There’s nothing like world-wide exposure to show a community just how out of date, backwards and positively racist its practices are. The story came out last week about Stella Harville’s experience in August. At her rural Kentucky church, she and her fiance from Zimbabwe, Ticha Chikuni, had an opportunity to perform some music there but were later told they’d never be allowed to participate in the church as an interracial married couple.
The vote to ostracise couples of different races was held at the Gulnare Freewill baptist church last Sunday. It has prompted a bitter dispute in the local Pike County and thrown up hatreds and antagonisms that had been hidden beneath the surface of the community for years.
The vote was held on a motion brought by the former pastor of the church, Melvin Thompson. He proposed that people in interracial marriages should not be “received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions – with the exception being funerals”.
His motion added that it “was not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve”.
Doesn’t sound very unifying to those left on the outside of the church, frankly. I don’t know how common interracial marriages are in general, let alone in Kentucky. I suspect they still must be a bit eye turning to some people, going by this debacle alone. Growing up in my smallish (predominantly white) city, it was novel to discover an interracial couple, both of whom were teachers I knew in junior and high school. I don’t remember if I had any classes with their son but I think he was fairly popular, and probably would have been even if his parents hadn’t been in the same building. He was that kind of exuberant guy. But I digress. Saskatchewan isn’t Kentucky and I have no idea if the couple would have been church-goers at risk of running into any blatant racially-motivated conundrums, or even subtle ones. I hate to think my city would be like that but I didn’t think my city had a gay bashing problem either…
Anyway, the Kentucky pastor had stepped down for “health reasons” supposedly but still kept insisting this ought to happen and of the 40 parishioners asked to vote on it, nine agreed, six disagreed and the rest abstained for some reason. Harville states in the article that she’s disappointed more refused to stand up against the bigotry, but this is sometimes the way groups work. It’s far harder to stand up to your friends than it is your enemies.
Yesterday came new word about this issue. The Gulnare church has been inundated with angry phone calls and emails denouncing the proposal and ban. Although no examples are provided, it’s not hard to imagine how many must be filled with vitriol over the overt racism of it.
“We are not a group of racist people,” said Keith Burden of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. “We have been labeled that obviously because of the actions of nine people.”
The former pastor, Melvin Thompson, swears he isn’t racist, either, but when AP pressed for a different explanation for why he pushed for this, he refused to give them one. If it quacks like a duck..
After giving interviews earlier this week, the church’s current pastor, Stacy Stepp, and several other church members did not return phone calls Friday. One of the members said they were shocked. Stepp said he voted against the measure and would work to overturn it.
The national group distanced itself from the resolution in a statement Thursday, saying it “neither condemns nor disallows” interracial marriage.
It said the church was working to reverse its policy and added, “We encourage the church to follow through with this action.”
Harville, who is now engaged to Chikuni, said earlier this week that she felt betrayed by the church.
“Whether they keep the vote or overturn it, it’s going to be hard for me go back there,” she told AP.
Begging the question, why would she want to go back there? Hard as it might be to leave the people she does like who accept her decision to marry a foreign black man, maybe it’s the best option. There’d always be a few hard feelings and undercurrents of distrust and wariness. It wouldn’t be comfortable for anyone in there after this has gone on, not for the couple, and certainly not for those who voted against them. It doesn’t matter what Stepp might later preach about tolerance and forgiveness, the memories of pariah status would remain. Maybe if everyone got a bit of relationship counseling…
More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute barring whites from marrying nonwhites, overturning bans in 15 other states. But while interracial marriages have soared since then, many churches remain largely segregated.
Curtiss Paul DeYoung, a professor at Bethel College who has studied interracial churches, said church members opposed to a more diverse church usually just go somewhere else.
“Rarely today do you see it so blatantly come to a vote. Usually people just leave but they don’t say much about it,” DeYoung said. “I think this is still one of the last hurdles around race for a lot of folks in this country. It’s just rarely stated this bluntly.”
I think in this era it’s depressing to see it still stated at all. Why the hell do people have problems with this? A particular religious upbringing can’t possibly be all that’s behind it, but it’s probably the bulk of the reason.
In terms of my extended family, my uncle married a woman from Thailand and only knew her for two days or some crazy thing. The short courtship was a bigger surprise than his new wife’s heritage. That was in 1990, I think, and they’re still together. His daughter from his first marriage married a man of Indian descent and got to do two wedding ceremonies: one traditional for his family and one Canadian. Her husband has a picture up on his Facebook page of how she was dressed and calls her a “Bollywood princess.” No doubt! Gorgeous woman. You can totally tell we’re related…
The Free Will Baptists trace their history to the 18th century. They emphasized the Arminian doctrine of free will, free grace, and free salvation, in contrast to most Baptists, who were Calvinists and believed Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.
There are some 4,200 churches worldwide. The National Association of Free Will Baptists organized in Nashville, Tenn., in 1935 and is now based in Antioch, Tenn.
The group said in its statement that the denomination has no official policy regarding interracial couples “because it has not been an issue.”
Perhaps it’s because few dared do it and attempt to remain with the Free Will Baptist Church.
As troubling as this has been for the couple, it’s overall good that they made some waves. If that church has been a stagnant pool of antiquated thinking, it’s high time for the waters to stir and generate some positive changes. That congregation needed to realize they don’t live in a vacuum, too. The whole world can watch what people do now, not just their God. It should put a bigger onus on everyone to think carefully before they commit to something that’s bound to be a bad idea. Of course, browsing The Smoking Gun and other pages FARK links to every day, it’s clear we’re not there yet…
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