CHEYENNE – Bishop Karen Oliveto was first drawn to ministry as a child, eagerly sitting on the damp floor of her church’s musty basement during Sunday school.
She found the biblical stories, hymns and lessons enchanting, and others took notice.
“I fell in love with God,” she said. “I didn’t come from parents who were religious, so I would wake my mom up on Sunday mornings to have her take me to church.”
As she became more involved, a music teacher asked if Oliveto, then just 11 years old, had considered a career with the Methodist Church.
“My mind exploded, because where else did I feel so at home?” she said. “Of course I would want to share that.”
She gave her first sermon at age 16, and became a student pastor soon after.
It wasn’t until Oliveto’s first year in seminary that her relationship with God was tested.
“I heard stories of LGBTQ students and saw myself in them,” she said. “I recognized that I had been in denial about my sexual orientation my whole life.”
The revelation was hard to accept as a devout Christian — so emotionally paralyzing she boarded a bus from Oakland, California, to Nova Scotia, Canada, to clear her head. For the first time, God felt like a stranger.
“I think it’s about as far as you can run away in North America,” she said. “I just cried and cried and asked God, ‘What do you want?’ When my tears were spent somewhere in Utah, I was able to say, ‘I’m a lesbian,’ and God came back. I realized God wants us to be our full selves.”
Since then, Oliveto has led ministries from coast to coast and performed the first legal same-sex marriage held in a United Methodist Church.
In 2016, voting delegates in church’s Western Jurisdiction elected Oliveto as the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop. Cheyenne’s four United Methodist churches are part of the Mountain Sky Conference, the portion of the Western Jurisdiction that includes Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and one church in Idaho.
“After that, I had letters from grandmothers saying, ‘I’m so glad my grandkids have a role model like you as they wrestle with coming out,’” she said.
Many American ministers in the United Methodist Church perform same-sex marriages and ordain LGBTQ clergy, although the Protestant church’s rules explicitly forbid it.
When the United Methodist Church reinforced these bans last month at a special global church meeting in St. Louis, Mountain Sky Conference clergy, including Cheyenne members, were frustrated.
Local ministers overwhelmingly supported a more progressive approach that would have given churches the power to decide. More than half of United Methodists support same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center, and Western states, including Wyoming, have spearheaded the effort to be more inclusive.
“We’ve always had a ‘live and let live’ attitude here,” said the Rev. Mark Marston, senior pastor at Cheyenne’s First United Methodist Church. “That’s what we focus on here at First United, and it falls very much in line with the Western concept.”
Marston sits on the region’s Board of Ordained Ministry, which doesn’t consider sexual orientation when considering candidates.
“We made the decision that we don’t care if you’re gay or straight, we’ll let you through,” he said. “Which was really radical because it’s in conflict with the rest of the United Methodist Church.”
He said the recent challenges reflect America’s divide.
By Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Via Wyoming News Exchange