The Bible commands us to love our neighbors, but members of a Kentucky evangelical church have set strict limits on that love: The Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voted Sunday to bar interracial couples from becoming members or participating in worship services.
Not everyone at the church agrees, and it may not be the last word. Stacy Stepp, pastor of the small church in Gulnare, Ky., is appealing the new policy at a regional conference of church leaders Saturday in Pikeville, Ky. “I want them to investigate the matter and resolve it,” Pastor Stepp told Hatewatch, adding that nothing in the Bible says that interracial marriage is bad.
After noting that the church “does not condone interracial marriage,” and that spouses of another race won’t be allowed to join or take part in services, the policy adds, “All are welcome to our public worship services.” And in case you’re wondering if this means that people who marry outside their race are somehow not up to snuff, there is one more sentence: “This recommendation is not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve.”
Several members said the move was prompted by the engagement of Stella Harville, whose family has belonged to the church for decades, to Ticha Edza, 29, a Zimbabwe native and student life administrator at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. Harville, a 24-year-old graduate student, said she brought Edza to the church several times, and they always were treated politely. Edza even sang a spiritual song to the congregation more than a year ago, with Harville accompanying him on piano, she says.
“I’m shocked that they did this,” Harville told Hatewatch. “I’ve been going there since I was a toddler. I’ve always felt welcome, the people there have always been a part of my life, they’ve supported and loved me. They’re my extended family and now, at one of the biggest moments of my life, this is how they treat me.”
Harville said her parents told her that the former pastor, Melvin Thompson, opposed her interracial relationship and had called them in to discuss it before he left the church post in August. Thompson never took up the issue with her, Harville added. “I get that this is a sensitive subject for some people, but he would always shake my hand and act real friendly. He never confronted me. At least have the nerve to stand up for what you believe in!” Thompson, still a church member, introduced the new interracial policy. He declined to comment on anything about the issue when Hatewatch reached him by phone.
Gary Alley and Nina Blackburn, two other members who voted to keep out interracial couples, also declined to comment.
The current pastor, Stepp, wants the ban on interracial couples ended. “As a spiritual person, I’m deeply hurt by what’s happened,” he told Hatewatch. “Jesus loves all people.”
Anthony Hite, 28, a Gulnare church member, voted against the policy. “God told us to love everyone, so just because your skin color’s different that’s no reason not to extend love.”
Although the new statement doesn’t explicitly address the children in interracial marriages, Sharon Taylor of Gulnare is concerned about what’s going to happen to her two biracial grandchildren. Her divorced son, who is Caucasian, brings them to the church often, and the kids attend Sunday School there. “It really bothers and worries me,” she told Hatewatch. “They’ve always been real nice to my grandkids, but I don’t know what will happen to them now,”
The Kentucky church is affiliated with the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Inc., based in Antioch, Tenn. The national group has no policy either forbidding or promoting interracial marriage, says executive secretary Keith Burden.
“I travel extensively, and we have churches where there are interracial couples all over the country,” Burden told Hatewatch. “We don’t want to be painted with the stripes of prejudice, because we’ve been a champion of rights for all. We were one of the few U.S. denominations that fought for the abolition of slavery.” The southern wing of the church was founded in 1727, a northern branch started in 1780, and the two eventually merged, according to the group’s website.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t prejudiced individuals in certain local churches, “just like any denomination,” he added.
The national group is not a governing body, so it can’t force the Gulnare church to change its policy, Burden said. The regional, state or national group could, however, urge the church to rescind it. The group also could reconsider Thompson’s credentials as a pastor if there’s any evidence that he’s compromised moral or doctrinal issues. And, as a last resort, the national association could expel the Gulnare church from its group. “Hopefully, it can be resolved without doing anything like that,” Burden said.
There is one consolation in the new policy for people like Stella Harville, who plans to marry her African fiancé next July. There‘s a single exception in which the interracially married are allowed to participate during church services: at funerals.
That doesn’t do much for Harville, though. “We just don’t want this to happen to another couple. We don’t want anyone to be hurt in this way.”