After reading about Sara Smolenski’s story, a local congregation in East Grand Rapids, First United Methodist Church, hosted an “inclusive” service in her honor. She happily accepted the invitation.
“I am so full of gratitude that these ministers, their congregation, have reached out to open this up and do what Jesus would do,” Smolenski told NBC News.
Sara Smolenski has been going to the same church all of her life. Her parents were married at St. Stephen Catholic Church in East Grand Rapids, the same congregation in which she would later be baptized. Smolenski, who now serves as a judge with the 63rd District Court, even went to school there.
But after 62 years, Smolenski says she was refused religious rites for being a lesbian.
According to the local news outlet MLive, Smolenski claims she had a meeting with Father Scott Nolan on November 23 in which he told her “not to come forward for Holy Communion” during that week’s service. The ritual, which is commonly practiced in the Catholic church, involves the receiving of wine and unleavened bread, which represent the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.
The situation was extremely confusing to Smolenski, who had just received communion from Nolan just days earlier. “Why now?” she wondered. “And why me?”
As Smolenski claims, the reason she was told not to participate in church services is that she tied the knot with her partner of 27 years in 2016. Her wedding was viewed as being a conflict for the Catholic Church, which continues to hold the belief that marriage is a union solely between one man and one woman.
The Diocese of Grand Rapids has stood by Nolan, who has yet to offer a public comment on the incident.
“Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids throughout the diocese’s history,” it claimed in a press release. “They remain so. They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community. No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members.”
Somewhat cryptically, the Diocese went onto add that “humility and conversion” are essential to “anyone seeking to live an authentically Catholic Christian life.”
Other parishioners at St. Stephen Catholic Church have largely voiced their support for Smolenski, with congregants telling MLive that “everyone is welcome” at the church. While Smolenski says her intention with coming forward wasn’t to create “divisiveness,” she says the Catholic Church that justifies turning people away doesn’t resemble the inclusive, accepting one she grew up in.
“I was raised in that church,” she says. “It created who I am. We were taught ‘love everyone.’”
Polling shows that Catholics are widely accepting of same-sex marriage. A 2017 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 67 percent of Catholics believe all couples should have the freedom to marry, in addition to 65 percent of Latinx Catholics.