Why One Black Minister Is Risking His Church to Support Gay Marriage

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Reverend Oliver White's acceptance of homosexuality has already lost him two thirds of his congregation. Now he's in danger of losing his building. Here's why he won't back down.   

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Twenty-two years ago, Reverend Oliver White founded Grace Community United Church of Christ in a low-income black neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a strong congregation with 320 members -- until 2005, when White stood up at a synod of the United Church of Christ and voiced his support of gay marriage. Then he came home and told his congregation what he had done.

"I thought they were with me," he says, "but much to my chagrin, I immediately started losing members." Over the next few weeks, two thirds of his members left the congregation.

This month, the church may close its doors altogether. White is currently struggling to raise $200,000 to pay back a loan on the church building by June 30. Even if the money comes through, there's no guarantee that he will ever fill his pews again. But White, who once marched with the Civil Rights movement, remains adamant in his support of gay marriage. He spoke to me about his views on the subject and the deeper reasons the issue has met with so much resistance from the black church.


Tell me what's happening at your church right now.

I'm trying to raise enough money to save our building from foreclosure. But the building itself is not the big issue. It's become a symbol for a much larger fight. This is really about the gay community having a victory of sorts, letting the world know it can't beat us. When I say "us" -- I don't happen to be gay. But I support the gay community with all my heart.

How did you become such a strong supporter of gay marriage?

"Jesus could certainly have played it safe. But that's not what he did."

You know, I've always felt this way. This is not something I've evolved into. I've always just felt that people are people. There are all kinds of different people -- some are left handed, and others are right handed. Should we discriminate against people because they're left handed?

That's how I see it. Many of my friends happen to be gay, and some of my enemies, too. They all deserve the same rights I have in terms of being married, and the joys and benefits come along with that. I would not be inclined to be in relationship with another man, but it's not for me to judge two men or women in a relationship. It's about the freedom to love.

The people who left your congregation obviously believe that gay marriage is against the Christian religion. Which parts of scripture do they cite, and how do you read those same passages?  

Most people who oppose homosexuality use biblical references found in Leviticus, which state that homosexuality is an abomination to God. Now, that's a misinterpretation of that text. They really need to read further into it. In the same book of Leviticus, it states that if an unmarried woman is not a virgin, she can be put to death. We don't put women to death for that reason nowadays.

The one law I quote frequently and try to conduct my ministry by is the one that Jesus gave: Love God first and then love your neighbor as yourself. And yet, we have laws in Minnesota in 2012 that say oral sex is a sin. You can go to jail for it. Come on people, wake up! Let's get on with it!

What do your congregants say when you tell them that?

People are very selective about what they want to believe. And unfortunately, people do follow pastors who haven't read enough. I tell people that Jesus did a whole lot of things that were contrary to laws that people seem to want to follow today. For example, on the Sabbath day, Jesus did a little healing. That got him in trouble. Jesus hung out with women, and many were prostitutes. That got him in trouble, too. But people have these preconceived views that won't go away.

I'm not going to say that they're dead wrong. My mother, bless her heart, had some ideas that were contrary to mine. I don't think she would have disagreed on the issue of gays and lesbians. My niece happens to be a lesbian, and she and her partner lived with my mother. But there are plenty of other issues where my mother would disagree with me.

For instance, I try as hard as I can never to use patriarchal language. You'll never hear me say "Father God" or "He healed me." We should try not to give God a gender, because of this fact: If you ask a black child what God looks like, the child will say, "Like a white man." Why? They've been brainwashed by what they see and hear around them. I try to let people know that God is much bigger than gender or skin color or any label that comes from our finite little minds.

There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about "the black church." What is the black church, and what makes it unique?

I love the black church. My own church is appreciatively, authentically, and unapologetically black. The black church nurtured me, and it was responsible in and of itself for the Civil Rights movement, for Martin Luther King. Many of our great entertainers came out of the black church.

Would it be fair to say that religion tends to play a more central role for African Americans than it does for society at large?

I might have to disagree with you a little bit on that. Obviously, African Americans are still a minority in this country. The last time I checked, the population was around 40 million. Religion is as much of a guiding force, if not more, for many, many Euro Americans. But proportionately speaking, religion may be more pronounced in the African American community.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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