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Deval Patrick, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, spoke of the varied needs of the African-American community yesterday at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester.
Deval Patrick, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, spoke of the varied needs of the African-American community yesterday at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)

Patrick, at pulpit, lists his priorities

The Rev. William E. Dickerson II had encouraging words for worshipers at his 11 a.m. service yesterday at Dorchester's Greater Love Tabernacle Church: ''This is surely your day of victory."

For one worshiper sitting in the front pew, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval L. Patrick, yesterday was a small victory in an effort to overcome opposition to one of his firmly held positions: his support for gay marriage.

Patrick, an assistant US attorney general under President Clinton, had come to explain who he was, and to address a belief in equal-marriage rights that has put him at odds with some ministers and members of the African-American community, who see same-sex marriage as a violation of the Scriptures.

''I'm going to step into sensitive territory here, because some have tried to discredit me and divide us over the whole question of gay marriage," Patrick said. ''Don't let that happen."

Patrick's plea found the support he had been seeking.

After Patrick spoke, Dickerson and several worshipers made it clear that while they oppose gay marriage, they believe that far more pressing problems threaten their neighborhoods.

And that's what Patrick wants -- and probably needs -- to hear from African-American voters across the state as he tries to become the first black governor in Massachusetts history.

Patrick, a 49-year-old former corporate executive and federal civil rights prosecutor, is seen as the more liberal candidate in the Democratic primary for governor. His opponent, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, is trying to woo independents and even Republicans with a more centrist message.

Both Patrick and Reilly support gay marriage, but it is Patrick who has faced criticism on the issue from some influential black ministers in the state, including Bishop Gilbert Thompson, president of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston.

So Patrick is trying to persuade black voters to look past a possible disagreement over gay rights so they can talk about crime, unemployment, and other issues.

''I know what Scripture says about homosexuality, and who am I as a Christian to question what Scripture says?" Patrick told yesterday's audience.

''But . . . the point is that while we debate gay marriage, there are people struggling to pay the rent and the heat in the same month, and we have got to pay attention to that."

''That," he continued, ''is what we have to deal with, for Christ's sake and for our own."

Dickerson and worshipers among a congregation that church officials estimated at nearly 300 said they weren't minimizing their beliefs about gay marriage or about homosexuality, which they believe the Bible explicitly condemns. (Dickerson mentioned homosexuality in his sermon as an example of how we should ''hate the sin, love the sinner.")

But they said Patrick had a point when he urged people to look past his stance on same-sex marriage, so that the community might find solutions for the murder rate, AIDS, and homelessness, among other issues.

''I still believe in the Bible way -- I believe in traditional marriage," Dickerson said.

''But," Dickerson added, ''I have to recognize how best I should serve my time. That's not my fight this day . . . So let's be mindful of all the issues and all the things which we have to deal with."

Dickerson said Patrick had requested to speak at the church, and that his appearance did not necessarily mean an endorsement of his candidacy.

Patrick's remarks at Greater Love Tabernacle Church were well received by the worshipers.

''I like what he had to say," said Patrice Benson, 34, a student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who grew up in Dorchester and now lives in Randolph.

Asked about same-sex marriage, Benson said she believes in what the Bible says, but that ''you've got to love everybody."

''We should be focused on the community and crime, because people are scared," Benson said.

Boston saw its highest murder rate in a decade in 2005.

Louise White, who is a 38-year-old entrepreneur from Dorchester, made similar comments. She said that crime, homelessness, and efforts to find jobs were more paramount to her than gay marriage.

''Those issues are what are a problem for me," White said in an interview.

Patrick, in a telephone interview later in the day, was not surprised to hear that worshipers agreed with him that gay marriage should not be a front-burner issue in this gubernatorial campaign.

''Really, what I am doing is reflecting back what I'm hearing from people in the community, and from the clergy as well," Patrick said.

Focusing on divisive issues on which people disagree at the expense of making progress elsewhere, he said, ''has been one of the reasons why so little gets done in American politics today."

Yesterday's event was part of a larger effort by the Patrick campaign to engage communities of color around the state.

In recent months, Patrick was featured at a large gathering at the Freedom House in Grove Hall, gave the keynote address at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast of the Brockton chapter of the NAACP, and attended a forum on Hurricane Katrina victims at Roxbury Community College.

The campaign has a special committee devoted to outreach in minority communities.

But Reilly, Patrick's opponent, is a formidable challenger in the contest to win over black voters. Reilly, who was raised in a mixed-race community in Springfield, has long ties to African-Americans in that city and in Boston, and he is mining those relationships to garner support for his campaign.

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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