Politics & Government
5:40 pm
Wed May 2, 2012

Differing Views Of Amendment In Hickory Church

North Carolina voters will decide on Tuesday whether to join thirty other states that have amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. North Carolina law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman; the amendment would enshrine heterosexual marriage in the constitution, and ban civil unions. Those for and against the measure have focused their efforts on mobilizing people of faith. Reporter John Biewen followed the debate over gay marriage in an African American church in Hickory.

John Biewen: The Reverend Doctor T. Anthony Spearman is slender and 61. A native New Yorker, he's pastor of a church with generations of history in Hickory. Spearman's a man who chooses his words carefully.

T. Anthony Spearman:  Many African Americans, and it would be very true of my own family or origin, have what I would consider homophobic ideations.

Spearman tells of an incident about 15 years ago that helped to change his thinking. He was a minister and student adviser at a church-affiliated, historically black college in Salisbury. He says many gay and lesbian students came to talk about their struggle, including a lack of acceptance at the school. One young man told Spearman he planned to commit suicide.

Spearman:  Sitting with him, I knew that if I had let him out of that office that night, the next thing I would do with him was a funeral. I befriended him. It became just so real to me that this young man's life is just as valuable as anybody else's life.

Today, Spearman says, he would be willing to marry a gay couple. He's taken a public stand against the marriage amendment approved last fall by the Republican-controlled state legislature. But Spearman will be the first to tell you that many, maybe most, of the people in his own congregation don't agree with him.

Singing, clapping: "Oh, it will never run dry."

On a Wednesday night in November, about 25 members of the Clinton Tabernacle AME Zion Church wind up their praise service before the weekly Bible Study. As his text for the night, Reverend Spearman chooses the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan who helps the man who's been beaten and robbed and left on the road to Jericho.

Spearman: Say that this victim is a victim of gay bashing..

Spearman says in the story, Jesus is saying, love everyone, including those you despise the most.

Spearman: Jesus is always calling us away from our comfort zones. If you look at his life, he is always out there doing something to liberate somebody's life, from something and he expects us to do the very same thing.

So far, Reverend Spearman's flock seems to be with him. Sylvia Shuford, an ordained minister in the church, says she works in the medical field.

Sylvia Shuford:  Gays, transvestidites, I've had to deal with all of them. and God has given me a discernment where I can look beyond, and I see people.

But Shuford's attitude changes in a hurry when Spearman shifts the discussion from love-thy-neighbor tolerance of gay people to the question of marriage equality.

Shuford:  So you're saying it's right to marry. Gay people.

Shuford gets in an argument with another parishioner, Bari Tigget who supports the right to gay marriage.

Bari Tiggett:  I feel like ultimately God's the one that's gonna handle that.

Shuford:  Yes, God is gonna handle that, but this is what I have to say. I don't love you any less because if you marry a woman, but all I'm gonna say is this: that's not what God's word say!

From the back of the room, an older man asks a question. If God made people male and female, quote, "where does the gay come in at?" Reverend Spearman.

Spearman:  "Where does the gay come in at?"  That's a question that's just as old as anything else there is.

The man who asked the question, Winslow Sherrill, has an intense personal interest in it. He agrees to meet with me later on a Sunday at a Biscuitville restaurant in Hickory. Sherrill is 74. He has two grown daughters who are openly lesbian.

Winslow Sherrill:  So for some reason it's there. I don't know what we can do to get it out, but I love them just as much as I ever loved em.

Sherrill has dinner with his daughters and gets along with their partners, but he says on May 8th, he will vote for the amendment to write a ban on same-sex marriage into the North Carolina constitution.

Winslow Sherrill:  I don't care how you go around gay marriage. To me, it just ain't right.

Anita Sherrill:  Some of the things he says doesn't even really make any sense, but that's what he believes.

Winslow Sherrill's daughter, Anita, is 47. She's a devout Christian who struggled for years before making peace with her sexual orientation. She's now convinced the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as a sin, but she's not surprised by the views of her father and many others in his congregation.

Anita Sherrill: They're taking baby steps with it. You know, they're like, 'We ain't got to like what they're doing but we've got to love them 'cause we're Christians.' But, 'Oh no. They ain't getting married in my church!' I mean, I'm black, and that's just like saying, 'Yeah, you can come in my house, but you're not setting down. Don't you come past the door or sit down on my furniture!' You know.

Back at Clinton Tabernacle, Reverend Spearman guesses that only about a quarter of his parishioners, mostly young people, support gay marriage. He thinks half or more are opposed. At least one person left his congregation this past winter over his gay rights position. Spearman says his members don't take him on directly, but some talk among themselves and he gets wind of it.

Spearman:  These little groups will say, 'we're not used to being told these kinds of things. This is not the place for it, in the church.' You can sense the resistance, that there's resistance, but for the most part nobody wants to talk about it.

Still, Spearman's effort to bring up the subject in his church has achieved at least one thing: It led to the first conversation ever between Winslow Sherrill and his daughter Anita about her sexuality.

Anita Sherrill:  He said, well, girl don't you go getting married on me now. I said, I'm going to get married as soon as you all ignorant people get out of my way and leave us alone, I'm gonna get married.

Both sides in the campaign over the marriage amendment are appealing to pastors across the state, saying, in effect: tell your people that the Christian thing to do is to vote for or against the amendment. Polls show a majority in North Carolina wants gay marriage to be against the law, but those same polls find weaker support for the constitutional amendment, which would also ban civil unions. African Americans, one fifth of the population, could hold the key to the outcome on May 8th.

That story came to us from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.