Baptist leaders ask Miss. church that turned down black couple’s wedding to reject racism

Crystal Springs, USA - Townspeople prayed for racial reconciliation Monday, but the black man whose wedding was rejected by a predominantly white Southern Baptist church in this small Mississippi town said he wasn’t ready to let racism be swept under the rug.

“Prayer works, but only if you want it to work, only if you want it to work in your heart” said Charles Wilson, the groom. “There are some that won’t change and I accept that. But I won’t stop talking about it. We’re still hurt.”

As 150 residents sweltered in a park beside a railroad track, their song of praise was drowned out by a southbound Canadian National freight train. The scene was today’s South writ small, a place where a lot of things have changed but where the pain of the old hurts can still flare anew.

Wilson and his bride Te’Andrea were to be married at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs on July 21. But after their rehearsal two nights before, the church’s pastor sought to move the service, saying some congregants didn’t want two black people to get married in the orange-brick sanctuary.

The Rev. Stan Weatherford married the Wilsons as scheduled in another sanctuary, but Charles Wilson began speaking out, saying he felt betrayed by the congregation and Weatherford. The pastor is personal friends with Te’Andrea’s family.

Weatherford says the relocation was a request meant to avoid conflict. The Wilsons say it was a demand, with Weatherford saying the congregation would fire him if he married the pair in his church.

Weatherford refused to confirm that and sidestepped questions about whether he had made a mistake.

“They say hindsight’s 20/20,” Weatherford said. “I’m going to continue to pray to the Lord for wisdom in my life.”

He said the church will confront its problems internally.

The Wilsons said Greg Duke, a Sunday school teacher, was the only member of the church to reach out to them. Duke said he found out about the relocated wedding the day after it happened, although it took a few days for him to piece together the facts. He said most of the church’s hundreds of members didn’t know what happened until the story hit the news.

Monday, as townspeople set off on a prayer march after the rally, he spoke to the Wilsons, inviting them to return and give the church another chance.

“I think a few people dictated what happened,” Duke said after speaking to Wilson and his crying wife. “I’d just like to say we were all hurt by this. Not like they were, but we were hurt.”

Duke said he hoped the people who objected to the wedding would step forward and make amends. Alderman Ray Brown, one of three black men on the five-member town board, said he agreed that the church should issue an official apology.

“I think the First Baptist members, the progressive ones, aren’t for this,” said Brown, who doesn’t attend the church. “I think there may be some ones that are stuck in the past.”

Monday’s rally was organized by Mayor Sally Garland, who is white, as reporters began streaming to this part-trim, part-scruffy town just south of Jackson’s suburban fringe. It featured a racially balanced group of pastors. The majority of attendees were white, though the town is majority-black.

Southern Baptist leaders called Monday for the church to reject racism. Baptist churches are autonomous, so they want the congregation to chart its own course.

Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention board, said the organization was praying for the church and is ready to help. William Perkins, a spokesman for the group, said the church has not contacted state officials.

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“Mississippi Baptists both reject racial discrimination and at the same time respect the autonomy of our local churches to deal with difficulties and disagreements under the lordship of Jesus,” Futral said in a statement.

After being slow to reach out across racial lines, Southern Baptists have made increasing efforts in that direction in the past two decades. Nationwide, about 19 percent of 45,000 Southern Baptist churches are majority-minority, including 3,500 that are majority black.

Earlier this year, the convention elected its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. At the same meeting, delegates voted to give churches the option of calling themselves Great Commission Baptist churches, for those who wish to break free of the baggage of the Southern Baptist name and reach more followers.

“We are all saddened when any sin, including the sin of racism, rears its head,” said Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Sing Oldham. “Part of our gospel is that we are being redeemed. We are flawed, failed creatures and redemption is a process.”

Oldham said “a sizeable number” of Baptist pastors are fired or forced to resign each year in conflicts with church members. Most seminaries teach that pastors should be fired only for moral failure or theological error, but Baptist officials say many ministers are fired for personal conflicts or other reasons.

“Unfortunately, most of the members of the church don’t read those books,” Oldham said.