By Cynthia Astle
St. Stephen UMC was well represented on Sunday, April 30 when Dallas' seven Reconciling Congregations gathered at Northaven UMC to welcome Bishop Karen Oliveto of Denver after the conclusion of a hearing before the denomination's "high court."
A complaint about the election of Bishop Oliveto, who is legally married to Deaconess Robin Ridenour, was lodged last year by Dixie Brewster of the South Central Jurisdiction, the church region where St. Stephen UMC is located. The Western Jurisdiction elected Bishop Oliveto on July 15, 2016, and she was consecrated a bishop on July 16, 2016. The Judicial Council, which acts like a "supreme court" for The Unite Methodist Church, ruled that while Bishop Oliveto's consecration violated church law because she is a lesbian, she nonetheless remained a bishop of the church.
The April 30 event was quickly organized by Laura Young, South Central Jurisdiction coordinator for the Reconciling Ministries Network, to allow Bishop Oliveto to greet the seven Reconciling Congregations in Dallas that had been supporting her throughout the legal process.
Bishop Oliveto opened her remarks by saying she wanted to take a moment "just to look at you, to see your faces," as she silently, smiling, looked across the Northaven sanctuary at the assembly. Representatives came to the event from all seven Reconciling Congregations: St. Stephen, Northaven, Dallas-Grace, Lakewood, Greenland Hills, Kessler Park and the newest, Oak Lawn. A representative also was present from Ailey United Methodist Church, which has pledged to perform same-gender weddings in defiance of United Methodist policy.
"Seven Reconciling Congregations in one place!" Bishop Oliveto exclaimed. "You don't know how special you are, and how much your witness means to the church!"
The bishop then gave a brief talk about her encounter with Drew, a teen-ager who regularly attended worship services at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, where she was senior pastor at the time of her election as bishop.
In the packed Glide sanctuary, which held some 2,000 people. Drew would always sit down front, wearing a crumpled shirt and tie, and carrying a backpack. Bishop Oliveto said she came to understand that the crumpled state of Drew's outfit wasn't because he treated with typical teen-age carelessness. She said she realized that Drew was homeless, that "the people who should most have loved him didn't want him around."
There came a time, she said, when faithful Drew was absent from worship for several weeks, and then-Rev. Oliveto began to worry about him. "Young people on the streets must do terrible things to stay alive," she said to the hushed audience. "Young people on the street are in danger from terrible things."
Just when she began to wonder about finding Drew, he reappeared at church. He appeared stunned when the pastor greeted him: "Drew, I've missed you!" Clearly, no one before had ever noticed Drew's absence, Bishop Oliveto said.
Then one Sunday, the pastor called Drew up on stage so that the congregation could sing "Happy Birthday" to him as he turned 15. At first Drew hung his head, so that his long hair fell over his face. Then, as the singing swelled, he began to part his hair and look up at the people, she said.
"They didn't just sing to him," said Bishop Oliveto. "They showered him with God's love."
The Dallas-area Reconciling Congregations, along with many others, are doing the same for LGBTQ people, the bishop continued. She liked the congregations to the "salt and light" of Matthew 5:13-14. Then she encouraged her audience to "Shine!" so that LGBTQ people can know there are churches that are safe for them and gladly welcome them.
The main question asked of Bishop Oliveto by participants was what Reconciling United Methodists can do to help. She responded, "Pray for the church. And continue to bring your witness." After the brief question-and-answer session, those present crowded around Bishop Oliveto for a group photo. Then the crowd broke up to go out into the world to light the way to God's love.
See United Methodist Insight for reports on the Judicial Council rulings on Bishop Oliveto and other issues related to LGBTQ clergy.