The last weekend of August our parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus, committed to a booth at the Jersey City LGBTQ Pride Fest. We talked about it for months and our parish leadership committee decided who would staff the booth and what materials we would be distributing—the usual leaflet about the ANCC, a flyer about our all-inclusive parish and the Mass schedule, and some holy cards and religious medals.
My secular career is in real estate. As a realtor, Saturday is your busiest day of the week. I was out the door with my first appointment at 8:00 am and crammed a full day’s worth of work into the morning so that I could be done by noon and get to the event, which had already started, by 1:00 pm. After a hectic morning, I ran home and changed into my clerical clothing and was lamenting the fact that on this hot, last Saturday afternoon of August there were a zillion other things I would rather be doing than going to stand for endless hours on a hot sidewalk with a throng of people passing by giving cynical sideways glances of wonder as to why their arch-nemesis, a Catholic church, was at their Pride Fest.
As I was buttoning my shirt and inserting my collar tab, I was wondering what to do to make a difference at this event, to get the peoples’ attention and have them notice us, because we weren’t the enemy. It struck me like a bolt of lightning. BLESSINGS! My parishioners have heard me say over and over and over that “God wants nothing more than to touch your heart and to love you.” I have had the courage to step out of my comfort zone for the past 5 years and distribute ashes on the street in front of the subway station on Ash Wednesday, so why not give out Blessings in the middle of the pedestrian concourse at the Pride Fest?
Running late, I ran into my home study and printed out 5 sheets of paper with two large words on them – FREE BLESSINGS. (I wanted people to know that we were not looking for donations). I said to myself, “What the heck, if the people from my parish don’t want me to do it when I arrive, I won’t.” So I grabbed an alb and a stole and my FREE BLESSINGS sheets and summoned an Uber to take me to the Pride Fest since parking would be near impossible.
When we arrived, Scott was handing out materials and Denise was stringing holy medals on necklace cords to give out. We posted a couple of my little 8.5 x 11 black and white FREE BLESSING signs and a woman passing by said— “I can always use a blessing!” For the next 6 hours I had a steady stream of men, women, couples, children and families lining up to receive a blessing. I had media taking photos, politicians working the crowd for photo opportunities receiving a blessing, but more importantly I had the broken-hearted and those most in need of God’s love and reassurance seeking a blessing.
I prayed with a mother whose pregnant daughter had been murdered by her son’s fiancé. I prayed with a father and daughter for their wife/mother who was in rehab. I prayed with a young woman from Brazil who was publicly humiliated and banished from her parish by her parish priest when he announced to the parish she was a lesbian. I had couples asking for a blessing on their relationship. I blessed lonely singles praying God would help them find someone to share their life with. I prayed with someone who was going to start chemo the following week. I prayed with the disabled, the sick, the troubled, the addicted. I prayed with people of every race and language. And it went on and on and on.
We quickly lost count; but we estimate that it was at least 250 people that I prayed with, blessed, and embraced. God’s people are hungry to be touched and healed with God’s love. Yes, at first, I was worried about looking foolish or being made fun of by people attending the Pride Fest. But after the first couple of people came pouring out their hearts and unloading their burdens, letting me dry their tears and assure them that God loves them and will never abandon them, that melted away and I didn’t care any longer. I knew that I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do and that Jesus was reaching into their hearts and caressing them with his love. Jesus was there touching the broken in the crowd of 10,000 attendees at an LGBTQ Pride Fest on a hot summer afternoon.
Funny, isn’t it, that my lamenting and wishing I didn’t have to go to this event turned out to be a very powerful and Spirit-filled day of my priesthood? God has a funny way of doing things. You just have to love His sense of humor. As I always say: “Get out the way and let God be God!”
Fr. Paul Gulya
Sacred Heart of Jesus ANCC (Kearny, NJ)