While the inclusion of LGBT voices in this month’s World Meeting of Families and papal visit has been an ongoing source of contention, the intersection of LGBT and Catholic identities will be the primary focus of a theater production arriving in Philadelphia next week.
“Full of Grace: Journeys of LGBT Catholics” is a docudrama based on interviews with several-dozen individuals from across the country about growing up, or living as, LGBT Catholics. There will be readings of the play by 95 North Productions from Sept. 22-25 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St.
The production runs concurrently with the World Meeting of Families, an international Catholic conference that will culminate with a visit from Pope Francis. The event has been shadowed by conflicts such as the barring of a coalition of LGBT groups from programming at a local Catholic Church and this summer’s firing of a lesbian religion teacher from a Catholic elementary school.
The creators of “Full of Grace” interviewed that teacher, Margie Winters, and incorporated her story into the show.
“From the very beginning, we envisioned this as a development piece,” said co-creator Robert Choiniere, a former Philadelphian. “We try to incorporate local voices wherever we take the show. When I saw what happened to Margie, I said, ‘Here’s a voice we don’t have: the professional lay minister excluded from ministry.’ We want to continue adding new voices as we go along.”
Choiniere and playwright Scott Barrow conceived of the show in 2012, at the prompting of Bishop Joseph Sullivan, who convened an Ad Hoc Committee on the Pastoral Care of Gays and Lesbians and their Families at the Diocese of Brooklyn. Sullivan was killed in an automobile accident in 2013.
“We wanted to bring stories and real experiences into what had been sort of a theological, heady conversation that seemed to be distanced from actual people’s experiences,” Choiniere said. “So we thought that, using theater, we could gather these stories and create a space of compassion, listening and empathy.”
Choiniere said there have been few opportunities for such conversations to happen within Catholic spaces.
“These conversations were just being shut down,” he said. “And the role of the Church is supposed to be to allow people to listen to one another. So we wanted to listen to those stories.”
Choiniere and Barrow amassed more than 30 stories, whose tellers run the gamut: from a 19-year-old college student to a 76-year-old to middle-aged folks who talk about living in New York City during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The play includes accounts from gay priests and lesbian moms and even from the opposition, with a member of Courage, a Catholic organization that views same-sex attraction as an impediment to spirituality.
Choiniere said the feedback from their performances has largely included gratitude.
“I think people are like, this is water in the desert. There have been no places to have these open conversations, so people are very attentive,” he said. “We always have a talkback after the performances and people talk about how they really connected with a certain character or were frustrated by another character. That’s what we want; if everybody leaves happy and warm, we haven’t done our job.”
Bringing the play to Philadelphia at the time of the conference and papal visit was intentional, Choiniere said, but was not meant to stir controversy.
Many of the play’s interviewees are from the Equally Blessed Coalition, whose members relayed to the “Full of Grace” creators that they were facing barriers in accessing the World Meeting of Families.
“So we said, ‘If this conversation is not happening in this medium, we want to help facilitate it.’ We don’t want to be confrontational or in their face, but at the same time, we want to say, ‘This is what we do as a Christian community: We listen to each other’s experiences.’”
Listening to the voices portrayed in the play, Choiniere noted, could be a powerful teaching tool for Catholic hierarchy resistant to LGBT inclusion.
“I think it’s incredibly important to see the tenacity and the faith of these people who are willing to sit in the hot spot and not leave this community and abandon their faith, but at the same time not abandon their identity. These are valuable, prophetic voices the Church needs to hear to authentically be the Church,” he said.
While the play promotes LGBT inclusion in faith circles, it also allows for open discussion about spirituality within LGBT circles.
“I don’t know what’s more difficult: to be gay and walk into a Catholic Church or to be Catholic and walk into a gay bar. There’s a lot of closeted Catholics in gay bars in Philadelphia, New York, all around the country, and they can’t speak the truth about their struggle. There’s no environment for them to grapple with these two pulls of their identities.”
That’s a struggle, Choiniere added, that has been felt by LGBT people of many faith communities.
Community-building, across all types of denominations and identities, he added, is a key mission of “Full of Grace.”
“We originally thought of bringing in different religions into the play because I think if we heard stories from LGBT Muslims or LGBT Orthodox Jews, we would hear very similar things,” Choiniere said. “These are themes that are universal and I think if we can develop some degree of solidarity, that’s what we need. We want to reach anyone who has ever thought they were alone and show them that they’re not.”
For more information on “Full of Grace” or to purchase tickets, visit www.fullofgraceplay.com.