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Kentucky Church Bans Interracial Couples, Rescinds the Policy After Community Outcry

Kentucky Church Bans Interracial Couples, Rescinds the Policy After Community Outcry

A tiny church in Pikeville, Ky., made international news when its leadership voted 9 to 6 to “promote greater unity” by barring mixed-race couples from joining the congregation or serving the church in any official capacity.

The new policy at Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church was said to have been incited by a visit from the church secretary’s daughter, Stella Harville, 24, who had been away at college where she met and became engaged to Ticha Chikuni, 29, a black man from Zimbabwe.

The couple visited the church, which Stella had attended since she was a child, and performed a song for the congregation.

Following their visit, Stella’s father, Dean Harville, was informed by former Gulnare pastor, Melvin Thompson, that Harville’s daughter and future son-in-law would not be allowed to sing at the church again. Thompson, seeking to solidify the policy, called for a vote, resulting in the church deciding individuals participating in interracial relationships could attend, but could not become members or serve the church in any official capacity.

Thompson told critics he is “not prejudiced against any race of people, have never in my lifetime spoke evil about a race. That’s what this is being portrayed as, but it is not.” He called the issue an “internal affair” of the church.

Randy Johnson, president of the Pike County Ministerial Association said the community’s immediate reaction to the policy was heartbreak and disbelief. “It’s not the spirit of the community in any way, shape or form,” he said.  “Most of us thought that we’d moved well beyond that.”

The Free Will Baptist Executive Office in Antioch, Tenn, released a statement condemning the policy:

Recently, the action of a Free Will Baptist church in the state of Kentucky raised questions regarding the position of the National Association of Free Will Baptists on interracial couples. This statement is intended to bring clarity to the subject.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists does not have an official policy regarding interracial couples because it has not been an issue in the denomination. The Free Will Baptist Treatise neither condemns nor disallows marriage between a man and woman of different races.

Free Will Baptists have historically championed the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of race. The denomination’s leadership in the abolition movement is evidence of that fact. Free Will Baptists currently spend millions of dollars each year to take the good news of Jesus Christ to people of every race.

Many interracial couples are members of Free Will Baptist churches. They are loved, accepted, and respected by their congregations. It is unfair and inaccurate to characterize the denomination as racist.

It is our understanding that steps are being taken by the church in question to reverse its decision. We encourage the church to follow through with this action. Leaders from the local conference and state association in Kentucky are working with the church to resolve this matter.

Stacy Stepp, the current pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, said that the vote by nine people last week was nullified after it was determined that the church cannot adopt bylaws contrary to local, state or national laws. He said the proposal was discriminatory, therefore it could not be adopted.

Stepp said 30 people who attended church services voted on a new resolution that welcomes “believers into our fellowship regardless of race, creed or color.” The resolution to welcome all believers passed with a unanimous vote.

This is one of those incidents that could have left an all-white Appalachian church community looking racist and exclusionary due to the outdated beliefs of a minority of its so-called leadership. Kudos to the prompt and appropriate response from the Freewill Association, the church members and the community at large. –kathleen cross

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