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If you're one of those people of faith who believes in reproductive rights, contraception, gay and lesbian rights and more, it can sometimes be a little hard to square all that with traditional Roman Catholicism. Though Pope Francis has repeatedly signaled a desire to be more flexible about a host of social bugaboos, the Roman Catholic Church is a mighty big boat, and it will take decades to turn it away from entrenched attitudes about social and "bedroom" issues — issues that have led many liberal-minded Catholics to abandon ship in recent years.
For those who want the ritual, liturgy and community of Catholicism without the baggage, however, there is an alternative, and it's open to more than just Catholics. San Damiano Ecumenical Catholic Church is Little Rock's ecumenical Catholic congregation. Started in 2006 around the idea of offering Catholic Communion and Mass to all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or marital status, the church is small but growing. While not officially connected to the Roman Catholic Church, ecumenical Catholicism offers much of the same experience, along with what the pastor of San Damiano calls "an emphasis on care for creation, care for the poor, and peace and justice issues."
The story of Father Fred Ball, the bubbly, graying priest who started San Damiano in early 2006 with his wife (yes, his wife — that's another big difference between Roman Catholicism and ecumenical Catholicism), is a pretty good nutshell representation of the kind of person the church attracts.
"This is where it gets crazy," Ball said. "I grew up as a Southern Baptist here in Arkansas, and spent 20 years in Southern Baptist ministry, leading congregations."
Though he was at ground zero of the Baptist faith every Sunday morning, Ball said he'd always felt an attraction to the ritual and teachings of the Catholic Church, which offered "power, drama and depth" to faith. After graduating from the Baptist seminary, he joined a Franciscan order. When he signed on to lead Baptist congregations, he constantly folded elements of Catholic worship into the Protestant mix.
"I was always bringing liturgical insights and the liturgical calendar and liturgical worship pieces into my Baptist congregations, which was sometimes a stretch," he said with a smile. "I had a little open-country Baptist church in southern Indiana doing the Stations of the Cross during Lent."
After leaving the Baptist church in 1999, Ball spent six years as an Episcopalian, but something was missing. He was still drawn to Catholicism and the ministry, but knew that it didn't jibe with the reality of his own beliefs or his situation, given that he was married. He heard about the possibility of being an ecumenical Catholic priest from a Franciscan brother, and decided to form a congregation as a small group in his home.
Since January 2007, San Damiano has held Mass every Saturday and Wednesday night at St. Michael's Episcopal Church at 12415 Cantrell Road. While the congregation is still small — around 40 people total, though not everyone shows up to every Mass — it's growing. Parishioners are all ages, from an infant (born to parishioners that Ball married, their first "natural born citizen" he said with a laugh) to 70-plus, and come from every background.
"You'd tend to think that the natural base for us would be Catholics, because we share a lot of history and theology with the Roman Catholic Church," he said. "We're very similar in a lot of ways. But probably half of our members have no Catholic background at all. They come from either Protestant churches or no church experience."
The appeal of ecumenical Catholicism, Ball said, is different for everyone. There are some gays and lesbians in the church, Ball said. Others are former Roman Catholics who can't reconcile their social beliefs with those of the Vatican. Some come from no faith background at all. The church is also very active in effecting hands-on change, including homeless outreach and environmental programs, which Ball said are an additional appeal.
"For a small congregation, we've been heavily involved with things like the Arkansas Homeless Coalition," Ball said. "We have an exciting thing starting up right now that's called Franciscan Earth Corps. It's kind of my latest, greatest project. It's geared at reaching young adults, 18- to 35-ish, and centering around the issues of equal justice, spirituality and community."
Still, Ball said, San Damiano isn't right for everyone. If a person is happy in his or her own church, Ball said, that's where they should remain.
"I always try to be careful with how I present who we are, because if somebody is content in the church where they've been — whether they're Roman Catholics or Methodist or whatever — we want them to stay there," he said. "One of the things I tell people when they come is that they're welcome to walk with us for as long or as short a time as they need to, and that our desire is for them to be in the right place spiritually."
Lisa Kuykendall has been a parishioner at San Damiano for five years. Standing in a slow drizzle at a church-sponsored "blessing of the animals" event at Murray Park in Little Rock, she said that she had been a lifelong Roman Catholic before coming to San Damiano. It was her husband, she said, who got her interested.
"He saw it in the newspaper and wanted to go and wanted to go," she said, "and I'd say, 'No! It's not Roman Catholic, we're not going!' Finally, I gave in. I've been here ever since."
While Kuykendall has been encouraged by some of the statements of Pope Francis regarding the Church's involvement in social justice issues, and calls him a blessing to the whole world, she said it was the inclusiveness that brought her to ecumenical Catholicism. "[Roman Catholicism is] a little more closed than I wanted," she said. "In the Roman Catholic church, in order to receive Communion, you must be a Roman Catholic. In our church, anybody who has been baptized can receive Communion. I think that's very important. Communion to me is such a closeness to God. It really gets you through the week."
Ball said San Damiano just tries to be welcoming to all while offering a "Franciscan-flavored" faith that emphasizes community involvement. That sense of involvement is attractive to people who may have found that praying for change is not enough.
"There have been times when we've had more people out on a Saturday morning doing a homeless outreach event than we had at Mass on Saturday night," Ball said. "That's fine with me. That's where the action is. That's making a real connection between spirituality and community engagement."
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