By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – in 1997, the Church of the Open Arms was founded to offer full participation by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. This year, Open Arms invited the public to help celebrate its 20th anniversary with a ceremony and supper on Saturday, April 22 at the church.
Church of the Open Arms was founded by Rev. Kathy McCallie, who had just resigned from the United Methodist denomination over differences regarding the treatment of LGBT people in the church. At COA, McCallie believed that LGBT people should be included equally in all aspects of church and social life, including marriage and the ministry.
“McCallie paid a high price for her commitment to universal human and civil rights,” said Nathaniel Batchelder, COA member and director of the Oklahoma City Peace House.
“She had to resign as a United Methodist minister because charges were filed against her for performing commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples at the church she served,” Batchelder added. “So, she founded Church of the Open Arms, which was welcomed into the United Church of Christ denomination with the designation of ‘open and affirming’.”
“McCallie’s values are not a scandal in the UCC, which ordained its first openly gay minister in 1970. Today, Open Arms continues as a social justice Christian church.”
For its first 18 months, Church of the Open Arms met for free on Sunday afternoons in the sanctuary of Oklahoma City’s Mayflower Congregational Church UCC at 63rd and N. Portland.
Mayflower Church and its pastor Rev. Robin Meyers celebrated the new church and its progressive values.
While still meeting at Mayflower Church, Open Arms was officially welcomed into the United Church of Christ denomination.
After moving to its present location on North Pennsylvania in 2001, Open Arms received media attention when the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would be protesting a “Homosexuality & Scriptures Conference” to be led by McCallie at Church of the Open Arms.
Off-duty Oklahoma City Police officers were hired to help “keep the peace” and 3-foot high orange barriers were placed between the church and the area where the opposing KKK demonstration was planned.
The morning of the winter conference, the streets of Oklahoma City were glazed with ice, but that didn’t deter a crowd of approximately 300 conference attendees. During the event, police officers announce that the Dallas KKK’s “Cyclops” had canceled the demonstration due to weather.
In 2002, Open Arms established a Friday afternoon public food pantry open from 4 – 6 p.m. Run by Bo Wright-Bass and Laura Choate, it served over 9,000 people in 2016.
“Our food pantry is one of the few client choice food pantries in Oklahoma City, meaning we allow each client to choose what food they need as if they were going to a grocery story,” said COA member Mindy Hellwege. “Each client is walked through our ‘store’ with a volunteer who informs the client how much they get of each product, helps bag the food and carry it to their car if needed.”
In 2013, McCallie left COA to join the faculty at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, as director of the Doctor of Ministry Program and an Assistant Professor of Ministerial Leadership and Ethics.
Rev. Kayla Bonewell, the new pastor of Church of the Open Arms, and Cathedral of Hope, which meets in the same building, has served both churches just over a year.
In 1999, Bonewell became a member of Church of the Open Arms while still a student at Oklahoma City University. She later served for six years at a UCC church in Rochester, Minnesota before returning to Oklahoma City.
Rev. Bonewell officially begin her ministry at both churches on Ash Wednesday in 2016.
“My selection as pastor for Church of the Open Arms allows me to live in the city where I grew up and my family lives,” Bonewell said. “Church of the Open Arms is a community where my values and principles can be expressed openly and be appreciated by a welcoming extended family of members.”
During her Easter sermon Bonewell announced, “As most of you know, this is my first Sunday back after having been gone for two weeks. After five years together, Dana and I were married in what was one of the most meaningful weekends of my life.
A celebration organized by the two churches was held for the couple at Will Rogers Park.
Also known as a “justice & peace church,” COA regularly joins with local human and civil rights groups in local actions such as opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and standing publicly with Oklahoma City’s Muslim community.
COA supports and participates in LGBT Pride events, #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) press conferences, the Black Lives Matter march, Martin Luther King Day Parade, and the Women’s March.