An interview with Rev. Oliver White, pastor of the only predominantly African American Congregational Church in Minnesota, on his support for same-sex marriage–and what it’s cost.

By Becky Garrison

According to ABC News/Washington Post polls, for the first time, strong public support for same-sex marriage exceeds strong opposition by a significant margin–with more African-Americans moving in favor, perhaps taking their lead from Barack Obama on the issue. Despite this shifting, media coverage continues to present only the conservative face of African Americans when reporting on marriage equality legislation. For example, The Revealer’s previous analysis of the Amendment One vote in North Carolina noted that even local media focused on the alliances between white and African American conservative Christians. They paid scant attention to the multi-racial faith based coalitions formed to defeat the amendment.

A media landscape that relies primarily on the voices of those with the microphone tends to miss out on the smaller, quieter voices for justice, such as the Rev. Oliver White, a United Church of Christ pastor and social studies teacher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At present, his church is facing foreclosure–a result, many say, of his decision to speak out in favor of same sex marriage at the 2005 UCC General Synod.

After Believe Out Loud distributed a call for support of White’s waning church, The Revealer contacted him via email.

Why did you proclaim your support for LGBT equality at the 2005 UCC General Synod?

I was a delegate to the synod and while I never got the opportunity to stand up at the microphone, when it was time to vote for the amendment, “In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All,” I raised my card in support.  In general, the UCC supports the LGBT community though some churches offer more support than others with some churches simply not supporting same sex marriage at all. What makes my vote unique is that while Minnesota is home to 170 Congregational Churches, I pastor the only predominantly African American Congregational Church in the state.

Describe the ethos at St. Paul’s Church.

We were always known for being opening and affirming and in fact, I performed a commitment ceremony for two women before I left for General Synod [in 2005]. Also, I led bible studies where I would stress the words of Jesus to “… love your neighbor as you love yourself…” and to put the apostle Paul into his first century context. When someone would call “homosexuality” an abomination and say that God hates the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians, I would suggest that they read further into the scriptures and discover that eating shrimp, catfish or pork chops was, according to Leviticus law, a sin. In addition, I was very careful to be inclusive in terms of ministry and to make sure that I used language that was not gender specific.

How did your vote change this?

My congregation has always struggled because our outreach was to the poor. We were never in a position where we could draw in doctors or lawyers. But when I came back from that synod and made that report, about 75% of our 350 member congregation left. The lack of donors made us vulnerable to predatory lenders. We’re now in a position where we’ve begun to draw in people who have great financial skills but we’re still facing foreclosure. (See reporting in Twincities.com for a fuller account of the church’s financial woes.)

Did they leave right away?

I noticed a drop in attendance the Sunday following the 2005 announcement that I supported same-sex marriages, but I didn’t find that too unusual, as it is common to have “low attendance Sundays” owed to weather, holidays, Vikings games, etc.  However, attendance never picked up, and soon it became apparent that many people had left the church for good.  It took about three months to lose 72% of the entire congregation.

How has President Obama’s support of same sex marriage impacted your congregation?

We were very, very, very delighted that he came out and said what he said. I wrote him a letter and asked him if I could come to Washington to shake his hand for standing up for something that I know is risky. In the end, I don’t think that black people will collectively move away from Obama because the alternative doesn’t offer much hope.

NPR offered this analysis: “Fairly or not, African-Americans have become the public face of resistance to same-sex marriage, owing to their religious beliefs and the outspoken opposition of many black pastors.”

African Americans are staunchly religious and unfortunately too many African American pastors preached fire and brimstone without doing enough reading about gays and lesbians. This is not a choice where you can pray over someone and they will change.  That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the next generation of African-Americans is not on the same page as the current generation. To that extent, the world is slowly changing, and thank God, it’s changing for the better!

While many white, progressive evangelical leaders have yet to come out and champion equal rites for all, young evangelicals seem to be distancing themselves from their leaders over this issue.

That dynamic isn’t true for young African Americans who take on characteristics of the leaders of their churches. We’re finding our changes are happening because more churches insist on having a trained minister as their leader. More African-American pastors now attend liberal seminaries where they learn about the theological developments surrounding gay and lesbian issues. Conversely, you still have a number of African Americans, who go to bible colleges that teach a fundamentalist point of view.

How has your current grassroots fundraising campaign impacted your congregation?

Every time I open an envelope, it’s like opening a love letter with a gift attached to it. But I have received some hate mail as well. Through all of this, our congregation has new energy. They’re on their feet shouting “Thank you.” If nothing else, this draws together an interracial LGBT and heterosexual community. I’ve even been in touch with people who don’t believe in God but believe in the goodness of humankind.

Image: by John Doman via St. Paul Pioneer Press/RNS