Courage offers spiritual support for men, women

By Ricardo Gandara
Correspondent

Mark Guilford doesn’t hide that he’s gay; it’s who he is, since he was a boy, he says. But there’s much more to Guilford than his declaration of having same sex attraction. Perhaps, an even bigger part of his identity these days is that he lives a chaste, spiritual life, made possible by participating in a little known Catholic ministry — Courage — that allows him to cope while growing in his faith.
“I always walk out of a Courage meeting feeling like I matter,” said the 47-year-old, a trainer in the tech industry and former Spanish teacher. “There, you will find an understanding of your situation, and you will get spiritual guidance as it pertains to the Catholic Church.”
Courage serves the Diocese of Austin and is led by Father Craig DeYoung, associate pastor at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Pflugerville. Father DeYoung serves as moderator and chaplain of the ministry, which was previously led by Father Robert Becker who is now retired.
The Courage chapter in the Austin area is small; a handful of men (women are welcome, too) attend meetings. They come and go, but Guilford keeps coming back since he joined six months ago. “For me, it comes down to this: Courage is not about condemning people and taking away their identity but about learning to cope with it and living a chaste life,” he said. 
Living a chaste life until marriage between a man and a woman is one of the cornerstones of the Catholic Church.
The beginnings of Courage go back to 1980 in New York. Father John Harvey founded Courage at the request of Cardinal Terence Cooke, archbishop of New York, according to the National Catholic Register’s obituary of the priest. Father Harvey, who died in 2010, served as executive director of the group for 27 years. Father Harvey’s first support group in Manhattan was but a few but they quickly adopted goals: “They sought to live lives that were chaste and Christ-like, in supportive and exemplary fellowship for others with same-sex attraction,” according to the obituary. Father Harvey later incorporated the 12-step approach developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, there are more than 100 chapters worldwide and five in Texas.
The success of the Courage Ministry, and Guilford attests to this, is that it understands the complexity of same-sex attraction experienced by men and women, and it judges no one. Courage prefers to think of itself as a pro-chastity ministry. Its members attend meetings where they are supported, guided and listened to in an atmosphere of confidentiality, a key to the success of the ministry. Meetings and where they take place are not advertised, rather communicated by its members. The approach has led to its low profile.
That’s about to change, said Father DeYoung. “We’re sending out letters to all the priests and deacons in the diocese. It’s a unique situation because Bishop Joe (Vásquez) is very supportive of the ministry,” he said. The intent and hope is that each parish communicates the existence of Courage to its parishioners.
One doesn’t have to convince Guilford of the virtues of Courage. Acknowledging first that he’s a work in progress, he depends on the support of the Courage ministry which has become a safe haven. It works for him because “it’s not conversion therapy but choosing another path. Of course I have my struggles, but I’ve come to terms with them with the help of the group.”
He gives credit to Father DeYoung, who is 33 and was ordained in 2014.
“I was cynical when I approached Father Craig last summer. The church and parish is family-centered and there I was, gay and single. I felt like an outsider but Father Craig was kind and straightforward. Now, I’m loyal to his mission,” Guilford said.
Father DeYoung is the first contact when someone reaches out to the group by 
e-mailing austintexascourage@gmail.com. In a face-to-face meeting, the priest explains what Courage is and what it’s not. 
“I get to know them, and they get to know me. I ask if they’re ready to commit or try to live the goals of Courage. 
“I listen with compassion. I have told one gentleman the group was not for him. Also, if a person wants to argue church teachings, Courage isn’t for them. But it’s OK for someone who wants to understand the Catholic faith. I look for someone who tells me they want to live the faith. I want someone who has a conscience and wants to live chastely,” Father DeYoung said.
When Father DeYoung determines that a prospective member is genuine, he invites him to a meeting. 
“I also talk to people who have family members who are gay. I offer spiritual guidance,” he said. 
A red flag that will disqualify someone from getting invited is if he comes in with the idea that a group of gay men might be a place to look for a partner. 
It’s happened before, said Jerry Garcia who is a founding member of the original Courage chapter in the Austin area at St. Austin Parish in 1988. “Some of our first callers thought Courage was a dating service. Others just had a negativity that such a group even existed,” he said. Garcia has been involved in Courage groups in Mexico and is currently building a chapter in McAllen.
Guilford praises Father DeYoung for his handling of the group. The priest opens meetings with a prayer and the group agrees to a theme. “One time, we talked about compassion and Father DeYoung did a Scripture reading. Another time we talked about service and how we give back to the church and other places. When you serve others, you are not focused on yourself,” he said. 
Guilford advises anyone interested in Courage should have faith about joining. “They have to trust they will get something out of it. There’s a notion we talk about being gay or not being gay. We’re more about spiritual fellowship. Being gay is a very small part of it,” he said
“That’s true,” Father 
DeYoung said. “Courage is focused on knowing the Lord and growing in him. Yes, this is for men and women with this common experience and same sex attraction is an important piece of it. But, we focus more on the person who is loved by the Lord. There’s good news. People can find a way out of a place they feel stuck. In Courage, people can find freedom,” he said.
Guilford and Garcia acknowledge the mystique surrounding Courage. “It’s not easy. First, it’s a delicate subject. It’s also a challenge to get the word out that we exist. Priests and deacons are very busy with the more traditional ministries of a parish. And there’s the hesitancy by gay people to call Courage. They’re reluctant to come to a meeting. They’re afraid that someone will see them. And they don’t fully understand what to expect from the ministry,” Garcia said.
Guilford said his personal experience with Courage has been positive. 
“I quickly learned I was part of something that is greater than myself. Besides the spiritual connection, I was given a different sense of value. There can be a guilt about being gay, but in Courage I learned that I mattered. It has changed my value system. I see things differently, and I’m more compassionate to other people. Now, I do a lot of spiritual reading,” he said.
The foundation of Courage is based on five goals, and members are asked to commit to following them:
To grow spiritually through spiritual reading, prayer and meditation, and attend Mass frequently and consistently receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. 
To gain a deeper understanding of the needs, difficulties and challenges experienced by men and women with same sex attraction. 
To establish and maintain a healthy and wholesome relationship with their loved ones who experience same sex attraction. 
To assist family members and friends to reach out with compassion, and not reject, their loved ones who experience same sex attraction.
And to witness to their loved ones by their own lives that fulfillment is to be found in Jesus Christ and the church.
To find out more about Courage, go to www.couragerc.org. The Austin Courage chapter also has a Facebook presence at https://m.facebook.com/austintexascourage. A documentary on the Courage Ministry can be found at https://everlastinghills.org/movie. In the documentary, two men and a woman give powerful testimonies of their life stories and finding Courage.