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Staying in the church to fight for change

Last month’s firing of Margie Winters from Waldron Mercy Academy has families and kids trapped between polarizing and too-often vitriolic forces in the church. But here's why I'm staying in this tumultuous neighborhood of Roman Catholicism

Eleven years ago, on the night my daughter was born, I could not sit still. About 3 a.m., when walking up and down the stairs of my house no longer eased the pain, I needed to go outside.

During my laps on my street in Northern Liberties, a gun fight broke out. Deep into labor, I needed to duck down between two cars to remain safe until the shooters moved on. As I was literally caught in the crossfire, I remember questioning whether it was finally time to give up on Philadelphia. Or was I strong enough to sustain my commitment to being part of a long process of revitalization that promised flourishing for all kinds of families and children?

In the end, I stayed. I labored for the city for seven years on community and economic development projects and now collaborate with cities around the country as they struggle to preserve vulnerable neighborhoods and revitalize distressed places. It took time, and there was some pain, but I can see the changes.

The parallels between being caught in that crossfire and last month's firing of Margie Winters from my children's school, Waldron Mercy Academy, are painfully acute. Families and kids are trapped between polarizing and too-often vitriolic forces in the Catholic Church. Several women have been deeply wounded and probably permanently scarred. And the future of this educational enterprise is in jeopardy as people question how any reasonable parent could stay in such a place.

But, just as I decided 11 years ago, I'm staying in this tumultuous neighborhood of Roman Catholicism in Philadelphia.

I'm staying because, as a product of 16 years of Catholic education and a post-college year in the Vincentian Service Corps, I want my children's experience of the diversity of our city to be grounded in the Catholicism that has fundamentally supported my faith and understanding of the church. This is not a Catholicism that blindly follows dictates, but one of contemplation, study, service to others, and social change.

I'm staying because these past weeks, while difficult and sad for many of us, provided an opportunity for dialogue so critical for successful change movements. In the same way that Marge and others at WMA taught our children to speak up on social justice issues, this regrettable situation prompted many parents like me to develop a deeper personal understanding of how the church's position on gay and lesbian issues was formed and how its stance on a variety of social justice issues has changed over time. This experience allowed me to work with and lean on people I did not know — one-time strangers with whom I can now envision moving forward together.

I'm staying because I want to continue to labor with the Sisters of Mercy, who have a legacy of advocacy and service for those often overlooked by society — poor women and children, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the drug addicted. Marge, in the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy, infused our children's awareness of those less fortunate and helped them to take an active role through the mercy ministries. I believe that empathy and justice are the tools we need to address the hatred, bullying, and violence we see aimed at anyone who is viewed as different.

Yes, Marge's firing calls into the question whether anything can really bubble up from the pews in this archdiocese, or why the Sisters of Mercy don't see this as a social justice issue, or if a dialogue with the men at the top of various hierarchies is even possible. And these questions do tempt me to pack up my kids and move on to another school, to another religion.

But then I'm reminded that it's not just me who's staying. I am part of a movement of both lay and religious leaders from around the world who want to make the Catholic Church more inclusive, more equitable, more socially just. German Catholic bishops decided this year that same-sex marriage is no longer grounds for automatic dismissal of employees. Things may not happen that quickly here. But I know from my experience with community development that change takes time, particularly when it needs to happen in institutions like city governments, school systems, or churches.

I'm reminded of a favorite quote from Dorothy Day, herself a change agent within her own city and in the Catholic Church:

"People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do."

No more time for duck and cover; we're in the crossfire. There's change that needs delivering.

Cathy Califano is a Philadelphia resident and a parent of Waldron Mercy Academy students.