St. Paul church split by marriage stand now will move

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2012 - 8:07 PM

Members left Grace Community after pastor backed gay marriage.

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Rev. Oliver White

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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A St. Paul church faced with closing after most of the congregation left over the pastor's support of gay marriage said Friday it's leaving its worship space and will look for a new church home.

Grace Community United Church of Christ, the only UCC church in Minnesota with a predominantly black congregation, declined to extend its Saturday deadline to raise about $200,000 to pay off a high-interest loan and legal fees, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Oliver White.

After days of tense negotiating this week between the church and the investor holding the loan, Grace leadership decided it did not want to keep paying to stay in the beige stucco building on the East Side of St. Paul.

White says it will be sad saying goodbye to the space congregants worshiped in for nearly 12 years, but he hopes to buy a new church using the nearly $55,000 he's received from dozens of churches, groups and individuals nationwide.

"I'm overwhelmed with a lot of belief in the power of humankind," he said. "It's been an amazing display of human kindness. There will be sadness [when the congregation leaves]. But it's still a building. We are the church. We don't have to be in that building to be Grace Community Church."

White's story has attracted national media attention, and he's made several television and radio appearances in recent weeks. He saw an uptick in giving to his campaign to save the church as a result, though it's since tapered off. About half the money has come from donors in Minnesota, while the rest came from people across the United States and even in other countries, he said.

All the attention is unexpected, and White never thought he'd be in such a spot-light after leading the congregation for 22 years: "I never dreamed it'd go as far as it did, but it did."

The small congregation has struggled financially and saw its situation worsen in 2005, when White attended a national UCC assembly in Atlanta and voted with a majority of delegates in favor of a resolution supporting gay marriage. His vote didn't go over well with most of the 320 or so Grace Community members, White said. Now Grace membership is close to 110, he says.

"It was a drastic change," said Frances Goodlow, church council president. "We lost quite a few. They felt it was a religious thing, it was not right. And we felt it's also a religious thing, and it is right. We feel Jesus taught us, instructed us as people ... to love one another as we love ourselves. That's how we felt and that's how we still feel."

Struggling to maintain the church and pay bills, Grace took out a high-interest loan in 2007, using the church building as collateral. White now regrets the move and says the congregation felt it had no choice but to borrow the money.

Jeff O'Brien, an attorney for Fenn Shrader, owner of the Seattle-area Working Capital 1, LLC, says his client purchased the church's loan years ago and that he's "bent over backwards to try to make this work." Now, his client will take ownership of the property, and the congregation will have a month to move out, he said.

During negotiations this week, "we were open to an arrangement to allow them extra time to find the money," O'Brien said. "I know it's become a bigger issue on Rev. White's side, but this is ... a business decision for us. Our only interest is to get repaid."

O'Brien said the owner has granted multiple extensions and gone "a year or so" with no payments.

"In my opinion, my client was very cooperative," he said. "He only moved forward when it just didn't seem like he was getting any response."

The Rev. Karen Smith Sellers, leader of the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ, said it's unfortunate for Grace to leave its building but notes that a "church is more than a building. And it's quite possible the worshiping community could continue to have life and worship in another one of our facilities or another facility."

Before 2005, the UCC's Minnesota Conference had given more than $100,000 to Grace but no longer gives the church money, she said. There are 136 UCC churches and about 30,000 members throughout Minnesota.

"It is possible that the [gay marriage] vote in 2005 was a really devastating blow," she said. "But I think Oliver has said ... and I have heard him say, 'This is a church that has never flourished financially.' ... They're going to have a huge challenge in terms of flourishing financially."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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