Have a Little Faith

These gay and lesbian couples didn't always find acceptance, but they didn't give up hope of reconciling with the church

Theresa Gorley and Delores Kropf.

Mordiqai Brunk-McQuade looks down at the brunch menu through his glasses, from under his fedora and down the length of his tattooed, braceleted arms. French toast it is. His husband, Jim Brunk, is wearing a shirt sprinkled with big rips and small stains. He orders the breakfast burrito.

Mordiqai-he goes by Mordi, 40, is loud; Jim, 56, is sensitive. The more time I spend with them, the more I realize that they're actually both loud and both sensitive. They make each other laugh, and each will cry by the time we're done with breakfast (and again the next time I see them). They like to talk about anything and everything: politics, their own art and photography, Jim's kids, their neighbors, their dreams of moving to Uruguay, how they moved in together a few days after their first date and about their "checkered pasts" in which one of them was a drug dealer and one worked at a prison.

Mordi explains (over French toast which he proclaims the most beautiful he's ever seen) that he never expected to end up with someone who was religious. Which seems strange, because Mordi is just about as openly Jewish as he is openly gay.

"To take Judaism out of my life would make my life so fucking empty it's not even funny," he says. "It would just be vacant."

God has been at the center of Mordi's existence since as far back as he can remember (even though his parents were what he calls "anti-religious"). Though he was never one to adhere to every single rule—he says he doesn't know a single Jew who follows all 613 laws of Judaism—he always maintained a place in his life for Judaism. Seriously. Even when he was dealing meth in San Francisco for roughly a decade, he didn't sell on Friday night during the Shabbat.

Anyone who knows him, he says, knows he's religious, but not in a scary or overbearing way. It's like the way that a strawberry is red: it's so much a part of him that you almost don't notice it.

"One good thing about being Jewish," he explains, "is that I can be religious and be a part of a deeply religious community and not be expected to change anything about myself."

He says he's never felt unwelcome in the Jewish faith, not even in the most ultra-orthodox synagogues. He also loves the Jewish idea that every religion has a purpose.

"There is no bad religion," he says. "There is no wrong way to God. Because what is your way to God is your way to God. And who am I to question your base way to God? That's for you."

Coming from a person who is neck deep in faith (literally—Mordi has a tattoo of a Celtic triad, a tribute to the Catholic side of his family, on his neck), this caught my attention. It's not often that I hear someone so deeply entrenched in their own faith also so willing to endorse other faiths, though I wonder if it's because I don't often ask.

For his part, Jim mostly attends the local Shalom Mennonite church, though both attend services that range from Jewish to Episcopalian to Hare Krishna. His family goes back generations in the Mennonite church, but his parents were "eclectic" when it came to religion, mostly attending Church of the Brethren.

Jim knew he was gay as soon has he hit puberty, but he did with that knowledge what he says most religious gay men of his generation did: lived a double life. In one life, he pursued his faith with fervor. In the other, he tried to learn how to accept himself. His struggle with his faith really began when he made the decision to come out. He was married with kids, a pastor at Church of the Brethren. He lost everything down to the dog.

He was even homeless for a period. (Both men have been down that road, and more than once. When Jim says he slept in a tent the first time he was homeless, Mordi laughs and tells him that doesn't count: "You're not homeless if you have a shelter to sleep in." And a man with a master of divinity degree from Bethany Theological Seminary found himself starting to wonder about the whole "God" thing.

"I went through a period of six years saying I was agnostic, trying to be agnostic," he says. "And, intellectually, I can get there. I just can't live it."

After a tumultuous relationship (his first serious one with another man) and series of health issues, Jim rejoined the Mennonite church. To him, God is best expressed in a community setting, so being a part of a church is important, even though his last one had refused to accept him.

"I don't have any problem coming out and being out in a group that doesn't like me, because it won't always stay that way," Jim responds simply. "It's not just for me. I've got my kids, my grandkids. There are generations coming after me that if I don't come out in the midst of these groups and remain, I've done the next generation no service and no good whatsoever. How will these groups ever get beyond if we don't show them who we are?"

Flexible Piety

Jim and Mordi are just one example of a way people—gay or otherwise—connect with religion. It's something some are born into, and some wander into. Increasingly, it's something people wander out of. A 2014 Pew Research study showed the percentage of adults who identify as Christians decreased by nearly eight percentage points from 2007 to 2014, while those identifying as religiously unaffiliated increased by six percentage points. Fully 18 percent of U.S. adults who were raised in religious households identified as religiously unaffiliated. That's nearly one in five.

The percentage of LGBTQ+ respondents (41 percent) who identified as religiously unaffiliated was nearly double the 22 percent of straight people who identified the same way. Compared to the general public, LGBTQ+ community members are, as a whole, more Democratic, a party whose liberal ideals seem, to some, at odds with the conservative values of many religions.

We've all seen the Westboro Baptist Church in action, and heard scripture used to condemn those who are different, and seen examples of reasons why the LGBTQ+ community just might not want to go there. But religions, like people, come in all shapes and sizes—this is no "one size fits all."

Religion is a concept that means something different to almost everyone. For spouses Bob Gordon and Stephen Kraynak, it means being Unitarian Universalists.

"I could not belong to any religious institution that didn't accept all of me as I am," Gordon says. "For me, it's a place that matches my spiritual needs and fits with my belief system and allows me to continue to grow in a community. I couldn't do anything else."

Gordon came to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church back in 1960, when he was only 17—before he even knew he was gay. Kraynak's family had been in the Catholic church for over 800 years when, in 1989, the members of a support group for gay men at his church in Columbus, Ohio were asked to leave.

"I didn't like some of the authoritarianism in the church, but it was a part of my family," he says. "It was a cultural thing. Everybody I knew in my neighborhood was Catholic."

Eventually, he wound up at a UU church in Ohio, in another gay support group, where he met Gordon. The two have been together 18 years. On Oct. 17, 2014—Kraynak's birthday, and the day that a ruling for marriage equality came through in Arizona—the two were among the first gay couples in Pima County to be married.

"The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is the inherent worth and dignity of every person," says Rev. Lyn Oglesby of Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson (UUCT).  "So when you look at it from that standpoint, it doesn't matter if people are gay or straight, or what color they are or how they talk."

Unitarian Universalism doesn't have creeds, and welcomes everyone from atheists to Christians to pantheists. For many, it's a welcome respite from the sort of religion they're used to, says UUCT president, Frank Valdes.

"People come to our congregation from all sorts of places. It's one place where they can be part of something," he says. "We always joke about how the majority of people who come into this congregation are people that are unhappy with the religion of their childhood or their family."

Same-Sex Sect

There are other alternatives. Jim Burns is the pastor at Water of Life church in Tucson, a branch of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), historically and primarily made up of LGBTQ+ members.

Burns knew he was gay from a young age, but didn't feel free to come out. Instead, he says, feeling different prompted spiritual reflection and struggle. As his relationship with religion evolved, he even went through a strong evangelical period in high school.

"As a lonely outcast, very shy, high school student, this was a group that welcomed me more than, say, the football team might have," he says. "Evangelical groups in that age group tend to be very good at that, unless you break one of the rules."

He came out after college, and studied to become a pastor for MCC. He says most of Water of Life's parishioners grew up repressive church environments; one of the things Water of Life does is to help people recover from "spiritual abuse" by other churches. Give or take, he says about half of the members of the church were raised Catholic.

Turning to one church to remedy the wounds inflicted by another might sound strange, he admits. (He says he doesn't understand how some people he knows stay in the Catholic Church.) But he does hope that their church can be an example of another way—a compassionate way—to be a part of a faith community.

Salvaging Catholicism

"Why wouldn't LGBTQ people be religious?" Theresa Gorley, 65, asks.

The fact that she, of all people, was asking that question, resonates. Gorley and her wife, Delores Kropf, 74, have been together for almost 30 years, though they were just married in 2014. Kropf is the priest at the St. Michael's Ecumenical Catholic Communion Church in Tucson; Ecumenical Catholicism is Catholicism minus a lot of the doctrines people don't like: its members have no qualms about birth control, divorce or a person's sexuality; and women, like Kropf, can be ordained as priests. They also don't answer to the pope.

Kropf was raised by an agnostic family, and became Roman Catholic when she was 22, but remembers a bishop nicknaming her a "cafeteria Catholic" for picking and choosing the doctrines she agreed with. She ignored the parts of Catholicism she didn't like, but was so devoted to the parts she did agree with—that God is within us all, that people are basically good, in the holy trinity and that God has the power to forgive sins—that she earned a master's in pastoral counseling in the '80s and trained in a ministry program in Seattle.

"When it came time for ordination, I got a pat on the back and the guys got ordained," she says, with the matter-of-factness of someone whose hurt has had decades to fade but not dissipate.

Still, she remained a devoted member of the church, with the new title of "assistant pastor." When some more old-school members of the church complained about her designation, the bishop told her to keep the same responsibilities under the title of "pastoral associate."

Kropf married, had kids, and divorced (she cafeteria Catholic-ed her way through that). In 1988, she met Gorley and realized there was something a little different about their friendship.

"It came as a shock to both of us," she smiles.

Kropf was in her 40s, Gorley in her 30s. Kropf was working as a "pastoral associate" and a pastoral counselor up in Washington.

"We knew we were in trouble," she says. "We got kicked out of that parish. The priest told us 'we will call you when you're welcome.'"

He never called. Gorley's family and friends shunned her. Kropf's family was mostly supportive, but her mother was upset by it, and the two didn't see each other for several years.

Gorley was raised Catholic, and certain things, like the church being against the use of condoms during the AIDS epidemic, or against divorce when she herself was trapped in an abusive marriage, made her increasingly uneasy as she got older. But the church was all she'd ever known. When she and Kropf were no longer welcome in their Catholic parish in Washington, she felt lost.

"That was the church of my family," she says. "I didn't know what to do. I mean, it was like being dunked in ice cold water, and you come up for air and you're gasping."

The two women looked around for miles for a church that would take them in. Many didn't welcome LGBTQ+ people. Some said they would, but would completely ignore the couple when they attended services. They faced some of the same problems when they moved to Tucson, and eventually stopped going to mass for a few years because they didn't feel welcome.

In 2002, they were invited to the first ordination of a female priest at Saint Matthew's Ecumenical Catholic Church in Orange, California, By the end of the reception, Kropf was signed up to get involved, and the two were part of writing the constitution for the Ecumenical Catholic Communion in 2003.

Back in Tucson, they started up a bible study and then founded St. Michael's. Growing the church, Kropf says, has been slow work. People hear the name Catholic and want to run away.

"So many people have been hurt in so many different ways," she says. "They had deep wounds. We did. We got kicked out. [But] we sought out Catholicism. We took our wounds with us."

And the doctrines they've kept? Well, they're the beliefs and traditions that have brought the two women joy and enrichment throughout their lives. In dismantling the oppressive aspects of the church, they didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, explains Gorley

"I really believe now that this is the way the Roman Catholic church should be. This is what all Christianity should be," she says. "I just wish that we could heal more people."

"You Gotta Give Them Hope"—Harvey Milk

Looking back across the ups and downs of religion, life and love; of meth highs, abusive relationship lows and a faith that helped them through it all, Jim and Mordi say they're glad to be where they are now: together in their little home filled with colorful Christmas lights, tiki torches, coffeemugs, walls covered in Mordi's art and old family pictures, the peacock feather boutonnieres from their wedding, and their trusty bicycles in the kitchen.

"I'd lost everything but I've gained so much more," Jim says. "My ex-wife is one of my closest friends, [Mordi]'s her best friend—Oh my God, God restored that totally."

The two were married on Mount Lemmon over the summer, in a service that Mordi calls "Mennonite with Jewish overtones." Jim's ex-wife Angela made their wedding cake. And she helped them write their vows. And she was more or less their wedding planner. One day, while joking about the archaic absurdity of brides being "given away," Jim suggested Angela walk him down the aisle and "give him away" to Mordi.

And she did! It sounds like a purely comical moment, but, even in the grainy Facebook video Jim showed me on his cell phone, it was touching. On top of the wedding service, which acknowledged the wild and wonderful and sometimes terrible road that brought the newlyweds together, there was this secondary ritual that was all about reconciliation. Mordi cried through the whole ceremony.

"The whole service spoke of God's healing and reconciling love as expressed in a group of people you walk through life with," Jim says.

Walking through life with a faith in something bigger than earthly pleasures—even really great ones, like fantastic French toast or a homemade wedding cake—is something everyone is capable of doing, and some people prefer to do it in a community. As it turns out, religion is just as much a spectrum as sexuality, and, heaven or earth, love is love.

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