A fresh start for a familiar face

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By Stephen Lega

The Rev. Lawman Chibundi isn't new to the people of Marion County, but he returned last week with a new idea for them to consider.

Chibundi previously served as a parish priest at St. Augustine Catholic Church, but later left the Roman Catholic priesthood over some disagreements he has with church teachings.

Chibundi doesn't speak with anger when he discusses those differences of opinion. Instead, he speaks highly of the priests he has known and worked with, including the current Archbishop of Louisville.

Nevertheless, those areas of disagreement led him to open a new church, the Rabbouni Catholic Community, in Louisville earlier this year. Now, he wants to extend his independent Catholic church's reach into a community he grew to love when he lived and worked here.

"When my African culture and the Lebanon culture met, it was something very, very beautiful," he said.

Chibundi's struggles with official church teachings did not begin in Kentucky. They actually go back many years and many miles to his time working with a community of Passionists priests in Kenya.

Chibundi said he recalled the bishop in his community had studied in Rome, and in Chibundi's view, the bishop wanted Catholic Kenyans to "behave like Italians."

"I can only celebrate my faith as an African Catholic," Chibundi said.

While he was living in community and working with the Passionists, Chibundi said he often felt he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth when counseling people.

The issue of birth control was one instance of this. He told people the Roman Catholic Church's position that using artificial birth control was wrong, but he also advised people to protect themselves and their lives.

"At that time, I was struggling with the whole issue of telling people that using a condom is a sin when they were dying of AIDS," Chibundi said.

In 2001, Chibundi came to the United States, moved to Kentucky and studied at St. Meinrad Seminary, where he completed a Master's of Divinity. As a freshly ordained priest, Chibundi was assigned to St. Augustine.

"I fell in love with Lebanon," he said.

After a few years here, he was transferred to a parish in Casey County.

"The people of Clementsville were just as wonderful," Chibundi said. "I've been very blessed. I've met very good people."

Yet, Chibundi continued to have an internal struggle. He said he recalled the first time he sat down to eat alone as a priest. It was then that he missed having a family.

"How do I continue to be a priest and suppress my sexuality?" he said he asked himself.

His desire to have a family of his own led to his decision to leave the priesthood, although Chibundi noted that married priests do exist within the Roman Catholic Church. Just recently, he noted, the Pope invited Anglicans to convert to Catholicism, but the church is not expecting married Anglican priests to give up their families.

"I also got tired of telling people they are not in right standing," he said.

In particular, Chibundi said he did not want to deny Communion to people who were divorced, nor does he view homosexuality as intrinsically disordered. Those issues, along with the celibate lifestyle that would have been expected of him, led him to leave the priesthood.

Chibundi planned to enter the workforce and get a regular job. He is studying to get his MBA at Bellarmine University.

But his friends urged him to continue providing pastoral assistance.

"My friends said, 'You are good at that. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater,'" Chibundi said.

He looked into his options and learned about independent catholic churches. In February of this year, he founded Rabbouni Catholic Community in Louisville.

Since making that decision, he said the friends he made as a Roman Catholic priest have been supportive of him on a personal level, although some have encouraged him to return to the Roman Catholic fold.

"I love the priests from the Archdiocese of Louisville. I even love the Archbishop [the Most Rev. Joseph Kurtz]," Chibundi said. "He has reached out to me pastorally."

He is also engaged, and he and his fiancé, Mary Ann Schaffer, are scheduled to be married in January.

Now, Chibundi wants to do something for the people of Marion County, if they are interested. He would like to celebrate mass in the St. Joe community.

He is well aware that he cannot lead a service at the former church nor in the community hall. However, he said he would be willing to come to St. Joe on a regular basis if someone has a building or land they are willing to let him use and if at least 50 people are interested in his proposal.

"Rabbouni has the hymnals. Rabbouni will provide the elements for the mass," Chibundi said.

He admitted that he doesn't know if people will be interested in his offer, but he sees this as a way to give something back to the people of Marion County.

He said his suggestions might even have the effect of prompting the archdiocese to reopen the church in St. Joe.

"Something good will come out of this," Chibundi said.

Editor's note: To contact Chibundi, send an email to fr.lawman@rabbounicatholiccommunity.com. To learn more about Rabbouni, visit the website at www.rabbounicatholiccommunity.com.