Minnesotans will vote in November on whether to amend their state constitution to define marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman — and Minnesota Reverend Oliver White has taken a controversial stand against it. With the announcement yesterday that Washington State’s Referendum 74, which seeks to overturn the measure legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, was approved for ballot, the national debate around same-sex marriage is certain to play out in November in our own backyard.
St. Paul, Minn. — Reverend Oliver White is a tall man.
As he folds himself into the restaurant booth for our interview, White maneuvers with the skill of someone used to fitting his frame into tight spaces.
These days, Reverend White is used to occupying tight spaces.
Sometimes, a crusade finds you. In 1990, White founded Grace Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul. His congregation grew steadily over the years to a peak of over 300 members. Then in 2005, White traveled to Atlanta as a Minnesota delegate for the United Church of Christ and in front of the UCC synod, expressed his support for same-sex marriage.
White’s stance on same-sex marriage was well established at the time. “My view on same-sex marriage…actually evolved probably 40 years ago,” he said. “My first niece happens to be lesbian and she lived with my mother. My brother and my two sisters thought that was kind of strange, but for some reason it didn’t bother me. Differences do not equate to deficiencies. ”
Often, it is family ties that influence public figures on social issues. Gay marriage is no exception. Take for example New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. During the months leading up to New York State legalizing same-sex marriage, the New York Times reported Cuomo was influenced by his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, whose brother is gay.
When White returned to St. Paul from Atlanta, he “gladly stood up in the pulpit and reported back to my congregation.”
“There was a quiet hush,” he recalls. “I interpreted that hush that they were listening.”
They were listening, but many of White’s congregants did not like what they heard. Over the course of the next few years, White saw 75% of his congregation leave his church. His numbers have never recovered.
But time may prove that White is on the right side of history in the state of Minnesota. Public Policy Polling (PPP) released new data this month that shows a drop in support for the constitutional amendment from 48% of Minnesotans polled to 43%. Mirroring national trends, PPP reports younger voters in Minnesota reject the proposed amendment at a rate of 60%.
In addition, Minnesota state law counts any unmarked ballots on the question of the proposed constitutional amendment as a “no” vote. In other words, if a voter fills out their choice for U.S. President, but then leaves the remaining ballot blank, that counts as a vote against the proposed constitutional amendment.
“A non-vote equals a no vote,” confirms Kate Brickman, Press Secretary for the anti-amendment coalition Minnesota United for all Families. “Minnesota is unique in this way.”
She suggested that one reason behind that rule is “because amending the constitution is so drastic, they want an affirmative response.” That said, according to Brickman the coalition only expects about 1% of ballots to be blank on the amendment vote.
While the latest polls should cheer White, he must cope with a more immediate crisis. Lower attendance at his church means lower revenue, and White faces the daunting task of raising $200,000 by June 30 to pay off a loan on the property which houses his church.
As White’s stance and subsequent loan situation have garnered national attention, financial support has begun to come in from around the country. The day we met, White said he had just received a $15,000 check from Jo Hudson, Senior Pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, TX.
White may sometimes shake his head in disbelief at the turn of events which have both elevated his profile and shrunk his flock, but there are those who have predicted it.
n 1989, White traveled to Capetown, South Africa, as part of a sister-city delegation. He recalled that there he met Bishop Desmond Tutu, who looked White in the eyes and said, “You’re going to do great things.”
Despite his beleaguered moments, White holds firm to his belief that “assimilation brings about accommodation.”
So for now, White will continue to stand tall.