Sondheim Finalists 2016: Eric Kruszewski documents LGBTQ Catholics in Baltimore

In the BMA gallery showing Sondheim finalist Eric Kruszewski's documentary video series "The Lost Flock," three rows of church pews face a video projection on a wall, and behind them stand four lecterns supporting digital tablets. Between the projection and the video playing on the tablets are the stories of the members of LEAD, an LGBTQ ministry program at St. Matthew Catholic Church, located just three miles northeast of the exhibition. LEAD (LGBT Educating and Affirming Diversity) includes queer individuals and couples as well as allies, whose stories Kruszewski shares one by one through interviews, footage from the subject's daily life and participation in church and LEAD activities (including marching in the Baltimore Pride parade), and old family photographs in individual videos viewable in the tablets. The projection in front of the pews (barely audible from even the front pew—go to erickruszewski.com if you want to hear it) is an 8-minute overview on LEAD and its members.

My head bowed to view the video playing from the lectern tablets: I learn the stories of Gigi, a lesbian from Cameroon who found family in LEAD after being disowned by her parents; Carolyn, an older mother of two adult gay children (and four other straight ones); Henry, a Kenyan ally preparing to return to his socially conservative country where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison; John and Michael, a gay couple celebrating the baptism of their newly adopted daughter; and Rachel and Vania, a newlywed lesbian couple considering leaving the church but still committing themselves to LEAD. Another video looks at LEAD director and longtime pastor of St. Matthew's, Father Joseph Muth Jr.

"In the '60s, a lot of the priests and sisters that I knew were in the civil rights movement marching with Caesar Chavez and the grape boycott," Father Joe reflects in one of the tablet videos. "...I saw the priests and sisters in the middle of the mix of changes in the church and changes in society, so I grew up and began to think, that's what I want to be, in the middle of those changes, helping people grapple with the questions and trying to understand them myself."

To a non-Catholic perspective, it might come as a surprise that someone would go into priesthood—serving the institution that is now probably most known for child molestation, discrimination against queer people and women, and, you know, the Crusades—to play a part in progressive social and political change. But Catholicism has a significant history in activism, especially in the last century.

Catholics, black and white, were heavily present during the Selma protests in 1965. Locally, in 1968, nine Catholics (including two priests) protested the Vietnam War by burning hundreds of draft records from the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville and were subsequently arrested, jailed, and written into history books as "The Catonsville Nine." And Muth Jr. isn't the only priest in Baltimore to speak out against the church doctrine on homosexuality: Father Richard Lawrence of Baltimore's historic St. Vincent de Paul received widespread attention in 2012 when, during a sermon later posted to YouTube, he read a letter from Archbishop William E. Lori urging Catholics to vote against same-sex marriage, following it up with a 10-minute speech calling for the church "to recognize the total, exclusive, permanent, interpersonal commitment of gay and lesbian couples as a part of the sacrament of matrimony." Catholics owe it to these people that today they have a pope who, though certainly not going far enough in accepting women and queer folks fully into the church, recently said the church must apologize for its past marginalization of the LGBTQ community—a huge leap from the command of previous pontiffs.

"To me, that's such an integral part of being Catholic, the care for the oppressed," says Rachel, whose quiet courthouse wedding to Vania, a former nun, we see in one of the tablet videos. That was the kind of Catholicism I was raised on in Catonsville, by two politically left-leaning parents—especially my father, who volunteers as a board member of the Catholic sister-led social justice lobbying group NETWORK, best known for its "Nuns on the Bus" campaign that called on elected officials to correct income inequality throughout the country (the group was formally reprimanded by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012).

Listening to each LEAD member's story, my thoughts drift to my own Catholic past and coming into my own queerness—which, perhaps luckily, did not overlap. After attending church every Sunday for the first 18 years of my life, and with my parents' blessing, I left the church for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the church's positions on homosexuality, abortion, and the role of women. But really, like many non-practicing Catholics of my generation (arguably, you never really leave the church) I just didn't feel a personal need for religion in general. It was an amicable breakup.

Years later, I'm trying to figure out how to tell the older and more conservative Catholic members of my extended family that the person they long knew as my boyfriend is actually my girlfriend. Still, despite these difficulties, I feel to this day an admiration for Catholics like my dad and the members of LEAD—who work from both the inside and outside to get the church closer to what it could and should be—and I understand that some queer people actually find more solace in church than, say, in the club, though I do not share that feeling myself. I also have a strong attachment to what my mother once aptly described as an aesthetic relationship to Catholicism: a love for its visual history, its architecture, its rituals, its performative elements.

For the most part, those aesthetics are absent in Kruszewski's bare-bones "church." The most ritualistic experience here is bowing your head to view the stories in the lectern tablets. But it doesn't feel like reading a Bible or listening to a sermon, even when Muth Jr.'s artful, humor-infused homily plays in front of the pews. Kruszewski does not seem concerned with forming his own doctrine critiquing or praising the church, but rather dissecting the complexity of Catholicism and of Catholics. As Rachel says in front of the pews, "People think it's incompatible to be gay and Catholic." But knowing how contradictory the Bible is in itself and in its relationship to modern Catholic dogma, it's no more incompatible to be Catholic and queer than it is to be Catholic and, well, anything else. Thanks to Kruszewski's intimate lens and his subjects’ openness, these well-told stories prompt reflection on not only the fraught relationship between the Catholic Church and LGBTQ communities, but about how and why people, period, exist—both fighting and making peace—within institutions catered to others.

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.

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