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Race Relations in the Contemporary Church

Three Examples of Religious Institutions Accused of Racism

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Race Relations in the Contemporary Church

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When evangelical institution Bob Jones University ended its notorious ban on interracial dating in 2000, it appeared as if American Christianity had entered a new era. Christians seemed to understand that racism hurt the church’s mission far more than it helped it. They also remarked that Jesus Christ himself did not endorse racism. “We can’t back it up with a verse in the Bible,” Bob Jones III, then university president, said of the school’s decision to reverse its ban on interracial couples. But as BJU ended a five decades long discriminatory policy and churches across the nation began to make racial reconciliation and diversity primary goals, racism didn’t simply vanish from the pews. Well into the 21st century, a number of churches have made headlines for racially discriminating against people of color. They demonstrate the amount of progress the church must make to overcome racism.

Kentucky Church Bans Interracial Couple

More than 11 years after Bob Jones University ended its ban on interracial couples, a Kentucky church voted to bar mixed couples from attending services or participating in activities there. Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County made the move in November 2011 after a white member who’d grown up in the church, Stella “Susie” Harville, brought her Zimbabwean fiancée to a worship service during which she played the piano and he, Ticha Chikuni, sang. To say the 40-member church didn’t react well to the news would be putting it lightly. The Rev. Melvin Thompson approached Harville’s father, Dean Harville, a longtime member, and reportedly said, “Susie and her boyfriend are not allowed to sing in this church anymore.” He also reportedly said that Stella Harville could “take her fella back where she found him from.”

The minister didn’t stop there. On Nov. 27, Thompson’s church voted 9-6 to banish interracial couples from the church. A slew of newspaper headlines publicizing the move followed. This led to a public backlash against the church and the denomination to which it belongs, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, to issue a statement condemning the move. Shortly afterward, the regional chapter of the Free Will Baptists announced that Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church’s policy was “null and void,” given that the vote was not held in accordance to the denomination’s rules. In December, Gulnare Free Will Baptist announced that it had reversed its ban. Moreover, the Rev. Melvin Thompson no longer serves as pastor of the church.

Alabama Pastor Holds “Whites Only” Christian Conference

Residents of the town of Winfield, Ala., were stunned to see a flier in July 2012 advertising a racially segregated conference. The announcement stated: “Annual Pastors Conference All White Christians Invited.” The Rev. William C. Collier, who put on the event, told Alabama television station WRBC that his organization, Church of God’s Chosen (Christian Identity Ministries), is not racist. Yet, Collier admitted that he believes “the white race is God’s chosen people.” Arguably more shocking than the fact that a “whites only” conference took place in Alabama long after Jim Crow ended in the South is that Collier held the event for three years before it finally sparked controversy.

Mississippi Church Refuses to Host Black Wedding

It’s no secret that some churches oppose interracial dating, but First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi stands out for refusing to allow a black couple to wed on its premises. Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson learned just days before their July wedding that they couldn’t have their ceremony at the church because some members of the congregation told the pastor that they didn’t want a black couple to get married there. They approached the pastor after noticing that the Wilsons had their rehearsal dinner there. It’s not clear why members of the congregation objected to a black wedding taking place there. The Rev. Stan Weatherford, the church pastor, ended up marrying the couple at a nearby church but that didn’t appease them. “I feel like it was blatant racial discrimination,” Charles Wilson told the Clarion Ledger newspaper. “It makes you re-evaluate things.”

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