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. Angel

    I grew up in the North and live in the South now.Bigotry is 10 times worse here.The ultra conservative churches in the south promote it.Very sad!I'd move home in a heartbeat but there is no work in my profession there.And don't get me started about politics. YIKES!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  2. QS

    "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."

    It's a sad state of affairs if certain places in this country actually NEED "educational material" to help some people in that area figure out how racist they are!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  3. WOT

    The pastor of that church should be taken down.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  4. Trixie

    Everyone knows God is white.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Adrienne


      December 5, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  5. Laura Weeks

    I was shocked and appalled when I heard this, physically sick to my stomach. Both my husband and come from active religious families, but I am by no means an evangelist and typically keep my religious opinions to myself. However, this story just doesn't sit well with me. Growing up we were taught that God was available to everyone that believed in Him. It was the greatest gift and He welcomed and received anyone that comes to Him with gifts and praise (and even questions) with loving, open arms. Who are we as humans to decide who can and cannot worship and serve God. Raised as a Baptist myself, I have increasingly been faced with disheartening experiences with the denomination and it truly makes me question organized religion. This example makes me very sad and concerned for our human race. What happened to "God IS love" ? What greater tangible example of God's existence than two people in love that choose to serve the Lord together?

    December 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Green Furhammer

      god is available to everyone that believes in him? like all the babies he had ordered to be tortured and murdered in the bible?

      or the gays he said should be killed for being gay?

      oh yeah, god loves everyone.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Lee

      Green There is no where in the bible where god says gays should be executed. Learn a few things. I too was brought up Baptist and this action by the church doesn't surprise me at all. I left the baptist church in the early 60's after my minister condemned interracial marriage...well, actually intracial only when whites were involved. I have since gone through a few different christian religions before deciding god simply does not exist.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • ljspin

      I agree with you 100%. The members of this church and its pastor should have followed the teachings of the Christ: "Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do it to me." Whether they realize it or not, they threw the Christ out of their church.
      Green Furhammer,
      God did not order babies to be tortured and killed, and God did not order gays to be killed. You obviously do not understand a basic Judeo-Christian belief: the belief in Free Will. All men and women have choice in their lives. They can choose to do wrong, or they can choose to do right. Pharoah Seti and Herod the Great both chose to kill babies. Modern conservative "Christians" chose to kill gays. Those sins are laid on their souls. For people who believe that life exists for only 75 or so years, then this does not make sense. It is, as the Bible states, "a stumbling block." But for those who believe that life continues in another form, punishment beyond your imagining will await those who committed the crimes of which you write, while their victims will be welcomed happiness beyond all comprehension. As a parent, you do not have full control over your children, unless you lock them in a closet and never let them out. We believe that God, as our Father, gives us the same freedom. He doesn't force us to do anything, but gives us the opportunity to choose our own course in life. God is not a great Santa Claus in the sky who gives everyone whatever they want. He is a Parent who gives us the freedom to make our own mistakes. The catch is - we have the instructions to keep us from making mistakes, if we would only follow them.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • PJ

      I just love how you call two people loving each other a "mistake". The irony is people used religion to justify bigotry of all kinds for years and one day people will be just as perplexed over you and others in this day and age condemning gay people.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  6. Wicket

    It should be simple for Christians to know how to run their churches and their lives if they go by Christ's primary teachings. Why do they have such a rough time loving their neighbors?

    December 5, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Mike

      But they DO love their neighbors; especially the white, straight, male, protestant ones.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:34 am |
  7. ????

    Sort of amazing in 2011, but we are talking Pike county Kentucky here.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  8. tony

    Ignorance is fixable. Stupidity is forever. As a black american human I'm disgusted. As a christian, I choose to forgive.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  9. David

    It's a step forward but it will years before they ban marriages involving siblings and farm animals in Kentucky.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Greg

      Ignorance is bliss

      December 5, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • partenope

      @ David


      December 6, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  10. Ann

    Well, I guess the members of that congregation will have an all White section in Heaven. My Bible says "Jesus died for mankind". Paul said in christ we are neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free. We are ONE in Christ. Shame on the pastor and congregation for their bigotted view. They truly need prayers.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  11. Josiah

    There is no Gospel (Good News) there. Regardless any church whos main day of worship is Sunday is a false church. God bless you all!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  12. Jimh77

    This is why I like black churches. They don't care what color you are, how your dressed, they just welcome you into their church, all of them. At least the ones we have around here. White churches, not the same, more stuffy people and you can feel the tension. This should have never taken place with this couple. My personal feeling, find a church more welcoming.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  13. Emperor Norton

    While the story's pretty terrible, I have to admit that I find Mr. Harville's reaction heartwarming. If her dad's so enthusiastically on board with the marriage, I bet these two will be just fine in the long run. At least we've come that far.

    Good luck to the happy couple.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  14. Deep North

    Brother's lucky to get out of there alive!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  15. ?

    Private organizations can make such rules if they feel like it. What are you worried about? If you don't like it, don't go to church there. But nooooooo, the media must get involved and pressure the private organization. A father tells black high school basketball players to stay away from his daughter and the media pressure him. It's not enough that libtards pass a bunch of restrictive pc laws; now, politically incorrect, yet legal and PRIVATE, choices are big news.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • skorn

      Churches are not private. A person should be welcomed to praise the Lord no matter of race or color. If u feel differently you are most likely to immature n self centered to see past your own nose. This is coming from an african american 25 year old male. I truly pray for all of the bigots around the world. Especially the ones that set aside time to mistreat someone because of their own insecurities. Don't b made just get a life.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      if you dont want people to point fingers then dont be a moronic racist.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  16. Guest

    They only "reversed their course" because they were shamed and embarassed nationally.They didnt want people to associate them with the Inbred Kansas klan of baptists.
    They should take their Ideas back to the dark ages where they got them.Its pathetic when I hear religious types (like my mother) say that "they dont believe in it" when it comes to things like interracial or gay couples.What do you mean you dont believe in it? Its right there,it exists.
    I dont think people are willing to admit they want to believe in a god that thinks they are better than other people.
    (Me,Ill worship anything that gives me powers.that could be god,or satan,or even a godd*mned potato.If a radioactive potato ever gives me infinite powers and immortal life,I will worship the almighty potato)

    December 5, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  17. Jk

    Members of this church should watch Bloodlines from John Piper...just saying...

    December 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  18. Sheepleherder

    Nullified it "because the vote was not held in accordance with proper parliamentary procedure" and NOT because it was a bigoted, unChristian thing to do in the first place. They do not sound very repentant to me, they sound more like a bunch of klansmen who were just given a ticket for littering after burning a cross.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  19. Deep North

    You expected less from Pennsyl=tucky!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  20. Steven

    The pastor at the time, Melvin Thompson, could have stopped all of this if he really believed in Jesus and was not a bigot. Looks like the true character of the Church has showed it's real values even if it was pushed by public outrage to get rid of the ban.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:08 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.