An African-American couple attending a predominantly white Baptist church in Jackson, Miss., nearly had their dream of a church wedding dashed when members of the congregation demanded that the nuptials be held elsewhere because of their race.
"The church congregation had decided no black could be married at that church, and that if he went on to marry her, then they would vote him out the church," Charles Wilson told local news station WAFB-TV.
Wilson and his wife, commenting on how the Rev. Stan Weatherford of First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs decided to perform their wedding ceremony at a different church, said racism was to blame.
"I feel like it was blatant racial discrimination," Wilson told the Clarion-Ledger.
"He had people in the sanctuary that were pitching a fit about us being a black couple," said Te'Andrea Wilson. "I didn't like it at all, because I wasn't brought up to be racist. I was brought up to love and care for everybody."
Charles and Te'Andrea Wilson are not members of FBC of Crystal Springs, but had been regular attendees, with Mrs. Wilson having family ties to the congregation. Her father used to attend the church and she has an uncle who was a custodian there.
"Prior to this, I had been telling people how nice they were here," Charles Wilson said. "It makes you re-evaluate things. We were doing everything right. We wanted to get married."
The Wilsons did get married on July 21 as planned, just not in the church where they had hoped to hold the ceremony.
No black couple has ever been married at First Baptist Church of Crystal Cathedral. Pastor Weatherford has said that members would be holding meetings to see how to go forward to avoid future situations similar to the one involving the Wilsons.
According to insiders at the 150-year-old First Baptists Church of Crystal Springs, about five or six people had approached Weatherford about the planned ceremony after witnessing a rehearsal at the church two days before the Saturday wedding.
Wilson only learned after the fact that it was reportedly a handful of people who challenged having the ceremony held at the church. He insisted that Weatherford should have pushed back instead of giving in to congregants' demands.
"If you're for Christ, you can't straddle the fence," he told the Clarion-Ledger. "He knew it was wrong."
Weatherford, calling himself a peacemaker, said he felt it necessary to comply with requests to move the wedding ceremony elsewhere.
"I was just trying to think about a win-win," the pastor explained. "The thing is, I'm a peacemaker, and sometimes because I'm a peacemaker it gets me in trouble. The thing about it is this: I love the people of our church and that's the bottom line."
Weatherford insisted his primary concerns were keeping peace at the church and making sure the Wilsons could enjoy their wedding day.
"I didn't want to have a controversy within the church, and I didn't want a controversy to affect the wedding of Charles and Te'Andrea. I wanted to make sure their wedding day was a special day," the pastor told a local news station.
Others have suggested that Weatherford was essentially bullied into performing the wedding ceremony elsewhere and that the dissenting members do not represent the entire congregation.
"Some individuals intimidated the pastor and created a situation that had him in a bind and he was trying to do the best he could to work it out," church attendee Bob Mack told WLBT-TV.
African-Americans in Jackson who have visited the church or have relationships with its members have defended it against claims of racism.
Church members also have apologized to the Wilsons and the local black community, denying that their church is home to a racist congregation.
Barbara Marck, a member of First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, said the church's image has been overshadowed by a few bad apples.
"We have been portrayed as a racist church, we're not! We welcome anybody that wants to come through those doors," she said.
The Rev. Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, said the situation at FBC of Crystal Springs was a "sad thing."
"It's not reflective of the spirit of the Lord and Mississippi Baptists," he said. "It's just a step backward. … It's a sad thing."
Saying much progress had been made in the denomination, Futral admitted that this step was definitely "one backward."
The racism row comes just one month after the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant body in in the U.S., elected its first African-American president, the Rev. Frank Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La.