Photo credit: By Asha Rao
Families with five, six or more members shuffle into their pews, greeting neighbors and community members before settling down and sitting in a muted, respectful fashion. A pin drop could detract from the priest, who enters in a silent processional followed by the deacon, the children’s church teacher, scripture readers and two fresh-faced alter kids. This is the Catholic mass I knew growing up in Massachusetts.
Skipping across the map to Highland Park, I find myself in a completely different world. I’m in a church and the conversation doesn’t quit until the priest reaches the altar. The typical cast that follows the priest is missing. Only the deacon remains, and she’s a woman. Later, I listen to a sermon that touches on gun control, immigration and the state of our nation. I give hugs to others before communion instead of the traditional handshake.
Oh, and the majority of the parishioners at this mass are gay. This is not my typical Catholic mass; it’s DignityLA. DignityLA started in the late 1970’s as a way to unify members of the gay Catholic community. What began as informal meet-ups eventually became routine services held by priests who had either left the church or operated in secrecy.
At one point, membership tallies for these weekly masses soared above 200, but conflicts with the Roman Catholic Church dampened this early success. Now, after the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and more recent abuse scandals, the group has slimmed to a mere 25 people.
DignityLA’s struggle in retaining membership is part of a larger challenge facing the Catholic Church. A recent Gallup poll shows a steady decline in church attendance among Catholics since the 1950’s, with only 39 percent of American Catholics regularly attending mass in 2017. That number is lower for Catholics in their 20s–just 25 percent. Even the general population of American Catholics is decreasing, especially for millennials.
The following shows pieces of a conversation over dinner at the Dresden Lounge I had with three of DignityLA’s members–Michael Rademacher, Aldo Falcinella and Celendonio Jimènez–a week after my first visit. Michael serves as President of DignityLA. He and his partner Aldo both live in Los Angeles and are longtime members. Celendonio recently returned to DignityLA and is attending masses again, reigniting his religious side amongst likeminded people.
Initially, DignityLA functioned as a “rap” meeting for gay Catholics. These were informal get togethers meant to bring a distinct sub-community together for discussion. When DiginityLA was in its height in the late ’70s, membership numbers tallied in the hundreds. Soon enough, “rap” meetings turned into services held at one of the Newman Centers in Los Angeles.
What success the group had at this time was met with a blitzkrieg of challenges in the ’80s. Heightened pressure from the Vatican on local priests and parishioners led the group to move out of the Newman Center and search for a new place of worship. Simultaneously came the AIDS crisis, which not only stifled recruitment, but took the lives of active members.
Michael told me stories of DignityLA’s efforts to create care centers for gay men that would be sponsored by the group, but the sheer cost and managing efforts of this operation only made the situation more difficult. Soon, members were divided over the choice to join another church in LA, or purchase their own building. Michael, Aldo and many others chose to buy.
After some difficulty in raising money and finding the right real estate, DignityLA found its home at 126 S Avenue 64 in Highland Park. It’s been over two decades since then. But recruiting new members is a new challenge for the group that may compromise its future once again.
As the advent of social media connects younger demographics across the world from every imaginable slice of the social strata, in-person meetings like DignityLA’s become obsolete. Kids no longer need to meet face-to-face anymore. Loneliness can be cured by chatting with someone on a Reddit subpage. Entire romances are even formed without ever knowing what someone looks like in the flesh.
This new reality has made it hard for DignityLA to bring young Catholics to their weekly meetups. What began as a group by the hundreds has now slimmed to just 25. When I asked the present members about where they saw the group in the future because of this, their response was an uneasy silence. They didn’t know. The world was different.
Dan: What keeps you with the church? Why not explore other faiths?
Aldo: Well, because we’re Catholic. And I think we have a right to be Catholic.
Michael: I still believe in most of the teachings of the church. And there were many teachings of the church that were buried in history. Like, first of all, celibacy was never an issue at the beginning of the church. Everybody, either they were married or they devoted themselves to the church or they didn’t get married. There was no law saying you had to be celibate to be a priest… that didn’t come along until much later.
Michael: You know, at first when I was young, they declared it a mental illness if you were homosexual.
Dan: Was that in general, or just Catholicism?
Dan: That must have been terrifying growing up. Was that the same for you?
Celendonio: For me, it was a bit different because I was raised very conservative, very Catholic. Plus Mexican. When I first refused to go to mass, it was a complete scandal.
Dan: When was that?
Celendonio: I was about 9 or 10. I don’t remember exactly how, I just refused. It was a big, big scandal. I can still remember. I simply refused to take everything I was hearing in church. I felt really angry, I felt really indignant, ready to fight back. I said, “Well, who are you to tell me what to think? Who are you to be speaking for some sort of God or Goddess?” I was very precocious and I was always questioning things. Mostly people didn’t know answers to the questions I posed, and that made me angrier.
Dan: What were some questions that you had?
Celendonio: Like, who made the institution of marriage in the first place? And they would say “God,” and I would ask: Well, why? “Because God said only one man and one woman.” Well, who wrote that book? “Very wise men.” Wait a minute, but the history of how the Bible was collected and compiled–it was pick-and-choose! It contradicts what you’re telling me. And those who were chosen were the ones who people felt comfortable following! And they said, “You have to get married, you have to have children.” And I said, “Well, I don’t want to have children. I don’t want to marry a woman. I don’t want to marry anyone.” Period.
Dan: And you chose to stay with the Catholic Church?
Celendonio: Yes. I saw it as a human institution that, on the one hand, did a lot of good.
Dan: I was just going to ask what keeps you with the Catholic Church.
Celendonio: Because I’ve seen it, I’ve examined it. For all that you might criticize the church for, it’s done a lot of good as well. And that’s what I grew up in. That’s what I’m comfortable in. I certainly wouldn’t go to another place that didn’t have a mass.
Dan: So you like the ceremony of mass?
Celendonio: Not only do I like it, I find a lot of meaning in it.
Dan: Such as what?
Celendonio: Such as the mysticism that uplifts a hunger inside you.
Dan: For spirituality?
Celendonio: Exactly. For some sort of connection that elevates you above everything. And as a matter of fact, I attend an agnostic church as well. Amazingly enough, and I say it with a certain touch of sadness, but this one has a mass that is much more ritualized, much more…intense. That’s a word that comes to my mind. I identify myself as Catholic, and I identify myself staunchly as Roman Catholic. On one hand, perhaps I do advocate a quiet revolution within the Catholic Church, despite the fact that my church does have aspects that need a reformation, perhaps a third Vatican? I don’t know.
Dan: What brings you guys back to the church IF after questioning it so much?
Michael: My whole thing is being gay to me is just one little facet of my life. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot. What straight people don’t understand is that they’ve never had to go through thinking that. We really had to think about why is it that we’re not attracted to women.
Celendonio: And even so-called heterosexual people–those labels that are placed on us–they want to be put on the same plate.
Michael: Also, you find out that sexuality is a large portion of our life, but it’s only a portion. There’s a lot of other things, but they keep boiling it down to sexual morality.
Celendonio: It’s nonsense!
Michael: It’s nonsense. There’s a whole lot more to morality than sexuality.
Dan: Is that where you find your bridge between your sexuality and the Catholic faith?
Michael: Yeah! And the church isn’t emphasizing enough that we have to be moral in a lot of things, not just sexuality. Because they don’t understand sexuality–a lot of people don’t. And once they begin to find out more about sexuality, they’ll see that it’s a nuance… there’s a lot of nuances in people and how they feel. I mean, I was with a girl in college and I liked her! But I just knew there was something wrong. I thought “I don’t wanna be hypocritical, but I find the guys around us more interesting than her.”
Dan: Where do you see DignityLA in ten years?
Aldo: I don’t know. It might not exist. They’re having problems. We used to be 200 people and now we’re down to 25 people.
Dan: Is there a solution to that?
Aldo: Oh, we’ve tried all kinds of things.
Dan: Like what?
Aldo: Advertising in the papers, bars. I think where we’re located, we’re too isolated.
Aldo: LA’s so spread out and far.
Dan: What are the major changes that are made to the mass?
Aldo: In Dignity?
Dan: Yeah. Like, I noticed during the songs, no one says “he” when they refer to God.
Michael: We try to be non-sexist. The church is very patriarchal. Make the women feel comfortable because they always feel second-class. We made God male, but God transcends everything. Even the Native Americans that were living here, they didn’t call God a woman or a man. In fact, if they did, most of the time it was a female.
Celendonio: Are you going to give me proof that God is a male?
Dan: Something that I think people would be interested in, looking at a film like Spotlight, they’ll say, “How can you stay Catholic after watching a film like that?” And, admittedly, for myself it’s hard. It’s hard to reconcile with that. Do you think the record is gonna be set straight?
Celendonio: Sooner or later! And I, for one, I am a catalyst. I have changed it in me. I ask people why they’ve left the church when they haven’t even examined their own! That’s what I did. I took a scrutinizing, a microscopic eye into the church and I compared it to others. Frankly, the other [churches] are much worse.
Alongside piling scandals of sexual assault, and even declining confidence in Pope Francis among American Catholics, the church is a far cry from where it’s been in the past. Throughout our conversation, Michael and Aldo emphasize the distinction they see between Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.
As members of the gay community, they do not see that the faith has betrayed them, but the institution surrounding it. The scripture still reads true, but the faith of those who preach it was lost somewhere along the way. As people continue to take their own lives over being persecuted for their sexuality, it is more apparent than ever that there is still room for improvement in how our society treats those brave enough to be true to themselves.
DignityLA holds services each Sunday afternoon in Highland Park at 126 S Avenue 64. Before each mass, there’s a camaraderie each member greets each other with at the end of another hot week in LA–a unity refined by years of being told what not to do and how not to feel. They’re excited to be there and practice their beliefs, even if for just a few hours where these two seemingly disparate pieces of their life, sexuality and faith, find harmony.
All photography by Dan Toomey.