Exciting New Exhibit from the BC Libraries and the School of Theology and Ministry

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In at least two significant ways, the newest BC Libraries (BCL) exhibit, Here All Along, Here to Stay: LGBTQ Catholics in the United States, (hereafter, Here) manifests continuity. After all, exploring issues surrounding equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) has been a key strategic emphasis within the BCL for several years now; and this exhibit represents a natural extension of that foundational work. In addition, continuity can be detected in the genesis of this exhibit, the origins of which are traceable directly to the blackatbostoncollege exhibit installed in the BCL last year. As you may recall, that exhibit focused on the academic, spiritual, and social experiences of members of the Black community on the BC campus.

While viewing blackatbostoncollege at the Theology and Ministry Library (TML), James Reding, an openly gay student of BC’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM), envisioned a similarly toned exhibit – but one dealing with the experiences of LGBTQ people within the Catholic Church. He wondered, first interiorly and later in dialogue with Leea Stroia, Jennifer Moran, and me, all of the TML, if such a concept could ever be presented at Boston College. We were intrigued with the idea and began exploring its reception within the BCL and the STM. Both responded enthusiastically and ultimately agreed to co-sponsor the exhibit’s development.

A planning team was assembled, including – at various stages in the process – ten BCL staff members, an associate dean and two students from the STM, and a member of the parish staff at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church. Here is the complete list of participants, including those who served as advisors and/or contributors to the project.

Gradually, James’s vision came to fruition, first as a physical exhibit installed in late May in four campus libraries (TML, Educational Resource Center (ERC), Social Work Library (SWL), and O’Neill Library) and now as an online complement. Is James pleased with the end result? That was one of the questions I posed to him when we met recently to speak about the project.

Two men in dark blue armchairs sit facing the camera; behind them are colored squares of paper covered in small print, mounted on a concrete wall.
STM Graduate Student James Reding (l) and Stephen Dalton, Head of the Theology and Ministry Library, sit together in one location of the exhibit Here All Along, Here to Stay: LGBTQ Catholics in the United States.

Steve: You are openly gay and a faithful Catholic. What would you say to those who perceive those two realities as irreconcilable?

James: I hold both of those realities deeply. Sexuality is a significant feature of who God made me, and my Catholic faith is a living heritage gifted to me by generations of family and reinforced by my own experiences of God in sacraments, prayer, and grace. God made me gay – irrevocably; and, via baptism, God made me a part of the Church – irrevocably. I live out all of who I am in light of my faith, and I shun compartmentalized boxes, shame, and repression.

Steve: Do you intend gay Catholics to be Here’s audience?

James: I intend the audience to be Catholics of all kinds. While the exhibit tells of LGBTQ history, it is all Catholic history – history that can inform and enrich the whole Church. This history shows the efforts made by some in the Church to support the unique LGBTQ struggle for full societal dignity and inclusion. It also shows the gifts given to the Church by the witness of LGBTQ Catholics’ courage, honesty, and integrity. 

Steve: What message(s) are you hoping Here might convey?

James: I hope it conveys inspiration, encouragement, and urgency to an audience of active members and leaders of the Catholic Church. While much of Here must address the past, I hope that a thorough exploration of the last 80 years of LGBTQ Catholic history will reveal the genuine and holy nature of the cause for greater inclusion and welcoming of LGBTQ folks in our Church today.

Steve: Are you pleased with how your original idea was developed by the planning team?

James: I am appreciative of the way the team worked to develop this idea. Together, we’ve created a great scope and depth of information. You and the TML team led the effort to incorporate more voices and sources of information. Fellow STM students and alumni lent their work and their often deeply personal perspectives. The wider BCL contributed wisdom from staff with expertise in education and social work. And, our STM and BCL co-sponsors made it possible for us to share Here with the largest possible audience.

Steve: Why did you bring your idea to the BCL and, particularly, to the TML?

James: I approached the TML staff because I was encouraged by my experience of their library and of the whole BCL network. In a semester fraught with limitations, it was apparent to me that the BCL were one of the conduits of student life and communal enrichment still functioning during the pandemic.  Not only did the TML create an atmosphere where I could still feel like a student in community, but my research needs were also well-served by their attentive staff. Witnessing the physical and intellectual space revealed by the blackatbostoncollege exhibit, I felt hopeful that the TML would encourage other student-led work of engaging in meaningful conversations.

Steve: Why is this exhibit important to you personally?

James: LGBTQ Catholic history is a part of American history; so, speaking simply as a concerned citizen, it is important for me to take stock of this story. Since I am also a gay Catholic, the story’s significance is magnified for me as I recall those on whose shoulders I stand. Further, as a lay minister, I learn from–and am strengthened by–the example of those who have lifted up the LGBTQ community and worked in solidarity with it. And, as a theologian, it is essential that I ground my struggle to locate LGBTQ dignity in Catholic social teaching in the lived experiences of the community. So, this exhibit is important to me on multiple levels.

Steve: Finally, what do you hope Here will achieve?

James: Many things! Within the Church, there are still numerous people who would deny or belittle my place in it as an LGBTQ Catholic. Recognizing that, I hope Here will challenge them to realize that there is no historical warrant for preaching down to, condemning, or minimizing queer persons and our sexuality. Suffering, violence, and death are the demonstrated heritage of such posturing. Ideally, repentance (i.e., a change of mind and heart) would accompany this deeper realization. I also hope the exhibit will inspire LGBTQ Catholics and their allies by showing that ours is a rich and wonderful history in every corner of society, including religion and faith. Religious history is queer history and vice versa. Here shows this, and we must claim that truth. In summary, I hope the exhibit sparks new conversations. The time has come – in fact, more than come – for conversations that take LGBTQ Catholics seriously, at our word. It must begin with our witness and our stories. That is where the conversation should have always started. We must make sure that from now on it always and only does – that when our Church discusses LGBTQ lives it begins with the queer perspective. I think this models the synodality to which the Holy Father is calling us. Our communal treatment of any person or persons must begin with listening to and truly hearing their voices. Would that it were always so for those in and affected by the Church.

View Here at the online exhibit or in its physical installations at the TML, ERC, SWL, and O’Neill Library.

A slightly different version of this article is simultaneously available on Encounter, the STM Blog.

Stephen Dalton

Head Librarian, Theology and Ministry Library

James Reding

Graduate Student, School of Theology & Ministry