When Stella Harville brought her black boyfriend to her family’s all-white church in rural Kentucky, she thought nothing of it. She and Ticha Chikuni worshipped there when they were in town. He’d even sung before the congregation.
Then, in August, a member of Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church told Harville’s father that Chikuni, who is from Zimbabwe, couldn’t sing there anymore. Last Sunday, church members voted 9-6 to bar mixed-race couples from joining the congregation.
The policy has drawn a firestorm of criticism in just a few days and sent church leaders scrambling to overturn it, which could happen as soon as today. The executive-secretary of the church’s national organization said he has been inundated with angry phone calls and e-mails.
“We are not a group of racist people,” Keith Burden of the National Association of Free Will Baptists said. “We have been labeled that obviously because of the actions of nine people.”
The resolution approved by the Gulnare church says it does not condone interracial marriage and “parties of such marriages will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions, with the exception being funerals.”
Voting on the resolution was not announced in church and ballots were cast after the service.
The church member and former pastor who pushed for the vote, Melvin Thompson stepped down as pastor earlier this year for health reasons, according to Harville’s dad, Dean Harville.
He said it was Thompson who told him that Chikuni couldn’t sing at the church.
Earlier last week, the church’s current pastor, Stacy Stepp, said he voted against the measure and would work to overturn it.
The national group distanced itself from the resolution in a statement on Thursday, saying it “neither condemns nor disallows” interracial marriage.
It said the church was working to reverse its policy and added: “We encourage the church to follow through with this action.”