A controversial pastors conference for "white Christians" is underway in Guin, Ala., with participants shrugging off criticism by arguing that they have a right to practice their religious freedom. Local Christians, however, say organizers are contradicting Scripture and spreading racism.
The conference, described in fliers with the phrase "Annual Pastors Conference All White Christians Invited," is led by the locally-operated Christian Identity Ministries (CIM). The conference, reportedly in its fourth year, is designed to speak to those who belong to the "chosen race," as CIM founder the Rev. Mel Lewis told local news station WAFF-TV.
The Rev. Calvin Woods, a member of the Southern Leadership Conference, told WBRC-TV that although Americans have a right to assemble peacefully, the all-white pastor's conference appears racist.
"It sounds like racism to me," he said. "Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly, but to just point out you only want white Christians, that doesn't sound Christian [to me at all], sounds like something Satan would want."
The conference, which wraps up Friday, will be concluded with what organizers are calling a "Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony," or cross-burning, which will represent "opposition to tyranny." Cross-burning is historically known to be a practice widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan.
Although Lewis's event has a large KKK presence, it is not sponsored by the white supremacy organization.
Lewis told WAFF-TV that the city of Guin, along with surrounding Lamar County, is violating his group's religious freedom, as the mayor ordered all fliers advertising the conference to be removed after local citizens complained that the fliers were offensive and hateful.
"We are not breaking any laws. We're not violating any ordinances. We're bringing the Word of God to people who want it, obviously, or they wouldn't be here," Lewis said.
During an interview with a local news reporter Lewis was asked if his belief that white Christians are a part of "the chosen race" contradicts biblical teachings that say all humans are created equal under God.
"Well, you've picked out some wonderful verses out of context and out of the direction of Scripture," Lewis answered. "All you're doing is making a mockery of God's Word. You're absolutely abusing the Scripture."
Although the Christian Identity Ministry maintains that its "white Christians" event and cross burnings has nothing to do with hatred and racism, critics aren't buying it.
"The only context that I'm familiar with is one that is not very positive," said Hezekiah Jackson, president of the NAACP's Birmingham Metro Chapter, commenting on the "Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony."
"And one that really symbolizes an era that many of us have hoped to put behind us. And that is this whole era of Jim Crow, this whole era of white supremacy, this whole era of discrimination and racial hatred," he added. "I think it's really hard to clarify what's going on, but it seems to be some vestiges of what we call white supremacy here in Alabama. We just have to be honest about it."
As for why only white Christians are invited to the conference, CIM pastor William Collier reportedly said the group lacked the facilities to accommodate non-whites.
"We're seldom ever have been invited to black Muslim events and we never have been invited to NAACP events and we never have been invited to join Jewish synagogues events and stuff," Collier said.
"It has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of racism or hate or anything like that," he added. "And anybody who would brand it as that would be a racist and a hater themselves, you know," he added.
Observers, however, remain unconvinced.
"Real Christians are working to eradicate racism," said the Rev. Woods.