Pike church reverses course, votes to welcome people of all races

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

A tiny Pike County church voted Sunday to affirm that it welcomes people of all races, a week after some members touched off a storm of controversy by voting against accepting interracial couples.

Members of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voted 16-0 Sunday to make clear that everyone is welcome, "regardless of race, creed or color," and that the church wants to move forward in unity, pastor Stacy Stepp said.

"We voted as a church that we all get back in peace and love and harmony," Stepp said.

Stella Harville, whose appearance at the church last summer with her fiancé, Ticha Chikuni, was at the center of the controversy, said Sunday's vote was "a big relief."

Harville, 24, is white; Chikuni, 29, is black.

"It's good to know that they've come together, stood up for what's right," Harville said. "All we can do is hope they get back to some normalcy and continue on."

Although Harville said she was "very, very, very glad" to hear about the vote, she said she doesn't plan to return to the church, which she had attended since birth, for a long time.

"It's just going to take some time to go back there," she said.

The Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists — the local group of churches to which the Gulnare congregation belongs — already had decided Saturday that the vote against interracial couples was void because it didn't comply with parliamentary rules.

The original vote for the measure against interracial couples on Nov. 27 was 9 to 6. The conference said the measure would have needed approval from two-thirds of those voting, or 10 people, to pass. That meant the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church didn't need to vote to rescind the earlier decision against interracial couples, Stepp said.

However, Stepp had said publicly earlier in the week that the church would vote.

That's why members decided to put on record their resolve to stand together "for unity and love, and for the rebuilding of our church," according to the statement Stepp presented to the congregation.

Last summer, Stella Harville, who is in graduate school in Indiana, played the piano, and Chikuni, who works at Georgetown College, sang I Surrender All at a service at Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, Stella Harville said.

After that, the former pastor of the church, Melvin Thompson, said the two could not perform at church anymore, but Stepp said they could, said Dean Harville, Stella Harville's father and the clerk and secretary of the church, located in the Johns Creek area.

Thompson later brought up a statement for the church to vote on. It said that everyone was welcome to attend, but that the church did not condone interracial marriage and that interracial couples would not be accepted as members or participate in worship services.

The vote to approve the measure, perceived as a racist echo of the days of segregation, brought sharp criticism locally and around the nation, where it was widely reported.

In its decision Saturday, the Sandy Valley Conference said it denounced "prejudice, racism and all ungodly forms of conduct."

Thompson insisted that he was not prejudiced, but he has declined to discuss in detail why he sought the original vote.

Attempts to reach Thompson Sunday were not successful.

Dean Harville said Thompson was not at church Sunday for the new vote.

Stella Harville said Chikuni was glad to hear about the church's decision Sunday, "but there's still a lot for him to process."

"Lord willing, if we're able to have kids down the road, and my mom and dad are still living and going to that church, I would like my kids to be able to go to the church with their grandparents," Stella Harville said.

"Don't let the actions of these nine members change your mind about the community and about God. Don't let that persuade you," she said. "There really are some good people out there."

Dean Harville said he was satisfied with the church's action.

Time will tell how the incident will affect the congregation, which is building a new, larger church, he said.

"You can pray for us," he said. "It's going to take us a little while to heal on this."

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