It was billed as a "Big Gay Brunch" in Cherry Hill, inspired by Pope Francis' planned visit to Philadelphia.

Among the 20 guests were devout Catholic heterosexuals, a gay man raised as a Mormon, and an evangelical Christian crusader against human trafficking.

"We're trying to figure out how to leverage this historic visit," said organizer and host Jay Lassiter, a marriage equality and medical marijuana advocate and death penalty opponent.

"We want rational, sane, forward-thinking voices to be at the table."

Francis is scheduled to be in Philadelphia for a portion of the church's World Meeting of Families, which begins Sept. 22. As many as a million people could attend.

For that reason alone, it's a not-to-be-missed opportunity for advocacy on issues important to me and millions of people, LGBT and otherwise.

The brunch's eclectic (and substantially nongay) guest list included a heterosexual couple, both raised Catholic, who support same-sex marriage, and a woman who said she was raised Catholic but became an atheist after divorcing her closeted gay husband.

Also on hand were a self-described "High Episcopal" church member with two gay siblings, and the president of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"We are a fellowship of like-minded people . . . and we can certainly add to the debate and the discussion," said brunch organizer Kim Otto of Haddonfield, the mother of a gay son.

"My goal is for the World Meeting to hear that all families, regardless of their makeup, are worthy of dignity and respect," she said.

"A hostile, intolerant church hurts families" of LGBT people, Lassiter said. "And that's not cool."

Several nongay brunch guests said they were heartened by what looks to them like a papacy in tune with progressive values.

"I'm very intrigued by the pope's comments about climate change," said Lori Braunstein, a founder of the Sustainable Cherry Hill organization.

"I love the pope's views on wealth and inequality," said Stephen Steglik, who lives in Maple Shade, works in marketing, and supports marriage equality.

The World Meeting, he added, is "a great opportunity to open up the conversation" about issues of social justice, as well as LGBT concerns.

Sunday's brunch at the home Lassiter shares with Greg Lehmkuhl, his partner of 10 years, also was a step toward establishing a South Jersey chapter of Dignity USA, the national advocacy group for LGBT Catholics.

Otto and Lassiter said a local Dignity chapter could be an "organizing tool" for the group. Dignity was founded in 1969 and has a membership of about 6,000 spread across 35 chapters.

Yet Dignity has "not been invited to participate" in the World Meeting, executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke said from the organization's Boston headquarters.

"There is a workshop on LGBT issues, and we have suggested speakers," Duddy-Burke said. "We are organizing a pilgrimage, and we are looking at the possibility of having parallel workshops at a nearby site.

"But being on the official agenda? Probably not," she said.

Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, said in an e-mail that "LGBT issues will certainly be addressed," but added that the agenda "will also deal with a wide range of family issues," including poverty and addiction.

She noted that 10,000 volunteers would be needed during the World Meeting, and "once registration opens, we encourage all who want to be part of this once-in-a-generation event to consider joining us."

The church views homosexual sex as sinful and calls upon LGBT people to live celibate lives.

While Francis has given no indication he plans to change church policy about homosexuality, his pastoral approach and personal charisma suggest a willingness to listen.

"I think church leaders are struggling to find out what the [pope] is really about and where the church is going," Duddy-Burke said. "It's an opportunity for lay leaders to step into the void and have our voices heard."

As the session ended, desserts were sliced and the organizers talked about the kinder, gentler Vatican that Francis seems to embody.

"For the first time in a long time," Otto said, "I think we have hope."

"I do, too," Lassiter said.

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