While on a lunch break, I scrolled upon the Baltimore Brew article that shares the story of a 7th grader being told to remove her pride shirt at St. Francis of Assisi Church.
I’m a travel nurse currently working in Seattle, but I spent three years attending grad school and working in Baltimore.
In an Intensive Care Unit breakroom on the opposite side of our country, I was moved to tears by the St. Francis of Assisi community’s response to this event:
At mass the following Sunday, classmates, parents and other members of the parish showed their support for the girl by wearing rainbow-striped gay pride Covid masks and tee shirts declaring, “I AM A CHILD OF GOD.”
They expressed their clear message of inclusion in front of the priest who, witnesses said, directed the school to have the student remove her pride shirt in front of her peers before being called to the principal’s office
I grew up in a strict Catholic family in Connecticut. We never missed a Sunday mass or holy day. Catholic teachings ruled our world view.
There was no room for me as a gay person in our church. Same sex attraction was never discussed during my entire Catholic education, up through confirmation.
I don’t have a memory of anyone explicitly saying it was wrong to be gay because it was so taboo, so foreign, so sinful that it warranted no discussion.
I received the message from my Catholic community clearly: it is wrong to be gay. I knew something was very wrong with me.
I was a gentle child who loved nature and animals. A wooden plaque depicting St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, hung over my bed.
I was polite, obedient, a good student and active in my home parish. I was indifferent whether my soccer team won or lost. I enjoyed the sport, but I knew the score really didn’t matter in the end.
What mattered was being kind to people, helping those who are struggling or hurting and using my life to make a positive impact on the world.
These Catholic values led me to become a nurse and pursue a master’s degree in public health with the intention of combating barriers to health in disadvantaged communities.
As a child, I always realized I was different, but I tried hard to fit in. In 8th grade I realized my feeling of unbelonging was because I was gay. There was no room for me as a gay person in my family or in my church. Gay people simply did not exist in these worlds.
For the next five years, I struggled silently and alone trying to find my path. In my church community, I was guarded and defensive. I believed God did not want me as I was. The darkness was unbearable. I welcomed death.
I now see my early childhood circumstances as a gift that has made me more empathetic.
After five years of planning my ultimate escape route, I figured I may as well try to accept myself as a gay person before I made such a permanent departure from my life.
I allowed my Catholic lens of what was right and wrong in the world to crumble, and I came out.
In coming out to the friends who supported me, I once again found a will to live, help others, and make a positive difference in this world.
I now see my early childhood circumstances as a gift that has made me more empathetic and more motivated to help others.
Kids Showing Courage
The student who wore her pride shirt, the children of St. Francis Assisi School, the lector, the youth and education coordinators, and the parishioners of the church brought me a moment of relief and clarity I have been searching for my entire life.
We are the church. I do belong.
I have done much that I am proud of in my life, but nothing as brave as this community’s demonstration of love for their neighbor. These 7th graders took a story of adversity and turned it into the most uplifting story of 2021.
To each of them: I am so inspired by you. Through your actions, you sent a message of love and hope to people facing adversity everywhere.
When I think of my childhood St. Francis of Assisi plaque, I will now think of you.
You have refilled my cup to continue to care as a neighbor and a nurse for all members of my community, especially those who, through no fault of their own, feel like they don’t belong.
You are an example to the world of the greatest Catholic virtues: to love others and stand up for what is right, always.
When I think of my childhood St. Francis of Assisi plaque, I will now think of you. From all of the people who used to feel like me, thank you.
Message for the Adults
In closing, here’s something I want to say to Catholic priests, educators, parents and leaders in the church:
There are children like my former self in your parishes and in your schools suffering alone in silence today. Innocent, perceptive children who just want to be good, yet feel cursed for being different.
Your messages to remove symbols of inclusion are heard by them loud and clear. Your silence on the matter is heard loud and clear.
These children deserve to exist. I welcome them into our complicated and beautiful world as their fullest God-created selves.
What messages will you send them today?
• PAUL BANACH, who earned his master of public health at Johns Hopkins in 2017, has been a nurse for eight years and has worked in pediatric and adult critical care. He has worked as a travel nurse through the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, Denver and Seattle. Reach him at email@example.com.