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A small Kentucky church that just a week earlier banned interracial couples from joining or participating in worship services reversed its policy Sunday in the wake of an avalanche of publicity that spread throughout the U.S. and to locales as far away as Canada, Europe, India and Africa.
The original bigoted policy was introduced by Melvin Thompson, former pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church. Thompson, who is still a member of the church, refused to speak with Hatewatch.
Current pastor Stacy Stepp opposed the original policy, calling it anti-Christian. He appealed to a regional conference of church leaders Saturday in Pikeville, Ky., asking them to overturn it. The regional group nullified the rule excluding interracial couples because it would have required a change in church bylaws, which has to be voted on by a quorum, but a quorum was not present for the vote.
Then Stepp introduced a substitute policy Sunday welcoming believers of all races to membership in the church. It passed unanimously, with a quorum. Most who supported the earlier policy, including Thompson, did not attend, and others either voted in favor of the non-discriminatory policy or abstained, according to members present for the vote.
The Kentucky church is affiliated with the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Inc., based in Antioch, Tenn. Although the national group is not a governing body, Executive Secretary Keith Burden said he spoke with Stepp and members of the local conference, urging them to revoke the policy. “It was the wrong thing to do, it showed very, very bad judgment,” Burden told Hatewatch. “We don’t want to just push it under the rug or put a good face on it for PR. What happened there was wrong.” He said the national group hopes to have more educational materials up on its website soon to help educate members about racism and Christian behavior.
“It’s mind-blowing that a prejudiced act in such a tiny community sparked so much fire around the world,” 24-year-old Stella Harville told Hatewatch. Harville’s family has attended the church for decades. But her engagement to an African man, and their attendance at the church together, prompted Thompson to introduce the proposal banning interracial married couples from membership.
Sharon Taylor of Gulnare expressed relief at the new policy. She has two biracial grandchildren who attend the Free Will Baptist Sunday school, and she feared for their well-being. “We told them last week that they may not be going back, we may have to go to another church, and the kids cried for over an hour. It’s the only church they’ve ever gone to, and the only one they wanted to go to,” Taylor told Hatewatch. “Now we know they’re welcome.”
Harville, a graduate student in Indiana, said she was elated at the reversal, “but we won’t be going back there soon. They say we’re welcome, yet it’s hard to go back when the people who voted for it originally are still there. Yes, we’re going to have to forgive them, but why put yourself in an atmosphere with people whose hearts are hardened to interracial love? The damage is done.”
Her parents, Cathy and Dean Harville, will continue to attend the church, she said. Her dad has been a deacon and is the church secretary. “I respect their decision. They want to stand by Pastor Stepp as he tries to get the church healed from this. He supported our family so much during this terrible time. My family also got phone calls from people all over the nation offering sympathy and prayers. It was quite an outpouring of love that sustained us during the week.”