December 5th, 2011
02:01 PM ET

Church reverses ban on interracial marriages

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Two weeks ago, Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky, voted 9-6 to ban couples in interracial marriages from attending or participating in the church.

But on Sunday, the small church reversed its course.

Pastor Stacy Stepp told CNN affiliate WLEX on Sunday that the church voted unanimously to "accept all people regardless of race, creed, or color and to accept everyone into the fellowship of Christ."

"I tried everything in my power to try to resolve the matter before it got to where it did," Stepp told WLEX.

The problem began in June when Stella Harville, who grew up going to the church, brought her fiance, Ticha Chikuni, who is black, to the small church, where on average about 40 people meet for Sunday worship.

Harville, who goes by the nickname Susie, played the piano, and Chikuni sang a song during the service.

Her father, Dean Harville, a decades-long member of the church, told CNN affiliate WSAZ he was counting the offering when the pastor at the time, Melvin Thompson, came up to him and said, "Susie and her boyfriend are not allowed to sing in this church anymore."

"He said, 'Furthermore, Susie can take her fella back where she found him from,'" Harville said.

Engaged couple Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni

That led to the vote on November 27 on a church policy banning interracial couples from attending or participating in services.

"It's racist, that's all you can call it," Harville told WSAZ. "I treat him like he's my own son. You won't find a nicer person," he said about his daughter's fiance, who is originally from Zimbabwe.

Chikuni told CNN affiliate WLEX, "For someone who, like Stella, has been going to that church for all her life, expecting some support from them. But you know, everyone just fell off the bandwagon and passed a really hard judgment on her and on us and the family too."

Stella Harville told CNN's Erin Burnett on Friday, before the church reversed the policy, "I still don't know how to process all this."

Harville grew up in the church but left Pike County to attend college. She told CNN she had known all nine church members who voted to ban interracial couples "since I was a little kid."

The ban led to a massive controversy.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Tennessee released a lengthy statement condemning the church policy.

"The National Association of Free Will Baptists does not have an official policy regarding interracial couples because it has not been an issue in the denomination. The Free Will Baptist Treatise neither condemns nor disallows marriage between a man and woman of different races," the statement read in part.

"Free Will Baptists have historically championed the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of race," it continued. It said that national and state officials from the denomination were working with the local church to overturn the policy.

On Saturday, the Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists, the regional body of the denomination, released a statement saying the church policy was "Null and Void," because the vote was not held in accordance with proper parliamentary procedure.

"Furthermore, Pastor Stepp has advised the conference that he and his church will hold a vote of solidarity for the purpose of welcoming believers into their fellowship regardless of race, creed or color. The Sandy Valley Conference will continue to work with the Gulnare Church to rebuild what has been damaged by this tragic error," the statement continued.

“We will be working with the church if they accept our help,” Keith Burden, the executive secretary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, told CNN on Monday.

Burden said churches within the denomination govern themselves autonomously and the national denomination cannot impose rules or sanctions on the church, but can only remove a church from the national group.

Burden said he spoke with Stepp before the vote on Sunday and told him the denomination would provide educational materials to “better equip their leaders.” He also encouraged Stepp to take the corrective measures that the church eventually did, with the new vote on Sunday.

“We are genuinely sorrowful and repentant for what happened,” Burden said. “We hope to continue to work to try to prevent this from ever happening again.”

The young couple at the center of all this had not planned to get married at the church, but this incident settled any doubt on the matter, Stella Harville told CNN.

As far as whether she and her fiance would ever return to the church, she said, "I won't say never, but it's going to take a while."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Christianity • Church • Kentucky • United States

soundoff (613 Responses)
  1. ZT

    The article says that the victim knew "all 9" people who voted for the ban and that the ban was later determined that the church had not properly followed procedure. So, it does not sound like a majority of the church's members ever supported the decision.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • Ironicus

      It was a 9 to 6 decision. Try reading the article sometime.

      December 7, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  2. WOT

    Love is something that man will never understand!

    December 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  3. Truth

    Did you know, that in all-black churches, the pastor encourages their followers to produce as many children as possible, to outnumber whites in the future, constantly refer to the white man a the devil, and actually advocate and condone violence against whites?

    December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • davedoesdall

      do WHAT? lol you're obviously a ignorant scrub. you have absoluelty no clue what are you talking about right? the ignorance is astounding...

      December 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Dian

      This is a horrible blanket statement based on what? How many "black churches" have you actually attended? There are extremist groups in all sects of society, but by and large MOST churches both black and white teach tolerance and exhibiting the love of Christ for all men.

      December 7, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  4. Truth

    "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage of my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery-then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." -Reverend Jesse Jackson, speaking at the PUSH convention in 1993.

    December 6, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  5. PaulBel

    The concept of race is, at best, an artificial one created by humans to differentiate certain physical aspects of individuals. Genetically, all human "races" carry the same number of chromosomes and can procreate with each other, rendering further subcategorization meaningless.

    That said, I find it absolutely mind-boggling that Americans, at the beginning of the 21st century, can still think along these lines of segregation, bigotry and hatred. I thought we had advanced past that point, but I guess I am still too naive.

    December 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Truth

      All races of human brings are in fact equal.
      What people need to stop trying to hide is the fact that blacks are not human beings.

      December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  6. Havildar

    It is interesting how the "euro-centric" Americans worship "Asian" religions. eg. Judaism, Christianity & Islam.....

    December 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Igor

      Not interesting at all. With Christianity claiming 2.3 billion adherents worldwide and islam 1.6 these are bound to be the most prevalent in any society permitting free exercise of religion. As for Judaism, America became a refuge for many jews who came here to escape prosecution at the turn of the 20th century, and again when the Iron curtain was failing. Of course Russian Orthodox church was (and still is) one of the driving forces behind the abuse. Under Soviet rule few Jews engaged in any religious worship, giving rise to ethno-cultural jaws, who had little exposure to the religious aspect of it. Later on in life, even though I was tempted to discover what has been kept my whole life from me, the idea of almighty YAHWEH seemed a little far fetched and problematic to a mind uninitiated into rituals during infancy.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Nonimus

      They did start out as Colonists from Europe, I believe.

      December 6, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Oh, and Europe is and was mostly Christian.

      December 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  7. Duclimer172

    Still see a few people posting here, too busy being "good Christians", to be good human beings.

    December 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Igor

      Look on the bright side, at least the infamous 9 didn't wait till christmas to do this. I guess they're not mean, they just didn't want the boy going after their women.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  8. Leaf on the Wind

    I lived in that part of Kentucky for a couple of years and knew some Free Will Baptist folks. This was in the early seventies, and at that time these people firmly believed that white folks descended from Adam and Eve and black folks descended from apes. I'm not making this up; they were quite serious about this.

    December 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Itsa

      Scary. Even the educated people?

      December 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Truth

      They were correct....

      December 6, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • grenwood

      also in apartheid south africa

      December 6, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  9. Mental1981

    These are the same type of people who would burn a Koran because they say that Islam perpetuates a narrow minded subversive lifestyle, yet they have no better morals themselves. Should Christ return tonight the church would catch on fire and the members would burn like the Sodomites.

    December 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Igor

      I bet the big H is spinning in his grave over the quagmire that his teachings wrought.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  10. JohnENY

    I think the government should do a spot check on this church's finances. If the makeup of the church is not at least 20% african-american we should take away the tax-exempt status, or at least take steps to increase the minority representation. If there are ANY members with blonde hair or blue eyes 50 years from now, this church is RACIST.

    December 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Igor

      Oh yeah? I thought it was the whole voting to ban the interracial couple on that basis that made the place stand out. You are twisted, blaming all the blondes there for the acts of what looked like a few brunettes and a couple of grey haired wizards. I realize you seem to think that people accuse them of bigotry because there are white people at that church. But i think you will be pleasantly surprised that there are other more salient facts pointing in that direction.

      And what's wrong white you man? Why would you want to send more minorities there? Do you also suggest the Catholic church should have more kids sleeping over in priest's quarters?

      December 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • alaking

      i guess mormon churches would be out of luck.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      That seems a little silly to me. Aren't churches usually community-based? Would you force the community to be a certain percentage black? Or Asian? Or Latino? Personally, I think all churches that become involved in the political process, even if it is just the preacher endorsing a particular candidate, should lose their tax-exempt status. There's the solution to our budget woes right there.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • JohnENY

      Yes- every community SHOULD have demographics that match the racial percentages of the country as a whole. The only reason every black neighborhood and country is struggling is because of white oppression. What- do you think there is really a genetic difference between different cultures? Racist. But I love the white man too. We need to increase their representation in predominately black organizations- the NBA, NFL, 100 yard dash are a few places I would start. Only through forced integration will we truly make the racists realize that there are only different skin colors, but there are no other differences between the races.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Igor

      "That seems a little silly to me. "

      That's because he is trying to be sarcastic and spinning the whole thing so it seems that this poor souls are being unfairly singled out for their faith. It's called a straw man. John will find it hard to maintain a high moral ground if he tries to excuse the actual wrong, so he constructed an extreme scenario where the flock is/will be victimized for possessing certain immutable characteristics, because that is an easier position to defend. It's a common dirty tactic.

      If I'm wrong, John , please correct me. I've seen your approach too many times to remain tacit.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Igor

      "he only reason every black neighborhood and country is struggling is because of white oppression."

      Once in a while I hope against hope that I'm wrong that someone is engine in their intentions, albeit misguided. I tell myself that I'm too young to be that cynical about others.

      The problem in minority neighborhoods is purely economic, but economic disparity has been show to greatly impact individual success and earning potential due to fewer educational oppuortunities available to the poorer kids. Even those exhibiting talent and hard work ultimately performed worse then their wealthier less involved counterparts. Investment into good education opportunities for those kids would greatly improve their lot in life and would be the right step towards true equal opportunity. Unfortunately, people like John can't effectively argue against a rational approach to solving a major problem. The only way he can do it is by reducing the perceived causes and solutions to their most ridiculous position which most people who care about the issue will never endorse.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • PaulMc1981

      Don't feed this troll.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  11. jwas1914

    I don’t understand how a church that claims to be a follower of Christ can vote against couples that are in interracial relationships. Where is the love that should have been the main point to consider with any of their parishioners that might have been against it? This is why the people have lost respect towards religion; things like this unfortunately make them question if in fact God supports such organization. This is one of the reasons why atheism is on the rise. It is clearly that this religion does not know God. “He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). Last time I checked in verse 10 of this same chapter it states: “The love is in this respect, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent forth his Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins”. Take note that it does not say that his sacrifice was for a particular race. We are all God’s children no matter what racial background we come from. For a church to have the audacity to even meet for this foolishness has not come to know God and I can assure you that they will never receive God’s blessings. For anyone to follow such false religion is setting themselves up for failure. Please read your Bible

    December 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Jawbreaker

      Because you're GOD and you know how he feels about everything, even science, right?

      December 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Igor

      "I don’t understand how a church that claims to be a follower of Christ can vote against couples that are in interracial relationships"

      Well, you know they took a page from the book of countless other devout Christians who would always find something in the "good" book so support their bigotry.

      "This is one of the reasons why atheism is on the rise."

      Not sure if it's exclusively on the rise, or that untill recently atheists would receive very Christian treatment from the more devoul followers. Perhaps if all that divine love led to this, perhaps it's the time to reevaluate your options. Perhaps shinto monks got it right? Greco-Roman Polytheism has regained some popularity. Sure Zeus would turn into a cow and cheat on his wife, but he did it without pretending to give a crap about families. Well ok, he was a lousy father, but what you saw is what you got.

      "It is clearly that this religion does not know God. “He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8)."

      Well I suppose it's hard to hide your true intent for too long behind a pious facade. Everyone trips up eventually. Or maybe they are doing exactly what God wants them, wouldn't be the first time humans were fooled by a supreme being. Remember Pandora's box?

      "Please read your Bible"

      Ironically, quite a few agnostics/atheists who were formely christian credit actually reading the bible with freeing themselves of all that "love". Be careful what you wish for.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  12. alaking

    all of the folks blaming this on some sort of southern culture are just as blind and ignorant as this church. there are racists EVERYWHERE.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Linkin

      True...true...but the South started the Civil War over slavery and many "good ole boys" earnestly desire a return to those days and some are even doing their best to destroy our country for their partially racist agenda. Or hadn't you noticed anything like our country getting shafted from the inside with a definite "southern" agenda?

      December 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Primewonk

      A poll from this past April showed that almost half (46%) of republicans in Mississippi said that interracial marriage should be illegal.

      December 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  13. Derrick

    I wonder if they'll marry me and my Lithuanian boyfriend?

    December 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  14. Derrick

    So, I suppose these "Free Will" Baptists believe there is a segregated heaven and hell and of course only American's can go to the "all White" heaven

    December 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Blackfist

      Of course! Their "Bibles" are the fantasy versions in their heads so they don't have to read the Bible either.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  15. sendmorejunk

    On a completely unrelated topic (as the gentleman in the article is from Zimbabwe) reminds me of a visit to a church in Zimbabwe where I was presently surprised to see a depiction of Jesus as a black man!

    December 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Look

      The only true picture of Jesus would be a bundle of dirty bones.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  16. ctrlaltdelete (originally w/ USA Today)

    Any person who is without sin, cast the first stone. Otherwise, please put your stone down and leave others alone.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Sinless

      Here comes a huge rock right at your damn stupid head, fool!

      December 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • ctrlaltdelete (originally w/ USA Today)

      May God Bless you always Sinless

      December 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  17. Robert Lantz

    on the other hand if the truth ever came out, Ashleyton wouldn't need a new nickname.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  18. Robert Lantz

    Interracial is good for those who choose to sleep in the toilet. Who needs a plumber?

    December 6, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Iconoclast

      Typical bigoted B.S. go put on your sheet and pointy hat and go burn a cross or something.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Igor

      I think you might need a plumber, you seem so full of it.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Normon

      I don't even get it...

      December 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  19. Riddlemethis

    If "white" people are so hung up on color why in the world do they spend so much time and money on curling their hair and tanning salons?

    December 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • MiddleRethis

      Probably the same reason "black" people straighten their hair and bleach their skin.

      December 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  20. Only1Voice

    A sad event for all involved. The decision to be race-blind obviously was influenced by outsiders and not their pastor.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.