July 30th, 2012
04:53 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) –A Mississippi church that wouldn't allow a black couple to marry in its sanctuary because of the couple's race appears to be trying to right a wrong, as officials with the church's denomination decried the incident.
Charles and Te' Andrea Wilson, regular attendees at First Baptist Church in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, were forced to relocate their wedding this month at the last minute. Their pastor, Stan Weatherford, made the relocation request on behalf of some congregants who didn't want to see the couple married there, according to CNN affiliate WLBT.
Weatherford performed the ceremony at a nearby church.
At services on Sunday, the congregation's leadership addressed the controversy in a statement read to the church.
"Our many ministries here are open to everyone and have been for many years," the church deacons said in a statement read to the congregation, according to The Clarion Ledger. "We would never consider doing otherwise."
When contacted Monday evening, Weatherford said the church would have no comment on the situation.
In an interview Monday, a local Baptist official said the church leadership was trying to address the controversy and to move past it with the statement from church deacons.
"The deacons made an affirmation that First Baptist Church would be available to minister to anybody in the church or the community. That went over real well," said Copiah County Baptist Association Director George Pat Bufkin, who attended the service. " They're now in the way of amends."
Bufkin portrayed the move to deny the black couple a chance to marry in the church as the work of a small minority whom he called "radicals" and who he said made mostly anonymous calls to their pastor to complain about the black couple's wedding. Bufkin said he did not know who exactly was behind the calls.
Bufkin, whose group is made up of 30 Baptist churches in the area, said First Baptist is among the largest in the county. The 150-year-old church has around 800 members, he said, and is in the midst of a building campaign.
"Anytime the church grows you always have the devil there, trying to stir up problems," Bufkin said. "That's what occurred here and the deacons have already nipped that in the bud."
Weatherford, the First Baptist pastor, told CNN affiliate WLBT last week about why he agreed to move the wedding.
"I didn't want to have a controversy within the church, and I didn't want a controversy to affect the wedding of Charles and Te' Andrea," he said. "I wanted to make sure their wedding day was a special day."
Calls, e-mails and text messages to the pastor by CNN were not returned on Monday. No one answered the telephone at the church office.
Jonathan Thompson, the 27-year-old community relations director for the city of Crystal Springs, was at First Baptist's Sunday service, and said the incident "didn't represent all the people of the church."
"I wanted to come as a voice of racial reconciliation and spiritual reconciliation," said Thompson, who is African-American, explaining his decision to go to the church on Sunday.
Thompson said he was welcomed at the service. "I was allowed to give the closing prayer," he said. He said he prayed God would forgive all of them for their sins and that they would be able to find reconciliation.
Thompson has organized a unity rally for Monday night for area churches to come together to meet, sing and pray.
"I think this is an opportunity to really get intentional about reconciling," he said.
First Baptist's move to deny a wedding venue has been blasted by local and national officials with the Southern Baptist Convention, whose 16 million members make up the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
"Mississippi Baptists both reject racial discrimination and at the same time respect the autonomy of our local churches to deal with difficulties and disagreements under the lordship of Jesus," said Dr. Jim Futral, the executive director the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
"While there may be hurts, wrongs and mistakes that must be addressed, the context for this to happen is in a historical church with a genuine caring pastor and thoughtful leaders who are seeking to do right," Futral's statement continued. "We, along with our entire body of faith, pray for them and stand ready to do anything that we can to help that church and that community."
A spokesman for the Southern Baptist executive committee told CNN the group would defer to local and state organizations for comment.
"We're not a top down organization," said Roger Oldham. "We're a bottom up organization. The congregation is the governing body."
Oldham said the local church needs to take corrective measures and he said they appear to be doing that in this case.
"The SBC has taken a strong position that racism is a sin and Christians should always oppose it," he said, referring to the Southern Baptist Convention. "We're also grieved when a small group attempts to set policy for the entire congregation."
Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized First Baptist's action.
"There are valid as well as nonvalid reasons for not permitting a couple to get married with the blessing of that local congregation of believers," Land said. "The race or ethnicity of that couple is never a valid reason and any local body of believers who rejects a couple on those grounds should be reprimanded."
"Everyone should understand that in the SBC this decision resides with the local congregation for good or ill. If this couple was indeed rejected because of their race, as a Southern Baptist I’m embarrassed, frustrated, and I apologize to the couple on behalf of the Convention for the hurt and emotional pain they’ve experienced,” Land's statement continued.
Charles Wilson, the groom at the center of the controversy, said on Sunday, "All we wanted to do in the eyes of God was to be man and wife in a church that we thought we felt loved. What was wrong with that?"
Te'Andrea Wilson said, "I had dreams of having my wedding the way I wanted it, and I also dreamed of having it at the church and unfortunately, it didn't happen."
Her husband said if there was a time to "step up and be Christ-like," it was before their wedding.
"If it was such a minority of people, why didn't the majority stand up and say, 'In God's house we don't do this'?" Charles Wilson asked.
On Sunday, some church members reacted to news of the wedding with surprise. Many hadn't known what happened to the Wilsons until they heard about it on the news, and offered apologies.
"I would say I'm sorry this happened and would you forgive the people who caused it? Because we're gonna try to," Bob Mack told CNN affiliate WLBT.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.