“In a strange way, it allowed ordinary people to say, ‘No more. They’re destroying our community. We have to say something.’ This was no longer a philosophical discussion. It impacted real people’s lives, community life. It forced faith communities to say, ‘What are our true values?’ and to move beyond our comfort zone.
“It was such a different era then,” says the Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod, a United Church of Christ minister and a brother in the Order of Corpus Christi, an evangelical catholic religious order. “Thirty years ago very few churches were welcoming of LGBTQ people and most mainline denominations had laws forbidding queer clergy. Clergy and laity who stood up for the LGBTQ community felt very much like trailblazers, facing backlash not only from others in their faith community but also the church hierarchy. The threats and withdrawal of financial support, the physical intimidation and destruction of sacred spaces – it was terrible, a very scary time.”
Among the less expected allies opposed to Ballot Measure 9 was the Roman Catholic Church. “The Church was late in responding,” says Father Jim Galluzzo, “though they did come around.”
Portland had several progressive Catholic churches that had “pushed as far as they could,” Father Jim says, and the Archdiocese of Portland publicly voiced its opposition to Measure 9.
But Hillsboro was a different situation. Then a farming community of 39,000 (its population has since tripled) on the outer western edge of the tri-county Portland region, the Hillsboro of that time was characterized by “a lot of old Dutch farmers,” says Father Jim, a priest at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Hillsboro during the Measure 9 campaign.
Father Jim and parish leaders had laid the groundwork for conversations about the OCA through a group they had formed called Allies: People to People “to teach a way of living and thinking that honors human liberation based on gospel values and works to end oppression of any kind: e.g., sexism, racism, classism, adultism, or homophobia.”
“Most of the leaders were well prepared to talk about homophobia in coffees and luncheons, in people’s homes,” Jim says – “that’s the way they are in Hillsboro. They wouldn’t come out to a rally. They were not people who would protest.”
The night of October 5 changed that.
The Night of October 5
“On the night of Oct. 5, vandals spray-painted anti-gay and pro-Measure 9 graffiti on the exterior of the church. Five nights later, vandals struck again. This time, epithets aimed at homosexuals, minorities, Jews and Catholics were painted in red in 12 places inside the church. Vandals also broke into the church office and lit a fire on the pastor’s desk. A smoke alarm startled the assistant pastor, the Rev. Jim Galluzzo, who was asleep in an upstairs bedroom.” (The Oregonian, “Ballot Measure 9 Creates Climate of Fear,” Oct. 17, 1992)
Jim remembers that morning and the changes it wrought like this:
“That Sunday morning, I was exhausted. The night before the parish house I lived in was set on fire, so I couldn’t stay there. I called People to People leaders and together we called close to 1000 people to let them know what had happened. I didn’t want them to arrive for mass unprepared and be traumatized.
“Mass that day drew far more people than the usual Sunday. It was like a reunion. You saw people there for the first time in years. Some were gay and hadn’t felt welcomed. Many showed up let people know this wasn’t right. From that day to the election, the community provided 24-hour surveillance; they parked their campers around the church. No one was going to hurt the church again.
“There had been people who didn’t like our People to People work, thought we were a little too liberal for St. Matthews, that we’d all be better off if we just didn’t talk about it. But now, after the vandalism, all of a sudden it was, ‘Now we hear what you’ve been saying for the last two years’ – to love everyone.
“That event angered or moved people enough to say ‘we need to speak out.’ The police told us we’d brought this on ourselves. But parishioners saw that if we remain silent, we feed the despair and anger. Hearing my homily that Sunday morning with those hate-filled messages in red on the white marble behind me – it gave people courage. It gave them courage to tell their own stories.”
Their Own Stories of Discrimination
“People in Hillsboro are storytellers. The older people in the church, the old Dutch farmers and others, were children in the classroom at St. Matthews when the Ku Klux Klan would come searching for guns. They had to hide under their desks. They had stories to tell from that time that they’d never told anyone, not their children or grandchildren. But now they were talking about their own experience of discrimination.” Once someone shares that breaks the silence
In the 1920s Oregon had led the nation in per capita Klan enrollment, tapping anti-Catholic sentiment as part of an anti-immigrant, nativist reaction to WWI. “The Klan rhetoric portrayed the church as having special interests and political ambitions,” scholar David Horowitz told The Oregonian after the 1992 attack on St. Matthews. “There is something of a similarity in the way the OCA portrays homosexuals as a special-interest group.”
“After the older people started sharing their stories,” Father Jim says, “I heard things like, ‘My 15 year-old grandson came out to me. He knew I was safe because I told my story.’ Having their church under attack once again helped them to see see that all forms of oppression are not right.
“Hillsboro ended up supporting gay rights in that election 60-40% after what happened, the complete inverse of where opinion had been previously. We won! But did we really change people’s hearts?
“I want to change people’s hearts, for them to see things in a different way, versus just winning an action. That Sunday morning surrounded by the hateful graffiti, I didn’t have to talk about the injustice – it came into our world, plain to see. The next step is, what are we going to do about it? How do you want the world to be and how do we make that happen? That should be the work of the church. Hospitality.”
Hospitality – Father Jim provides a few more examples.
“There was a secret AIDS house in Hillsboro, hidden away. Visiting someone I knew there, I ran into a church employee whose son was also a resident. She was afraid she would be fired if anyone knew her son had AIDS. We planned a memorial celebration of life for all the people in Hillsboro and the neighboring town who had died of AIDS – 33 people, and no one knew it. You couldn’t even put it in the newspaper. Over 400 people showed up to the memorial. It has continued annually for many years.
“At one of the big No on 9 rallies in Portland I approached a Yes on 9 table on the outskirts to tell them that they were welcome too, and that I’d like to understand better why they felt the way they felt. I met with them six times and barely said a word, just listened. I remember when I went to two tables, you are also welcome, you didn’t have to sit on the outside. Why don’t we meet for lunch and you tell me why you believe what you do.
“They became my biggest supporters, escorting me to all the conservative churches I went to speak to. Before that I’d had things thrown at me. They came to 15 talks as my escort, drove me there, protected me.
“During those initial listening sessions with them, every time I struggled I looked down at what I’d written on my hand – ‘They are fully human.’”
Since No on 9, Father Jim says, many more Catholic centers have become more welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender peoples – hospitals, churches, high schools, higher educational institutions. This has helped staff, teachers, students and parishioners see others as fully human.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.