The Rev. Oliver White knew not everyone at his St. Paul church was going to agree with his support for gay marriage.
But he never imagined that nearly two-thirds of his congregation would leave.
And now, Grace Community United Church of Christ, the only UCC church in Minnesota with a predominantly black congregation, is in desperate straits. The church has until June 30 to raise $200,000 to pay off a loan, otherwise it likely will be forced to close, White says.
Since the pastor began his campaign earlier this year to save the church, he's received support from dozens of churches, groups and individuals nationwide. As of this week, he's received more than $22,000.
The church began faltering 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 sit well with most of the 320 or so Grace Community Church members.
"I was really in shock," said White, who's been pastor at the church for 22 years. "I visited one member after another, who told me they weren't coming back because of it. The membership evaporated right before my eyes. Their fundamental belief was it's wrong for a man and a man to marry or a woman and a woman to marry. A lot of them said if I change, they'd come back. But I told them, it is what it is. I am who I am. And this is what I fight for."
Now, the Grace Community membership hovers around 110, White says.
Struggling to maintain the church and pay bills, Grace Community in 2007 took out a high-interest loan to keep the church afloat, a move White now regrets.
"I feel no shame to say we've struggled financially, and that's because we have primarily focused our ministry on oppressed communities -- at-risk children, people in poverty," White said. "The people who come to our church have historically had very little to put in the offering. But, nevertheless, we were a lot better off in 2005."
Defector: 'It's not compatible'
Pastor Donald Keith and his wife used to attend services at Grace Community. He leads a small Seventh-day Adventist congregation that once rented space at Grace Community for its services. But after Keith discovered White supported same-sex marriage, he moved his congregation of about a dozen or so to another location.
"We knew our rental money was supporting the church," Keith said. "When he came out and definitely said homosexuality was not a sin, we said 'Whoa, this is a pastor. How is he calling himself "reverend"? It's not compatible with what the Bible teaches.'
"I think he was offended because we abruptly left," Keith said. "Pastors have a responsibility to teach the Bible truth. We have no right to distort what the Bible has to say. We didn't want to support him at all if that's the way he believed."
Support from afar, not near
White's appeal for help yielded $15,000 from a predominantly gay congregation in Dallas.
"We know what it is to stand alone ... in an environment that doesn't necessarily support you or believe in you," said Phoebe Sexton, director of communications for Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ.
"We recognize what this church has done. We want to stand with these people who stood with us," she said.
Believe Out Loud, an online forum for religious leaders supportive of gay rights, has raised about $10,000 for the church, according to Joseph Ward, director of Believe Out Loud.
White notes he's received support from one black congregation so far -- a $500 check from Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland, Ill.
"The black churches in Minnesota have not supported me," said White, who estimates there are 150 black congregations in the state.
"I don't know if they've turned against me. But they certainly have not reached out to me in any way. And that hurts more than anything."
The Rev. Runney Patterson, president of the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he doesn't know whether White has ever asked the alliance for support. He noted that many churches are struggling financially, and that could be a reason why black churches haven't contributed to Grace.
While the UCC ranks among the first denominations to support same-sex unions and openly gay clergy, black congregations historically have opposed gay marriage.
A large contingent of black pastors has criticized President Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage.
Minnesota faith groups remain deeply divided over the proposed marriage amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot that would change the state Constitution to forbid gay marriage.
"Most of the pastors I've been in contact with, they are in support of one man, one woman for marriage," Patterson said.
For now, White doesn't want to consider the closure of Grace Community, even though he know's it's a very real possibility.
"I know it's important we need to have another plan just in case," he said. "I'm not ready to visit the 'just in case' ... I believe the church will be saved."
Rose French • 612-673-4352