The priest who canceled LGBTQ Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston’s visit to Immaculata Catholic School for Black History Month said the school needs a break from politicians.
The Rev. Christopher VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which governs the school, canceled school on Feb. 8 over the threat of protests, he explained in a letter to parents on Feb. 7.
However on Monday, VanHaight said he “made the decision to rescind the invitation to Ms. Alston after receiving messages from some parents concerned that having a pro-gay marriage politician speak at the school was calling into question the school’s commitment to upholding Catholic moral teaching.”
Alston, who is married to a woman, is an alumna of Immaculata Catholic School in Durham as well as Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh. She was elected to the Durham City Council in 2017.
“It can be difficult to balance being clear about what the Church teaches and trying to be open and welcoming to all people, but that is my role as pastor,” VanHaight wrote in an email to The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. “I informed the diocese after I made the decision and they were fully supportive. I do deeply regret that although I had no intention of disrespecting Ms. Alston that is exactly what happened. I have already expressed my regrets to her over the way this all played out.”
VanHaight said he made the decision to close the school and church Friday “after hearing from parents that there would be protesters both for and against Ms. Alston speaking, even though I had yet to make any public statement on the matter, and I did not want to put the children in the middle of such a potentially tense situation.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh released its own statement Friday saying it supported VanHaight’s decision.
Alston responded with a public letter Thursday.
“Immaculata is a religious institution and I believe strongly in the freedom to believe and worship how one chooses, even if a belief conflicts with something fundamental to my own life,” she wrote.
“That said,” she continued, “adherence to that basic principle means that I can freely say that the Church, by depriving the students at Immaculata of the chance to honor Black history, and in doing so, condemning the lives and rights of the LGTBQ community, is sending a sad, regressive, and life-altering message to our children – that the voices and experiences of those within the Black community can be canceled and that inclusion is not valued by some who are charged with shaping their character. I reject that message.”
On Friday, some parents said they still wanted Alston to come speak to students.
In VanHaight’s response Monday, he said that “although I know of no diocesan policy against politicians speaking at Catholic schools, you can imagine that we here at Immaculata are going to at least take a break from that for a while.”
Immaculata eighth grader Daniel Golonka sent a letter to the editor to The Herald-Sun and News & Observer on Saturday, saying he strongly disagreed with the decision to disinvite Alston and cancel school.
“I learned that it was a small group who were disturbed by Ms. Alston being committed to another woman and having a child. She was turned away because of one small idea that people cannot be committed to someone of the same gender,” Daniel wrote. “At [Immaculata Catholic School], we are taught that love is best and to respect God, self, and others. I think that God might be looking down and saying that the protesters are sinning. Jesus came down to save us from ourselves and our hate. His message is love.”
According to a Pew Research Center study, a majority of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage, with more than 50 percent of Catholics supporting it since 2012. In 2017, 67 percent of Catholics said they supported same-sex marriage.
Two other elected officials had also been scheduled to speak at the school during Black History Month after being invited by the school’s African-American Heritage Committee: Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson and District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart. Johnson identifies as LGBTQ.
The theme for the school’s Black History Month celebration is “Influential African American Women.” Alston was scheduled to speak about her life in public service.
Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project, said VanHaight’s decision “makes often hidden divisions in our community visible.”
Murray, who grew up in Durham, is a saint in The Episcopal Church, was LGBTQ, African American, an attorney, author and activist for women’s, civil and human rights.
“The opportunity in this moment is for all of us to practice what Pauli Murray sermonized about, the [second] great commandment, to love ourselves and our neighbors,” Lau said in an email. “I hope the students at Immaculata get an opportunity to experience what that really means.”
VanHaight wrote that “some have received the impression that we are rejecting our LGBTQ parishioners and others. That is also not true. We welcome and value them. I have a lot of meetings set up with folks so hopefully together we can move forward with the healing process.”
He is scheduled to meet with Alston later this week, as well as Immaculata parents. Over the past few days, several Immaculate Conception parishioners and Immaculata parents have emailed Alston showing her support and their disappointment over the church’s decision. Alston has also received offers to speak at a different location and at other schools.
VanHaight emailed Alston last week, telling her that he “never meant to show you any disrespect by this process and unfortunately I belive that is exactly what happened.”
“You are a dedicated public servant who has a history of promoting social justice and you certainly did not deserve the manner in which the events of this week played out, “VanHaight wrote to Alston.