By now, readers may already be familiar with Terry Gonda’s story. She is the former music director of St. John Fisher Chapel in Auburn Hills who was fired from her part-time job there when the Archdiocese of Detroit learned of her longtime marriage to her wife and decided to activate its “morality clause.” That is, being in a same-sex marriage rendered her unfit to keep her job.
Gonda and Kirsti Reeve, her wife of 16 years, recently sat down with Between The Lines outside their ranch-style home on a tree-lined street in Royal Oak where they have lived together since their unofficial marriage in 2003 — They were officially married in Washington, D.C. in 2011.
As to the view that their marriage lacks “morality,” Gonda turned that reasoning on its head. A deeply spiritual person, she explained why it was not in spite of, but because of, church teachings that she and Reeve felt compelled to marry.
“It’s not like we are unaware of church teachings,” Gonda said plainly. “The church teaches that [same-sex relationships are wrong]; the church also teaches primacy of conscience,” which she explained in detail.
“You need to do five things,” she said, enumerating with each finger. “Understand the church teachings; understand scripture; understand science, sociology — the best wisdom the world has to offer when you’re making a decision; and then deep prayer and discernment and walk with a spiritual director; and then the impact of any decision on community.”
Gonda said after doing those five things, if one hears “a voice telling you to do something,” one must do it — regardless of church teachings. Therefore, she emphasized, her marriage was not meant in any way to flout church authority. Instead, it was a higher calling of the Holy Spirit: that is, the highest authority.
“We were long-distance for nine years,” Gonda said.
Early on in their relationship, Reeve still living abroad.
“And anyone who knows us, and who knows me particularly, knows that I obnoxiously turn things over and over and over in prayer and logically look at all those five things over and over,” she said. “And this decision was not handled lightly.”
“Who Am I to Judge?”
Gonda knew something was brewing at St. John Fisher Chapel, where she served in the music department for 26 years — for six years as its director — well before being forewarned on June 12 in an email by her pastor, Monsignor Michael LeFevre, that she was to be fired by the AOD.
Parishioners learned in March there would be a change of priests come July. The incoming priest was described by Gonda as “prayerful and faithful,” but of a particular pastoral approach that was unlikely to fit with their church. Not only that, she pointed out that 85 percent of the church members where he had served most recently had left. Gonda said she could only interpret this move as an “intentional wrecking ball.”
“No disrespect to him,” Gonda said. “I think he’s living in his integrity. And I think we’re living in our integrity, and it seemed like a purposeful mismatch. So I began to grieve.”
In the past, Gonda said, she and Reeve had come to an understanding with their previous pastors.
“I have walked through discernments with my two previous pastors,” Gonda said. “We spoke to our incoming pastor five years ago and were willing to go on this journey with him to [say], ‘Here’s our discernment journey; here’s the fruits of our decisions; whether you think it’s of God … judge for yourself whether we still belong in leadership or not, in your mind.’”
Gonda described this as the Church’s traditional approach: the pastoral accompaniment. It’s what Pope Francis meant when he asked, “Who am I to judge?”
“I had done a lot of grieving and sobbing and ranting and healing and coming to not only acceptance but I began to have a welling of deep love in my heart for the new priest coming in, Father Dan,” Gonda explained. “So I know that was of the Holy Spirit. In the middle of prayer, and just filled with love — I don’t know this guy, and it was unmistakable. That was a big sign.”
Excited and curious about what was to come, and open to a new approach, Gonda wrote the new priest a letter to welcome him and request a “quiet conversation” before he landed, as she and Reeve had done in the past. Whether he was too busy or she had been outed, Gonda doesn’t know — she never received a response.
Following the email by LeFevre on June 12, Gonda was officially informed by the AOD that she was being let go shortly before her contract expired June 30.
“They are making a clear statement here,” she said. “Or, to be kind, getting rid of a problem before the new priest had to deal with it.”
The firing has caused Gonda and Reeve tremendous pain. It has also had a profound impact on parishioners, some of whom have known Gonda for the 30 years she has been a member of St. John Fisher. A rally was held outside the church to show support following mass on June 27. But beyond St. John Fisher, Gonda’s plight has touched many — her story has made news across the globe. She said she’s a bit surprised.
“Somebody being fired in the Catholic church for being gay isn’t news,” Gonda said. “So why would it hit the news cycle?”
She offered a few theories.
“We are all very vulnerable from COVID[-19], and we are having more time to reflect on what’s important,” she said. “We need each other. We miss being with one another and I think that’s been tremendous for people.”
She also referenced the impact of the murder of George Floyd by the police. People are less tolerant of injustice, as a result.
“Now we’re able to hear better and see better,” Gonda added.
The timing of the Supreme Court decision that ruled LGBTQ employees are protected from discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an obvious factor, too. However, Gonda’s situation does not apply because employees of religious institutions who have “ministerial” roles are exempt from protection.
“And for some reason, somebody who’s been hurt, standing up and saying, ‘I love these people; don’t demonize them,’ and, ‘I forgive them—’ apparently, that’s news,” Gonda said, with a laugh. “That surprises me.”
Despite others’ threats to leave St. John Fisher over her firing, Gonda is staying put. To underscore that point, she said of the incoming priest, “I’m leading the welcoming party.”
Further, Gonda said it has not at all affected her faith.
“This is not about the faith,” she said. “It’s like trying to leave the country because you don’t like a particular administration. The Constitution’s the Constitution. The Church is the Church.”
The Catholic Church and the LGBTQ Community
At the same time, Gonda is not naïve. She said what she experienced is just the latest in a pattern of church employees in same-sex marriages losing their jobs in this Archdiocese. Hers is the third she knows of. Not only that, church leaders in Metro Detroit have been informed by the AOD not to perform mass for Dignity/Detroit and Fortunate Families, two LGBTQ-friendly Catholic groups. While Gonda remains rock-solid in her faith, she is also speaking out against injustice.
“This is a pattern,” Gonda said. “This is one person’s way to come up with a unified approach in dealing with gays and lesbians. To others, it feels like a witch hunt, because, again, it goes back to intent. What are the fruits of this behavior? There are now people who are LGBT who are working in the Archdiocese who are now afraid of being outed and losing their jobs, who are in terror.”
By contrast, Gonda spoke of the support rally, which occurred the evening before this interview.
“What we saw last night was the fruits of our marriage,” Gonda said. “Saved lives. People coming closer in their faith. People being nurtured. Ironically, people staying Catholic.”
Gonda acknowledged that many LGBTQ Catholics feel hurt and angry about how they and others have been treated by the Catholic Church over the years. She has a message for them.
“Your anger is valid,” Gonda said. “What I say is, take the resentment, let it go. Become free, forgive and then find a faith community that works for you so you can go deep … into a relationship with Jesus. And then go out and save the world. Go make it a better place. Find your tribe. Don’t let anyone highjack Jesus from you — and people have.
“I want people to feel healed,” she continued. “I’m a spiritual director. I want people to go in and be transformed and let their light shine. And if you’re just feeling anger and resentment and pointing fingers at the Catholic Church, your light’s not shining. You’re still a bit in jail. I want [you] to be free. That’s my hope for everybody.”
Gonda went on to recommend several LGBTQ-affirming Catholic resources for people who feel conflicted by the Catholic Church’s actions. Notably, she mentioned newwaysministry.org.