Noe Valley Voice April 2004

Support Pours in for Bethany Pastor

By Erin O'Briant

Reverend Karen Oliveto, pastor of Noe Valley's Bethany United Methodist Church, made history on Feb. 15, 2004. That day, she presided over the first same-sex marriage in the sanctuary of a United Methodist Church.

But that's not all.

From Feb. 12, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, until March 12, when the city was forced to stop, Oliveto officiated at nine same-sex weddings. She has performed a total of 14 such marriages, all for couples who obtained legal marriage licenses at San Francisco City Hall. "I signed them!" she says proudly.

Oliveto clearly believes gays and lesbians should not be denied the right to marry. She also thinks holding the ceremony in a church is within the bounds of Methodist practice. Although same-sex "holy unions" are expressly banned in the United Methodist Church, she says, same-sex marriages are not.

"Marriage confers certain rights and responsibilities that a holy union doesn't," she notes. "But the primary reason [I performed the weddings] is simply because I'm a pastor and members of my congregation asked for my pastoral services as they sought to get married. It was only after the first marriage that we realized we were taking part in something historic."

Oliveto's decision to officiate at the weddings of gay couples has won accolades from her congregation on Sanchez Street. "They're behind this 100 percent," she says.

But it has stirred animosity among some members of the national church. In February, an anonymous Methodist filed a complaint against Oliveto with Bishop Beverly Shamana, who presides over the California­Nevada United Methodist Conference.

Oliveto met with Bishop Shamana on March 2, but she doesn't yet know what will come of the complaint. "We're waiting to hear," says Oliveto. "I'll know when [Bishop Shamana] calls me."

According to Oliveto, there are two possible outcomes. "It's possible that the bishop and I will agree to a joint resolution on this issue," she says. "That would mean we come to an understanding of a correction, or of what I did as a faithful pastoral act."

If they can't reach a resolution, the complaint might be sent to an investigative committee, which could make a formal charge against Oliveto and hold a church trial. In the worst-case scenario, Oliveto could lose her ministerial privileges. But she hopes it won't come to that.

"We've received so much support from people in San Francisco," Oliveto says. "The Gay Men's Chorus came to worship and sang for us--it's been a powerful time. And this congregation sees that it's an epicenter and that we have a responsibility to teach the larger church about how God is at work in the world."

The support doesn't just come from gay-friendly San Francisco. Letters and e-mails are flooding in from all over the country.

"They're 99-to-1 positive," Oliveto says, opening yet another letter of encouragement, this one from a church member in Paradise, Calif.

Asked if she plans to continue performing weddings for church members, Oliveto says, "I am available for the pastoral needs of my congregation."

She declines to comment further. m