JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Southern Baptist leaders called Monday for a Mississippi church to reject racism after some congregants prevented a black couple from getting married there.
Leaders of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention said Monday that preventing Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson from marrying at First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs was wrong. 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.
"Our entire country, and especially here in Mississippi, has been on a long journey for right racial relationships," Futral said in a statement. "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."
Crystal Springs town officials planned a racial unity rally Monday evening.
The Rev. Stan Weatherford, pastor of the church, married the Wilsons earlier this month at a predominantly black church in Crystal Springs, a small town south of Jackson. The wedding was moved to that church after some congregants told Weatherford they opposed allowing black people to marry at the First Baptist Church he leads.
Charles Wilson has said congregants threatened to fire Weatherford, though the pastor has said only that he was trying to make peace and avoid conflict. Some church members said Sunday that they were not consulted and disagreed with the decision to block the wedding.
The Southern Baptist Convention was born in the split between north and south before the Civil War, a split that also occurred in other Protestant denominations. 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.