Nestled cozily into the Park Hill neighborhood, an ethnically diverse, mixed-income area just out of downtown Denver, sits Park Hill United Methodist Church. Like many churches, the building is stately and expansive, the windows elegant with stained glass. Church bells ring on Sunday to announce worship, children go to Bible study, adults file in for weekly service. But there is one thing that sets Park Hill United Methodist apart from other places of worship: the welcoming community inside that calls all races, ethnicities, identities, and orientations into the fold.
A History of Open Doors
“Park Hill has a long, rich history of inclusion and diversity,” explained Angie Kotzmoyer, associate pastor at Park Hill United Methodist. “Back in the 50s and 60s, the neighborhood started changing. African Americans were being gentrified out of another neighborhood and started moving in. At the time, the church was white, and the pastor said, ‘We are going to be a church of our neighbors.’ There was some resistance, but they went door to door and asked people to come and welcome the new folks to the community. About half the congregation was upset and left, but the church gained that membership back through the African Americans coming to church, so eventually it was about half white and half black.”
While this may not seem like such a milestone now, Park Hill was one of the first Methodist churches to adopt such a policy. As the neighborhood continued to change even more, becoming populated with folks from different countries, more Hispanic people, refugees, and LGBTQ folks, the church kept its doors open.
“We are just trying to spread the word so people know no matter who you are or where your’re from, who you love, you’re welcome here and we will make sure you feel welcome,” Kotzmoyer assured. “If we need to work on changing some embedded theology, we will do that.”
Out of the Closet and Into God’s Service
This refreshing take isn’t something that Kotzmoyer just stumbled on by herself. She grew up in the church, knowing that the love and acceptance promised by God in the Christian faith was what she was called to. She also realized that she was a lesbian, something that conflicted with the love and acceptance good Christians would supposedly receive. While she always wanted to be a part of the church, she couldn’t reconcile the two sides of her life, and went to school far from her Nebraska hometown, in San Francisco, so she could pursue theatre.
Once there, however, she felt an even stronger calling to religion, even though she was still very much in the closet and not completely comfortable with herself or her role in a religious setting. She began worshiping while at school, and met her friend and mentor, Bishop Karen Oliveto, who has also been the subject of an OUT FRONT story. Oliveto is an out, lesbian member of the clergy, and meeting her changed Kotzmoyer’s life.
Although she didn’t come out right away, just being friends with a queer clergywoman was enough to change Kotzmoyer’s mind about what she wanted to do. She stopped going to school for theatre, something that was never really her calling, and enrolled in theology school in Denver. This started her on her path to self-acceptance, as well as her path to God.
“Bishop Karen once made a joke that most gay clergy come out in seminary, because we are finally learning doctrines and Biblical references that allow us to own our interpretation of the Bible and experiences of God,” she explained. “Before that, I didn’t know any gay people in my life, didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t really have anyone else’s experiences to learn from and just assumed that it was wrong, that you couldn’t be christian and be gay, and so when I got to seminary, and my first two friends were actually a gay man and a lesbian woman, I started asking them questions.”
Her friends immediately recognized that Kotzmoyer was struggling with her own identity, but instead of calling her out, they patiently answered her questions, and let her come out in her own time. Finally, she became comfortable with being an LGBTQ woman in the Christian church, and she was lucky enough to be surrounded by folks in her professional life who supported this. But coming out to her very conservative family wasn’t so easy.
Kotzmoyer didn’t speak to her father for almost a year after coming out, and some of the things he said to her once he found out still hurt to this day. Finally, however, their relationship, and her overall relationship with her family, has been mended.
“I think they are seeing me live into my family and morals, and seeing that being gay didn’t really change me at all, that the daughter they love and know has not changed, they were OK with it,” she said. “So now we have a really great relationship. I just got married in December, and it’s been a really fun and transformative time. It’s still hard, and I think it’s hard for a lot of gay people, but I wholeheartedly believe that’s why God has called me into the ministry, because he is calling me to be this voice that is often missing from the church, calling me to speak up for gay people, inclusiveness, affirmation, because the church has been hurting people for too long.”
Seeing this calling in Kotzmoyer, Oliveto appointed her to work at Park Hill United Methodist last July. This will be her first Pride as associate pastor, and she is determined to make the church as inclusive and welcoming as possible.
“All the pastors who have been here have been opening our doors and adding leaves to the table,” Kotzmoyer explained.
A Way Forward
One major step for Park Hill was when they became a reconciling congregation, essentially a church that openly says they don’t agree with the discriminatory language the church uses to talk about LGBTQ people. She is the third lesbian pastor to serve at the church, and the pastor she serves with is in an interracial marriage, so it is common sense for the clergy in charge to create a welcoming atmosphere. And they aren’t just focused on queer issues or making established folks in the community feel welcome. They also voted to become a sanctuary church, meaning they house people who have fled other countries and need to seek asylum.
All of this may just sound like things that a church, or any other place of community, should be doing. But for the United Methodist Church, the road to love and acceptance hasn’t been that easy. In fact, there is much debate going on right now within the church as to whether or not they should accept LGBTQ folks.
“The church delegates created a special group called the Commission on a Way Forward, and have been meeting for two years about the future of the United Methodist Church. What is on the table is, are we going to take the discriminatory language about clergy out of our law? There is also language about marriage being between a man and a woman in our church law. They just gave the Council of Bishops their plan, and the Council is going to be discerning and discussing this plan, and will have a special meeting next year, to vote on the Way Forward.”
There are many in the church who would like to see things stay as they are, discriminatory and unwelcoming for anyone who doesn’t fit a perceived idea of Christianity. But there are also many who would like to see the church change and become more welcoming to queer folks. Whether this will manifest in a schism within the church, or a positive move into the future together, remains to be seen, but it is clear that whatever happens, Park Hill United Methodist will lead the way when it comes to love and acceptance within their walls.
This year, Park Hill United Methodist is going to be involved in PrideFest. On Sunday, June 17, at 8 a.m., the church is offering a special Pride service. PHUMC will also be marching in the PrideFest Parade with the Reconciling Congregations of the United Methodist Church. If any individuals or churches would like to join the other Reconciling United Methodists in the march, please contact Angie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos Provided By Park Hill United Methodist