CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Miss. – The inability of an African American couple to wed at predominantly white First Baptist Church in Crystal Springs, Miss., is not indicative of Southern Baptists, denominational leaders said.
The pastor’s decision to change the wedding venue, after a few members’ reaction because of the couple’s race, is an unfortunate, isolated incident from which pastors can learn, Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Fred Luter said.
“We just have to be aware that the enemy will use anything he can to come against our churches and our ministries with something like this. And so we’ve always got to be aware that the enemy is out to kill, steal and destroy,” said Luter, the first African American elected as SBC president. “It’s unfortunate that it happened, but we’ve got to learn from it, and be able to go on and do what God has called us to do.
“What we can learn from it is that we need to talk to our membership about issues. I think if the pastor would have talked to more members about this … when this situation occurred … it probably would not have happened the way it happened,” Luter said.
Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, said the state and nation have long worked toward racial healing.
“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. “While there may be hurts, wrongs and mistakes that must be addressed, the context for this to happen is in a historical church with a genuine caring pastor and thoughtful leaders who are seeking to do right.”
Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention communications and relations with the SBC Executive Committee, said the SBC affirms in Article 15 of its doctrinal Baptist Faith and Message that racism is against God’s will.
“The convention’s position on race relations is clear: ‘In the Spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism,’” Oldham said. “We are all saddened when any sin, including the sin of racism, rears its head in our midst. It is equally unfortunate when a group within a church seeks to determine church policy without giving the church an opportunity to discuss the matter and take formal action as a congregation.”
First Baptist Crystal Springs is in the headlines because a black couple, Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson, was forced to move their wedding to a second location just one day prior to the event. The church’s pastor, Stan Weatherford, conducted the wedding July 21 at a nearby African American church, telling the Wilsons some members of the 150-year-old First Baptist objected to the wedding because it involved a black couple.
“This [the wedding of a black couple] had not, had never been done here before, so it was setting a new precedent. And there were those who reacted to that because of that,” Weatherford told WLBT-TV in Jackson. “I didn’t want to have a controversy within the church and I certainly didn’t want a controversy to affect the wedding of Charles and Te’Andrea. I wanted to make sure that their wedding day was a special day.”
According to news reports, “five or six” church members, who had not been identified as of press time, objected to the wedding. Weatherford’s job was on the line, according to the Wilsons.
They “had decided that no black couple had been married at their church and that if he went on to … marry us, then they would vote him out and he would be put out of the church,” Charles Wilson told WLBT.
The couple had been attending the church – she one year and he one month – but had not officially joined. Te’Andrea’s father was a member of the church and her uncle was a custodial employee, according to news reports.
Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said that while there may be valid reasons a couple may be denied a church wedding, “the race or ethnicity of that couple is never a valid reason.”
Numerous members of First Baptist Crystal Springs have expressed dismay that a few members could bar the wedding. At the July 29 service, a church deacon read a joint statement from the church’s deacons.
“Our many ministries here are open to everyone and have been for many years. We would never consider doing otherwise,” the deacon said, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper. “In the coming days and weeks our congregation will gather as a body of believers to pray and seek God’s blessing and direction as we move forward. We will ask for forgiveness where God reveals it is necessary and for His guidance as we look to the future of our congregation.”
Weatherford has stated he was looking for a “win-win” situation in moving the wedding to another venue.
“I was prepared to just go ahead and do the wedding here, just like it was planned and just like we had agreed to,” Weatherford told WLBT. “I was just looking for an opportunity, an option to be able to address a need within our congregation and at the same time minister to them.”
Luter sympathized with Weatherford’s position.
“I felt for the pastor because being a pastor myself, I know how awkward situations like that can be, whereby you have a handful of folks who have influence and will cause issues that the other folks are not aware of,” Luter said. “From all the indications that I’ve seen and read, the majority of the members were in support of this marriage happening at the church and it’s just so unfortunate that it came to this.”
Luter encouraged pastors to stand firm in serving the Lord.
“So I just want to encourage those pastors out there to, I even want to encourage pastor Stan Weatherford who went through this, just … learn from this as we all need to learn from this, and go on,” Luter said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened, but we’ve got to learn from it, and be able to go on and do what God has called us to do.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer.)