Unconditional Faith : An Independent Catholic Community In Richmond Makes Acceptance The Foundation Of Faith.

by | May 21, 2010 | POLITICS

Donna Kaye is used to listening when God calls her – even in traffic.

When she felt called to make a quick right down Ellwood Avenue as she exited the Downtown Expressway two years ago, she didn’t hesitate to turn the steering wheel.

What caught her attention – what had spoken to her so strongly – was an unobtrusive, whitewashed sign set cattycorner on a lawn at the corner of Ellwood and Cameron Street.

“I see ‘Independent Catholic’ and ‘11 a.m. service’ and I think ‘Oh, I can sleep in, and it’s independent!’” says Kaye, a divorced former Catholic schoolteacher, who’d spent the past decade or more living in a church-imposed spiritual purgatory.

Donna Kaye is used to listening when God calls her – even in traffic.

When she felt called to make a quick right down Ellwood Avenue as she exited the Downtown Expressway two years ago, she didn’t hesitate to turn the steering wheel.

What caught her attention – what had spoken to her so strongly – was an unobtrusive, whitewashed sign set cattycorner on a lawn at the corner of Ellwood and Cameron Street.

“I see ‘Independent Catholic’ and ‘11 a.m. service’ and I think ‘Oh, I can sleep in, and it’s independent!’” says Kaye, a divorced former Catholic schoolteacher, who’d spent the past decade or more living in a church-imposed spiritual purgatory.

Because of Kaye’s divorce, even though it was annulled by the Catholic Church – annulment is Catholicism’s only avenue to spiritually redeem divorcees – she’d found herself an outcast at the Catholic school where she taught.

Even her attempts to publish an otherwise well-received, religious-themed children’s book series, focused on the sacraments and holy days of the Catholic calendar, had been rejected by “every Catholic children’s literature publisher in North America”. It had seemed at every turn, her attempts at spiritual development were stymied by the church she loved.

That fateful January day as she left the highway, Kaye says, her spiritual wandering ended – at the front door of Gentle Shepherd Church of Antioch.

“I walked in and I immediately felt accepted, embraced by everyone there,” she says. “I found a church where I could freely worship, be loved and love back. I’m all about accepting everyone as they are.”

It’s a common story at Gentle Shepherd: A devout follower, cast at odds with their church’s teachings, falls away from the church they love and is left seeking an alternative where they are accepted.

And the church’s answer is always the same: Come on in.

The church’ pastor, Monsignor Thomas David Siebert, got here just the same way, finding the church “quite incidentally” after leaving his post as a priest with the Byzantine Catholic Church, where he’ served as a priest since 1981. In fact, he even helped establish a monastery in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

To those who knew him, his faith seemed unquestionably strong, but with time, his commitment to the church’s rigid requirements of clergy began to weaken as he began to question the very advice he found himself dispensing to young seminarians.

“It wasn’t something I sought out at the time,” he says, referring not only to discovering Gentle Shepherd, but to the personal and spiritual crisis that led him here. “I had essentially taken time off from active ministry to give myself time to work out what I was going to do about living out my sexuality in the open.

“Being gay and out and clergy all in the same sentence can pose serious difficulty in the Roman [Catholic] church,” he says.

Even among the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, the existence of independent Catholic churches – those that don’t necessarily reject Rome, but don’t concede many of its less inclusive edicts – is something of a mystery. The term “catholic” simply means universal, but it’s a big universe out there that goes largely unexplored by the faithful.

Even the simple fact of such an ancient alternate Catholic rite as the Copts of Egypt, who date to the very founding of Christianity during the century after Jesus’ death, is unknown to many Roman Catholics. But the Coptic Church not only dates to the same time as the origin of the Roman Catholic Church, it represents one of the first great schisms in Christianity.

In this early case, the schism was fundamental, but has in common with so many other resolved conflicts of Christianity the undeniable fact that the argument was over a question that nobody can answer short of literal divine intervention: What was the nature of Jesus? Was he a man who was inhabited by God and who was dis-inhabited at the moment of crucifixion? Or was he born a God who literally died and rose again after being crucified?

Since that first schism – the dueling sides frequently killed one another’s clergy in the frenzy to resolve the question – there have been plenty more. The Lutheran church of the once-Roman Catholic Martin Luther questioned Rome’s unique authority over all things holy, asserting common men’s equal right to a personal relationship with their God. The Anglican and Episcopal churches similarly have Catholic roots – and can even trace their bishops back to Rome.

Gentle Shepherd belongs to just one of the thousands of alternate Catholic jurisdictions that exist, in its case the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch. The Church of Antioch also traces a direct line of succession for its bishops back to the early church and to Jesus’ twelve Apostles.

Within the Church of Antioch, it’s not only Rome’s final authority that is questioned, but again – as with the Copts – some of the fundamental concepts of Roman Catholicism.

The church believes in “creation-based spirituality” where man is assumed to be good and to be already saved from damnation, explains Siebert, which stands if not in conflict then at least to question the Roman Catholic belief in original sin, man’s fall, and his ultimate redemption through Jesus’ crucifixion.

“Our inclination is to look at the Christian dispensation in a way that is other than one beginning in a fall … and thereby requiring a violent, blood-soaked sacrifice in order to satisfy a divine injustice that’s been done,” Siebert says, offering the Church of Antioch’s alternative that favors “looking at the full theological spectrum in Christian history, that has been proscribed by those churches that claim themselves to be the orthodox.”

In other words, he says, “those things that have been declared heretical, our church makes room for people to say ‘But why?’”

That “why” is all-encompassing, he says. The nature of God is not defined.

“Theism just doesn’t cut it anymore,” Siebert says, referring to the theism that pictures God as human, with a long, white beard, and at least in some basic context, a person or persona that can be related to by those who worship him. “I’ve reached the point in my life where I can open myself to a far larger God.”

Siebert acknowledges that it may seem a subtle distinction between this brand of religion and Unitarianism, which rejects answers and structure in seeking God.

“That’s a good question, actually,” he says, of where the distinction lies. “And I think one that bears some thought.”
If anything, the distinction is found in the practice, says Father Thomas Michael Gallub, the church’s associate pastor, a swarthy, stocky man with twinkling eyes that leap at the chance to talk about God.

“We take great pains to express the fact that we’re Catholic,” he says, noting first his taking of “Christ as my personal savior, just as any Roman Catholic would.”

And then there’s that more rigid definition of what is Catholic. And what truly define the church, Gallub says, are its traditions, ceremonies and sacraments.

Sunday services at Gentle Shepherd look nearly identical to any Catholic rite church, with the liturgy proceeding along the same set script. Sacraments like confession, marriage, anointment of the sick and communion are celebrated in the same ways.

“We love the idea of the symbol and the sacrament,” Gallub says, speaking of all Catholics.

Gentle Shepherd’s low-slung, unassuming building barely stands out as anything but just another tiny bungalow snuggled among the other post-World War II track housing along this stretch of Ellwood. Burgundy shutters add no flash to the drab, white-brick exterior and only a porch extension with a hubcap-sized faded gold cross set above it indicates this house belongs to God and not Smith or Jones.

Founded in Richmond in 1999, the church’s own story of acceptance helps explain its open-arm approach to new congregants.

The building once housed St. Alban’s Anglican Catholic Church, which worships as an ultra-conservative breakaway from the Episcopal church. When St. Alban’s looked to move to its current location on Hermitage Road, they put the tiny Ellwood Avenue church on the market – and Gentle Shepherd came calling.

“They wouldn’t sell to us,” says Gallub, “because we had homosexuals in our congregation.”

Enter notorious Richmond developer, architect, and sometimes political activist Louis Salomonsky. When he first bought the property, Fr. Gallub says, Salomonsky had intended condos, but then found out about the church’s plight. “He turned around and sold it to us – and gave us a substantial donation. Well, it started out as a donation, but it turned into a big price reduction.”

Since then, Gentle Shepherd has maintained a steady membership consisting of just the sorts of people Fr. Gallub says St. Alban’s was worried about.

People like Monsignor Siebert and Fr. Gallub. Both priests have long-term committed partners.

Gallub sees Gentle Shepherd as less a refuge than a proof point in the ongoing debate over gay clergy, and whether the celibacy vows of the Roman Catholic church that have served as a vow of devout piety for some may have, in our modern times, provided a cloaked place for the sort of evils currently confronting that church.

That conflict – once masked behind shame and confidential legal settlements – has been on full display in recent weeks even in the run up to Easter, the holiest date in the Christian calendar, being marked as the day Jesus was crucified and brought salvation to the faithful.

While Rome, and Pope Benedict, have faced that scandal by alternating between defiance and denial, the Church of Antioch faces no such crisis. That the chastity vows of Roman Catholic clergy have been both blessing and curse seems plain, says Gallub.

The vow is supposed to serve to place those men and women who take it outside of the carnal, material things that distract from man’s relationship with God. But because the faithful have long seen these clergy as asexual, some sexual predators have used this trust as a weakness to take advantage of vulnerable men, women and children.

Slow reaction by Rome – and outright protection from prosecution or other consequences provided to some offending priests over the years – has led to a mass questioning of faith for some Catholics, as evidenced by reports in recent weeks from Ireland and Germany.

“The nature of this issue is bound to attract media attention and the way the Church responds is crucial for its moral credibility,” the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said on Vatican Radio the same week Christians celebrated Palm Sunday.

The Church of Antioch certainly claims no immunity to those who would take advantage of vulnerable faithful by exploiting their positions of trust, but Gallub says, such predators where they may exist don’t have the additional advantage of seeming even more harmless by holy vows of chastity.

The Church of Antioch, of which Siebert will become Southeastern Diocese bishop on May 2, maintains a very public policy of zero tolerance for priests and other clergy who commit sexual crimes against their congregation or others.

Such concerns seemed far away during Palm Sunday service.

The congregation seems largely split between men with exceedingly good hair and occasional earrings, and heterosexual couples. All gather in the handful of pews together, sharing friendly hugs and smiles before the processional song begins.

“Gentle Shepherd come lead us,” sings a cantor, joined by the two-dozen other mostly well-honed male tenor voices, droning in a slow hymn that begins to take on a proud, joyous stride.

“Today our church becomes the very streets of the city of Jerusalem,” says Siebert as the song ends, calling the assembled toward the back of the church, where they gather to take palm fronds that will serve to commemorate Jesus’ triumphant entry into the holy city of King David. “As we enter into these mysteries… we ponder upon them for the meaning they hold for our own lives.”

That mystery has been at least partly revealed for Siebert, and for many of his congregants who have flocked to Gentle Shepherd for its acceptance of anyone who arrives.

It was deciding to express openly his love – and the Roman Catholic Church’s unsatisfactory answers to his questions about his feelings — that led Siebert to his split with Roman Catholicism. It’s immaterial whether those feelings were for a man or a woman

“I had met someone,” he says, “I wanted to avoid living a subterfuge, and that’s not to pass judgment on any clergy that do otherwise.”

Siebert says he “tried to stay within the structures of Roman Catholicism … [but] I came up against a brick wall.”

He still viewed his priestly vows as a commitment stronger than marriage, but says those vows were taken long before he’d come to know himself.

“I didn’t become a priest to avoid my homosexuality,” he says, calling his decision to take those vows one made with full knowledge of his orientation. In fact, orientation shouldn’t matter afterwards.

When his feelings for another became stronger, he tried religious counseling and even took the step that led him to become a monk.

Eventually, he took a leave of absence from the church to sort out his feelings. And it was during this period that he took a phone call that was the first big step eventually leading him to Gentle Shepherd.

“I remember standing there in my kitchen thinking ‘holy shit,’” he says of the call, which came from one of his former seminarians. The young, former priest candidate was asking Siebert to officiate his wedding to another man.

At first Siebert reacted to the obvious conflict that this would put him in, but then “about twenty seconds later I was like, ‘Of course I will do this. You are truth. Declare it good and holy and be there with your friends and family and do this openly instead of doing it like others behind rectory doors.”

Within a year, Siebert had been officially excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s a church to which he still professes his love, and one for which he has a compassionate understanding, as it confronts what may well prove one of its biggest challenges and greatest tests of its faithful.

“I love it to this very moment,” Siebert says. “They gave me life. I’m bound with that church and I’m not in rebellion with the idea of the bishop in Rome as the heart of Christianity.”


Dovi has reported on the Richmond community for 10 years, including a combined seven years as a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly. This is a continuation of his series on the many faces of faith in Richmond.


R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me

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