By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
A Freewill Baptist church in a small Kentucky town made big news recently when it voted 9-6 against allowing interracial couples to become members or to participate in worship leadership.
Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, Ky., took the vote, apparently targeting Stella Harville, daughter of the church's secretary and her boyfriend from Africa, Ticha Chikuni. The Georgetown College couple sang together in a service during the summer.
After the service, the church's pastor at the time, Melvin Thompson, took Stella's father Dean aside and informed him that Stella and her fiancé would no longer be allowed to sing at the church because they were an interracial couple.
Weeks later — after Thompson had been replaced by current pastor Stacy Stepp — the congregation, the Harville family and Chikuni assumed the incident was behind them.
However, Thompson, who remained a member of the congregation after he was replaced as pastor, brought up his interracial concerns again and asked to have a meeting with the men of the church to discuss it. Out of that meeting came a recommendation — approved by a 3-2 vote — to the entire membership to go on record against interracial membership and participation in worship.
The vote followed a Sunday worship service. Several members left before the vote and several others declined to vote. The nine who favored the ban carried the day.
The church's decision divided the rural community. According to at least one source, many people inside and outside the church were put out that the matter even came up for a vote.
In the end, Stepp, who said he was against the ban in the first place, declared the vote null and void because it was discriminatory and against the law. He came before the Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists — consisting of 13 Pike County churches — to give an update.
The conference met and released a statement saying it had reviewed the situation and concluded that the vote was of no effect because it was not carried out in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order.
Through it all, former pastor Thompson insisted he was not a racist.
This is one situation where a former pastor should have let go and moved his church membership elsewhere. It is unclear whether he would be welcome in any of the Free Will Baptist congregations in the county after drawing nationwide negative scorn to Gulnare Church.
Even laypeople like me recognize that leading a congregation might sometimes seem to a pastor like herding cats. It sounds like Rev. Stepp made the right decision, even if it meant stepping on his predecessor's toes.
Rev. Thompson should probably be relieved that the church has not voted to ban dinosaurs from its services.