By Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
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.
“When the vote came, we received all kinds of calls from people in the Deep South wanting to be ministers here because they can’t live with it,” he said. “They say they don’t want to raise their kids there.”
The General Conference narrowly voted last month to support the “Traditional Plan,” which calls for disciplining ministers who perform same-sex marriages with a one-year, unpaid suspension on first offense and termination on the second.
These rules have been in place for decades, but were rarely enforced. Conservative American and African members supported the ban, leaving other jurisdictions alienated. The Methodists’ Judicial Council is still reviewing its constitutionality.
As a female pastor, the Rev. Laura Rainwater has grappled with varied interpretations of the Scripture she teaches.
The leader of Cheyenne’s Grace United Methodist Church said she believes historical analysis of the Bible supports inclusion, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation – a confidence shared by many others in Cheyenne’s faith community.
“There are still churches here that will read a few passages in Scripture that don’t believe women should be in ministry,” she said. “I believe that God’s word supports lifting up all persons.”
Rainwater worries Wyoming’s minorities will be hurt by the decision, even if it’s ultimately ruled unconstitutional.
“It’s not what I wanted,” she said. “I supported broadening the stance so people could live their conscience, and our church continues to be very welcoming to persons in the LGBTQ community. The last thing we want to do is harm people who have already struggled in Wyoming, because there are not the necessary support systems and discrimination still happens.”
The Rev. Jeff Rainwater, Wyoming’s district superintendent, was in St. Louis for the General Conference.
“It showed me that we are more bitterly divided as a denomination right now than we’ve been in a long time,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to stay together for the next couple of years.”
He’s reached out to LGBTQ clergy in the region to provide guidance, but said some residents, families and allies are considering leaving the church.
“We’re telling them they’re still valued,” he said.
Pastor Steve Earnshaw has already lost congregants at Cheyenne’s Frontier United Methodist Church.
“We had one couple leave, and I was hoping we could talk, but I guess they’ve moved on,” he said. “We’ve had some other folks in the congregation wonder if they wanted to leave because of the ruling. It’s a hard thing to lose your church family.”
He hopes local Methodists stick around to see what happens. There’s a sense that if global delegates continue to support these traditional policies, factions of the United States could leave entirely.
“It’s caused so much pain in the church,” Oliveto said. “It’s crushed so many people’s spirits and their sense of safety. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to hold the status quo at this point. I’m in relationships with our United Methodist seminaries, schools and hospitals that have nondiscrimination policies. They’re saying, ‘We can’t continue to be United Methodists if these are the policies of the church.’ So, it’s crumbling our infrastructure.”
The church’s Judicial Council is expected to address the vote’s constitutionality at the end of April. In the meantime, United Methodists in Western states are hoping to stay that way – united.
“To see the whole denomination pulled apart because of this is very disappointing,” Earnshaw said.