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By Natalie Romano

With a backdrop of majestic trees, clear mountain skies and a large wooden crucifix, Deacon Mike Juback stood before parishioners at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church preaching love and forgiveness.

At a nearby intersection, protesters carrying signs with hateful messages against the gay community were making their way around Lake Arrowhead.

The opposing scenes were playing out weeks after an argument over a rainbow flag turned into murder in the mountain community.

On August 18th, Laura Ann Carleton was working at her clothing store located near Lake Arrowhead. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department says that’s when local resident Travis Ikeguchi tore down the shop’s Pride flag, yelled homophobic slurs then fired upon Carleton. The 66-year-old, who was not gay but supported gay rights, died at the scene. Shortly after, Ikeguchi was killed during a shootout with deputies.

The violence has had a chilling effect on both the parish and the LGBTQ+ community within the diocese.

“I was disheartened and upset,” shared Stuart Hall, parishioner of Our Lady of the Lake. “I think it’s a terrible thing for the family.”

After local churches decried the murder, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) announced it would protest four houses of worship September 16-17, including Our Lady of the Lake. The parish largely ignored the organization known for its hostile, anti-gay rhetoric and carried on with the normal Sunday Mass schedule. While a small group of WBC members and their derogatory signs were seen along the mountain highway, they never made it to Our Lady of the Lake.

Parish Council Chair Bridgett Johnstone has lived in the area her entire life and knew Carleton. She says the protesters’ animosity doesn’t reflect her community or her parish.

“Why do we have people judging each other? We should love each other,” pleaded Johnstone. “It makes me very sad and sad for these people. We need to pray for them, pray for their souls.”

Johnstone was not the only one offering prayers. The Gifted and Called Ministry of St. Mary Catholic Church in Fontana dedicated Masses for the souls of both Carleton and Ikeguchi. The faith sharing group for LGBTQ+ parishioners is a little known but emerging ministry in our Diocese. The group at St. Mary’s started just this year, while another at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Chino started just last month. The Diocese’s only long standing Gifted and Called Ministry, representing three parishes in the Coachella Valley, recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a special Mass.

Along with the new ministries, comes a new name for the umbrella group guiding them. “Embrace” replaces the former Commission to the Ministry for Families and Friends of Gay and Lesbian Catholics, launched some two decades ago under the leadership of Bishop Gerald Barnes. Embrace, now overseen by Bishop Alberto Rojas, is made up of appointed clergy, as well as straight and gay volunteers. Its purpose is to support the needs of LGBTQ+ Catholics and their families through fellowship and resources. Embrace is also available for dialogue with those who have concerns about LGBTQ+ ministry as it relates to Church teaching and doctrine.

Deacon Juback and wife, Susan, are Embrace Commissioners, and both have gay siblings including one who died during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. Deacon Juback says he firmly believes everyone is “entitled to the Eucharist” but knows not all Catholics feel the same.

“There has been conflict,” acknowledged the deacon of nearly 30 years. “Jesus had the same confrontations and how did he accept them? He stood his ground. He said all were welcome.”

Father Al Utzig, SSC, Pastor of St. Mary’s, says the Gifted and Called Ministry at his parish has been greeted with mixed reaction. In an effort to ease tensions, Fr. Utzig and Father David Andel, JV, an Embrace Commissioner, recently held a meeting with parishioners uncomfortable with the ministry. Fr. Utzig says he’s not “pushing anything” but acceptance.

“[LGBTQ+ parishioners] don’t feel welcome,” explained Fr. Utzig. “And they’re Baptized, they’re Catholic, they’re part of the Body of Christ. They need to be here.”

Bishop Rojas invoked that same spirit of inclusion in a March letter to St. Mary’s parishioners indicating his support for the new ministry.

“When we look at our Lord Jesus, who so often sought first a loving encounter with those who were ostracized and scorned, we know that no one should be denied a place at the table of the Lord’s family simply because they might be different,” Bishop Rojas wrote, while adding that his support for the ministry doesn’t mean he endorses changing Church teaching.

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not consider homosexual orientation to be a sin, it does state that by basis of scripture, “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and cannot be approved. In August, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church was open to “everyone” including gay individuals but also said “there are laws that regulate life inside the Church.”

Some of those laws, especially ones relating to the Sacrament of Marriage or to gender identity, are often cited by those who oppose LGBTQ+ ministries in the Church.

Yet, the papacy of Pope Francis has been marked by a call to reach out to those on the peripheries of the Church and invite them to be part of parish life. The current worldwide Synod on Synodality, which began in 2021, encouraged each diocese to hold listening sessions with groups who have felt marginalized by the Church. Many of those dialogues, including those in our own diocese, provided an opportunity for LGBTQ+ Catholics and their families to express their hurt and their future hopes for inclusion in the Church.

The Synod has also helped spur the new leaders of Gifted and Called to get involved but it hasn’t been easy. They say they’ve been called names and confronted about their sexual orientation. Four of the leaders, whose names are being withheld due to privacy and safety concerns, spoke to the BYTE about their experiences in ministry.

“[One parishioner] felt like [sexual orientation] was a choice…It’s not a choice,” said one Gifted and Called leader. “None of us chose to be neglected, to be bullied, to have thoughts of suicide, to be cast away from family events.”
Despite any negative comments, the ministry leaders say they want to keep serving because they’ve created a place for LGBTQ+ Catholics to openly express themselves and their faith.

“These stories of pain that come out of all these people who come to the ministry, it makes me realize the importance of this,” stressed another Gifted and Called leader. “To have a space where people feel welcome to come to Jesus’ heart, they’re welcome to experience His love.”

The youngest ministry leader is 22 years old. She says acceptance is particularly important for gay youth trying to figure out their place in society and the Church.

“At a certain point, you need to find yourself as a person,” said the leader. “Before that, it’s what your parents want out of you, what your culture wants out of you, what your generation wants out of you...That’s what was a big part of my struggle. This ministry can help...”

The Office of Diaconate Formation in the Diocese is also tackling how to better serve LGBTQ+ parishioners. Earlier this year, candidates for the diaconate received a one-day training course through the Office.

“You don’t get to pick who you serve once you’re in ministry,” said Sunny Sanchez, Parish Ministry Formation Program (PMFP) Director and Embrace Commissioner. “...So we’re hoping [clergy] will be able to adopt a sense of inclusivity and welcome for everyone and know where they can send individuals for resources.”

Gifted and Called members say they are grateful for the support from the Embrace ministry and their parish priests.

“Ever since I’ve been a part of this ministry, I feel closer to God than I ever have before,” described one of the leaders. “I love it. It’s a safe place for me.”

Following the murder in Lake Arrowhead and the presence of the Westbro protesters, Johnstone hopes for a more tolerant world.

“We may have different opinions and different beliefs but at the end of the day we all love the same Lord Jesus.”

Natalie Romano is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California.