Washington is an unusually transient city. Administrations come and go, foreign diplomats cycle through, and college students flock to town, then often relocate four years later. For newcomers—even those who, like me, intend to stay—it can be tough to find your place.
When I arrived, I had a handful of friends in the area but no family, and I quickly started to crave the sense of community I’d left behind in Philadelphia, where I’m from. So I decided to look toward an institution I’d grown up in: the Catholic Church. I started attending Sunday Mass at a church near my apartment, and the parishioners treated me like a neighbor and one of their own. It didn’t quite make Washington feel like home, but the warm welcome—and comforting familiarity of the Sunday rituals—definitely helped.
Then in August, a Pennsylvania grand-jury report exposed decades of abuse by hundreds of priests across the state. Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl—who was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006—was accused of covering up the scandal and returning known pedophiles to the ministry. Protesters calling for his resignation lined the sidewalk outside DC’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Wuerl often presided at liturgies. His predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had resigned from the College of Cardinals in July amid allegations that he’d committed sexual abuse.
When the Pennsylvania report came out, it felt like a spiritual sucker punch. I was sickened—enraged by the harrowing accounts of children being mistreated by men who had the trust of their community. Like so many other Catholics, I’ve been wondering if I should join the droves of people who have fled due to these kinds of allegations.
Yet I still love the Church. I always will. Some of my formative life experiences have come from being a member, such as seeing Pope Benedict speak to a million people spread across a Madrid airfield, or standing just feet from Pope Francis during a Mass in Rome while serving as an intern for Catholic News Service.
I think about the times I’ve been at my lowest, when I’ve prayed, read Bible verses, and been uplifted by a homily or a fellow parishioner. I think about my home parish in Philadelphia, a historic and lively black Catholic church with a priest who has been outspoken about the need for radical change in the way the Church handles child abuse. The Catholic Church has always been a place where I’ve found healing, and it’s hard to see walking away from that during this moment of change and dislocation in my personal life.
But am I being selfish? Am I putting my longing for community and spiritual guidance above the larger moral issues? Each Sunday, I can’t help but notice the empty pews, the scarcity of other young people. Many believers my age no doubt feel a sense of disconnect, whether due to sex-abuse scandals or other issues. But unlike many of my peers in Washington and around the world, I do still consider myself a member of the Church; I believe the only way to solve these problems is for the faithful to acknowledge they exist—and work hard to change things.
At the church I joined here in DC, I recently attended a Wednesday-night “listening session,” during which parishioners were invited to discuss the most recent abuse allegations. I sat in a large basement hall with a priest, a deacon, and a group of churchgoers, all of us looking for answers. How do we protect children? What do we do as a broken diocese? How do we grapple with McCarrick and Wuerl, whom priests and laypeople in DC have revered for years? People were upset, and answers were elusive.
But in that pain was hope. There we were, talking about sins that had long been hidden in darkness, and we knew that in looking for a change, we were making the first steps toward healing. The feeling in the room was warm, supportive, and familial. It was, in fact, exactly what I’d sought when I first arrived in this city. There was a sense that I wasn’t just joining a community—I was actually helping create a new one.
This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Washingtonian.