By Stacia Erdos Littleton
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Having not had a particularly religious upbringing, my perception of the man who stands behind the pulpit on Sunday was formed as a child in the rural Presbyterian church I often attended with my grandparents.
Sitting still and listening to what seemed a never-ending sermon was not my strong point. I much preferred to use the pew as a stage to act out stories with the mini marshmallows my grandma brought in a plastic baggie to try to keep me settled. I wanted only to hear grandma play the organ and to sing along from the hymnal.
Had the “woman” behind the pulpit been The Rev. Gayle Catinella preaching about standing up for justice and acceptance, opening our minds to all viewpoints, and reaching out to help the hungry and marginalized, perhaps I would have stayed.
I’ve been thinking about what a loss it will be for the Valley when the Rev. Gayle leaves St. John’s Episcopal Church for her new post outside of Toledo. She came to the Valley in 2014 and once told me that the question she got most at the time – Why?
“I interviewed for a lot positions and this is the job I wanted,” she said. “The church is beautiful but mostly because there’s so much possibility here. I feel like I can make a difference here.”
And she has.
The Rev. Gayle values listening to people and seeking connection and common ground. She finds that takes the politics out of it. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced backlash for being outspoken about issues that often counter traditional religious beliefs.
I recently found an on-camera interview I did with the Rev. Gayle for The Business Journal in 2020.
“I feel it’s every believer’s job to speak to justice and to speak to truth and love as St. Paul said. And If we don’t do that, then we are complicit.“
Her blog from July 16 exemplifies how she puts those words into action. “I was told yesterday that I am going to hell …. I was at the Pride Festival in Wellsville. In the blistering heat, protesters were gathered across the street to condemn so many things. Among them, that I as a clergy person was leading the queer folk I was standing with and for, astray. I am quite sure God is OK with me being there. Being an ally seems to be good and holy work.”
I came to know the Rev. Gayle through her passion for access to healthy food for Youngstown students. She and her volunteers provided fresh vegetables and meat at the Taft School and often provided hot meals – making sure there was extra for the children to take home so they didn’t feel guilty because they had a meal when their family hadn’t. We found a shared call to service with the Youngstown Rotary where I worked alongside her to fit Youngstown elementary students with winter coats.
She has worked as the chaplain for the Youngstown City Police Department, served on trustee boards, including as president of The Help Network, and found her seat at the table with the Greater Youngstown Community Dialogue on Racism.
She says she was awakened to the depth of racism in 1976 when her family was building a house outside of Chicago at the same time as another family. To her horror, the neighbors burnt down the other family’s house three times. She said when that family eventually moved in, she prayed for them. “The neighbors on either side had put up huge bushes so they couldn’t see each other. I thought, who would want to live like this? I admired them. …
“Racism hurts all of us,” she told me. “Everyone is brought down by it. No one can prosper until everybody prospers. No one can be safe until everyone is safe. And until we fix that, how are we going to raise everybody up? How are we going to put the things in place to make this a place for everyone to be?”
It was in eighth grade that Gayle says she heard God calling her to be a priest. It seemed unlikely since her family’s Polish National Church didn’t allow female priests. After working as a social worker, in homeless shelters and as a therapist, she was embraced and ordained in the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Gayle says you know when it’s time – when you’re being called to serve elsewhere. “Elsewhere” could have been many places. Toledo will allow her to stay close to her children and grandchildren.
In the Mahoning Valley, the Rev. Gayle has filled bellies, opened minds and hearts, and given hope and voice to those often unheard. She says it’s been a “fabulous adventure.”
For those she’s touched in that adventure, she leaves an indelible mark and will always be part of the Youngstown family.