The voiceless disappearing flock, again

Three months ago, I threw a fit about a St. Paul Pioneer Press report that focused on a black pastor who lost three-fourths of his congregation after endorsing same-sex marriage.

Don’t get me wrong: That’s certainly a newsworthy angle for a story.

My complaint: The report’s miserable lack of opposing viewpoints — more precisely, the total absence of input from any of the people who left. I whined:

Based on my calculations, the heroic pastor’s church lost 150 out of its 200 members, yet the story names nor quotes not a single one of them. They are guilty as charged, based on this story. No need to give them a voice.

Also guilty as charged are other black ministers in the city. No need to give them a voice:

Since my post in March, the Rev. Oliver White has become a rebel whose cause the national media seem to love. From The Associated Press to the Wall Street Journal to Religion News Service, his plight has received sympathetic treatment. (RNS actually has written about White at least twice.)

As for the voiceless disappearing flock referenced earlier? I’m still waiting to hear from them.

The Star-Tribune came close to quoting someone who left, giving a voice to a pastor who previously rented space from White’s congregation:

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.”

CNN featured White over the weekend in a story with this headline:

Pastor risks church for his principles

The (by now) predictable opening of the 1,400-word report:

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.

White goes on to explain that his African-American congregants thought he was a heretic not leading them to Christ.

What do the former congregants say? Oh, wait, never mind …

CNN does quote the dissenting voice of a black pastor (along with the Seventh-day Adventist mentioned by the Star-Tribune):

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.”

Now, McAfee either didn’t make his point real clearly or CNN quoted him out of context, but those second two paragraphs don’t make a whole lot of sense. Or maybe it’s just me …

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Here’s what bothers me about this:
    The United Church of Christ has been on the books since, I think, the 1970s as supporters of gay clergy and same-sex couples in general. It was a suprise to me to learn that they hadn’t endorsed gay marriage prior to 2005.
    Yes, I know there were conservative congregations that fought such endorsements tooth and nail. The UCC conference that Pittsburgh is in lost about a dozen churches, but this is a conference that was always much more conservative than the denomination as a whole. My impression is that the Twin Cities area had a very long history of gay-friendly UCC churches and openly gay clergy.
    And, yes, I know they’re like liberal Baptists, governing by congregational vote rather than denominational policy.
    Nevertheless, with all of that as background, I have to ask whether some other dynamic wasn’t at work in the congregation to make so many people leave when they knew they’d been in a gay-affirmimg denomination and regional conference for decades. Were there other disputes between pastor and congregation? Did he suddenly switch sides after encouraging them to resist gay marriage? Those are the questions I would pose to the absent church members.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Excellent observations, as always, Ann.

    Nevertheless, with all of that as background, I have to ask whether some other dynamic wasn’t at work in the congregation to make so many people leave when they knew they’d been in a gay-affirmimg denomination and regional conference for decades. Were there other disputes between pastor and congregation? Did he suddenly switch sides after encouraging them to resist gay marriage? Those are the questions I would pose to the absent church members.

    Great questions. The stories seem to suggest that same-sex marriage was more of an issue in this congregation because it involved an AFRICAN-AMERICAN church. But again, without hearing from actual congregants, it’s impossible to know why they left. Like you, I can’t help but think there might be another dynamic at play. But to this point, readers are given only one side of the story – that of the pastor who lost so many members.

  • Martha

    There is so much hinted at in that CNN story that I’d love to see covered, but we don’t get it.

    The church, it is said, was always small and poor, and it’s situated in the midst of a transient community (which is also very homophobic, according to the Reverend White, but we’ll put that aside for the moment) and was struggling along until he managed to grow it to 300 members.

    So how did he grow his congregation in the first place? And if his church is the only black UCC church in St. Paul, where are all his former congregants gone? To the other (white) UCC churches or to black churches of other denominations? Not a sausage on that one.

    If there is this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in white and black churches in St. Paul (that is, we’re happy to have you in the pews as long as you don’t tell anyone you’re gay), then why didn’t they take up the slack at Reverend White’s church – are the numbers not there, or are they just not church-goers? We get plenty about assumed institutional homophobia in churches, but nothing about gay members of congregations and where they go (or don’t go) to church. There is a Unitarian church and at least one Episcopalian church in St. Paul as a quick online search shows, so surely they are more welcoming towards potential GLBT congregants?

    And finally, was this an out-of-the-blue declaration on his part (Tuesday everyone thinks he and the church are as orthodox as they come, Wednesday they find out he voted in favour of the resolution, Thursday two-thirds of the congregation are out the door) or was it the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak: the one last innovation that finally made people get up and go? No hints there, either.

  • dalea

    What are the logistics of interviewing former members? How are they to be found? Should the pastor hand out names and contact information for them to reporters? Is that ethical? I have no idea of how to interview people who are no longer present. But the story really doesn’t make sense unless you do so.

    Part of the problem here is that the story is being attached to another long drawn out conversation about the status of GL issues in the AA community. This has gone on for a long time, but is not widely known. The reporter just assumes that the reader is familiar with it and proceeds from that point. Very inside baseball reporting.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.


    Not sure of the exact logistics, but if 150 people left, surely some of them could be found. Yes, I would start with asking the pastor for some names of those who left. Who was your biggest critic and where could I find him/her? I would not hesitate to ask that.

  • Ann

    I wonder if the fact that he needs to raise such an enormous amount of money ($200,000) before June 30 to pay off the high interest loan isn’t a more of a factor in why so many would leave so quickly. As stated by others, there are most likely additional reasons, other than the “gay issue,” but that sure would be an easy way to gather sympathetic donations in order to keep the church going a little while longer…Just a thought.

  • Martha

    Ann, if the CNN report is accurate, he didn’t take the loan out until after the majority of the congregation left:

    “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.

    It didn’t.”

    If he did think being pro-gay marriage was going to get the money rolling in to pay off the debt, it doesn’t seem to have worked for him:

    “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.”

    That’s why this is such a fascinating story, and why the lack of detail or follow-up has me tearing my hair out; the church he pastors seems to have fallen between two stools – he’s lost most of his existing congregation but new members attracted to a more inclusive church haven’t turned up – and there are several questions as to why it is so. It’s very strongly hinted in the story that the reason Grace Community Church was so hard-hit is because it’s a black church; the other UCC churches got some backlash as well but not to the same extent. It’s also implied that maybe one reason there aren’t any replacement members is that new congregants, even black GLBT ones, don’t want to make themselves visible by attending a church openly labelled as a “gay church” (presumably for fear of being outed, homophobia and other reasons).

    So how about the other UCC churches in St. Paul? I know that the denominational government is different to the Catholic model and each church is its own independent self, but did he ask for help from his fellow-pastors in the denomination? Was he refused? Did he get any support, encouragement or recognition? Or is the divide between black churches and white churches in St. Paul so wide that the question of going outside your community doesn’t even arise?

  • Jack

    I used to pastor at a small ucc/umc congregation. When asked to speak at an IL state wide UCC leadership meeting for pastors on the issue of same-sex marriage in 2000, I was the only one one delegated to speak on the conservative viewpoint. ( I was not even ordained in the UCC, only licensed the year before)

    The rest of the panel was comprised of seminary professors, pastors, and professionals who advocated same-sex marriage, and a few gay church members who were articulate, passionate, and unyielding in their view that a person had to be a “hater” to limit marriage to one man one woman.

    When I presented my understanding of scriptural and theological understanding of the issue, I was accused of being unchristian. When a vocal gay man yelled at me “what are you going to do when I show up at your church?!?” I responded, “I will love you, like everyone else”. It was an introduction into UCC politics and polity.

    At the end of the session, during a break, I was overwhelmed by pastors telling me they were unsympathetic to the UCC leadership’s stance (pro-gay marriage), but they felt threatened by the possibility of speaking their mind and beliefs… (worried they could lose pastorates, and therefore retirement benefits…)

    How does this story ever become a story about a heroic pastor crying in the wilderness? UCC leaders have been pushing this for decades. Does no one in MN use nexis? google? truly an example of bias of the highest degree, IMHO