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My Story: My Experience With Race and Racism as an Adventist

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In the past, I have shared my perspective on the racial divide we face as a church.

However, one aspect of this issue that I haven’t discussed yet is my own experience with race and racism within my own life and the Adventist church. I’ve been sitting on this post for over a year but, today I want to do that and share why, despite the challenges, I believe in a better future.

To begin with: I’m mixed, both ethnically and racially (that’s my family and I in the picture above at my brothers wedding last year). My father is an Afro-Caribbean from the Dominican Republic, with some Haitian decent. My mother is from the Central American country of El Salvador. Although many people may think all Hispanic countries are the same (no, we don’t all eat tortillas), these two cultures are vastly different.  Here is where my struggle with cultural, ethic, and racial identity begins.

FAMILY

I’ve never felt fully a part of the racial or ethnic categories that I belong to. Let’s take a high-profile example: President Barack Obama. Although he’s biracial, many people tend to see him as one race or the other. Being half and half myself, I never felt like someone who belongs fully to one culture.

Case in point: I’ve never been to the Dominican Republic (this is sacrilege when I say this around my Dominican friends). I mainly know the generalities or stereotypes of the culture (mangu and plantains), but most of my knowledge comes second-hand. I don’t even know how to cook like them (although I wish I did).

I know about bits and pieces about DR’s culture and history.  I have heard many great things about the country, and though I physically resemble the people there, I have never felt culturally connected to what it means to be a true Dominican.

The same goes with my Salvadorian side.  I’ve been there twice, both times as a child, and I remember being stared at because I clearly didn’t look Salvadorian. My friend Anissa has gone through similar experiences. I loved her thoughts on this.

All of this isn’t even getting into the confusing fact that Caribbean and Central American cultures are worlds apart in music, food, and even vernacular. In short, my world was (and still is) confusing.

Another way in which I’ve never felt like I belonged is my less-than-stellar Spanish. As a 2nd generation Hispanic, my Spanish is imperfect. Although I’m a fluent speaker, I grew up here in the United States. We spoke Spanish at home, but to this day, I feel like I’m not fully able to express myself as well in Spanish as I do in English. This is, in part, one of the reasons why I rarely write posts in Spanish.

With this background in mind, you can imagine the challenge it is to answer the usually simple question, “Where are you from?”

The best answer I can give is, “I’m from Miami. My parents are Dominican and Salvadorian.”

SCHOOL

Although I was born in Miami Beach, we moved to Overtown, Miami and lived there for several years after my younger brother was born.  (Overtown is a historically Black neighborhood, which was originally called Colored Town during the Jim Crow era).  I didn’t see color then because I thought I looked just like everyone else.

My first hint of racial differences came in Kindergarten. I attended Miami Union Academy, a Regional Conference day school. When my parents weren’t able to afford it anymore, I then attended first and second grade at Phillis Wheatley Elementary, a public school in Overtown.

I couldn’t understand why, even though I looked like everyone else in the class, I was referred to as “the little Spanish boy” in both schools. I noticed shortly thereafter that my brother was much more lighter-skinned than I was, and I remember asking my mom why my brother was lighter than me. From that point on I felt different, like I wasn’t part of the Black community.

At around age 7-8 my parents moved to Miami Lakes, a suburb north of Miami. I transitioned from an all-Black neighborhood into an all-White neighborhood (by White, I’m referring to the Irish, Jewish, and light-skinned Hispanic neighbors we had). I was now part of the small group of Black students in the whole school. Now, instead of “the little the Spanish boy,” some kids referred to me as “the Black kid.” It was a different context, but I was still out of place. I was still the minority… even among the Hispanics.

I was not Black, I was not White, and I was apparently not fully Hispanic. What was I?

I committed myself to becoming a blend of everything in order to fit somewhere. This was really crystalized in my mind in 3rd grade, when I wanted to do the morning news in elementary school.  To audition, I was asked to read a small script for the teacher in charge of it.

I was told that “because of my accent,” I would not be fully understood. I remember being incredibly sad. From that point on, I worked on my pronunciation and dedicated myself to having as flat of an accent as possible in both English and Spanish. To this day, I throw people off.

A few weeks ago, someone called asking to speak with me. I told them who I was, and after a few minutes the person remarked, “You don’t sound like a Nelson Fernandez.” I get this with both English and Spanish speakers. I guess training paid off.

From the hood to the suburbs… I was the fresh prince of Miami Lakes.

CHURCH

Until the age of 8, I grew up attending Regional Conference Hispanic churches.   When we moved to the suburbs, we also switched churches and were now attending a Spanish-speaking church in the State Conference. To the Hispanic community, the Regional-State conference divide creates a huge mess.

You can read how here.

My earliest memories were spent being mostly confused regarding why another Hispanic church a few miles away wouldn’t be in the same conference as us, even though we were all Hispanic. All that we knew was that they were part of the “other conference.”

That still didn’t stop us. We attended churches from both conferences. We attended Youth Federations, campouts, camp meetings and interacted regularly with people from both conferences. My impression was that the pastors were the ones who had the chip on their shoulder about the division, because to me, as a kid, it didn’t affect me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I would be convicted that this divide was an issue that needed to be addressed at the larger levels of the church.

COLLEGE

I honestly had no idea that the Adventist church even had its own entire system of education until about 10th grade, when I had my conversion experience. Long story short, I decided to attend Greater Miami Academy, a State Conference day school, for 11th and 12th grades and settled on going to Southern for Theology after sensing the call to ministry.

While I was at Southern, my dad accepted a call to serve as an associate pastor in Fort Worth, Texas at a large Regional Conference church. I visited them during vacations and frequently got the opportunity to speak at this church, and other churches, in the area. Over the years, I was able to learn a lot of the backstory behind the regional-state conference divide, and why it existed from the Regional Conference perspective, from the conference administrators, pastors, and members of the churches. I was extremely disappointed and angry at the reality of our church’s racial divide.

I was angry not at the Regional Conferences, not at the State Conferences, but at the racism that had infiltrated the church and hid itself under the mantle of bureaucracy.

I realized that just like I had been rejected as a kid, the entire Black community had been rejected by their White “brothers in Christ.” The church had failed them.  Even after many attempts at trying to rectify the situation, the Adventist church marginalized, discriminated against, and ignored the needs of their community. The only feasible option that was left at that time in the 1940s was to divide the conferences based on race so that the Black community could finally have a voice.

It made perfect sense.

INTERVIEWS

Between my junior and senior year in college, I started becoming convicted that something needed to change in the church structure. Near the end of my time in college, I had two week of prayer series in different churches in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area. One was at a State Conference church, the other was at a Regional Conference church. Administrators from both conferences attended the respective weeks of prayer and, after hearing that I would be graduating soon, each encouraged me to send them my resume.

Speaking candidly, one of the Regional Conference Administrators told me the following:

“Don’t bother sending your resume to any State Conferences. They won’t hire you because you’re Black and Hispanic. They won’t know what to do with you.”

I put on my best poker face ever. In my mind, I’ve never believed that my skin should define how I lived my life. I grew up hearing and admiring the leaders in the Black community who fought against prejudice, not only within the White community but also within their own. One of them said something that came to my mind at that moment:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Being a student at Southern, I decided to interview with the Southern Union conferences first.  I decided if that didn’t go well, I’d try the Southwest Union next. I had already amassed a pretty decent resume despite the fact that I went to a “White school.” I said, “Let God decide where I go.”

If you want to read some amusing anecdotes about how my first interviews went, you can read that journey here.

So I now work in a “White conference” but still push for racial reconciliation, not because it’s the easy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do.

The process of change started right from the beginning of my career here in the Carolina Conference. The first time I was introduced to my colleagues after Seminary at workers meetings, I was speaking with someone in the lunchline, when an onlooker then remarked, “Wow, I’m so impressed. Your English is so good!” I replied tongue-in-cheek:

“Thanks! I’m from Florida. We speak English pretty well down there.”

Conversations about race, how we each relate to it, and how we respond to racism need to happen. Andrews University had a fantastic discussion on the topic last week that I want to encourage everyone to check out.

IN CONCLUSION

We still have not arrived at Dr. King’s dream, where people are judged strictly by the content of their character.  Yet, I remain optimistic and believe that a solution is within our grasp.  Why?  Because Jesus is still on the throne. The power that united a divided group of disciples is still available to us today.  We must be willing to step forth and claim that power ourselves.

But it’s not enough to simply pray about it.  Here are a few ideas that could be practical steps in reaching a solution to this problem.

In my case, I ended up marrying someone who understood my situation because she is also the product of an interracial marriage (and tomorrow is her birthday as a St. Patrick’s baby!). However, some family members didn’t attend our wedding because of my skin color.  In our marriage, we have experienced racism, too.

At the end of the day, the core issue in the State-Regional Conference debate is not primarily a policy problem, it is a people problem. Racism is a people problem.

We also have to start learning how to talk to each other in this situation. When people say, “Let’s do away with Regional Conferences,” It sounds like we’re saying that the problem is with Regional Conferences themselves (as if the problem originally came from the constituents of Regional Conferences). Historically speaking, this is not true; the Black community was left with little choice other than accepting the reality we face today.

On this note, I’m sorry if my posts come across like I’m only singling out the existence of Regional Conferences themselves. I’m not. I’m in favor of exploring a totally new system that brings in all people groups and where each individual culture is valued, respected, and included.  I long for a church that is no longer just Black and White, but one that can have a place for the in-betweens like me. Blogging is great, but we also have to be willing to act and make hard choices, even when they may not be popular.

If you’ve read until this point, consider yourself part of the discussion towards the solution.  Have thoughts?  Leave them below!

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Nelson Fernandez

Nelson serves as a pastor in a growing in a bilingual and multicultural church district in Greenville, South Carolina in the Carolina Conference. He is married to the love of his life Sarah, who is Venezuelan and American. Born and raised in Miami, FL, he is a second-generation Hispanic of Dominican-Salvadorian decent. He loves reading, learning and blogging about leadership, church growth, discipleship and practical Christianity at www.nelsonsblog.com

This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. Nelson I appreciated your post. Some the craziest racist things have happened to me with church folk and it made me very angry.

    But I see the value in moving past the anger and finding a solution. My question to you is what (in your opinion) is the first actual step? My fear is this will be a topic of discussion for a little bit and then go away(remember the Sterling Story…not trending anymore).

  2. Very good! I asked my self the same question many years ago… Why black church? Why not just SDA church. Sad to admit there is still ALOT of racism in the church. Here were i live there are two churches two streets apart but yet separate… Why? Skin color. I hope we end this soon for the sake of the church

    1. Thanks Arturo. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with black, white, hispanic or asian churches (after all, we are all SDA’s). The issue is when we use our race as the basis for dividing ourselves from others. Blessings.

  3. Good Afternoon Pastor Hernandez,
    Thank you for your openness and sharing your experience. My first husband was Puerto Rican and my second white so my four kids are interracial and I believe have the best of many worlds. I recently had a conversation with my dad who is Jamaican and SDA( very strong opinions) regarding not feeling it was appropriate for a church to have a painted picture of a black Jesus on the outside of the church. Although His arms are open to all my point was that the painting was depicting a bias towards one race. How was that appropriate if we are supposed to be welcoming to all? Needless to say the conversation was not that great and I was taken down the historic highway of how blacks were treated and how whites started the issue….so I guess the solution is to continue what was started….. I am grateful that you are in the church. Seeking a SDA church home without bias and with open arms. God Bless you.

  4. My Brother, Pastor Fernandez, I certainly appreciate your candor & initiative in broaching this subject through this relevant medium. I pray it will be read by many!

    My two cents are: as a worker for a Regional Conference for quite some time, and young enough, still, to have desired change in this very critical area, I fear things will not be done correctly in bringing State & Regional Conferences together. My prayer is that the State Conference leaders will not stand, with arms open wide, & say to Regional Conference leaders & constituents, “Come back home!” That is a very negative approach to the solution that is typically discussed as the most sensible option (“Why do we have Regional Conferences anyway…,”). If the solution isn’t the dissolving of BOTH sides & formation of a brand new association, I don’t believe it will be genuine, if it is brought to the table by leaders. State leaders would do well to show how genuine they are by saying they’re willing to dissolve State Conferences & join Regional ones! Of course, my prayer would be that Regional leaders would then offer to dissolve, thus new conferences are born.

    I also believe this is a heart issue. The majority of the worst racial issues I’ve seen have been within the church. That is sad. I pray all of our hearts will be consecrated to God, that He might change us into a people capable of joining together in meaningful & lasting ways!

    Lastly, my prayers about this issue include concern for the motives of church leaders! I pray they’re all genuine! It would help build trust, as we likely begin to tackle this Elephant in the room!

  5. While we as a church believe in equality for everyone, the facts do not show equality. Now, I myself are an Aryan the “Third Reich” told me so. But in America I am the one how killed the Yews. If I could make a choice of my birthplace it would be heaven not Germany or America or any other country because every country has some kind of racism.
    One brother in the church told me flat out that I should not talk since my language was not poor English but he could not speak German. His idea seem to be since I did not speak a poor English I should not have the same right to speak freely. As human we discriminate against anybody whom is different from us only God is the one who loves everybody as His creation.

  6. We have a lot in common. I attended Phillis Wheatley, 4th grade in 1972. I am Columbian American. Raised SDA, looking forward to being in heaven among sisters and brothers.

  7. I am a white male member of the Episcopal Church but have had a number of Adventist friends. It was in the early 1960s that I discovered the strong racist attitudes in the SDA church; I was shocked! Not that there have never been problems in the Episcopal Church, but I think that we have dealt with them better. Consider that we now have a black presiding bishop.

    In 1971 I was visiting a former landlord and his wife. A widow friend of theirs was present, as well as their older daughter. They were saying that blacks should have their own schools, hospitals, etc. However, their daughter, who had graduated from an SDA college, strongly favored racial equality and was obviously embarrassed by the racist attitudes of the others. Thus it is clear that not all Adventists are racists; some obviously strongly oppose racism.

    Back when I was poor I shared an apartment with an American of Filipino descent; he was an SDA and attended a white SDA church with no problems. When he took a male friend of his to church with him, several people in the congregation told them where the black SDA church was and made it clear that the black man was not welcome.

    By contrast, when I was a member of Gethsemane Episcopal Church in Minneapolis (1963 – 1978), we had a few black members. It never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it. However, there was one church in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul that was about 80% black. Some whites liked being members of a church with a mostly black congregation because black congregations tend to be more lively which is nothing more than a cultural difference with no theological implications.

    It is unclear why we have done a reasonably good job of eliminating racism in the Episcopal church while it remains a serious problem in the SDA church. Perhaps the SDA church should examine why it is so easy for SDAs to rationalize racism. The second part of the Summary of the Law is to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is a very important part of Christianity and cannot be ignored. Moreover, I am convinced that God is more concerned with the way we treat each other than He is with exactly what we say we believe.

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