By Rev. Oliver White
On Independence Day 2006, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ presented a resolution to hundreds of delegates to affirm same-sex marriages.
It was a very hot, sunny Atlanta, Georgia afternoon with temperatures reaching beyond 100 degrees.
However, it felt good inside the large auditorium, as cool air from powerful fans and air conditioners created a comfortable setting for the civil debate that unfolded for several hours among delegates. Though the historic resolution regarding same-gender marriage was favored, it was not, however, by an overwhelming majority. Not all the delegates were on the same page, but at least hundreds of Congregational Churches across America have collectively unlocked their doors and opened their minds and hearts to all who are 'unlike' the ones gathered inside.
My vote was not an animate-in-your-face pronouncement against those who held opposite beliefs and were outraged because they believe homosexual behavior is unnatural and fundamentally against God's intentions for humankind. I voted in favor of the resolution simply because I think, rather, I believe very deep in my heart that it is not only the right thing to do, but it was also being a part of an authoritative voice that reaches out to people who are socially marginalized and religiously oppressed simply because of their sexual orientation.
I am not gay, but as a black man who was around when "Colored Only" public drinking fountains were on wide display, I am well acquainted with injustice and what it feels like to be on the outside.
Eight years ago, however, I had no reason to believe my vote would lead me to where I am today.
I have had many afflictions in life, such as being 'politely' exiled from ministerial groups and gatherings—an exodus that decreased my congregation by 70 percent and led to a 'desert-like experience' of losing of our building for 14-months until we found a new church home (Hallelujah!). Yet still, through all of that I have been blessed, and I say that with much gratitude.
My biggest surprise in having come this far in the fight for 'justice for all' is why so many people who themselves were victims of gross injustices and inequality, vehemently disagreed with me—and still do. My biggest upset is that most of these people were church-going people, many whom I've known and worked and prayed with for years.
You can be certain that I am not a crusader. I have no networks or friends in high office. Before I was brought before the national media because of my stand, nothing had taken place in my life that I consider out of the ordinary. Rosa Parks and I probably have kindred spirits, given what was taking place in her life before she refused to give up her bus seat. She was an ordinary seamstress with a sincere heart. She was active in her church and she served her community as a volunteer secretary for the Montgomery, AL chapter of the NAACP.
God used this candidly unassuming woman to spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Often, I have teasingly referred to myself as a "country school teacher." None of my sermons have ever been published, I am not a highly acclaimed or "sought-after-preacher" a church would run after to lead a big revival, I do not mimic popular religious practitioners who develop 20,000-member-plus churches. I was blessed, however, with an opportunity to cast one simple vote to affirm humanity.
Not knowing what would happen at the time, that vote was the beginning of an epiphany which has led me to a place--Clark Memorial United Church of Christ of South St. Paul, MN—where I am surrounded by a positive, affirming, supportive, loving spiritual family. It's a place where I can give back doing the work I love.
While speaking to a colleague in Detroit last fall about where my journey has taken me and my congregation, he said:
What? I don't believe you! First you voted for a resolution that destroyed your congregation, and now you're telling me you have partnered with a white congregation? And most of their members are passed 70? Oliver, have you lost your mind?!
This was an actual comment that referred to something I never thought I would do. While a student in the seminary, I even preached a sermon entitled "Why I Can’t Join a White Church." I reasoned that if I can't bring all of who I am into a church body, I can't be a part of it. We’re all acquainted with the saying that the church hour is the most discriminating hour in America.
Well, it’s a very true statement.
Our cultures generally determine how and where we worship, but my epiphany has led me to believe that it’s time to share our cultures and learn from each other as well as bless one another.
What my friend in Detroit said is true—most of their members, about 50 in all, are past 70-years-old, and all of them are white. My congregation is ninety-nine percent black and much younger. One would think, given our widely different cultures, that worshipping and working together is not practical or possible. I beg to differ. Our differences have not equated into deficiencies, and every Sunday we worship, and every hour we share in mission projects, we discover the many ways that we are alike.
We learn from each other, and the more we assimilate, the more capable we become to accommodate.
For the church to have no words except words of condemnation for gays and lesbians is a church that fails to acknowledge Jesus’ command that we love one another as we love ourselves. I praise God for the epiphany that has helped me to grow.
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