News & Commentary

Pastor is one of first ‘priest companions’ for Eden Invitation LGBTQ+ outreach

A man is seen in a file photo walking out of a church. Eden Invitation, an LBGTQ+ outreach based in St. Paul, Minn., recently announced it has trained its first "priest companions'' to accompany the organization's Hearth Groups, or local chapters, and be available for spiritual guidance, to administer the sacraments and to build community. Father Nathan Hall, a pastor in Lincoln, Neb., is among Eden Invitation's first priest companions. (OSV News photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA, CNS)

LINCOLN, Neb. (OSV News) — Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln with same-sex desires or gender discordance have a program they can turn to for help in living a chaste life within the Catholic Church: Eden Invitation.

And a Lincoln pastor — Father Nathan Hall — is one of Eden Invitation’s first “priest companions” trained over the last several months to accompany the organization’s Hearth Groups, or local chapters, and be available for spiritual guidance, to administer the sacraments and to build community together.

He called his first Eden retreat “amazing.”

“My heart was kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m all in now.” … This should have been in the church 30 years ago, 40 years ago,” said the pastor of North American Martyrs Parish in Lincoln.

“There was one individual there who kind of let it be known he likes young adult groups at churches, but he’s tired of making excuses why he’s not dating any of the other single ones. … And when I heard that, that opened my mind pastorally. What am I doing, or how am I helping people with these experiences?” he told the Southern Nebraska Register, Lincoln’s diocesan newspaper.

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Eden Invitation focuses on receiving the “whole person,” offering support and “building community with others who desire a way of life in congruence” with Jesus Christ and his church.

The Diocese of Lincoln for many years had a local chapter of Courage, a national Catholic support group for those specifically with same-sex desires and their families. That group is no longer active.

Eden Invitation is a similar group, but focuses mostly on young adults with same-sex desires and gender discordance, and the group does not offer a specific program for their family members. It was formed in 2017 and offers in-person events nationwide and online community across the globe to those with an LGBTQ+ experience.

Father Hall said he first became aware of Eden Invitation several years ago when he was teaching morality. Some of the students were raising questions about the options for those with same-sex desires and gender discordance. Another priest recommended helpful videos from Eden Invitation on the subject matter.

Father Hall eventually became more involved with the group as a spiritual director and then helped with a retreat with about 50 members in Minnesota.

Anna Carter, co-founder and president of the organization, said she saw a need in the church and started Eden Invitation to meet it.

“My background is in evangelization and discipleship ministry. I noticed that, a lot of the time, sexuality and gender are talked about strictly in a moralistic way — ‘Do this, not that, good luck!'” Carter said. “But the truth is, your sense of self and your experience of desire impact a lot of things. It affects how you see yourself, how you enter into friendships, how you discern vocation.

“And in our fallen world, when a more ‘progressive’ view, so to speak, is so dominant right now, it can also impact your experience of suffering, whether you trust the church, and whether or not you believe God is good,” she continued. “We wanted to create a more integrated experience. We definitely address sexuality and gender, but we do it in the larger context of … Catholic faith and Christ’s call to discipleship.”

Father Hall said part of what the organization does is share the truth in a way he learned about from a short video by Carter.

“It shouldn’t be a hammer that you beat someone over the head with, but it shouldn’t be hidden away,” Father Hall said of Carter’s message about the truth of same-sex desires and church teaching. “Because if you are talking with someone who’s interested in Christianity and you’re hiding this truth, then later on when they discover it, it’s like a bait-and-switch. And that’s not fair.”

Carter said their members appreciate Father Hall’s pastoral approach, especially when he helps with their retreats.

“He has a beautiful combination of pastoral sensitivity, common sense and grounded humanity,” Carter said. “It’s been very easy to work with him because he just wants to understand people and love them to Jesus.”

Father Hall said he turns to Jesus to offer the best example of reaching out to people in difficult circumstances. He said Jesus was never afraid to get into the “mess” of real life and invite those back who had lost their way. That is where the name “Eden Invitation” comes from.

“When Jesus was asked about marriage, what did he do? He went back to Genesis. From the beginning, it was man and woman, and the two became one flesh. And what God has joined together, let no one put asunder. So that even the name is just an invitation to come back,” Father Hall said.

The Eden Invitation program involves a sequence of steps someone moves through at his or her own pace, with the option to drop out at any time if participants feel the program is not for them. It begins a “story call,” which takes place either anonymously or face to face. It involves basic questions such as “Who are you? Where are you? What’s been your experience in the church? What’s been your experience with any of these desires?”

The person then reviews a book on spirituality and the human experience through an online small group led by a trained team member. If the person wishes to continue, he or she is invited to consider staying connected either on the “porch” or in a deeper level of their online community.

“So you have access to the community, but kind of on the porch level … you’re still learning,” Father Hall explained. “They use an image of a house. (After the porch), you move to the threshold. The threshold is more book studies. You can come to an in-person retreat. Then there’s the actual hearth. Hearth is the final step where it’s like, ‘I’m all in. I want to join and be active in a community monthly with others in my area, in my town.'”

Eden Invitation’s “Statement of Belief” emphasizes its adherence to church teaching in all instances. It states, “We firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Catholic Church regarding teaching on faith and morals. … We believe that sexual expression is intended to be unitive and procreative within the context of an exclusive, indissoluble marriage between one man and one woman. Sexual expression outside of this union is sinful for all persons.”

“Every person is called to holiness and to chaste integration of their sexuality according to their state in life,” the statement concludes.

“As a priest, I had to sign something that looked like an oath of fidelity to the church’s magisterium and to Christ’s teachings on human sexuality,” Father Hall said. “So they’re even vetting the priests. Every participant had to sign it. … So I would say anyone who might be uncomfortable with this, just know I, 100 percent, would not be a part of this if it was off the rails, trying to change church teaching. It’s not. It’s trying to receive the people and then maybe one day get them there.”

Lincoln does not have enough members yet for an in-person group, but is instead part of an online community with members in other Great Plains states, but an in-person group is ultimately the goal.

Father Hall said he has preached about Eden Invitation in his own parish and had “a lot of positive responses.” In fact, Eden Invitation’s theme this year is joyful hope.

“Because a lot of people with these experiences haven’t had hope. And it hasn’t been joyful,” Father Hall said.

Carter said she hopes Eden Invitation can continue to welcome seekers who can feel welcomed, and the organization “can be a little beacon for both the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community, that God somehow makes the paradox of ALL our lives work in mysterious ways — broken and blessed, fallen yet fruitful, with grace sustaining us ‘more than we can ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20).”

By Dennis Kellogg | OSV News