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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The Rev. Elizabeth Tay McVicker, the first woman to lead First United Methodist Church, poses for a portrait at the church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Rev. Elizabeth Tay McVicker understands why it's important to have a sense of belonging.

The Rev. McVicker, the new pastor of First United Methodist Church, was born in Burma (now Myanmar) to parents who were Methodists. "We were also Chinese in Burma, which is a minority as well," she said.

From the time her paternal grandparents immigrated to Burma from China in the early 1900s, their lives were lived on the fringes of society.

"Just like here in the United States, the Chinese were relegated to a certain area (of Rangoon) to live. But it was good for them because it was also where they gained their support," she said. There, they ran a dry goods store, but when World War II broke out, they were forced to abandon it.

When Japanese soldiers invaded Burma, her paternal grandfather's family fled into the jungles where they were repeatedly denied refuge by villagers who feared if they harbored them, they would be targeted, too.

They eventually found a village that would accept them, but conditions were very difficult. McVicker's father, then a teenager, labored to earn money for food.

"That's where my dad learned to pray for his daily bread. They would take odd jobs. It was always just enough money to pay for the next day's food," she said.

After the war, McVicker's family returned to Rangoon, now Yangon. Their store was in shambles so they started over. Later, her father imported porcelain from China, but the government of the newly independent Burma imposed sanctions on imports and set strict quotas on how much he could sell.

When it became clear he would never be able to earn enough money to adequately support his family, they applied to the World Council of Churches for relief.

A United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wanted to sponsor a family but they preferred to assist Christians.

"Since we were Methodists, it worked out really well," she said. That was 1971.

Living in America

Once the Rev. McVicker's family settled in Oklahoma, her father worked numerous blue-collar jobs to support his wife and four children, finally settling into a custodial position. Her mother, who had never worked outside of the home, cooked at a Denny's restaurant.

The family attended Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, which at the time had one of largest congregations in the nation, with some 4,000 members. The Rev. McVicker sang in the children's choir and participated in the church's youth group. She would later marry in the iconic church.

The Rev. McVicker was an A-/B+ high school student who took part in a lot of extracurricular activities and was on a college track. When a 40-page book from an Ivy League school came in the mail, she filled out the application, penning an essay about how contradictory it was to turn homeless people out of the public library when they were part of the public, too.

Yale invited her to attend and its endowments paid all but about $3,000 of her college expenses.

"I like to say it was a miracle I got into Yale. It was more of a miracle that I made it out of Yale," she said.

After earning a bachelor's degree in American studies focusing on racial minorities, she moved west to study at Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley, California.

"My first semester in the seminary I felt called into the ministry," she said.

After earning a master of divinity, she married and moved to Phoenix.

In the late '90s, the Rev. McVicker was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church, serving three churches in Arizona then nine years as associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Cheyenne until her current appointment in Salt Lake City.

The call to Salt Lake City

The Rev. McVicker serves two churches in Salt Lake City — First United Methodist Church, 203 S. 200 East, and Centenary United Methodist Church, 1740 South 500 East.

On Sundays, she meets congregants at First United for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. then a worship service at 10 a.m. She then leaves the church, in her pastor's robe, and drives across town for the 11 a.m. service at Centenary.

"They start without me, but I get there about 11:15," she said. After the service, she has lunch with that congregation.

McVicker said both of her churches face similar challenges that Protestant churches across the country are experiencing: shrinking congregations and tight budgets.

Yet, the opportunity to serve Salt Lake City was appealing because of its diversity and the welcoming nature of both congregations.

The Sunday morning church breakfast at First United is open to the community at large. Some 25 to 30 people experiencing homelessness or otherwise living in poverty take part on a weekly basis sharing food and fellowship.

The Rev. McVicker said she is "so proud" how the congregation welcomes the strangers among them. "They're treated with dignity and love," she said.

If she had any doubt about the importance of that welcome, her experience with one man drove home its value. During a recent breakfast, "his eyes were bright and he stood a little taller."

When she saw the man in another setting a while later, "it was like he was a different person," the Rev. McVicker said. "He wouldn't even look me in the eye."

The Rev. McVicker said it is her goal to extend welcome to all people seeking a church home.

New challenges

As the General Conference of the United Methodist Church considers how to address a growing rift over doctrine that does not permit clergy to perform same-sex marriages or allow such unions to be conducted in its churches, and a prohibition against "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" being ordained or appointed to serve the church, its Book of Discipline acknowledges "all persons are of sacred worth."

Regardless of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition, all people are welcome at United Methodist worship services, can participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and be admitted as baptized members and church members, according to church doctrine.

The Rev. McVicker said it is her goal to extend a welcome to all people seeking a church home but to assure lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in particular that both of the churches she leads are places of open minds, open doors and open hearts.

Across the country, the issue has divided some, but both churches that the Rev. McVicker serves are "reconciling congregations," which means they have formally committed "to being in loving Christian ministry with all people without prejudice."

The Rev. McVicker said it was once explained to her that when racial minorities have struggles about their culture, their families and support systems typically rally around them.

"Not so for a lot of gay and lesbian kids. It's that they get cut off. It makes having a place in the church even more important for me to be able to provide that. To be able to serve in a congregation that sees that need and responds, it just makes me proud to be a part of this congregation," she said.

As the Rev. McVicker delves into her new church assignment, she is also finding her footing after she and her husband of 22 years divorced in February. Their daughter Katie is a freshman at the University of Wyoming and son, Adam, is an eighth-grader in West High School's Extended Learning Program.

Her new assignment brings many challenges and opportunities. Since arriving in July, she has officiated weddings in each of her churches and officiated over baptisms.

The Rev. McVicker, who prefers to call herself the Rev. Elizabeth, said she considers herself "a utility minister," likening her skill set to a multi-implement utility knife.

"I think my strengths are being a worship leader and pastoral care, and also bringing new people in, helping them connect, feel welcome and find their place," she said.

On Dec. 9, First United will celebrate the 110th anniversary of its newly restored pipe organ, one of the oldest in the region, with a recital at 7:30 p.m. The event features Scott R. Mills, the church's principal organist.

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Generous contributions from Utahns, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helped make the restoration possible. The Rev. McVicker encourages the entire community to share in the anniversary celebration.

Between serving two churches and helping her son acclimate to a new community, the Rev. McVicker is finding her way and learning new skills.

She said she keeps a list of new accomplishments and skills she has learned since arriving in Utah and starting over as a single mother.

The latest entry? Assembling her son's new bed.

"I come from people who figure it out as they go," she said, smiling.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com