By KEVIN SACK
Published: March 29, 1996
ATLANTA, March 28— Southern Baptist officials today denounced efforts by leaders of a small south Georgia church to disinter the body of a mixed-race baby who was buried last week in the church's all-white cemetery.
But officials with the state and national Baptist conventions, which have recently taken stands against racism, said they were prohibited from expelling or otherwise sanctioning the church, which abandoned its effort this week under criticism. The officials said strict rules protect the autonomy of the country's 40,000 Southern Baptist congregations.
On Monday night, three days after the burial of Whitney Elaine Johnson, who died 19 hours after birth, a deacon of the Barnetts Creek Baptist Church in Thomasville, Ga., apparently told the infant's family that church leaders wanted the tiny coffin moved to another cemetary.
"He said they don't allow half-breeds in their cemetery," Sylvia K. Leverett, the baby's maternal grandmother, said she was told by a deacon of her church, Logan Lewis. "He said, 'That's a 100 percent white cemetery.' "
Mr. Lewis could not be reached for comment today. He was quoted in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, "There's not any mixing of cemeteries anywhere in this area. If someone white asked to be buried in a black cemetery, he'd be a laughing stock."
The child, born to 18-year-old Jaime L. Wireman, who is white, and her boyfriend, Jeffrey Johnson, 25, who is black, died because she did not have a fully formed skull.
Ms. Wireman said she and Mr. Johnson, who live together in a trailer, have been repeatedly harassed during their two-year relationship. She said they have been kicked out of pool halls and bowling alleys and have been pelted on the roadside with rocks and bottles thrown from passing cars.
Leon VanLandingham, the part-time pastor of the 130-member church, said today that the church deacons never formally voted to request the baby's removal from the family plot in the graveyard. They did vote, he said, to write the funeral home to complain that "they were concerned about being deceived" about the baby's race, which he said was not apparent until Friday's open-casket funeral. The church has no black members.
After the dispute was publicized on Wednesday by local newspapers and television stations, the church abandoned any effort to move the coffin.
"For the record, the baby will not be moved," Mr. VanLandingham said today, his eyes welling with tears. "We are all aware that God is no respecter of persons. We are also aware that we are part of an imperfect world and in our own imperfection we find ourselves having to make uninformed and or misinformed decisions and then having to live with the outcome."
The incident has dismayed leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that was founded in large part in defense of slavery and that has struggled with racial issues throughout its 151-year history.
Only last year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination, passed a landmark resolution to "repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery" and to "apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and perpetuating individual and systemic racism."
In reaction to the Barnetts Creek incident, the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention issued statements today referring to the resolution's call for Baptists to "eradicate racism in all its forms" from Southern Baptist life and ministry. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission, issued a statement calling the incident "reprehensible and an embarrassment to the gospel of Christ."
He added: "I would urge the church deacons to consider the fact that their church is under the lordship of Christ. They are not autonomous in relation to Him, and He has made it clear that racism in any form is the antithesis of His gospel."
But the convention statements also stressed that the organizations had no authority over their member churches. In recent years, however, local, state and national Southern Baptist associations have moved to expel churches that violated convention policies against the hiring of female ministers or that seemed to endorse homosexual behavior.
In 1992, for instance, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted to oust a Raleigh church that blessed the "union" of two homosexual men, and a Chapel Hill church that sponsored the ordination of a gay minister. Later that year, the Southern Baptist Convention amended its constitution to ban churches that approved of homosexuality.
In 1987, the Shelby Baptist Association, a county organization in western Tennessee, banished a Memphis church that hired a female pastor. That church later left the Southern Baptist Convention on its own.
Several seminarians and academic authorities on the Southern Baptist Convention said today that they had never before heard of a church dispute over the burial of a person of mixed race. But they said they occasionally heard that churches refused membership to interracial couples.
Bill J. Leonard, chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Samford University, a Baptist college in Birmingham, said the Barnetts Creek case shows that "racism in the Christian church and among Southern Baptists is still a deep wound that can be opened at any time."
Mrs. Leverett said that her family would be leaving Barnetts Creek. And she recalled today that at Whitney's funeral, when the baby was laid to rest wearing a white dress with pink ribbons, Mr. VanLandingham "preached how she was a child of God, how she had a purpose to be here, and that it might take many years or just a few days to find out what that purpose was."
"Now I know what her purpose was," Mrs. Leverett said. "It was to open people's eyes to what's going on in these churches."