For 40 years, New Ways Ministry has advocated and fought not only for acceptance of LGBT individuals in the Catholic church but to ensure justice and an equal place in society for a worldwide community of people who do not want to be ostracized from a spiritual life simply because of who they are.
When the organization hosted its eighth national symposium, "Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss," in Chicago over the weekend of April 28, a capacity of 300 attendees from across the country arrived at the Hilton Rosemont with an energetic sense of hope.
The symposium is held every five years and a lot has changed since attendees last convened in Baltimore in 2012.
"One of the important messages this year from the speakers and the participants is that we're in a new age with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church," New Waves Ministry Executive Director Francis DeBernardo said. "Pope Francis has created a space. It's now up to us, the lay people of the Church, to work in that space to move LGBT equality forward in Catholicism."
For DeBernado, that space is found in a message of accompaniment from the Vatican.
"Meaning that the Church needs to accompany people who are alienated," he explained. "It needs to dialogue with them which Catholic leaders have not done for the past 40 years. Pope Francis has encouraged leaders to meet with those who feel alienated and marginalized by the Church and I think only good things can happen from those kinds of encounters."
However, the transgender community, far from receiving the Pope's encouragement, found itself a target of harsh rhetoric in August 2016 when, at a conference of Bishops in Poland, he called the acceptance of the gender spectrum in schools "an annihilation of man as the image of God."
The pope would later soften that messageas long as no one quoted him as blessing transgender people.
"Pope Francis on gender issues has not been very good at all," DeBernado said. "We know that's a place where he still has to grow and learn from people. He has met with a transgender man and spoken positively about that meeting. I think if he would do more along those lines, we would see different messages from him."
The consequences of negative messaging were brought home in dramatic fashion on April 30 by the symposium's closing speaker, Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda ( SMUG ).
Mugisha's life in his home country changed along with every other LGBT Ugandan after U.S. evangelical Scott Lively stopped by in 2009 to encourage President Yoweri Museveni, his legislators and the nation at large to reject, spurn, imprison, torture, execute and systematically eradicate its population of people.
Since then, Mugisha has spent his days under the shadow of imprisonment and death as he has fought an outspoken, daily battle for on behalf of a community who faced some of the most draconian anti-LGBT laws in the world.
"We see what is happening in Russia and Chechnya and also in Africa in places like Tanzania," Mugisha said. "Uganda has been seen in the news as the worst place [for LGBT people] but there are worse places. When Uganda introduced the anti-gay law in 2009 it mandated the death penalty for serial offenders which means I would be on death row right now."
He noted that, although the provision was removed before the law was signed, "the law also carried a provision that mandated that any person who knows an LGBT person report them to authorities within a period of 24 hours or risk being arrested."
Mugisha described it as a "time of crisis" even after a 2014 Constitutional Court decision striking down the law based on a technicality.
The fact that it hasn't been reintroduced is something Mugisha credited with the work of activists in his own country who risked their lives to speak out against the legislation along with political leaders, celebrities and advocates world wide "for standing with us."
Yet, Mugisha's work and its inherent risks are far from over.
"Last year, I was thrown in jail," he said. "We still have politicians making anti-gay statements. We still have hatred going on. We still have church leaders organizing in order to influence another legislation. We have had challenges with the media in Uganda naming and outing people. I was published on the front page of my newspaper. My partner had to move from Uganda to the U.S. His family and friends disowned him. He was thrown into jail and he couldn't take any more. Your whole world goes down."
He added that the trouble his country's media, politicians and churches have caused the Ugandan LGBT community is still being felt every day.
"Lesbian girls are being forced into sexual intercourse with their own relatives who are trying to teach them not to be gay," Mugisha said. "It's not just lesbians who are out. Just if you are perceived to be a lesbian."
All of this because homophobia was introduced to a continent by people like Scott Lively.
"Homophobia is not an African problem and homophobia is not Africa," Mugisha stated. "It has been peddled by American evangelicals who have come to my country and confused Ugandans with a language that is not Ugandan. When we talked about recruitment in my country it was not about gays but about the army and police forces. Scott Lively spent three days meeting with politicians, government officials, scholars and he said 'homosexuals have taken over the United Nations and Uganda is a chosen country of God.' He encouraged the anti-gay law to be created in my country."
Other speakers at the symposium included NETWORK Executive Director Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, as well as Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Fordham University Professor of Theology Rev. Bryan Massingale, Berkeley's Jesuit School of Theology Associate Professor Lisa Fullam and Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.
For more information about New Ways Ministry, visit NewWaysMinistry.org .