Kentucky churchgoer tells of deep hurt after interracial marriage ban
Stella Harville not welcome at Gulnare Freewill baptist church after ex-pastor votes to ban couples of different races
A small baptist church in eastern Kentucky has voted to ban interracial couples from joining the congregation and from taking part in all church functions other than funerals.
The vote to ostracise couples of different races was held at the Gulnare Freewill baptist church last Sunday. It has prompted a bitter dispute in the local Pike County and thrown up hatreds and antagonisms that had been hidden beneath the surface of the community for years.
The vote was held on a motion brought by the former pastor of the church, Melvin Thompson. He proposed that people in interracial marriages should not be „received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions – with the exception being funerals“.
His motion added that it „was not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve“.
Thompson’s move originated from a church service in June attended by Stella Harville, aged 24, and her black fiance Ticha Chikuni, 29. Harville, a keen pianist, accompanied Chikuni as he sang the hymn I Surrender All at the service.
On 7 August, Thompson, still pastor at that point, approached Stella’s father, Dean Harville, who holds office as the secretary and treasurer of the church. „Thompson told me that Stella and her boyfriend were not allowed to sing in the church any more,“ Dean Harville said.
Stella’s mother, Cathy Harville, confronted Thompson and asked him who precisely had a problem with the couple. „I, for one, do,“ Thompson replied. „The best thing that Stella can do is take her boyfriend back to where he came from.“
Chikuni is originally from Zimbabwe. He has lived in the US for 11 years, having come to Kentucky to study, and now works as a student advisor at Georgetown College.
Thompson stepped down as pastor in August, citing health problems, but continued to press his case against the couple. When his motion was put to the vote on Sunday, nine members registered in favour of it and six against, with about 25 parishioners abstaining by leaving the church before the ballot was called.
Stella Harville, who is taking a master’s degree in Indiana, said she was in shock. She has been attending the church since she was a baby and knows the nine people who voted for the motion personally.
„They are my church family,“ she said. She added that she had also been deeply hurt by the 25 who had abstained as they had failed to take a stand against bigotry.
„It’s embedded in our culture, especially in certain areas, that interracial marriage is wrong. Some of them have tried to invoke the Bible to support their argument, but anyone who reads the Bible knows there is no scripture saying this,“ Harville said.
Dean Harville said that the ban had given „a black eye to the church, a black eye to our community and a black eye to God. The way I look at it, it’s a slap in God’s face to say something like this.“
Thompson, who runs a hardware store, was not available for comment. He told a local radio station: „I do not believe in interracial marriages, and I do not believe this will give our church a black eye at all.“
Relationships between white and black people, particularly white women and black men, were a running sore in the days of segregation in the US. Interracial marriage was only made fully legal in 1967.
Polls show that disapproval of the practice has faded with every generation, with up to 97% of younger Americans now having no issue with it. But pockets of resistance remain in places like Alabama, where 41% voted against removing a ban on mixed-race marriages from the state constitution as recently as 2000.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said he was astounded that the Kentucky church had openly moved to bar mixed-race couples. „It shows there are a large number of people who still absolutely oppose these relationships“.
Under federal law, discrimination on grounds of race is unlawful, but religious groups are exempt.
A meeting of the regional conference of Free Will Baptists churches has been called for Saturday. It is expected to censure the Gulnare motion, though it has no authority to overturn the ban.
Dean Harville intends to bring the matter to another vote this Sunday in the hope of removing the ban. Even if it is rescinded Stella Harville says the damage has been done.
„Who knows, I might go back to the church, but it will take a while to get over the hurt,“ she said.