R. Eric Thomas is the program director at the William Way LGBT Community Center, which is holding a “Celebration of Inclusive Family” on Sept 26 and 27 during the papal visit. Thomas may be new to the center—he’s been there for two months—but he’s already contributing to the cause.
When did the idea of the papal celebration first originate?
I’d say about a month ago. Our executive director, Chris Bartlett, expressed an interest in making sure we were a welcoming space for the LGBTQ and allied Catholics who were here to see the Pope.
The concern that we had is that people would be in town for all different celebrations and not have a space where they felt they could be fully themselves. We wanted to make sure that space was here.
Is this something the community has been asking for?
A lot of my friends are leaving town. My fiancé is a Presbyterian pastor and he was very excited about the Pope and wanted to go see him because he’s a religious figure and a world leader. In the community, I’ve been hearing two things. One, people are excited about the event but not sure where they fit in as LGBT people. And the other side being people who want to go as far away as possible.
Can you describe the ‘Undoing Knots’ project?
This is something that is really interesting to me. So my fiancé is a Presbyterian pastor. He mentioned to me the Pope’s favorite Marian devotion is “Mary Undoer of Knots.”
We’re setting up a large loom where people can tie their own knots that symbolize their own problems and we’re asking them to write them down. Then other people can see those knots and pray about them, whatever ways we can help undo each other’s knots.
How would you describe the event’s message?
One of the things that has become really clear when working with the faithful community is that everyone wants to find a space where they feel understood. Religious beliefs are often those spaces.
Our main priority is making sure people feel welcomed. If there is someone out there who is a dyed-in-the-wool, old school catholic who considers LGBT people not welcomed into the kingdom of God, I want to let them know there is space for them here, too. They’re welcomed here, but it’s important just as we respect them, they respect our space. This isn’t an event that is anti-catholic. It’s an event that is pro belief.
Where do you see religion and spirituality with sexual identity?
I think they’re really closely related. They’re all part of a person’s personhood. For me, my spiritual practice helps me figure out where my place in the universe is, what my direction is and just as I have a love of God, I have a love of my fiancé and my fiancé happens to be a man. God to me doesn’t have a gender.
There are a lot of people who have been told they are not allowed to feel Godly love because of who they are and I feel that sets people adrift. I personally don’t believe that is the case. I think everyone is worthy and capable of being loved. It’s just a matter of other human beings getting in the way.
How does the Philadelphia LGBT community view Pope Francis?
In my circle of friends, there are some mixed feelings. I think there are a lot of people who are very hopeful about him. He seems to be much more progressive. He has a real heart for people who are experiencing homelessness. That is a huge issue for all communities but particularly an issue for the LGBTQ community. To have a heart for homelessness is to have a heart for the LGBT community.
How has the World Meeting of Families treated the LGBT community in Philadelphia?
The World Meeting of Families made it clear that LGBT people who are attending the World Meeting were allowed, which I have personal thoughts about being allowed places. But no group that supported same-sex marriage was allowed any presenting space. In a conference that is all about family in the world, there’s only one speaker who will be talking about LGBTQ-related issues. His name is Ron Belgau, and he’s a proponent of conversion therapy. I’m one of many gays who don’t feel that seeing conversion therapy as a pro LGBT solution.
For me, it’s also a personal thing. I have a very accepting and loving family. My fiancé, in addition of being a pastor, is in school to be a marriage and family therapist. We talk about family, about how people feel that the family of birth is a welcoming place. And then to have this huge conference about family in the city where I feel very welcomed, but not finding a way to acknowledge that maybe there’s a way I can be a part of a family of my own without converting my sexual identity, that doesn’t make sense to me. That doesn’t seem very pro family.
-Text and images by Tom Dougherty and Moira Wilson.