Pastor of Pike Co. church calls for new vote on accepting interracial couples as members

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

The pastor of a small Pike County church that voted against accepting interracial couples as members said he will ask the congregation to overturn the decision.

Stacy Stepp, pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, said he will seek a new vote on the issue, perhaps as early as Sunday.

Stepp said he is confident members of the church, which has about 45 members, will overturn the earlier decision.

"We're going to get it resolved," Stepp said.

The church has come in for harsh criticism in Pike County and elsewhere since members voted 9 to 6 last Sunday to approve a statement saying it didn't condone interracial marriage.

The statement said that while everyone was welcome to attend, interracial couples would not be received as members or used in worship services.

The vote, perceived by many as a racist throwback to the days of segregation, has gotten nationwide attention.

Dean Harville, a longtime member and church clerk, said a former pastor who attends the church, Melvin Thompson, brought up the statement after Harville's daughter, Stella, brought her fiancé to a worship service last summer and the two performed a song.

Stella Harville's fiancé, Ticha Chikuni, is black.

The two met at Georgetown College, where he now works while she pursues a graduate degree in optical engineering at a college in Indiana.

Melvin Thompson has declined to discuss the issue with the Herald-Leader, but he told the Associated Press this week he is not prejudiced.

Thompson has described the vote as an "internal issue" of the church.

However, Stepp said he had not heard anything about an internal issue involving interracial marriage, nor had he heard of people being upset because an interracial couple came to church.

Thompson told him in August that Stella Harville and her fiancé would not be allowed to sing at the church again, but Stepp had later said the two were welcome to sing, Harville said.

Stepp said the statement on interracial marriage never should have been brought up, and that he thought he had nipped the issue in the bud.

However, Thompson brought up the statement against interracial marriage at a business meeting, where members decided to put it before the congregation for a vote, Harville said.

There were about 40 people at church last Sunday, but only 15 voted on the statement. Stepp said he did not know what the motivation was for the statement, but that he does not think his congregation is racist.

Harville said some of those who voted for the proposal likely did so out of loyalty to Thompson, not because of a racial motivation.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists issued its first formal statement on the controversy Thursday, saying the vote by the Pike County congregation does not reflect the denomination's position.

"Many interracial couples are members of Free Will Baptist churches. They are loved, accepted, and respected by their congregations," said the statement issued by Keith Burden, executive secretary of the association.

"It is unfair and inaccurate to characterize the denomination as racist," the statement said.

Free Will Baptists have historically championed the rights of all people; the denomination was a leader in the slavery abolition movement in the 1800s, according to the statement.

The denomination's treatise does not condemn or bar marriage between men and women of different races, and the association has no official policy on the subject because it's never been an issue, according to the statement.

Free Will Baptist churches in the association are autonomous, so the association hierarchy can't overturn the vote by the small congregation in Pike County.

However, the statement said association officials understand steps are being taken to reverse the vote.

"We encourage the church to follow through with this action," the statement said.

Stepp said the church, which has been planning to build a much larger sanctuary, will get past the controversy.

"We'll all learn from it and grow from it," he said. "Trust in the Lord — that's what my little girl said."

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