To find the roots of St. Francis of Assisi’s gay and lesbian ministry, look to a June 30, 1999, seminar at Immaculate Conception parish in Durham. That day, the New Ways Ministry seminar “Building Bridges” focused on how parishes could connect with the gay and lesbian community. With the support of then-Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province welcomed the daylong seminar. Six St. Francis parishioners at that meeting decided there was enough interest to develop a parish ministry and created a contact sheet for future mailings.

The ministry first met Aug. 20, 1999, at the home of Cathy Dondlinger and Jane Paris. For several months, locations of business meetings rotated as a steering team grew to include about 10 SFA parishioners, working with then-director of evangelization Peggy Dunbeck Monti. The group did a lot of brainstorming on individual formation, team-building and communications before working on any programming.

The next building block came in late May 2000 when Chris Kitts joined the St. Francis staff and became the ministry’s staff liaison. Chris built an extensive blind-carbon-copy e-mail list for folks throughout the area interested in the ministry’s work and offerings.

(Upon Chris’ departure in 2005, the ministry moved in the parish’s organizational chart from evangelization to family life. Since then, Jeff Holman, Gladys Whitehouse and Jason Lillis have been staff liaisons to the ministry.)

Franciscan friar David Convertino became presenter for the ministry’s first program, a prayer service and presentation Feb. 9 and 10, 2001. The Friday evening program for gays and lesbians was “With Open Hands”; the Saturday morning program for relatives and friends was “With Open Hearts.” A few dozen folks attended each.

Over the years, the ministry added regular activities to the parish’s calendar. Beginning in January 2006, it began to offer Reclaim, a six-week series for LGBT Catholics pioneered by St. Bernadette’s parish in Severn, Md. Jane Paris and Chuck Small facilitated the series. Participants in the first Reclaim group decided to develop an LGBT small Christian community to keep the sense of fellowship going. Out of the Tomb is a weekly series of reflections and small-group sharing during Lent. Beginning in 2010, Reclaim alternated with a new continuing-education series, Reaffirm, designed to address general questions about the Catholic faith.

Although the ministry had reached out intermittently to parents, families and friends of LGBT Catholics, parent Joe Pietrus joined the ministry steering team in 2009 and became the driving force behind the development of “Always Our Children,” a monthly support group for LGBT Catholics, families and friends. The group held its first meeting in December 2010 and meets monthly on the first Sunday of the month, excluding holiday weekends.

Retreats have been a vital part of ministry programming since 2002, when more than 15 participants took part in “Reclaiming the Promise,” with presenter Sister Barbara Regan, at Summit Retreat Center in Brown Summit, near Greensboro.  Since 2005, the retreats have been an annual event. In addition, the ministry regularly develops programming and promotes it within and outside the St. Francis community. Franciscan Brother Ed Coughlin led a ministry-sponsored workshop on "right relationships" in February 2002. The ministry offered a "Night of Dialogue" for relatives and friends of gays and lesbians in October 2003. Helen King of Durham, coordinator for the Parents Reconciling Network, spoke at a parents gathering in January 2004. Jeff Holman presented a talk on "The Bible and Homosexuality: What Does It Really Say?" in spring 2004. In the summer of 2006, Franciscan Brother Scott Brookbank and Rabbi Raachel Jurovics of Temple Beth-Or led a ministry discussion after the showing of “Trembling Before G-d,” a film about Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews. On Sept. 11, 2007, the ministry sponsored the showing of “Saint of 9/11,” a documentary about the life of Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. In 2008, the ministry sponsored a showing of Daniel Karslake’s documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So.” From 2003-2005 and again in 2008-2010, the ministry has sponsored annual days of reflection. In 2011, the ministry worked on a presentation as part of the community's Stations of the Cross Lenten series.

As the ministry has grown, it has also offered social opportunities. During Lent, the ministry has sponsored dessert socials and, more recently, has been a sponsor of the parish’s Friday-night soup suppers. Bowling nights, camping and hiking trips, trips to bingo fundraisers, game nights and holiday parties have helped to build community.

In 2005, the ministry began to reach out to other groups in the St. Francis community to encourage dialogue about its mission. Such conversations have extended outside the parish. In fall 2005, Jane Paris and Rev. Mark Reamer took part in a Meredith College panel discussion about Christianity and homosexuality; in fall 2006, Jane and Chuck met with students and older adults at N.C. State University’s Doggett Center to discuss the Catholic Church and homosexuality. Albert Ervin led a similar discussion in fall 2007 at N.C. State.

In the LGBT community, the ministry has had a booth at N.C. Pride at Duke University each year since 2002, and since 2004, it has had a display at the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. In 2011, responding to an invitation to the ministry from the LGBT Center of Raleigh, the Rev. Mark Reamer was one of a half-dozen clergy who welcomed participants to the inaugural OutRaleigh festival in downtown Raleigh.

The ministry teams up regularly with St. Francis’ AIDS care team to raise money for AIDS education, care and prevention. The two groups have teamed up for the annual AIDSWalk since 2001 and the “Evening With Friends” fund-raiser since 2002.

In addition, the ministry has built relationships with other ministries across the country that reach out to LGBT Catholics, families and friends.

The ministry made its debut on the parish Web site in 2003. Frank Cotton developed a ministry-specific Web site in 2007. As of 2012, about 20 SFA parishioners are regularly involved as members of the gay and lesbian ministry’s steering team.

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