According to most Christians, God is love. But unfortunately, many Christian folks also believe that being queer is a sin, something that would disqualify believers from fellowship and a place in heaven.
But, Bishop Karen Oliveto of the United Methodist Church doesn’t buy it.
She is a lesbian and a Christian who has given her life to the church. Not surprisingly, many Christians don’t accept her as a bishop, and she’s had to defend the title she earned through hard work and good, legitimate acts of faith. Today, Oliveto is following the process set before her by the Supreme Court of the United Methodist Church in order to uphold her appointment.
Still, Oliveto doesn’t let any of this leave a bad taste in her mouth.
“I started working in a church when I was 16, so I became really prepared for this life at a young age,” she told OUT FRONT. “When I went to seminary, it really deconstructs your faith, and I had to face a part of me that I really worked hard to deny. But in hearing the stories from my gay and lesbian classmates, I finally recognized within me the fact that I was a lesbian.”
In fact, it deconstructed her faith so much that she hopped on a bus in California and went to Canada.
Oliveto wasn’t really sure why she was running, but she somehow wanted to escape the feelings of being inescapably queer, and inescapably Christian. At some point during her trip, however, she came to terms with the realization that she was who she was.
“What’s amazing is that first year I was questioning my attraction, God was distant from my life for the first time,” she admitted. “But the minute I said ‘I’m a lesbian,’ God was back in my life, and I realized that God never leaves us; we leave God when we deny who God made us to be.”
Still, even after that realization, Oliveto was not completely at home or comfortable in the church. She knew she wanted to work in the church and give her life to God, but she hesitated to take a leadership role because of the scandal being out and queer would create. She also hesitated out of a desire to protect her spouse from hate and prejudice. Eventually, however, it was clear that she couldn’t stay away from her true calling any longer.
In 2016, she entered into a time of discernment, meaning that the church was trying to decide the issue of making her a bishop. Friends and family were coming forward to give their testimony, and though there was a lot of love and positive energy, she worried about the backlash that might happen if she was selected. With these issues heavy on her mind, she turned to her wife, Robin, for emotional support and input.
“We were up late the night before talking about it, and Robin said ‘perfect love casts out all fear,’ which is a quote from scripture, and that was really powerful,” Oliveto explained. “In receiving that word we both realized I had to say yes, so we went to bed that night knowing how we were probably going to answer. Then we woke up the next day and it was the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and that only confirmed for me further that this was the right time to come forward as a bishop, not just because I deeply love the church, but also because it was time for the church to recognize that LGBTQ people are in the pews and the pulpits and even in the ranks of bishops.”
With this in mind, she agreed to become bishop and was appointed. But as soon as this announcement was made pubic, there were already formal complaints launched about her presiding over the Rocky Mountain region of the United Methodist Church.
“That didn’t surprise me, but it saddened me because I had been well vetted,” she said. “I had been vetted by the people who understood my call, by ordained ministry, the churches I served, and the bishops I served under. People believed me to be the most well-qualified candidate for what the church needs, and it saddened me that someone from outside the area would question their integrity and their appointment.”
Although having to uphold her title as bishop when she was rightfully appointed is frustrating, she keeps an open, positive mind about the course set before her. For every detractor, it seems that there are far more supporters happy to see her succeeding.
“I have received about 40 letters that are angry about me being a bishop, but I have received hundreds and hundreds of letters and emails and cards from people around the world, people saying, ‘Because of you my kids are back in church; my pain with the church has been healed; thank you for showing me that church can look like what it’s supposed to look like,’” she explained. “I’m reminded that I’m making a difference for people, and that lifts my spirits.”
As her title is being challenged, Oliveto remains strong and brave. She makes time to hike, go to the gym, pray, and spend time with her wife. She also comforts herself by looking forward to a future where queer folks in the church won’t have to go through what she is going through.
“I hope that through my ministry I am showing we do have something to offer the church that helps it be more whole, that we are already members of the body of christ; we are in every church, every congregation,” she explained. “I’m not the first gay bishop; I’m just not closeted; so my hope is to help people understand that homosexuality isn’t just an issue to be dealt with. It’s people who are our brothers, our sisters, our siblings. I do believe that diversity is a sign of divinity. We here in the сhurch say that God is three and one, and if we believe that, we’d see that all life is a gift from God.”