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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine, the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto proposed to the congregation before her, a worship service with no LGBTQ participants.

How many organ benches would be empty, Bishop Oliveto wondered aloud. How many choir lofts, youth groups, and pews?

“Would this wake up religious communities enough to see that we are offering not only our lives and our prayers, but our talents and service to God, even when we are not allowed to bring our full selves to the pulpit and the pew?” Bishop Oliveto, the first and only openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, asked attendees of the annual Utah Pride Days Interfaith Service.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.

“Would this open the eyes of our fellow believers to see that we, too, are members of the faith community?”

The service at Christ United Methodist Church on Thursday evening united members of a wide range of religions, from Buddhists to Presbyterians to Pagans, for a common goal: acknowledging and bridging what Utah Pride Center Executive Director Rob Moolman described as an “imaginary gap that exists in public discourse between LGBTQ identity and faith identity.” The service featured a sermon from Bishop Oliveto, who presides over 400 Methodist congregations in Utah, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, as well as prayers and musical performances from other local congregations.

The message underlying the event, as stated in the service's Call to Worship: "We are here, and we have always been here."

"Too many religions have deemed us acceptable if we hide who we are, or who we love, or even worse, seek to change our very God-given nature," Bishop Oliveto said, adding, "Religions have wounded too many of our queer kin and made them wonder if they have any place in the family of faith."

For Bishop Oliveto and other Methodists, debate over the relationship between faith and LGBTQ identity has been a source of particular tension in recent months.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto, left, serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.

Fifty-three percent of Methodist clergy and lay leaders from around the world in February voted to affirm the church’s stance against non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage, rather than adopt a new plan that would let local and regional church bodies determine their own positions on such issues. It’s expected that the controversial vote, which strengthened enforcement measures for those who perform same-sex marriages or ordain non-celibate gay clergy, could lead some more liberal Methodist churches to leave the denomination in the coming months and years.

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Bishop Oliveto briefly alluded to the vote in her sermon on Thursday, as well as referring more broadly to "this time of regression against the gains we've made in LGBTQ rights." But rather than focus her sermon around more recent events, she shared an anecdote from the United Methodist Church's General Conference in 2012. Shortly after that conference, Bishop Oliveto said, she received a call from a former parishioner who asked her to unbaptize him due to the "homophobic rhetoric" he'd heard there.

The call, Bishop Oliveto told congregants, broke her heart.

"Because to me, as a Christian … no matter what the world says, no matter what the church may decide, we are loved," she said.

Pride activities will continue into the weekend with the Utah Pride Festival at Washington Square Park all day Saturday and Sunday, a Pride March and Rally at the state Capitol on Saturday afternoon, and the Utah Pride Parade downtown on Sunday morning.