By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A predominantly white church in Mississippi, a state with a long history of racial divisions, has stirred racial tensions after refusing to host the wedding of a black couple who had regularly attended its services.
The Reverend Stan Weatherford of First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, a small community in southern Mississippi, told the couple their wedding plans made some congregants uncomfortable, according to Barbara Mack, a longtime church member.
Instead of marrying Te'Andrea Henderson and then-fiance Charles Wilson at the church, Weatherford performed the couple's July 21 ceremony at a nearby chapel.
News of the pastor's decision triggered a deluge of criticism. People have blasted the church on its Facebook page, calling it "a poster pin-up for racists around the globe" and saying it "gives both Christians, Southern Baptists and the state of Mississippi a bad name."
Neither the Wilsons nor Weatherford could be reached on Monday. The phone line at the church had a continuous busy signal, and Mack said workers probably took the phone off the hook after being bombarded by media calls.
"We have been misreported that we're a racist church and that we don't welcome blacks," she said.
"This is not the truth."
Mack said most of the church's 700 or 800 members would have welcomed the Wilsons' wedding, but she said she stood behind the pastor's decision to relocate it.
"Apparently a few disgruntled people found out about it and blew it out of proportion," Mack said.
"The Wilsons had agreed to move it, they had understood the situation and that everything was going to be okay," she said. Weatherford "had no idea that they would cause a problem."
The controversy comes just a month after the Southern Baptist Convention, with which the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs is affiliated, elected the first black president in the 167-year-old denomination's history.
The church is trying to distance itself from its early ties to slavery and become more diverse.
Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, said on Monday that the denomination rejects racial discrimination but respects the autonomy of its local churches to deal with "difficulties and disagreements."
Futral noted Mississippi's "long journey for right racial relationships," a nod to the Southern state's legacy of discrimination against African Americans and central role in confronting it during the civil rights movement and since.
"While there may be hurts, wrongs and mistakes that must be addressed, the context for this to happen is in a historical church with a genuine caring pastor and thoughtful leaders who are seeking to do right," Futral said in a statement.
In a statement issued on Sunday and posted online, the deacons at First Baptist Church said, "Our many ministries here are open to everyone and have been for many years. We would never consider doing otherwise. In the coming days and weeks our congregation will gather as a body of believers to pray and seek God's blessing and direction as we move forward."
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said he was meeting with the Wilsons on Monday. Johnson declined to comment on their experience until speaking with the couple.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)