Monday, July 23, 2012

St. Paul Church Loses Congregation, Church After Pastor Supports Gay Marriage

A St. Paul congregation is about to lose its church. When the pastor of Grace Community UCC (United Church of Christ) came out in support of gay marriage, more than two-thirds of his flock fled. And so did their financial support. Grace Community formed 22 years ago; for the last eleven, a 114-year-old building at 986 Forest has been its home. It's one of the only predominantly African-American UCC churches in Minnesota. Inside, a book of photos on the church piano shows the many faces of those who've worshipped here. Come August though, the choir robes will be packed away and the pews will be empty. The last service here is scheduled for Sunday July 29th. "People just literally stopped coming to church," says Pastor Oliver White. The exodus began in 2005 after Rev. White was among the 80 percent of UCC delegates to vote in favor of a national church resolution supporting gay marriage. "I saw no reason that I would vote against something for them, that's available to me," said White, who's married with children. "It's about trying to establish justice, freedom, and equality for all people." Yet a majority of the church felt Rev. White's decision ran afoul of Biblical teachings. He says, "As I was telling them (about his vote), I got a lot of 'amens' but within weeks the congregation slowly evaporated.And when I went to check on the reason why so many people had stopped coming to church--people who had never missed a Sunday--I was told one by one that they cannot accept going to a church that doesn't preach the Bible." "It breaks my heart," says Fances Woodlow.
She's one one of the few who stayed. "We were supposed to love each other. That was one of the rules that Jesus said we must keep. We must love God. And the second commandment says to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. What is wrong with loving your neighbor, no matter what? As the congregation dwindled, so did its financial support. And now, the church can't afford to pay off a huge loan it took out to sustain itself. Rev. White says he's shocked by some of the emails he's received. "They such things as 'we warned you' and 'if you had preached God's word you wouldn't have lost your church' or 'you deserve what's happened to you'." Two months ago Rev. White thought his prayers had been answered. He got a call from a potential benefactor who claimed he was willing to pay off all the church's bills and eradicate its debts. But there was one condition: Pastor White would have to change his mind and renounce gay marriage. He refused. At the same time, though, others have stepped up, and White is now receiving donations from churches and strangers around the nation who support his stance. "We have to win his battle," he said. Because, according to Woodlow, no matter where Grace Community''s congregation ends up settling next, "any one who comes through our door is welcome at our church, period." No matter their color, their culture, or their sexual orientation. "We are all God's children," White says.