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After canceling school speech, Durham pastor extends new invitation to gay City Council member

February 15, 2019

A week after a Durham pastor barred a gay City Council member from speaking at a local Catholic school, he extended an invitation for her Thursday to speak to students and other members of the parish sometime this spring.

Councilwoman Vernetta Alston, who is openly gay and is married to a woman, was to speak last Friday at a Black History Month event at Immaculata Catholic School. But Fr. Chris VanHaight, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, rescinded the invitation and canceled school altogether for the day.

VanHaight met with Alston at City Hall on Thursday to apologize for how the episode was handled.

″[I] never wanted to show her any disrespect and wanted to let her know my sorrow at that, but also talk about how could we move forward,” he told WRAL News in an exclusive interview after the meeting.

VanHaight has previously said he was trying to balance the Catholic Church’s doctrine against homosexuality and gay marriage with Immaculata’s efforts to be open and inclusive.

School was canceled Friday, he said, because he had heard some people might protest either the decision to invite Alston to speak or the decision to rescind the invitation.

Alston couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday, but in a interview with WRAL News last week, she said she was disheartened by the incident and added that she hopes it sparks some conversations in the community and that everyone can learn from it.

“I think the values around love and inclusion should and will prevail,” she said at the time. “Now, it’s just a matter of putting in the work to get there.”

Many parents of Immaculata students let Van Haight know they want their children to hear from Alston, a school alumna who has fought against the death penalty and for social justice, He said they will get their wish.

“As a Catholic pastor, it’s my job to make sure that the church’s teaching is clear. But one of those teachings is being open to others. – being welcoming and listening to others in a respectful way,” he said. “So, we’re definitely open to having Ms. Alston to the campus to speak at some point.”

He said he expects that will be before school ends this spring, and he and Alston are looking at dates where both the school community and the larger parish can attend.

Although Immaculata recently adopted a policy prohibiting elected officials from speaking at the school, VanHaight said that might have been too hasty.

“In the middle of a crisis is not the time to bet setting policy,” he said. “We can’t be sealing ourselves off from others. We just want to be careful that we don’t send mixed messages.”

The past week has been exceedingly difficult, VanHaight said, but he refused to characterize his decision to invite Alston to speak after previously uninviting her as a change of heart.

“The church’s teaching doesn’t change. It stays the same. But like I said, that’s broader than one particular issue,” he said. “We do want to work with people from all walks of life, including elected officials, to forward justice and peace for everyone.”

Parents at Creekside Elementary School in Durham watched the controversy play out and decided to invite Alston to speak at their school.

“It’s a school’s job to teach children to be accepting of people from all different backgrounds and to show them that everyone, especially as we celebrate Black History Month, there are many dimensions of black and African-American people,” parent Hallie Davis-Pender said.

Alston plans to speak at a Black History Month event at Creekside Elementary on Feb. 28.

“She represents great achievement, and she would be pivotal as part of the presentations that we’re having for the children,” parent Nikki-Nicole Miles said.