John P. Rash was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in May 1942. He was an only child in an academic family--his father, with a Ph.D. in petroleum geology from Yale, was VP of research at Esso Corporation (now Exxon Mobil); his mother had an Ed.D. in Elementary Education, later supplemented by a Ph.D. in English, and taught in a number of universities. John was raised in Cranford, New Jersey. His parents were not particularly religious, but John did attend Sunday school from time to time at different churches in the community. His father died when John was seven years old and his mother then took John to live in Gardner, Masssachusetts, with her family. His first visit to a Roman Catholic Church was to attend the funeral mass for his grandmother in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when he was early in his teenage years.
John's mother brought him back to New Jersey for junior and senior high school, in Roselle Park. John started college at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, studying geography, but left after two years with mediocre grades and disinterest. He got a summer job at Union Theological Seminary Library. This provided an opportunity to interact with many prominent theologians who were there, and others who would become prominent. After taking a break for a year, he went to Columbia University, across the street, where he eventually graduated in English and comparative literature. During these school years, John attended liturgies regularly at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and became an acolyte to the bishop of New York, then the Rt. Rev. Horace William Baden Donegan.
John recalls that when he was in high school he knew that he wasn't attracted to girls and never dated any. But because the words "gay," "lesbian," or "faggot" were not used in his milieu, he was never called any of them. He began to venture out into the homosexual world in New York City in the late 1960s. He also read what he could find on homosexuality and religion and started formulating his own thinking on the subject. He became assistant cataloguer at the Union Theological Seminary Library. Union produced the Union Seminary Quarterly Review, then mostly for alumni but now an international scholarly journal. In the Summer 1970 issue, the journal published John's article, "Reforming Pastoral Attitudes Towards Homosexuality" (USQR 25(4):439-455, Summer 1970). Amazingly, he received only two moderately negative letters.
Shortly after that he went to an evening social meeting across the street--in Earl Hall at Columbia University--which turned out to be the founding meeting of Gay People at Columbia. As a result of this meeting, John learned about other happenings in the New York City gay scene (there were fewer lesbians with which he had contact then, but there was a small chapter of Daughters of Bilitis). The Stonewall Riots, in June 1969, had produced a group called the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and a bit later, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Both of these groups met on different weeknights in the parish hall at All Saints Episcopal Church, on Seventh Avenue at West 28th Street. John typically went there twice a week in order to participate. About a year later GAA was able to find its own meeting space--at 99 Wooster Street in SoHo--actually a former New York City firehouse--which became known as The Firehouse. GAA began holding Friday dances that really filled up the space far beyond fire safety limits. The funds raised from these dances paid expenses and suported GAA's various projects, mostly demonstrations.
In the early spring of 1972 one of Union's female students who was taking courses at Woodstock College (a Jesuit seminary which had moved into New York City from Woodstock, Maryland, so it could be more closely involved in its urban ministries) came into John's office to say that to say that a professor from Woodstock was outside who would like to meet him. John agreed and thus encountered John McNeill--wearing clericals and a heavy black wool overcoat--then still a Jesuit. John McNeill said that he had read John's article. He further noted that he was going to be teaching a course on the ethics of homosexuality that fall at Woodstock and needed to learn something about the New York City gay community. In addition, he needed a gay community resource person who could show his students around that community. John agreed and was able to arrange to take time off on the weekday when the course met.
John began by taking John McNeill down to a Thursday evening meeting at the Firehouse so he could see how it went ("Don't wear clericals!"--which he didn't). He later sat in on McNeill's course--about twenty students--and listened as McNeill lectured from his recently published book, The Church and the Homosexual. John took groups of students down to the Firehouse for meetings and dances, and sometimes, after Thursday meetings, they would frequent one of the neighbourhood bars (all then to the northwest).
One day after class McNeill invited John to have lunch at the cafeteria in the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive with him and another Woodstock faculty member, Bob Carter (who is still a Jesuit). McNeill told them about a group that had been founded in 1969 in California called Dignity--would John like to be involved? Again John agreed. Dignity/New York had its first meeting in the summer of 1972 in the parish hall of Calvary Episcopal Church. Participants there expressed a unanimous desire to keep meeting. Since Calvary's parish hall was not available on a regular basis, these meetings were shifted to the Jesuit common rooms on West 98th Street near Broadway. The meeting soon came to include a liturgy. Since John was a liturgist (experienced from the Episcopal Church, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine), he also helped with preparations and cleanup. Soon thereafter he became a board member as the Liturgy Chair.
The pattern of monthly meetings with liturgies continued until sometime in 1977 when Joe Kramer, a former Jesuit scholastic, decided to go look for church space, since the group had far outgrown its meeting space. Kramer made arrangements for meeting at St. Francis Xavier Church, 30 West 16th Steet, a huge space (holding maybe 900 persons). Dignity met there until Cardinal Cook ordered their removal (although even today there is a large gay contingent on Sunday mornings). As a result of his public appearance at the altar every Saturday night, John was publicly visible and would frequently get asked "How can you reconcile your Catholicism with your homosexuality?" and the many variations on that question.
In 1977 John moved back to Morningside Heights (611 West 111th Steet) and started seeing clients there, primarily men, who needed counseling. With no formal training he learned to counsel through his experience. He began to note that the same issues recurred again and again, and started to keep records. By late 1997 he had some 396 files, many of which had additional notes from other related cases stuck in them. All of these people were seen without charge, since he was not professionally qualified to be a counselor. During these years, John was employed in various office jobs.
By the mid-1990s, John was thinking more about some other vocation, perhaps the priesthood. So he investigated masters programs in pastoral studies, thinking that with a degree in pastoral studies he could find a job in some rural area and then encounter a bishop who would sponsor him for seminary. He was accepted into and decided to enter the program at Loyola University in Chicago. Realising the problems of trying to move and/or secure the confidentiality of the extensive counseling records he had, he destroyed all of them before he moved to Chicago.
When John got to Loyola's Institute of Pastoral Studies (IPS), he learned that most students had spiritual directors. He got one in the summer of 1998--Fr. Ted Tracy, SJ, then 83 years old and one of the University of Chicago's first Ph.D.'s in psychology. Fr. Tracy early on indicated that he was interested in dream work and would be happy to discuss it. (Many of John's classmates in IPS, mostly vowed religious, believed that dreams came directly from God.) One of John's first dreams was one of just words--to which Tracy responded "I've had those too"--which said "You are taking part in the plan of salvation." John's response to this was, "Well, isn't everyone? Do we have a choice?" But Fr. Tracy said, "Yes, of course it has that general meaning, but look at it again to see what it might be saying to you." And then it became clear that gay ministry was where John's opportunity lay. About a month later John had a dream in which he was in his grandparents' backyard with his late father and there was some kind of celebration going on in the house. His father told John--out there where it was quiet--that he was proud of John, that he had turned out exactly as he wanted. Then his father went up into the party in the house. This left John dumbfounded and, of course, when he went up into the house looking for his father he couldn't find him. But how much more could one state that doing gay ministry was much more important than rural ministry...
John graduated from Loyola in June 1999 and has been providing some spiritual direction, mostly to young gay men, in Chicago. Since he has no office or large apartment in which to hold these sessions, they are usually held in neighbourhood coffee shops. He worked as a indicer for the Catholic Periodical & Literature Index (CPLI), which involved spending hours reading Catholic periodicals, some in French and Italian, and entering information into a computer database which eventually gets forwarded to an editor. However, most customers wanted to continue receiving hard copy issues which were to expensive to produce and didn't want to receive online updates, so in 2010, CPLI ceased publication. John now considers himself retired
(Information for this biographical statement provided by John P. Rash.)
Biography Date: November, 2009
Roman Catholic | Carter, Robert | McNeill, John J. | Dignity | Activist (church change) | Gay Liberation Movement | New York | New York City
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