June 10th, 2012
04:00 AM ET
By David Mattingly, CNN
St. Paul, Minnesota (CNN)–Before Sunday morning services, the Rev. Oliver White looked at the rows of empty pews in his tiny St. Paul, Minnesota, church without regret.
"If this was a mistake," White said, "then I will make the mistake all over again."
In 2005, White made a costly decision.
At the United Church of Christ's annual synod in Atlanta, White was among delegates voting in favor of a resolution supporting same-sex marriage.
When word of his vote reached St. Paul, White's congregation quietly revolted. Two-thirds of the church's members vanished in just a few weeks, and they never came back.
"When I talked to them," White said, "(I was told) categorically, 'I cannot be a part of a church that accepts same-sex marriage – period.' "
White was stunned.
As an African-American, he had always preached a message of social justice and acceptance. Gays and lesbians frequently attended services. But White didn't realize at the time how deeply the beliefs about homosexuality ran in his African-American congregation.
"We are more fundamentally religious than I ever dreamed," he said. "They thought I was a heretic, that I was not leading them to Christ. Christ, according to them, instituted the institution of marriage, and I was not following Christ's will because marriage is supposed to take place between a man and a woman; marriage is about procreation."
In the weeks since President Barack Obama publicly embraced same-sex marriage, what's going on in St. Paul indicates how deeply the issue may divide black worshippers and African-Americans in general.
White's Grace Community United Church of Christ on St. Paul's East Side had always been small and poor. But with 300 members in 2005, the church had managed to meet its expenses, move into a larger building and employ a full-time secretary and youth director.
When the membership evaporated, so did weekly offerings. Desperate to stay afloat, the church took out a high-interest loan in hopes that membership would rebound.
Other United Church of Christ congregations experienced similar turmoil after the 2005 synod. But the impact on Grace Community was extreme.
It is the only UCC congregation in Minnesota that is predominately African-American.
Longtime Grace Community member Frances Goodlow said the damage to the church's reputation in the black community was irreparable.
"There are consequences. And the consequences are you are going to get a stigma on you that this is a gay church with a gay pastor. And it's not true."
White's daughter, Meredith Fancher-White, said she believes her father paid a high personal price for publicly supporting same-sex marriage.
"There was this horrible rumor that he was a gay minister. So my dad got a lot of ridicule, especially in the black community," she said.
Her father, who is 69 and married, still has people question his sexuality. " 'I heard you are gay, are you?' That's the way they ask it," he said.
The impact on Grace Community Church has been equally persistent. No one from the surrounding neighborhood will attend.
"This church is located in a community that is extremely homophobic and very transient," Oliver White said.
"So you've got people that live around this church who won't come near this church because they think we are a gay church."
The Rev. Jerry McAfee, an African-American and president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, disagrees with White's view that homophobia is to blame for his church's problems with the black community.
"This debate is so crazy. Those of us who will disagree with that lifestyle, they will want to say we're homophobic, that we're narrow-minded. Just stuff that's nonsense," McAfee said.
McAfee said he sees a belief system at work among African-Americans that goes beyond teachings of the Bible.
"There's just something about (same-sex marriage) in their minds that (doesn't) seem right."
In an April poll, 49% of African-Americans opposed legalized same-sex marriage and 39% supported it, according to the Pew Research Center. Among whites, 47% supported same-sex marriage, while 43% opposed it. In California, 70% of African-Americans supported Proposition 8, the state's 2008 ban on same-sex marriage, even though 94% of black voters in California backed Obama.
In the religious community, African-American pastors have been prominent in the movement to ban same-sex marriage. In North Carolina, black leaders recently helped lead the successful campaign for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.
At White's church in Minnesota, a broken, stained-glass window above the front door is one of the few outward indications that Grace Community is in financial ruin. On the verge of defaulting on its loan and closing its doors, the church tries to make money by renting its facilities out to other nascent congregations. But even that has become a problem. A Seventh-day Adventist congregation recently discontinued renting the Grace Community sanctuary.
Pastor Donald Keith, who is also African-American, did not want to pay $350 a month to a church that accepts same sex-marriage, saying he based his decision on the Bible.
"The role of a minister," Keith said, "is to represent God. In doing that, the Bible is our anchor. And if we decide to teach the opposite of what the Bible teaches, it is best to separate."
Several weeks ago, White appealed for donations on the Internet. Each day he sits at his desk and goes through a stack of letters looking for a miracle.
He jokingly said he prays for $200,000, the amount needed to pay off the church's loan and expenses while it tries to recover. Most donations are small, maybe $1 to $5 at a time.
There are also words of encouragement. "Thank you for your principles," wrote a contributor from Minnesota.
Another from California wrote, "Thank you for having the courage to stand up for what is right."
But there are frequently disturbing messages, too.
"Die and go to hell-fast," read one anonymous letter. Another read, "I'm looking for you, and I will find you, and when I do, look out!! Bam!!"
"I receive telephone calls from people who say, 'I know where your church is, I know where you live, I know where you work. If you say one more word in support of gay marriage, it will be your last,' " White said.
He said he takes the threats seriously and takes precautions. But he doesn't keep quiet.
"I don't believe in 'don't ask, don't tell.' That's what the churches are doing now – both black and white churches, the fundamental churches. They know that there are gay people sitting in the pews. They know that. They know that there are many talented gay people who are performing great works who are in their churches.
"They know that.
"But it's going to be 'don't ask, don't tell.' We can all get along just as long as you don't come out of the closet and tell people you're gay. You cannot go to any of those churches and hold hands. So as long as you sit apart and go along with the program, no one's going to say anything."
Now, only about 10 people regularly attend Grace Community Church.
White speaks to what remains of his congregation from behind the same pinewood pulpit he's used for decades. When not in use, it sits in a place of honor near the front of the sanctuary covered with a red velvet cloth. White will take the pulpit with him if the church closes.
At the current pace of donations, it could be days away.
White ran his hand across the top of the pulpit and reminisced about better times – the years and places he preached from that spot. Then he remembered one final sermon about temptation.
A man recently called White offering to end his church's financial problems if he would renounce his views and "come back to God."
White declined the man's offer.
"(I could) preach a lie, live a lie and be a liar. But my heart would not even begin to let me go in that direction," White said. "There's not enough money on this planet that would make me turn around and go back the other way."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.