At churches, mixed review of Obama gay marriage support

Posted: May 14, 2012

President Obama may have roiled the political and clerical waters by his personal endorsement of gay marriage last week, but for many parishioners encountered Sunday, the president's message was greeted with a mixture of acceptance and relief.

"If this is America and we are free, then who am I to say anything about that?" said Florida Saulsby, who stopped outside for a moment to chat before the morning service at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.

"I've always said to each his own," said Frances Graham, also heading into the church at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue on a sun-splashed Mother's Day. "I don't feel I can get into somebody else's life. I've had gay friends. And that's just the way I feel."

George Malson, an usher at Bright Hope, said that Obama's remarks were "his personal opinion."

"I'm a Christian all my life," he continued, noting that homosexuality has been around "since the beginning of time - whether it's allowed or not."

For the region's clergy - as distinct from their congregations - gay marriage is a difficult and potentially divisive issue.

Rev. Kevin Johnson, Bright Hope's pastor, said in an earlier e-mail that "as a pastor, it is my responsibility and obligation to exhort the teachings of the Bible, including the Biblical principal that defines marriage as being 'between a man and a woman.'"

But, he continued, "I believe one can be governed by and maintain one's religious beliefs while also living in a democratically governed, and pluralistic society. . . .

"If a group of individuals' goal is to legislate faith in America, then maybe they should consider moving to a religiously governed society. However, if they choose to live in America, then they must understand the tenets of democracy and how it allows for individuals to coexist even when there are major differences and beliefs amongst them."

This view is directly at odds with the views of Rev. Terrence D. Griffith, current president of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, who says he is "unwavering" in his opposition to gay marriage.

In an interview prior to Sunday's morning service at the First African Baptist Church, Christian and 16th Streets in South Philadelphia, Rev. Griffith flatly called the Obama endorsement of gay marriage "a big mistake."

"I am a preacher and I go by Judeo-Christian beliefs and what the Bible teaches," he said. "Some people say this is a civil rights issue. If you go that way, then you need to let Mormons have more than one wife. . . . Should we allow Muslims to have more than one wife?"

In Griffith's view, "the vast majority of churches will disagree" with Obama.

"This will not not stop here," he said. "This will have a far-reaching effect. I love the president, but the president is not a sacred cow."

Rev. James McJunkin, executive minister of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, said in an e-mail that it is hardly surprising that there are clerical disagreements in response to Obama's endorsement.

"The fact that the president shared his perspective is good for all of us whether we agree with him on this topic or not," Rev. McJunkin wrote. "It is appropriate that each of us own the fact that our individual perspective is one among many. In short, we need to give thought to clear articulation of our perspectives rather than using popular quips like 'Adam and Eve vs. Adam and Steve.' The most challenging notion in this debate is that of the marriage of LGBT persons being understood as 'civil rights.'"

The concept of gay marriage as a civil right hit home at Old Pine Street Church in Society Hill on Sunday.

Nancy Todd stood up in the choir box during a comment time toward the end of the morning service and said that she had a gay daughter. Todd thanked God for the president's decision.

"I've never stood up in a public place before and said this is my daughter," the Old City resident said later. "I think it was a big step, but I hope he says more. I'm tired of waiting."

The Rev. Jason Ferris, pastor of the church, said gay marriage "has been a huge issue in this church" - referring to the debate within the Presbyterian church.

Many congregants at Sunday's service said they did not think it would be long before the church allowed gay marriage.

"We have many gays and lesbians that are members of this church," said Bob Eck, 74, of Moorestown. "I know them and they're wonderful people and they deserve a place to go to church like anyone else."

Just a few blocks away at Old St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Mike McAllister, 56, of North Philadelphia, sat in the courtyard Sunday and said that while Old St. Joseph's, which is run by Jesuits and has a liberal reputation, has been welcoming to gays and lesbians, most congregants did not support gay marriage.

"I struggle with it because I myself am gay," McAllister said. "I believe God made me this way, and he doesn't want me to be alone. But for me marriage is something that's sacred. And according to the Bible, it's a man and a woman."

For Amber Gray, 22, on her way into Bright Hope Sunday, Obama's message seemed about right.

"I think everybody should be free and equal," she said. "He has two girls and he doesn't want them to feel they can't have a friend who's gay.

"Everybody doesn't have to be the same. We're all God's children at the end of the day."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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