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.