RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
African-Americans could be crucial in the vote on North Carolina's marriage amendment. Blacks make up just over 20 percent of the state's population, and some polls show they strongly favor a ban on same-sex marriage.
Reporter John Biewen has more on how many African-Americans are struggling with this issue.
THE REV. DR. T. ANTHONY SPEARMAN: Because we think that the Bible says stay away from them. God never calls us to stay away from folk. Never.
JOHN BIEWEN, BYLINE: The Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman is slender and 61. He's pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in the town of Hickory, in North Carolina's Appalachian foothills. Spearman's a man who chooses his words carefully.
SPEARMAN: Many African-Americans - and it would be very true of my own family of origin - have what I would consider homophobic ideations.
BIEWEN: 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.
SPEARMAN: I just - 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.
BIEWEN: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
BIEWEN: The 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.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho...
BIEWEN: 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 die.
SPEARMAN: Say that this victim is a victim of gay bashing.
BIEWEN: 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.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's right.
SPEARMAN: 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.
BIEWEN: So far, Reverend 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.
SYLVIA SHUFORD: Gays, transvestites - 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.
BIEWEN: But Shuford's attitude changes fast when Spearman turns 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?
BIEWEN: Shuford gets in an argument with another parishioner, Bari Tiggett, who says the State of North Carolina should not make a moral judgment about who can marry.
BARI TIGGETT: I feel like ultimately, God's the one that's going to handle that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He sure is.
SHUFORD: Yes. God is going to handle that...
TIGGETT: So - but it's not...
SHUFORD: But this is what I have to say. I don't love you any less because - if you marry a woman...
SHUFORD: ...but all I'm going to say is this: That's not what God's words say.
BIEWEN: From the back of the room, an older man asks a question.
WINSLOW SHERRILL: If he made male and female...
BIEWEN: If God made people male and female, quote, "where does the gay come in at?"
SPEARMAN: That's a question that's just as old as anything else there is.
BIEWEN: The man who asked the question, Winslow Sherrill, agrees to meet with me weeks later, over breakfast biscuits at a Biscuitville restaurant in Hickory. Sherrill is 74. He retired after working in various manufacturing plants. Of his 13 grown children, two are openly lesbian.
WINSLOW SHERRILL: Well, 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 them.
BIEWEN: 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: That's what he believes, you know, he...
BIEWEN: Winslow Sherrill's daughter Anita is 47. We meet at the home she shares with her partner, Sonsaray(ph).
ANITA SHERRILL: This is kind of our little domain. We hang out down...
BIEWEN: Anita runs a knitting machine at a local T-shirt factory. She's a Christian who's now convinced the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. But she finds the views of her father, and many other black North Carolinians, very familiar.
ANITA SHERRILL: They're taking baby steps with it. You know, they - like, we ain't got to like what they doing, but we got to love them 'cause we 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 sitting down; you know - don't you come past the door, or sit down on my furniture. You know, so...
BIEWEN: Rev. Spearman, of Clinton Tabernacle, guesses about a quarter of his parishioners support gay marriage, and at least half are opposed. But 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 Anita about her sexuality.
ANITA SHERRILL: He says, well, girl, don't you go getting married on me now. I said, I'm going to get married as soon as y'all ignorant people get out of my way and leave us alone. I'm going to get married.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIEWEN: 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.
For NPR News, I'm John Biewen.
MARTIN: That story came to us from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.