding same-sex married parishioners from being active in the ministry.
A recent statement by Pope Francis condemned judging and marginalizing homosexuals in the priesthood and clergy.
“When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.” – Pope Francis
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Marquette (RCDM) policy takes into account lifestyle choices regarding clergy qualification stating that, “A catechist [teacher of the principles of Christian religion] shall: Model for students by word and action how Catholic beliefs and values shape and inform spiritual, moral and life style choices.”
Decisions regarding involvement in church activities by personnel are normally passed down from, or influenced by, the Bishop’s office as administrated through the director of the Department of Ministry Personnel.
Volunteer members of the liturgical ministry like Bobby Glenn Brown are not catechists under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; they are members of the Catholic Volunteer Network. According to the RCDM’s policy, termination of volunteers is based on performance. It states, “Administrators may terminate the services of any volunteer whose performance is not satisfactory.”
The week after Brown was removed from his position, in between masses, Andel and several dozen silent sign-less protesters gathered around St. Michael Catholic Church in support of Bobby Glenn Brown. The movement has not only taken on a physical presence in Marquette, it also spread to the internet, where an online petition has been created, requesting that Pope Francis review the parish’s decision to remove Brown from his duties.
“I started a petition to ask the Pope to please look at the situation; to look at it in view of some of the statements he’s made recently that seem to be more inclusive and showing perhaps more of the love and mercy of Christ than the judgment,” said Greg Corsten, creator of the petition. “I started the petition just to see if we could get some signatures and draw attention to it beyond just the local bishop and the local clergy at St. Michael, asking for some outside, more dispassionate review of the situation.”
Corsten, an acquaintance of Brown, says he found out about the situation through social media. Part of his impetus for starting the petition was to help encourage change and social justice.
“It’s important for us to, when we see instances of social injustice, to speak out and not just remain in the background and let it happen,” Corsten added. “There are a lot of children out there that we kind of owe it to them to make steps to change things so that their children live in a more just world. I do think that’s the background of a lot of what the New Testament teaches: social justice, acceptance, and love.”
At the time of the interview, the petition, hosted on change.org, had around 150 supporters with a goal of 1,000.
Despite all of the fallout, Brown said earlier this week that he did not want to cut ties with the Diocese. He said he hoped to continue a dialogue with church officials to rectify the situation. Brown’s sponsor and the Deacon spoke on his behalf during a recent meeting with the Bishop. Brown says that during the sit-down, the Bishop instructed his mediators that he needed to publicly proclaim chastity, separate from Don and move out of their mutual home.
ABC 10 News attempted to talk to the Bishop and Father Van Damme about the meeting, but the Bishop only had this to say: “I reached out to Bobby Glenn and invited him to meet with me for a pastoral conversation. He is welcome in the Catholic Church and I will continue to keep him prayer.”
Bishop Doerfler said that he could sit in a pew, but according to Brown, Father Van Damme said he is not to take communion.
Father Larry explained in the parish’s weekly pastoral address that when someone is experiencing obstacles while in public liturgical ministry he encourages them to “examine their conscience, seek wise, informed counsel, and avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
“When, for example, people attempt marriage outside the Church without the benefit of the Church’s blessing or dispensation, our pastoral staff and I offer prayerful, compassionate support as a person strives to return to full Communion and begin or resume public liturgical ministry as convalidation of their marriage is pursued,” writes Van Damme. “Throughout, we invite people to continue their attendance at Mass within our faith community. Among other aids, each Missal in our pews has a Spiritual Communion Prayer for those who are not able to receive full Communion.”