Thinking About Race, the Church and Pike County, KY

Kentucky was at the center of the national consciousness, this week, and it had nothing to do with the play of the University of Kentucky basketball team. Unfortunately, it had everything to do with some of the more disappointing and frustrating aspects of Appalachian culture.

Word came out this week that a Pike County, Ky., church had decided to ban interracial couples from being members. The action by Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church came as a result of one of its members brought her fiance, who is black, to church. While the decision is likely to be overturned by an anticipated church vote that could come as early as Sunday, it raises many questions that are applicable to both Appalachian culture and the church, both the individual church and the church at large.

Why did this happened? Why does racism continue to exist in Appalachia? How was this allowed to happen in the church? What can we do in response?

Obviously, there are likely many other questions that are likely to be asked, and should be asked. These are just the ones that I believe are most prominent, at this time, to the discussion, and I can only offer thoughts as it relates to my own interactions with Appalachian culture and my role in the church.

First, let me say that the decision by this church was completely wrong. No where in Scripture is permission given to not marry someone based solely on their race. Passages that deal with who to marry focus on staying within the faith. Contextually, these passages (such as Paul’s warnings about marriage) focus on the dangers of what can happen when two people are not equally yoked. We read our own worldview into these passages when we attempt to wrongly argue that God desires marriages to be limited based on a similar race or culture.

God does not desire racist attitudes. Instead, he desires us to see all of God’s people as his children. All of Scripture tells us of God’s free and gracious love that is given to all of humanity. It is not limited to a specific race, nor is it limited to a specific culture. God’s grace and love is available to all who would believe and “earnestly repent,” to use the words of the United Methodist communion confessional, of their sin and seek to live in a peace and a relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As children of God, then, we are called to be witnesses of God’s love by reflecting that love to others. This means that we are to be witnesses of that love and share it with all people, races, and cultures. Our love must be blind to a person’s color and must be willing to see others as someone who God loves and created.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Our nation’s dark history of slavery and racism is still a problem. While we strive for the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to see not the color of someone’s skin, but to judge someone by the “content of their character,” we all fail from time to time. This is especially true in Appalachian culture. It is a culture that is very protectionist, and refuses to recognize anything that it claims to not be normal. By this nature, it breeds racist attitudes that can come out in the most unfortunate of ways and circumstances.

While Appalachian culture is mostly seen as racist by those who live in other parts of the country and world, let us not be blind to believe that racism only exists in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The country still struggles with seeing people from other cultures and races as children of God. Some of the discussions surrounding illegal immigration have racial tones that are hidden behind arguments of “protecting our borders.” We can all grow in what it means to see all of God’s people, regardless of their race and culture, as children of God.

For this to happen, I believe the church must take the lead, and I believe the church has. Many congregations are becoming places where all races and cultures are welcomed, and I believe this should be embraced as a holy representation of the kingdom of God. There are dialogues that exists between races and cultures which, I believe, are producing great fruit in the life of the church.

However, those outside the faith will not hear these stories today. Instead, they will see the entire church as an exact copy of the church in Pike County. This paints the church with a broad brush, but when churches like the one in Pike County or others, for instance Westboro Baptist make national news, we are all impacted. As witnesses of Christ’s love for all people, we must be willing to stand for the truth of the Gospel and what it means to live as people of God. It is a difficult challenge that the church faces as we seek to overturn the negative perception that many who are outside the faith have based on the examples of a few rogue communities. We do this, collectively, by sharing the love of Christ to all people and at all times.

Because we live in a fallen world and are fallen people, there will be other examples of the church being misguided in its interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will hear of people who desire to place their own worldview on top of Scripture, instead of allowing Scripture guide and inform their worldview. And, we will be shocked and dismayed by the inability of the church to be the church.

When this happens, let us use it as an opportunity to show others the true nature of God’s love. A God who loved us so much that he sent His Son to live with us and die the death we deserved to die. A love that is available to all us, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we are called to share with all freely.

Today, let us be a living witness of Christ’s love by sharing that love with all of God’s people, no matter their race, no matter their culture, and matter their creed.

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7 thoughts on “Thinking About Race, the Church and Pike County, KY

  1. First, as a Pike Countian, I am deeply sorry for what this congregation has done. Please know that not everyone from the region or the county agrees with what was done. In fact, there’s already been a great outcry from the county on this issues. What they’ve done is highly reprehensible, and they need to rectify the problem as soon as humanly (or divinely) possible.

    However, I must chide the extreme stereotype of Appalachia used here. The region is described as “protectionist, and refuses to recognize anything that it claims to not be normal.” This view is based on extremely outdated writings on Appalachia. Contemporary Appalachian scholarship highlights the diversity of thought, outlook, race, sexuality, and creed within the region. Just because this event occurred in Appalachian doesn’t make it a purely exceptional Appalachian event. The culture does not breed “racist attitudes,” though there are certainly racists in Appalachia, as there are anywhere. What I”m getting at is this event could have happened anywhere, from NYC to the midwest; just because it occurred in Appalachia doesn’t make it an Appalachian problem.

  2. I definitely agree with Marc. There has been overwhelming local outrage with regards to this incident. Even if the church members responsible can’t make the connection, the community knows where they stand, and that is firmly against racism.

    • Sophia,

      Thanks for your thoughts. As I told Marc, I always encourage great and informative dialogue here.

      I am encouraged, and excited, to hear of the outrage that has taken place regarding this proposal. My hope is that this is not just a moment to say “this is wrong,” but to walk with people and help them to understand why this is wrong. That might be the greater challenge that exists in our culture in the United States, which, sadly, still fosters racism from the national level to the local level.

      The fact this incident took place during Advent, which is the time the church is anticipatory of Christ’s return and celebrating the peace, joy, and hope, that comes from Christ, truly makes me sad. However, I rejoice that Christ’s love will break through in this situation, and will transform lives. My hope is that people will be willing to be transformed and walk with Christ through this.

      Blessings to you! May God be with you this day!

      Peace,

      Shannon

  3. Marc,

    First, I want to thank you for time in reading my thoughts. It is always great to hear of others, especially when there is support and frustrations for things that I wrote. I know this has to be a troubling time for you, personally, being from Pike County. This is an unfortunate situation that paints Pike County in a bad light among those who are unfamiliar with its great qualities.

    I want to get to something that you commented on about my use of a ‘stereotype” regarding Appalachia. I have to disagree with you on the nature of Appalachian culture. As someone who grew up in Appalachia, and is quite interested in the progress that is being made in Appalachia, it is still a culture that struggles with change. Racism is a problem in Appalachia, as it is many corners of the United States. I would be interested in reading the scholarship that you are referencing.

    My point was merely to bring out the fact that these attitudes still exist in Appalachia, and not to say that it is not a problem if it happened elsewhere. It would be just as much of a problem if it occurred in New York, San Francisco, or Louisville. The fact that it happened in Appalachia, in a region that has for too long encouraged and lived with racist attitudes, I believe it is a challenge for people of faith to rise up against it.

    We have a long ways to go, even though great strides have been made. But trust me when I say that I am the last person who would voluntarily use stereotypes about a region that I love without it being supported in what I, unfortunately, know to be true. I wish it was different, and I pray for the day that it will be different in Appalachia and throughout the United States and the world.

    Looking forward to continued conversations with you on this topic. Blessings to you, my friend! May God be with you!

    Peace,

    Shannon

    • Shannon,

      I appreciate your rational tone; I think it’s a great example to me and to all of us that, when discussing a heated issue, we don’t need to become overheated ourselves. I try to do the same on my little Appalachian Studies blog, “An Appalachian Scholar” (appscholar.blogspot.com).

      I just wanted to point out a couple of things; first, prominent Appalachian Scholar Phillip Obermiller has stated that there is no evidence racism is more prevalent in Appalachia than any other part of the nation. Yes, there are some people in the region who are racist, and Appalachia, like the other parts of our nation, does have its share of racial problems.

      Also, I wanted to point that there are Appalachian Scholars out there who do study race in Appalachia. An exhaustive list can be found at the Appalachian Studies Bibliography at WVU’s website: http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/bibliography/ethnicity.htm. I encourage you to look at the wide variety of scholarly works written about race and ethnicity in Appalachia. The historical and social record is extremely complex, and it cannot be discussed in generalities.

      • Marc,

        Thanks for your reply. I will take a look at the scholarship, when I have some free time. I cannot promise you when I will get a chance to taking a look at it, but I will do so. By the way, I applaud you for giving me a link to my alma mater. West Virginia University is one of the finest examples of a great institution working to improve Appalachia for the better.

        I agree that we cannot paint with generalities. Racism is a problem throughout the country. From time to time, I believe I am capable of falling into the old traps from my time as a journalist, which was pre-pastorate. That is go with the generality, and make a conclusion. I will admit that some of my research on the topic of Appalachia is a couple of years old, and because of seminary and the pastorate I have no had the opportunity to avail myself to some of the newer scholarship. I will, and I hope that it will make be a better representative of Christ, and the great people of Appalachia, which I am proud to be a part of as both a West Virginian and a Kentuckian.

        As a pastor, I know this is a topic that is not isolated to this event. We have a long road ahead of us to improve our understanding of race. I hope we are all part of that discussion.

        Marc, once again, thanks for your comments. And, I look forward to future conversations and sharing of information on a topic that we both care deeply about.

        Peace,

        Shannon

  4. I have posted an update to the above post. I reread the article, and noticed a huge mistake in editing. Half of the post is missing, which is unfortunate. I have added the additional aspects, which is my personal call as a pastor, to encourage people to live as people of holiness and see people not based on their race, but by the content of their character.

    I believe this could be the reason for belief that I targeted Appalachian culture, which was not my intent. I am sorry if it seemed as that was the case, and I take full responsibility for the copy editing error. My intent was to show that this is a truly national problem, and a problem that calls all of us to be part of the answer. As a pastor in Kentucky, I hope to be part of that answer.

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