The Rev. James Schexnayder was born in 1937 in south central Louisiana to Leon & Ethel Schexnayder. He was the youngest of four children, having a sister and two brothers. The Southern Cajun culture of Lafayette, Louisiana, was an important aspect of Jim’s early development. When Jim was in first grade when they moved to the Oakland, California area, where he has lived ever since.
His mother was a devout Catholic who died a year after the family moved to California. Jim’s siblings dispersed in subsequent years with his brothers joining the military, so both family and religious ties were strained. Jim studied at St. Mary’s College, a Christian Brothers school, and spent the summer after his first year at their novitiate. He decided not to pursue that vocation and returned to college. However thoughts of a religious life, particularly becoming a priest, lingered with him. After his second year of college he decided to attend seminary. His father’s failing health led Jim to work for a year to support him and then he enrolled in St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park in 1958. His father died the following year.
Father Schexnayder was ordained in the Oakland Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in 1964 after six years of seminary study. His first seven years of ministry were spent as a priest in two different parishes. Subsequently, he worked in special ministries for the diocese. During the 1970s he was a campus minister at Cal State University in Hayward, California.
Jim was generally unaware of his sexual orientation through his early years of ministry. His self-awareness grew gradually through spiritual direction and counseling. The big turning point came when a classmate, one of his closest priest friends, came out to him in 1976. This provided Jim a model through which to understand himself and he soon came to grips with his gay identity. This was a period of increasing gay visibility in the Bay Area and San Francisco with Harvey Milk and related political movements. As Jim’s gay identity emerged, he began connecting with other gay Catholics and started attending Dignity San Francisco. For him personal coming out and being part of the broader community went hand in hand. Coming out was a public act that led him to engage with gay communities and movements for justice.
Leading into the 1980s, Father Schexnayder headed the program to train permanent deacons in the diocese. Following a year-long sabbatical he returned to parish work for two years before going on leave for health reasons. In 1986 the bishop asked him to start an HIV/AIDS ministry in the diocese under the auspices of Catholic Charities. He carried out this ministry full-time until 1990 when ministry with gay & lesbian communities and their families was added to his portfolio. The workload was too great and the position was later divided into two full-time positions and Schexnayder continued with the ministry with gay & lesbian communities and families.
In 1992, Schexnayder attended a national conference in Chicago sponsored by the New Ways Ministry and led a workshop there on developing diocesan ministries. The workshop was well-attended and Jim invited interested persons to continue communication after the conference.
In July 1994, twenty persons from thirteen dioceses held a followup meeting in Chicago and formed the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries (NACDLGM). The purpose of this group was to foster ministries with lesbian and gay people and their families in dioceses, parishes and other Catholic ministries. Father Schexnayder was asked to serve as the group’s spokesperson for its first year. He notified the Bishops’ Conference of this new organization and they proposed that NACDLGM be in communication with the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices.
The NACDLGM group met again the following year in Seattle and started the tradition of an annual conference meeting in different parts of the U.S. These conferences have met with varying degrees of welcome from diocesan leadership–sometimes local bishops and cardinals have been present to celebrate Eucharist, other times they have chosen to not participate.
At that 1995 meeting Father Schexnayder was elected board president. The following year he became national staff for NACDLGM. Over the next several years he divided his time between local ministries in the Oakland Diocese and national ministries with NACDLGM. He has led retreats for LGBT persons in various places around the U.S. and in Canada. He has led ministry training days for parish clergy and lay leaders, presented workshops and spoken at conferences such as the National Catholic Education Association, the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic AIDS Network, and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. In England he has conducted training for clergy and spoken to Quest, the Catholic lesbian and gay ministry.
Father Schexnayder notes that the focus of NACDLGM has not been to challenge the doctrine or core teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead it has challenged unsubstantiated and fallacious assumptions about gay and lesbian people made in public statements at all levels of the church. NACDLGM reminds church leaders not to make presumptions about the lives of gay and lesbian people without consulting with them.
In 2000, Father Schexnayder retired from the Catholic Charities position and has continued as part-time Resource Director for NACDLGM. In 2008, the group changed its name to Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministries. He is working on a book for parish leaders who would like to create welcoming Catholic parishes for LGBT people and their families.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview and writings by Jim Schexnayder.)