Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, Minerva Carcaño didn’t think much about her long-term future. She was too focused on how many pounds of cotton she could pluck from the Texas farm fields to help support her family.
“We were paid $2.50 for 100 pounds,” she said. “I remember picking 125 pounds a day so my family could eat. … It was tough to see beyond the fields.”
Today, Carcaño, 61, faces another daunting task, albeit a spiritual one.
She was installed last month as bishop of the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, presiding over 360 churches (41 in the central San Joaquin Valley) and 78,000 congregants. She is also among the church leaders helping to select a committee seeking to prevent the church – America’s second-largest Protestant denomination with more than 7 million members – from breaking up over whether to allow gay marriage and gay priests.
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The oldest of seven children, Carcaño said she found meaning as a child being close to the earth with her mother and contributing to her family.
“I also had days of great despair when I thought the fields would consume us,” she said.
It was in those fields that Carcaño, her hands cut and blistered from picking cotton, said she felt a call to the ministry.
“In the fields, I felt I knew a God who loved me and would uphold me and sustain me, and it gave me hope,” she said.
W. Stephen Gunter, associate dean for Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School, said Carcaño is a good choice to help the church navigate the issue now dividing it.
“She’s a respected leader, a very thoughtful person,” he said. “Some people tend to put their finger in the air and see which the way the wind is blowing. That’s not Bishop Carcaño.”
The Book of Discipline, which has governed the church since its inception, says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, Carcaño said. Yet in July, Carcaño and her fellow bishops in the church’s western jurisdiction supported the election of the first openly gay bishop in church history.
Gunter said the commission that Carcaño is shaping will try to bridge the divide between Methodists in the West and Northeast and the generally more conservative members in the Midwest and Southeast, who make up the majority of the church. The commission is expected to present its conclusions in 2018.
The debate over gay marriage and clergy is occurring as mainline Protestant denominations like the Methodists – once the stalwarts of the American religious scene – are experiencing a steady decline in membership. Gunter noted that for the first time in American history, a majority of people under 30 profess no religious preference.
Membership in United Methodist churches in the U.S. fell by about 500,000, or 6 percent, from 2009 to 2014, according to official church statistics. Membership in Carcaño’s new territory fell by about 6,000, or 7 percent, over the same period. Meanwhile, membership in United Methodist churches abroad – largely Africa, which tends to be far more conservative on gay rights – grew by 600,000, or 14 percent, from 2009 to 2014.
Those who remain in the denomination have become more accepting of gay marriage. In 2014, 49 percent of United Methodists favored gay marriage, and 60 percent said homosexuality should be accepted by society, said Jessica Martinez of the Pew Research Center, who worked on the organization’s Religious Landscape Study.
Carcaño was the first Latina bishop in the United Methodist Church when she was appointed in 2004 to lead the church in Arizona.
She said her ministry is about real life and about “how God expects us to be people of justice.”
“Sometimes we lose members because of our stand on immigration or for being inclusive,” she said. “Some members feel it’s not appropriate for the church to be involved in politics. The fact is that Jesus took many political positions but he didn’t line up with any parties. He lined up with the reign of God.”
Carcaño is married to Thomas L. Spaniolo, a lawyer who specializes in immigration and criminal law. Their daughter works in the fashion industry in Chicago.
She spent eight years as bishop of Arizona and four years as bishop of Los Angeles. In July, she supported the election of Karen Oliveto, then senior pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church, as the first openly gay bishop in church history. The election was appealed by church leaders in the Midwest and South to the church’s Judicial Council.
Carcaño said she has visited more than a half-dozen churches in her new territory. She said she is trying to learn about how best to help the poor and to understand why some people turn to drugs.
“It’s not just about growing the numbers,” she said. “Are we being faithful to Jesus, who walked among the poor and the suffering? That’s primary.”
Phillip Reese contributed to this story.