The SoulForce Equality Riders are a group of young 'uns (remember, I'm old) who have been visiting religious colleges and universities across the country, attempting to deliver messages of inclusiveness and justice, urging these institutions to adopt gay-friendly policies for their students and staff, getting thrown off campuses and arrested left and right. Huh, I thought, sucks for them, but that reception probably wasn't completely unexpected. And they must at least have gotten the satisfaction of standing up for the right thing.
Then Soulforce hit Notre Dame.
Some of the Equality Riders, accompanied by a couple of gay Notre Dame students, were charged with trespassing when they laid a wreath at the Tom Dooley statue at the Grotto, the lovely shrine that replicates the Grotto at Lourdes in France, a quiet refuge of rock, moss, and trees that's the first visit for many people when they make their pilgrimages back to campus.
If you don't know Notre Dame (or if you're under 50), you may not know the name, or you may know it only from the ancient Kingston Trio song. Dooley, a Notre Dame grad, was a Navy doctor in World War II and went on to work in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, rescuing 600,000 Catholic Vietnamese and relocating them to South Vietnam. God, Country, Notre Dame. Dooley epitomized the Notre Dame spirit of service to humanity and, above all, love of the university, a love immortalized by a bronze plaque at the Grotto bearing an excerpt of a letter he wrote in December 1960, as he was dying of cancer in Hong Hong, to University President Fr. Ted Hesburgh:
But just now . . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.
The only thing that could possibly tarnish the image of the revered Dooley, the sainted Dooley, in the University's eyes, is the fact that he was most likely a gay man. That's why they SoulForce guys wanted to put their wreath at his feet. And for bringing up that uncomfortable truth about a Catholic university's poster boy hero, the riders were charged with criminal trespassing and the students were threatened with suspension.
I knew before, of course, that ND is a pretty conservative place. Hell, half the students are enrolled in the College of Business Administration, most come from affluent families, and it's Catholic. But I still managed to think the best, to focus on the social justice preached from the pulpit most Sundays when I went to Mass at the Basilica, to remember the spirit of the Notre Dame family that buoyed me through countless days of adolescent angst.
No, I didn't go there. I got in and was named a Notre Dame Scholar, thankyouverymuch, but received a better scholarship from Northwestern and so went there instead. But my heart never left Notre Dame. I had gone to high school across the street from campus and lived just a few blocks away, attending Mass there and even biking over for vespers every evening in the summertime. I spent hours at the Grotto near Dooley's statue, sometimes praying, sometimes meditating, sometimes just sitting and soaking in the history and vibes of the place. Even after my mom left South Bend and I moved to Chicago, it was the home I always came back to. It was a constant, and my place there was secure.
I sit here and type this with the aid of a mouse scooting across a Notre Dame mouse pad. I have ND shirts for every day of the week. My office is divided from the larger lab room, in part, by a Notre Dame flag. A hockey jersey autographed by the captain of the '81 -'82 team hangs on my wall. There may be a link in the sidebar on the right to the DomeCam. On October 21 of this year, when Brady Quinn's 45-yard toss settled into Jeff Szmardzija's hands to cap an improbable comeback against UCLA, I damn near hit my head on the ceiling, and when the players stood arm-in-arm in front of the student section after the game, singing "Notre Dame, Our Mother," the tears in my eyes came from that particular swelling of the heart and soul only the Golden Dome can inspire.
Yeah, if you understand, no explanation is necessary; if you don't, well, it probably all seems more than a little psychotic.
When I came out, I worried about rejection from several different quarters. I didn't think to worry about Notre Dame. So when I read about the SoulForce kids being arrested, the students suspended, and the fact that AllianceND (the campus GLBT group) is not only not officially recognized by the university, but also barred from meeting on campus, it felt like a personal kick in the teeth. Yes, yes, I know ND's conservative, but... this is me. It was minus an order of magnitude, perhaps, but still very similar to the feeling when my coming out to my dad didn't go as well as I'd expected. Yes, I know he's conservative, but, but, but... this is me.
Dad's still in the process of coming around, seven years later, but at least it's in progress. What's the dad:university ratio? How many years does that mean it will be before the university so many of us love and consider a spiritual home decides to come around and accept all of its children unconditionally?
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry.