The Rev. Gusti Newquist wears a multicolored scarf that was made by her congregation at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church to represent support for full inclusion in the church.

Hallelujahs are sounding loudly from at least two local churches as members celebrate a long-sought change in the Presbyterian Church to fully include everyone regardless of their sexual or gender orientation.

St. Mark's Presbyterian Church has worked to remove obstacles for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ordination for more than two decades, and it officially joined the national movement, called More Light Presbyterians, in 2006.

Last month, the change came nationwide.

"It's been been a long wait, and St. Mark's is celebrating," said the Rev. Gusti Newquist. "Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are part of God's good creation, and when God calls them to serve as ministers, we should welcome them gratefully. God calls people to serve in the church and church policy should not be a barrier to answering God's call."

The executive director of More Light Presbyterians will visit St. Mark's at 7 p.m. on Sunday for a public celebration.

Presbyterians in Minnesota's Twin Cities became the last needed presbytery - the name for a regional governing body - to vote in favor of eliminating all barriers to the ordination of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States, which includes nearly 2.4 million members, joins Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ denominations with its inclusive policy.

Newquist, 37, said she feels a "huge debt of gratitude" to the Presbyterians who changed their minds and made the change possible.

"It's a hard thing for anyone, but particularly when you have had a strong conviction to say, 'I was wrong and I'm ready to make a different stand,' " she said.

Mike Smith is a former associate pastor of St. Mark's and longtime advocate for the rights of LGBT people in the church.

"We're going to continue to work so that what's been made official can actually become a reality," said Smith, 70, from his Tucson home. "It's exciting for those of us who have worked so long to finally see the day when justice has come and we can fully affirm our brothers and sisters."

Smith's wife, Sylvia Thorson-Smith, shares her husband's passion. She has served on a national committee of the Presbyterian Church and repeatedly spoken on sexuality and gender equality.

"All of the race and gender and sexuality and class issues, they are all connected. They are all part of our fabric," said Thorson-Smith, 67. The challenge now will be seeing people fully accept the change, she said.

"Women could be ordained in 1956 but it was decades before you really saw women going to seminary," she said.

Leslie Carlson said she felt accepted in her church, Southside Presbyterian, long before last month's vote.

Carlson said when she was approached to become a church elder in the mid-1980s, she told then-pastor John Fife her sexual orientation. They discussed it and Fife decided not to let that be a barrier.

A few years later, as the task force on human sexuality was gearing up for the 1991 convention, Carlson decided to formally come out to other church leaders. They, in turn, wrote a letter urging national convention members to consider Carlson as an example of someone who is both homosexual and a dedicated Christian.

The new amendment reaffirms her commitment to her faith.

"People were listening to what God has to say about how we are to be in faith communities," she said.

Fellow Southside member Josefina Ahumada, 65, has also felt accepted at her church, where she is an ordained elder and currently serves as a deacon.

"I really feel that I have had the opportunity to participate in the full life of the church," she said. "One of the things that attracted me to Southside is that it's an inclusive congregation."

Ahumada said the national church has been misguided for years in its preoccupation with homosexuality.

"We can finally let go of that now, and we can ask, 'How do you serve others and how do you witness your faith' without getting into this argument about homosexuality," she said.

"There's something wrong with the picture if a young gay person can only feel affirmed on the baseball field or in a gay bar but not in a church."

Once-dashed dreams are stirred anew

Carol Bradsen once aspired to become a Presbyterian minister but her dream died when she came out as a lesbian.

That was more than a decade ago. However, after learning last month that the Presbyterian Church now will ordain openly gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual people, Bradsen said old feelings resurfaced.

"I feel conflicted. I feel happy, and it also brings up all the pain to think about it again," she said.

Bradsen, the youngest of six children from Perry, Okla., said she was 12 when she felt a "calling" to church leadership. In high school, she was ordained a deacon in her family's church and in college, she served as a youth delegate in a national Presbyterian conference.

"Ironically, that was the year they presented the report on human sexuality. I was 20, and I voted against acceptance of that report," she said. The 1991 report called for full inclusion of LGBT people and was soundly defeated.

"I was not aware of my own self, and I thought it was the right thing to do," she said.

By age 28, Bradsen's self-awareness had evolved - and she left the church.

"I couldn't both fight for a place in my church and fight for a place within myself," said Bradsen, 40.

Today, Bradsen and her partner, Kate Bradsen - the new vicar at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Armory Park - started an ecumenical community called Casa Mariposa, which combines spirituality and social justice.

Would she ever go back to the Presbyterian church?

"I don't know," she said. "It doesn't change everything for me. I know the church is still divided about it and, if I were to serve in the church, I wouldn't want it to be an issue. I can love people and minister to people without a stole around my neck."

If you go

• What: A special worship service and communitywide celebration of the ordination of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people in the Presbyterian Church. Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, and the Rev. Gusti Newquist of St. Mark's will offer homilies.

• When: 7 p.m. next Sunday, June 19.

• Where: St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, 3809 E. Third St.

• More information: 325-1001.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com Patty Machelor