North Carolina's African-American voters could be crucial in Tuesday's vote over the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. Blacks make up a little more than 20 percent of the state's population, and some polls show they strongly favor a ban.

While activists on both sides make phone calls and put up yard signs, many African-Americans are struggling with the issue inside their churches and homes.

A Pastor's Perspective

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman is pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in the town of Hickory, in North Carolina's Appalachian foothills. Slender and 61, he's a man who chooses his words carefully.

"Many African-Americans — and it would be very true of my own family of origin — have what I would consider homophobic ideations," he says.

Spearman says an incident about 15 years ago helped to change his thinking. He was a minister and student adviser at a church-affiliated, historically black college. He says many gay and lesbian students came to talk about their struggles, and one young man told Spearman he planned to commit suicide.

"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," he says.

Spearman has taken a public stand against the marriage amendment, calling it an anti-gay attack that will only cause harm. But he'll be the first to tell you that many — maybe most — of the people in his own congregation see things differently.

Spearman's Clinton Tabernacle A.M.E. Zion Church is on a curving road on the east side of Hickory, where most of the town's black population lives. On a Wednesday night, about 25 mostly older people sing hymns before the weekly bible study.

As his text for the night, 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 die.

"Say that this victim is a victim of gay bashing," he says.

Spearman says in the story, Jesus is telling them to love everyone, including those they despise the most.

"Jesus is always calling us away from our comfort zones," he says. "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."

Whose Judgment Call?

So far, Spearman's flock seems to be with him. Sylvia Shuford is a smallish woman in her 50s. She says as a home health aide, she's worked with patients with HIV.

"Gays, [transvestites] — I've had to deal with all of them," she says, "and God has given me a discernment where I can look beyond, and I see people."

Shuford's attitude changes fast, though, when Spearman turns from love-thy-neighbor tolerance of gay people to the question of marriage equality. She gets in an argument with another parishioner, Bari Tiggett, who says North Carolina should not make a moral judgment about who can marry.

"I feel like ultimately, God's the one that's gonna handle that," Tiggett says.

Shuford agrees – to a point.

"I don't love you any less ... if you marry a woman," she says, "but all I'm gonna say is this: That's not what God's words say."

'Baby Steps'

From the back of the room, 74-year-old Winslow Sherrill asks a question. If God made people male and female, "where does the gay come in at?"

"That's a question that's just as old as anything else there is," Spearman answers.

Sherrill retired after working in various manufacturing plants. Of his 13 grown children, two are openly lesbian.

"So for some reason it's there. I don't know what we can do to get it out," he says. "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 8, he will vote for the amendment to write a ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution.

"I don't care how you go around gay marriage. To me, it just ain't right," he says.

Sherrill's daughter, Anita, is 47. She shares a home with her partner. Anita Sherrill runs a knitting machine at a local T-shirt factory. She's a Christian who's now convinced the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. Yet she finds the views of her father and many other black North Carolinians very familiar.

"They're taking baby steps with it," she says.

Anita Sherrill says that while some may say loving gay people is the Christian thing to do, they also say, "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 sitting down,' " she says.

Spearman guesses about a quarter of his parishioners support gay marriage, and at least half are opposed. His effort to get his church talking about the subject did achieve at least one thing: It led recently to the first conversation ever between Winslow Sherrill and his daughter about her sexuality.

"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,' " she says and laughs.

Activists in the marriage amendment campaign have appealed to clergy across North Carolina, including African-American pastors. The two sides have said, in effect: Tell your people to vote for (or against) the marriage amendment — it's the Christian thing to do.

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