Friday, March 9, 2012

Politics Before People: The Diocese of Sacramento v. Francis House

Francis House Center, a Sacramento, California nonprofit agency that provides a variety of services to the homeless, was born 42 years ago out of St. Francis of Assisi parish. It serves about 25,000 clients a year with an annual budget of around $500,000. Among the services it provides are legal assistance with obtaining benefits and replacing lost identification documents and driver's licenses, job development and employment support, and emergency housing assistance for homeless families. Hardly a controversial program and, for the last 20 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento has been funding St. Francis to the tune of $7,500-$10,000 a year.

Now the Diocese has announced that its collaboration with the agency will come to an end. The reason? Last year, Francis House hired Rev. Faith Whitmore as its new Executive Director. Rev. Whitmore, formerly the senior pastor of St. Mark's Methodist Church, brought considerable experience to the job. Before her ordination, she had lived in several Catholic Worker communities, working directly with the homeless. She had also served on the boards of several local nonprofit groups, including the American Leadership Forum, Habitat for Humanity, the Interfaith Service Bureau, Friends Outside, Planned Parenthood, and Sacramento Area Congregations Together.

In her previous capacity as pastor of St. Mark's, Rev. Whitmore had committed the unpardonable "sin" in the eyes of the local Catholic hierarchy of supporting -- and performing -- gay marriages. The Diocese also cited her support for Planned Parenthood and freedom of choice and the fact that she permitted the Catholic Church reform group Call To Action and supporters of women's ordination to meet at St. Mark's.

Rev. Whitmore called the withdrawal of funding "surprising and disappointing" especially since she had "never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House." Michael Miller, a member of the Francis House corporate advicory board, expressed support for Whitmore, and added that the agency "really appreciates the diocese's support over the years. But the issues raised in their letter are not our issues....We serve the poor...We don't have a litmus test for homeless people when they come in. We don't ask them for their position on choice and gay marriage. We just help them. But for whatever reason, the diocese made those issues a higher priority than the mission."

Rev. Whitmore and Francis House are taking a position of being grateful for the Diocese's support to date and moving on. I'm not sure that's enough, and I would encourage those who feel outraged by this decision to do two things:

1. Make a donation to Francis House Center to support the great work they are doing. You can contribute online through their website at or send a check to Francis House Center, 1422 C Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-0916.

2. Contact Bishop Jaime Soto to politely express your disagreement with this decision:
Most. Rev. Jaime Soto, Bishop
Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento,
2110 Broadway,
Sacramento, CA 95818-2518
Tel: (916) 733-0100

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