Pike Co. church should reconsider stand against interracial couples, official says

National Association of Free Will Baptists objects

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2011 

Interracial Couples

Stella Harville and her fiancé, Ticha Chikuni are seen in a November 2010 photo provided by Stella Harville.

AP

An official with the National Association of Free Will Baptists said it would be good for a Pike County church to reconsider its vote against accepting interracial couples as members.

The Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, where members approved the resolution by a vote of 9 to 6 Sunday, is self-governing, so the church hierarchy can't overturn the decision or make members of the church do so.

However, Keith Burden, executive secretary of the national association, said Wednesday he hoped the local conference of churches can encourage the Gulnare congregation to reconsider its vote.

"We are not a bunch of bigots or a bunch of racists," Burden said. Burden said he was working Wednesday to get more information on the controversy in Pike County.

The issue flared this week after members of the Pike County church, which is in the Johns Creek area, approved a statement saying the church did not condone interracial marriage.

The statement said all people are welcome to attend the church, but that the congregation would not receive interracial couples as members, "nor will they be used in worship services" and other church functions, according to a copy supplied to the Herald-Leader by a church member.

Dean Harville, the church secretary, said a former pastor, Melvin Thompson, pushed the resolution after Harville's daughter, Stella, brought her fiancé to church and the two performed a song during a worship service.

Stella Harville's fiancé is black.

"That's all you can call it, is pure racism," Stella Harville said of the position the church was asked to approve.

Thompson declined to comment on the resolution when contacted Tuesday except to say it had been taken out of context, and he did not return a call seeking comment on Wednesday.

John J. Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement Wednesday that he was saddened to read about the church's vote but encouraged by the widespread negative reaction to it.

"I am proud of the other churches in the Eastern Kentucky community and its many citizens who are being vocal about their support of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding of all people," Johnson said. "The majority of Kentuckians are determined to welcome and embrace all people."

Harville said the church is part of a local association of a dozen or so Free Will Baptist churches called the Sandy Valley Conference, which is part of the national association.

The local conference is scheduled to meet this Saturday.

Harville said there will be a request that the conference ask Gulnare Free Will Baptist to rescind the vote on the resolution against interracial couples.

"That'd be nothing but right," he said.

If the church won't rescind the vote, the local conference and state and national associations have no authority to overturn the decision because the local congregation is autonomous, Burden said.

However, the national association could recommend withdrawing fellowship from the church if that was justified, Burden said.

Burden said the national association has no policy on interracial couples because it has not been an issue.

There are interracial couples who attend churches in the association, which has about 2,400 member congregations across the nation, he said.