Fortunate Families: Catholic Parents of Gay and Lesbian Children Share Joy, Pain and Hope

Article excerpt

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This is a love story, shaped by sadness, pain and hope, and it began in November 1983 when a 19-year-old boy sat down with his mother on their living room sofa and with tears in his eyes, said, "Mom, I'm lonely. I'm lonely for another man."

As the mother, Mary Ellen Lopata of Rochester, N.Y., tells the story, her son, Jim, wasn't referring to any man in particular. His words, "I'm lonely," simply described his experience of longing for companionship as a gay man.

Lopata recounts that it took years from that encounter for her to face and process her pain and years longer before she had the courage to share her story with others. "I was shocked and confused. I cried and cried."

That moment marked the beginning of what for Lopata has been a 25-year journey that has done nothing less than revolutionize her life, and give solace to countless other gay and lesbian children and their parents. Lopata's conversion--and that's what it was--has, by the accounts of many, reshaped the way countless Catholics, and in some eases their bishops, view and receive gay and lesbian persons.

At first Lopata, echoing stories of other Catholic parents of gay and lesbian children, felt isolated. Her son, she said, was the first gay person she had ever known, and just by being himself he challenged the stereotypes she had of gay people.

"The only thing I knew for sure was that I loved my son; Everything else was confusion. Why did this happen? How did it happen? Am I to blame? What does this mean for Jim ... for his family? Is this a sin? What about church? How can we ever tell our friends?"

If knowing other gay persons was a stretch, knowing their parents seemed a further impossibility. She started to research the subject at her local library, being careful not to be too public about the books she was checking out. She said little to outsiders.

It was in 1987 that Lopata took another step. Her parish decided to hold a workshop on homophobia and homosexuality. She worked behind the scenes to publicize it. "The most important thing that workshop did was to break the silence around homosexuality I came away from that experience knowing that if I loved my son as I said I did, I could not remain silent. Somewhere along the way, I began to realize what a special gift Jim is to me, to our family, and the whole body of Christ--not in spite of, but because he is gay."

That's the conversion, or core insight, that comes to most parents of gay and lesbian children.

Lopata and her husband, Casey, got increasingly involved in gay and lesbian organizations: New Ways Ministry; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and Dignity.

In 2004, the Lopatas, attempting to fill a gap in the gay and lesbian persons network, formed Fortunate Families, based in Rochester, with the mission of ministering to Catholic parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children. It has grown since, becoming a national network that reached out with support and encouragement. As Fortunate Families states: "We connect parents to work for welcome and justice in the church for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children."

Fortunate Families offers counseling, retreats and days of reflection for parents of LGBT children. It sends out a monthly newsletter that reaches some 2,100 people in seven countries on the Internet and by postal mail. It maintains a Web site, the hub of its networking information center, at www.fortunatefamilies.com.

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Catholic parents of LGBT children are not just grateful for the organization, they are fervently so.

Terri and Rich Dalke, parents of a gay son, wrote in an e-mail: "Fortunate Families supports us as we value and treasure our family story" learn to speak it and share it with our friends, our family and our faith family. …