After years of rejection from church members who disagreed with his support of gay marriage, the Rev. Oliver White has found a new spiritual home in a most unlikely place.
White’s predominantly black congregation, Grace Community, now worships alongside the mostly white members of Clark Memorial Church in South St. Paul in an unusual partnership that grew out of both congregations’ advocacy for gay rights.
“I have to scratch my head and wonder, ‘Oliver, what are you doing there?’ ” said White, 71, during a recent interview. “Then I come to realize, we’re all people and if I can be an advocate for the LGBT community, then why can’t I be an advocate for bringing people together in one accord, which is what I’m trying to do.”
Since joining up nearly a month ago, the two fledgling congregations — 20 or so of them black, nearly 50 white — have gathered on Sundays at Clark Memorial, with co-pastors White and Lisa Bodenheim taking turns sermonizing each week.
The two United Church of Christ congregations decided to try this joint venture because they needed each other, members say. Clark Memorial’s aging membership was looking for younger followers and spirited worship to energize the nearly 125-year-old congregation. Grace was seeking a home after losing its church building.
Initially, White’s congregation — the only UCC church in Minnesota with a mostly black congregation — was interested in worshiping at Clark Memorial at a different time. But both groups ultimately decided worshiping together would be more fulfilling.
“This is not a merger, where we blend and lose who we are,” said Bodenheim. “It’s a partnership, walking side by side in faith. … My vision is to see that perhaps we can be a role model to the community around us — how do we embrace the diversity and pluralism that we now live in? That’s my lofty goal.”
White’s struggling, nearly 20-year-old congregation saw its situation worsen in 2005 when he voted with a majority of delegates in favor of a resolution supporting gay marriage at a national UCC assembly. His vote didn’t go over well with most of the 320 Grace Community members, White said. Membership dropped to nearly 100, he says.
Faced with mounting financial troubles, White’s congregation sought to raise about $200,000 to pay off a high-interest loan and legal fees. Despite national media attention and the $55,000 in donations brought in, Grace decided to leave its building on St. Paul’s East Side in June 2012.
For close to a year, the congregation drifted. White was invited to preach at churches, but says he was limited in talking about gay rights issues.
That changed when he reached out to Clark Memorial, one of the churches that gave money to Grace. Clark Memorial, which embraces gay rights, invited him in.
‘The honeymoon phase’
Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston who’s written about black congregations, said black and white congregations worshiping together regularly is uncommon, mainly because of cultural and racial differences, with each typically worshiping in distinctive styles.
“Churches reflect the larger society and to the extent that society is segregated on a variety of levels for a variety of reasons, this gets mirrored in churches,” Pinn said. “But it’s also the case that white churches and black churches assume there are substantiative differences in terms of style, intent. … I think for most congregations the discomfort and uncertainty is enough to keep them away.”
If Clark Memorial and Grace can embrace their similarities as well as their differences, the partnership may just work, Pinn added.
“They’re still in the honeymoon phase,” Pinn said. “I would assume at this point, they’ve not really run into any pressing issues. What this will look like in 3 or 6 or 9 months may be a bit different. But at this point, they’re still learning from each other.”
During a recent Sunday service at Clark Memorial, White stood at a wooden podium and lifted his hands in prayer amid shouts of amen and claps of approval.
“This is our third week together and it seems to me it gets better and better,” said White, a broad-shouldered man with a commanding presence and booming voice. “I truly thank God for this.”
Clad in a black short-sleeved shirt and pants, White played the piano and led the congregation in a hymn. Later he beat drums with his hands and encouraged people to stand and sing together.
“In the African-American tradition, after the sermon, you sing,” White said. “I want you to sing with me. … You have my permission to say amen.”
Lois Swanson, 83, who’s attended Clark Memorial since her childhood, said White and his congregants have brought new verve to the church.
“I think we were both needy,” Swanson said. “They needed a place, and we needed the life that they bring. They’re much more spirited … I think we’re gaining a lot. His whole demeanor is just enthusiasm and spirituality. It fills me with hope.”
Frances Goodlow, 70, a longtime member of White’s congregation, said she and other Grace members immediately felt welcomed. She sees a long future ahead for the two congregations.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “I feel at home. They’ve made us feel that way. We were not at peace at all. But now I feel at home.”