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On Nov. 2, 2016, Bishop Karen Oliveto was invited to give her faith story to colleagues at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Below is her story.
I was born on Good Friday and raised in a town called Babylon (on Long Island in New York). From my very first breath, the sacred stories of Scripture were woven into the fabric of my life.
My earliest memory is of attending church for the very first time. While I was not raised in a religious household, my mother took seriously the vows she took at my baptism, in which she was asked: “Will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”1
Living out these vows, my mother took me to the Presbyterian Church, which was on Babylon’s Main Street, when I was three years old. While a white colonial church structure, its inside was of dark wood. The organ wheezed a somber sigh that seemed to bespeak of a foreboding which caused me to break out into sobs as soon as the robe-clad choir members began to process down the aisle. My cries grew louder and louder and even an usher’s finger puppet could not console me. My mother had no choice but to gather me in her arms and leave the church before the conclusion of the first hymn.
My mother was determined to find a church, and she next tried the Methodist Church because she heard it had a good Sunday School program. As soon as I walked into that musty basement classroom, I knew I had found a home. I couldn’t wait for Sunday School and the Bible lessons. The stories of people in the Bible sounded familiar, like people I knew — and they gave me a glimpse of remaining connected to God while living through life’s tragedies and joys
These lessons extended to the children’s choir, which I soon became a part of. I loved the music of the church, which continued to help me grow in my faith. The first hymn I learned in the choir was the Isaac Watts hymn, I sing the mighty power of God. Like that hymn, I have found the presence of God even from that early age infused in all corners of my life and creation.
Church became the village that raised my sisters and me. Here, loving adults taught, cared, affirmed, and nurtured us. They enveloped us in unconditional love and I thrived in it. I was encouraged to develop music and leadership skills. Here — much more than at school — I felt I was invited to grow into my best, my God-given self. God, who was always very present in my life since those first days in that musty Sunday School room, became embodied in the community of which I was a part.
I was eleven years old when Ken White, one of the pastors, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and if I had ever thought about being a minister. While I had never known a woman pastor before, his question broke open my life. Of course! Where else do I feel so whole? Where else do I experience such joy? Where else do I feel I can use all of me to extend the unconditional love of God which I had experienced?
From that time on, I prepared myself for full-time Christian service through ordained ministry. God continued to be a very real presence in my life, particularly through music and community. In seminary, however, God suddenly disappeared from my life and I felt myself wandering in the wilderness, a soul in exile. Like most seminarians, my first year of study deconstructed my faith and life. In the brokenness, I had to face parts of myself that I had tried hard to suppress my entire life. I listened to the stories of gay and lesbian students, and recognized myself in their stories. I struggled deeply, realizing that for most of my life I knew there was something different about me, even before I had a name for it.
At the end of my first year of seminary, I literally ran away, hopping a Greyhound bus in Oakland and headed to Nova Scotia, where my grandparents lived. I lost myself in weeping, a tear-stained Bible on my lap, for the first 1,000 miles of that trip; until, finally emotionally spent, I claimed the part of me I most feared. And the miracle is this: I felt that “peace which passes all understanding”2 descend upon my heart. I spent the summer painting my grandparents’ home, reflecting on my first year of seminary, what I had learned about myself, and began to put the pieces together again. In that rebuilding, God returned and I learned an important lesson: God doesn’t ever leave us. We leave God when we deny who we are and who God created us to be.
Returning to seminary and feeling more whole and centered, I learned important lessons from my Catholic peers — that God not only exists in community but also meets us in silence and prayer. This was new a new dimension of religious experience for a hymn-singing Methodist! Prayer and solitude became new elements of my spiritual practice and I found that hiking in the wilderness became a powerful way to embody it.
As an adult, my experience of God has been informed by Wesley’s understanding of personal piety and social holiness, and this is perhaps what has most shaped my experience of God. My faith would be false if it was not lived out in a commitment to justice. Likewise, I cannot do justice without the undergirding of my faith and engaging in the means of grace, which offers me both the strength and vision for such work.
There are moments in my life when personal piety and social holiness have come together so perfectly that I have been left breathless by the nearness of God. Whether seeking housing for the homeless, asylum for undocumented immigrants, an end to war, or standing up for the rights of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer persons, these are the moments when I have felt most faithful, even when the response has been arrest or harsh criticism. It is at times like this that I am reminded that following Jesus is risky business. It costs us something, as we disciples stand against a world which seeks to limit love, create communities of insiders and outsiders, and forget to care for “the least of these.”3
On June 10, 2016, I responded to a call I had long tried to ignore. On that night, I was reminded that “perfect love casts out all fear” and I said yes to allowing my name to come forward to the episcopacy. From that day forward, I have experienced the Holy Spirit in a way I never could have imagined. The Spirit has been mightily present, providing strength, calm, and perseverance in the midst of these days of great change.
I give thanks for my upbringing, so rooted in Methodist heritage and tradition, through which the unconditional love of God was and continues to be a tangible experience in my life. From this, I know that Good Friday always leads to Easter, and exile is never the final destination, for we know that “all things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose”.4
1 Baptismal liturgy of The United Methodist Church, from The United Methodist Book of Worship. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992)
2 Philippians 4:7
3 Matthew 25:40
4 Romans 8:28