“You shouldn’t bother interviewing with white Conferences. They won’t hire you because you’re black.”
When these words were spoken to me by a former conference administrator I knew, I remember feeling like I was having an out of body experience. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. This can’t be real.” After all, we were living in the 21st century in the United States of America.
If you were like I was up until the age of 18 and have no idea what I’m talking about, let me spell it out for you: in several unions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church within North America, there are administrative divisions in the church divided primarily based on race in order to better serve those people groups. There are “state conferences,” which cover one or more states, and “regional conferences,” which cover the same area, but usually also larger territories than the state conferences (hence the difference between “regional” and “state”). However, among some circles, the former have been referred to as “white conferences” while the latter known as “black conferences.”
The reasons for the creation of the distinction between state and regional conferences are many and have different levels of nuances. There were societal pressures that served as pressure cookers for the split that would eventually happen (more on that in the links below). Now, it would be nice to say that the church established regional conferences as a concession to only the “external” societal pressure that they faced in trying to reach out. However, historically, that is sadly not true.
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Racism, particularly in the form of segregation, infiltrated the policy and unconscious culture within the Seventh-day Adventist church in America in the early part of the 20th century. This racism was manifested in hiring discrimination, underrepresentation in leadership, unfair financial practices, and persistent segregation of policies.
Dr. Delbert W. Baker outlined 15 events that either directly or indirectly provided an impetus for the establishment of Regional conferences. The threads running through these incidents were a deep desire for evangelistic empowerment, Christian fairness, and administrative partiality. You can read this list by clicking here.
What we find is that, by the 1940’s, the formation of regional conferences was the climax of long dissatisfaction within the Black community about the church’s treatment of their community and mission; it was an easy and convenient way to provide a “separate but equal” administrative structure where Black Adventists leaders could advance professionally while having their own structure and White Adventist could have their own.
I know that is a pretty bold statement to make. However, I am comfortable saying that because there is plenty of historical evidence to support it. Below are some examples of leadership discrimination manifested when the church appointed White leadership over the Black work during the early part of the 20th century, even though the church had already produced some very capable Black leaders by then:
*Although the equivalent departments for Germans and Scandinavians were led by people of the targeted ethnicity, for nine years (1909 through 1918) the North American Negro Department was led by a White man.
*The editor of Message, the denomination’s magazine for Black leadership, had a White man as its editor for 13 years from 1932 through 1945.
*Until 1932 Oakwood’s top administration (the Historically Black Adventist University) was White.
I wrote a four-part series on the matter which can be found in the following links (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). I’ll say right off the bat that I’m not an authority on this issue, it was just my attempt to get a conversation on the issue going. Feel free to read it.
Now what can be done to remedy the situation?
Like any challenge, the best first step is become educated on the issue. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, I like the three steps that Dwight Nelson gave in a sermon on this topic.
- Make sure that your own heart is not color-coded or prejudiced.
We need to check our own hearts to see if we harbor any resentment toward others and give those things to the Lord. How are we supposed to move forward in the vehicle of progress if we are constantly looking through our rearview mirror? Despite what may have gone on in the past, make a commitment to be an agent of change in this world.
As an interesting side note, Pastor Nelson, quoting an author by the name of James Ditte, noted that those who hold conservative social values (as many Adventists tend to) are more at risk to holding racial prejudice. The quote says:
“Those who are conservative in their social values (most evangelicals) are more likely to be racially prejudiced… more conservative attitudes on these issues [war, divorce, capital punishment, abortion, socialized medicine, rehabilitation of prisoners, and welfare] are correlated with more restricted and prejudice-like attitudes on racial issues. To be sure, the correlation is not perfect. There are many non-prejudiced individuals with conservative social views, and vice versa. But the correlation is more likely than not.”
A caveat to this previous point, however, was the attention to one’s personal life. “Most notable was concern for the devotional life. Persons who thought that prayer and devotional life were important were more likely to hold favorable and tolerant attitudes towards [minorities].”
So, if we want to ask the Lord to help us to see others through His eyes, some suggestions can be as simple as reading though the Gospel story daily and meditating on the life of Christ and Calvary.
- Cross the line! Choose a church with a racial mix. Don’t only congregate with people of your own ethnicity.
It isn’t enough to talk about integration; we have to step out and meet people from the other aisle. If you have a State/Regional conference church mix in your area, visit a few that you may not have visited before. I know that I always benefit from doing this. You could even consider joining a church where you are not the ethnic majority!
- Talk to your leaders. Ask them why we have to be “separate but equal” administrative structures.
I’m not saying revolt, but it is important that your leaders know what is on your heart. Sometimes what leaders need is a bit of encouragement from someone to get them to believe that this kind of change is possible!
On that note, Pastor Nelson and the rest of Pioneer Memorial Church have just started a petition to bring awareness and action to this long pending issue. Please check out and consider signing their petition by clicking here.
As this petition mentions, “Adding your name to the list will speak loudly to the church that it is high time we all come together “on the basis of love” (Philemon 9) and model to society the unity that only Christ can bring.
The time has come to end this separation. Let’s begin “a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19/44:3).”
Maybe it’s my experience growing up in a cultural melting pot like Miami, or being the product of an interracial marriage who is married to someone from another interracial marriage, but I think that unity in diversity is what Christ had in mind for his Church. I try to defy stereotypes because I want to be judged as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, by the content of my character, not by the color of my skin.
So what do you say? Let’s make our voices heard and bring about this much needed progress.
Delbert W. Baker, “Regional Conferences: Fifty Years of Progress,” Adventist Review 172, no. 49 (November 1995): 12-14.
Kessia Reyne Bennett, Resistance and Accommodation to Racism Among Early Seventh-day Adventist Missionaries in the American South, (Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, MI), p. 65.[/box_holder]