Support grows for interracial couple after pastor deems rite wrong

August 22, 1991|By Paul Nussbaum | Paul Nussbaum,Knight-Ridder News Service

STROUDSBURG, PA. JLB — STROUDSBURG, Pa. -- Two days after their marriage, Angela Harms and Brian Storm were sorting through the aftereffects of a wedding: gifts to pack, soggy ice chests to empty, relatives to entertain, calls from TV talk shows to return.

"We've got Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich, 'CBS This Morning,' 'Good Morning America,' " said Mr. Storm, sitting on his mother-in-law's sofa, one arm draped over the shoulders of his bride. "Oh, yeah, and Channel 9 in New York."

Ms. Harms, 21, and Mr. Storm, 20, have become the biggest celebrities of the moment in the Pocono Mountains, thrust into the limelight by a local preacher's refusal to marry them.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Samuel Butler, pastor of the Wesleyan Church in this resort town, has gone into seclusion, staying out of his pulpit Sunday and avoiding his office this week.

His announcement last week that he would not perform the wedding because he objects to interracial marriages brought Mr. Butler, who is white, a flood of unwanted media attention, as well as criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a statement of support from the Ku Klux Klan.

Ms. Harms is white. Mr. Storm's father is black and his mother white.

That combination was offensive to Mr. Butler's religious scruples. Last week, four days before he was to have married the couple, at the second of what were to be three prewedding counseling sessions, Mr. Butler asked Mr. Storm the fateful question.

"He said, 'Are you Spanish or Afro-American?' " Mr. Storm said, recalling the moment. "I said I was half-black and half-white. He said that based on his religious beliefs, he doesn't do interracial marriages."

"We were shocked," Ms. Harms said. "We just got up and walked out. Until then, everything was perfect . . . he had been really nice. He told my mother, 'Angie didn't tell me the situation.' "

"Situation!" Mr. Storm snorted. "What situation?"

"It never occurred to us that it could be a problem," Ms. Harms said.

The couple had been planning to marry in December but decided to move up their wedding date when Mr. Storm, a recent Army volunteer, learned he would soon be assigned to duty in Anchorage, Alaska.

Ms. Harms and Mr. Storm had asked Mr. Butler to perform the ceremony because he had officiated at Ms. Harms' sister's wedding in 1987.

The preacher said he would do it as a favor to the family, who are not members of the Wesleyan Church, and would require only three counseling sessions instead of the customary six, because of the time deadline.

The first counseling session, five days before Saturday's wedding, went smoothly, Ms. Harms and Mr. Storm said. But the next day, at the beginning of the second session, Mr. Butler asked the question about race.

"My mother asked him if he would have married us if Brian was Puerto Rican," Ms. Harms said. "He said, 'I don't know.' "

Mr. Butler told the Pocono Record newspaper, "My reasons are personal, scriptural, really, private." Other leaders of the local church refused to comment.

But the head of the national Wesleyan denomination, a theologically conservative branch of Methodism, said the denomination was dedicated to racial equality and had no sanctions against interracial marriages.

Ronald Brannon, general secretary of the 200,000-member denomination, said Tuesday from church headquarters in Indianapolis that the Wesleyan constitution prohibited discrimination of any kind. He said the denomination was committed to equal religious opportunity for all races.

But he did say individual ministers ordained in the Wesleyan de

nomination were authorized to marry whoever they determined conformed to church principles.

"It's a right to perform marriages, not a duty to be demanded," Mr. Brannon said, adding that the national denomination had no plans to discipline or censure Mr. Butler.

In Stroudsburg, the wedding plans were thrown into disarray. The Rev. David Tayman, at the nearby Christian Life Assembly, agreed to perform the ceremony last Saturday. Ms. Harms and Mr. Storm called the approximately 75 guests to tell them of the sudden change in plans.

They also called the Monroe County chapter of the NAACP. Royce McClanahan, president of the chapter, said the organization's attorneys were trying to determine whether Mr. Butler violated the civil rights of the couple by refusing to marry them on racial grounds.

The general response from area residents, according to both the young couple and the NAACP leader, has been supportive.

"We've been getting a lot of people calling, saying we did the right thing," Ms. Harms said. "So I know this kind of thinking isn't all over -- I know it's just him."

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