One look at the email signature of Rev. Dr. Jayme Mathias and you might just be intimidated or astounded (or both) by the numbers of initials that represent his education: M.A., M.B.A., M.Div., M.S., Ph.D. I certainly was. The man has two bachelor’s degrees, four graduate degrees and one doctoral degree—how was I supposed to carry on an articulate conversation without embarrassing myself?
But after just 10 minutes speaking with him, I realized that instead of being a pretentious supergenius—like I imagined anyone with that many degrees would be—Mathias is approachable and genuine, two attributes most likely credited to his years of experience as a Catholic priest.
Mathias is one of nine school board members responsible for the education of 86,000 students in the 129 schools of the Austin Independent School District (AISD). Last November, he won the District 2 seat which serves East Austin and Dove Springs, by fewer than 100 votes over his opponent, a Latino incumbent, and became the first openly gay board member.
Serving the East Austin community for many years as pastor at Cristo Rey Catholic Church, Mathias initiated numerous efforts to “give a hand up” to the Latino community. He served as a Roman Catholic priest for 11 years before he was incardinated in 2011 into the American Catholic Church of the United States, a sect that provides a more inclusive expression of Catholicism.
Path to Priesthood
Born and raised in rural Ohio, Mathias was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic community. By age 12 he was an active member of his congregation and played the organ in church. Growing up, he never thought about becoming a priest; actually, his dream was to become a lawyer.
Mathias quotes Bible verse Jeremiah 20:7 when describing his path to the clergy: “Lord, you have duped me, and I have allowed myself to be duped.” He claims he was “duped” into becoming a priest. When he was 16, he reluctantly attended a youth retreat because he wanted to get out of an English exam. At its conclusion, the priest who led the retreat approached him to ask if he had ever considered becoming a priest. Mathias said he wanted to be a lawyer, and the priest responded by pointing out that priests have a number of careers, and that there was no reason why he couldn’t be both a lawyer and a priest.
Thinking about the suggestion, Mathias grew more and more intrigued by the idea. For him, he knew going to the seminary at age 18 would be like walking into a shoe store and trying on shoes to see which ones fit. “One is not ordained a priest overnight; you go into the seminary, try on those shoes, walk around in them and see how they fit,” he said. “And if they fit well, some eight or 10 years later, that person is ordained a priest. So for me, I tried on the shoes and they fit.”
Mathias left Ohio to attend Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO, to pursue two bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and classical humanities. His initial degree in philosophy led him to a thirst for more knowledge. “Philosophy is all about asking questions about this world, about God, about what’s right and wrong. One question leads to another question, which leads to another question, and so it’s been a thirst all of these years: a thirst to learn more and a thirst to know more.”
One afternoon when Mathias was 23 and about to graduate, a question posed by one of his psychology professors challenged his thinking. The two were having a discussion about sexuality when Mathias shared he was confused by his own. His professor asked, “Do you feel confused or guilty?” At first Mathias was angry that the professor would imply that he was gay. But as he drove home, he said, the “lightbulb” went on. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am gay. I’m queer. I’m a faggot. All of these names we hear used to refer to the LGBT community…I was all of that. And it just made sense.”
From the moment of his proclamation, he self-identified as gay. He initially came out to friends and classmates and finally to his parents in an eight-page letter a year later, but it wouldn’t be until 2011 when he left the Roman Catholic Church that he would be able to live as an openly gay man.
Giving A “Hand Up”
After graduating, Mathias was sent to Austin in 1995 for a nine-month internship at Cristo Rey Catholic Church. “That was in an era when pizza companies would not deliver to East Austin and when an 8th-grader showed me a rock of crack cocaine. It was a sobering experience,” he said.
When he first moved to Austin, Mathias didn’t know what to expect: he had images of hitching posts and tumbleweeds. Once he was transplanted to East Austin nearly two decades ago, he learned there was a great deal of violence, gangs and drug activity. Through his ministry to the youth of Cristo Rey, he witnessed many young people in the community who were gang members, struggling with and dropping out of school and selling drugs.
“For these young people, there was no easy exit from the gang once you were part of it. And so, I was a confidant, a person who could somehow assist them in the midst of that difficult situation,” he said.
That nine-month internship in East Austin was Mathias’ first time working with the underserved Latino community. His eye-opening experience motivated him to continue his work in the area.
After earning his Master of Divinity from the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., Mathias moved back to Austin to become a deacon at Cristo Rey Church and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2001. He continued to serve Cristo Rey as an associate pastor for five years until 2006.
He noted, “It’s a certain empathy, a certain compassion” that continues to drive him to help the people of East Austin. The elevated school dropout rate among Latinos, the high percentage of teen pregnancies in Latinas and the challenges that undocumented Latinos face everyday “pull at [his] heartstrings.”
It’s this passion that prompted him to open La Fuente Learning Center at Cristo Rey during his time as associate pastor. The learning center attracted Spanish-speaking adults to English-language programs that were adapted for various trades, including construction and the restaurant industry. Twelve years later, the center continues to thrive in an offsite location. Mathias helped found two more learning centers: Sí Se Puede Learning Center and the Centro de Superación Sí Se Puede, a collaboration of the Roman Catholic and Baptist communities of East Austin.
In 2003, Mathias was accepted into five law schools, but a multimillion-dollar sex abuse lawsuit against the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church deterred him from enrolling that fall. Instead, he became a Spanish teacher at San Juan Diego Catholic High School. Mathias admits he studied Spanish for four years in high school and only learned a single word: “arco iris” (which means “rainbow”). No joke. He said that he learned Spanish “on-the-job” at Cristo Rey, preaching and writing a column on spirituality in El Mundo, a Spanish-language newspaper. After two short years of teaching, he was named president of the school in 2005.
In 2009, the pastor at Cristo Rey was murdered in Mexico. There was an immediate need for a Spanish-speaking priest, so Mathias was named.
During his time at the church, Mathias doubled the attendance at Sunday Masses to more than 5,000 people. Of course, a percentage of those individuals were members of the LGBT community. For him, it was always a “joy” when a young person would turn to him for guidance because of struggling with the thought that he or she might be gay. “As a member of the clergy, that was a very beautiful and holy moment: to be able to accompany them, to be able to help them to better understand who they are and to help them navigate the challenges of coming out to themselves and to others. It was a gift,” he said.
During the two years Mathias served as pastor, he became “disillusioned” with the Roman Catholic Church and realized he could no longer serve it in good conscience. He was advocating for women’s rights and immigration rights and giving LGBT youth a positive message, most of which go against how Roman Catholic doctrine is typically interpreted.
“Ultimately, I had to choose: Will I stand on the side of the people, or will I stand on the side of this bureaucracy, which is the Roman Catholic church? And, for me, it was an easy choice.”
In 2011, at the end of his time at Cristo Rey, he presided over the double funeral of Norma Hurtado and her mother, who were both murdered by Hurtado’s girlfriend’s father after the discovery of his daughter’s relationship. Since he knew he was leaving the church, Mathias shared a message of love and understanding of one’s sexual orientation.
After a year of sabbatical to complete his doctorate and his fourth graduate degree, he incardinated into the American Catholic Church, where he currently leads Holy Family Catholic Church. The main differences between the Roman and American Catholic churches are their views of women, matters of sex and sexuality and “issues of conscience.” Women can be part of the clergy and, instead of saying abortion is evil and condoms are bad, Mathias believes that if you’re an informed adult, he has to trust “that you are making a choice in good conscience for a good reason.”
According to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, Mathias could not run for any public office as a priest, but he could once he joined the American Catholic Church. Encouraged by others to run for the AISD school board, he wholeheartedly responded. His strategist, Steven Rivas, says that Mathias’ campaign was an authentic grassroots effort.
Rivas added that “Jayme has an incredible sense of humor” and a “sincereness” when he’s with others. “No matter where the spotlight was coming from, he stood firm in everything he believed and he smiled and shook hands, not like a politician, but like he was the member of your family.”
As a school board member, Mathias continues to serve minority, low-income, mostly Latino students. He has advocated for same-sex benefits for AISD teachers and staff, and he hopes to serve as a role model for LGBT students. The work he does is a nonstop effort.
“People don’t know when he’s shutting down. Sometimes I don’t even know,” Rivas said. “He’ll be up till 3 a.m. and he’s up at 7 a.m. to be at an elementary school for Career Day.”
As part of the American Catholic Church, Mathias has a newfound freedom to express his sexuality in a way he couldn’t while in the Roman Catholic Church. He has the freedom now to celebrate his birthday at Oil Can Harry’s—and find someone to love.
“As a Roman Catholic priest, one must remain closeted,” Mathias said. “Then, it was difficult to imagine myself one day pursuing other options than the celibate life that I had been living. Once I left the Roman Catholic church, it was a lot easier to be honest with myself and