Eskildsen: Adventism During the Civil Rights Movement

I was surprised to arrive at my in-law’s church this Sabbath and find a story about civil rights on the front page of the congregation’s newsletter. This just isn’t the kind of topic I see discussed often. Below is the article by Krystal Eskildsen.

“Adventism During the Civil Rights Movement”

In 1964, on a hot, muggy, Mississippi night, three men disappeared without a trace. The men, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, were civil rights activists. They were in Mississippi–at the height of the civil rights movement–as volunteers for the Summer Project, an educational initiative for racial integration within the state. It was later revealed that the men had been murdered for their efforts. The events that followed the discovery of the men’s bodies unveiled a countermovement of defiant resistance to change, political corruption,  and a heartbreaking denial of justice.

America in the 1960s was undoubtedly a miserable, bigoted place for many people who tried to reconcile the claims of “all mem are created equal, ” with evident racism, anti-miscegenation laws, and the infamous Jim Crow laws of the South. People fought to spread awareness and to encourage change on the national level, the state level,  and the individual level. People young and old got involved, believers and nonbelievers, Catholics and Protestants. Methodists, Babtists, Adventists? What was the Adventist Church’s role or participation in the Civil Rights Movement?

While the church has a general nonparticipatory policy concerning politics, it has been involved, to varying degrees, in civil rights issues. Our church should be commended for its ministry to blacks during a time when racial tensions made it a dangerous venture. We were, and still are, a church that strives to live counter-culture and to be a light within our communities. President Neal C. Wilson, speaking on racism in 1985, released this statement:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church deplores all forms of racism, including the political policy of apartheid with its enforced segregation and legalized discrimination. Seventh-day Adventists want to be faithful to the reconciling ministry assigned to the Christian church. As a worldwide community of faith, the Seventh-day Adventist Church wishes to witness to and exhibit in her own ranks the unity and love that transcend racial differences and overcome past alienation between races (Official Statements, Adventist.org).

Sadly, however, we have at times given into the practices and beliefs of our times. Some Adventists, while not staunch dissenters of civil rights activism, did nothing to promote its awareness either. One of the most notable incidents of accepting the world’s behavior was the discharge of a gravely ill woman, Lucy Byard, in 1943 from the Washington Sanitarium, upon learning that she was African American. She died not long after (“Death in D.C.”, Adventist Review). Another incident recounted is of six black youths visiting a white Adventist church one Sabbath, only to be stopped by a deacon who informed them that he had “six bullets for six niggers” (Seventh-day Adventist and the Civil RIghts Movement, 124).

So what was the church doing during one of the stormiest periods in American history, and no doubt, its own? Well, up until this point, the issue of racism or sensitivity to African American believers–or minority believers–was not a pressing issue. In fact, many black and white Adventists were content with the provisions made for their respective conferences and many reasoned that they could coexist peaceably though separately. Although Ellen White had urged the church that a great work needed to be done among African Americans, few took the counsel to heart.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Adventist church underwent years of introspection. In 1970, in a GC Executive Committee session, action was taken to remedy the state the church was in from its neglect of its duty to its black brethren (OU Goldmine, 12). Black leadership was an important measure set in place at the General Conference level, as this was a sticking point for many African Americans who felt underrepresented within the church. This step has undoubtedly pave the way for other minorities, including women.

In our day, we have social issues that call for our careful, prayerful study and sympathy. It is easy to fall into the world’s way of seeing things. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth. We have the history of our church to move forward, not politically, but spiritually. That is the point: not to pass blame or shame but to seek God and His kingdom and to invite others to that kingdom. Christ, in John 17:21, desired our unity. He wanted nothing to divide us. Why? Because in our unity is our testimony: that Jesus came, sent from God, to redeem us all.

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La Sierra Alum Educates in Peru

Randal Wisbey, president of La Sierra University, shares: “Recently, I learned of a La Sierra graduate who is changing the lives of hundreds of children in the Apurimac region of Peru. Her efforts to establish a thriving K-12 school have also enhanced the Adventist Church’s ministry in the region.
<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88705600″>You won’t believe what this La Sierra University graduate student did in Peru!</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/lasierrauniversity”>La Sierra University</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>
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Adventist World (Feb 2014)

The February 2014 edition of Adventist World has at least five stories relating to social ethics and action (I may have failed to see these themes in the other articles). Below are excerpts from each article, and the complete magazine can be read online.

A Living Power (Ellen White, pp. 20-21, link)

“We cannot with safety swerve from principle, we cannot violate justice, we cannot neglect mercy.”

Service to Others Really Matters (Sandra Blackmer, pp. 24-28, link)

“StormCo’s premise is twofold. First, the goal is to establish and build strong and trusting relationships, so the teams return year after year to the same community. Second, the teams go with no “agenda.” Instead of arriving with a predetermined program, they ask town leaders what their needs are and the ways they think StormCo can engage with the community.”

Sharing Health and Hope (Sandra Blackmer, pp. 29-31, link)

“Each school day some 1,200 volunteers provide breakfast to 5,000 children living in areas of greatest need through Sanitarium’s Good Start Breakfast Clubs.”

Facing the Challenge of Abuse in the Church (Carla Baker, pp. 32-39, link to magazine)

“Though the church as a whole seems to find the topic of abuse unpalatable, the fact remains that as many as 25 to 30 percent of members in the North American Division experience some type of abuse in their lifetime.”[1]

[1] R. Drumm, M. Popescu, G. Hopkins, and L. Spady, “Abuse in the Adventist Church?” Adventist Review, Oct. 11, 2007; archives. adventistreview.org/issue.php?issue=2007-1528&page=8.

Where in the World Is This?

This is actually a reference to an earlier article, “Two Hearts, One Mission” (July 2012).

BONUS

Here are two more stories from the Adventist Review:

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News Round-up from Three News Outlets

Here are social ethics/action stories from three Adventist news outlets–ANN (official), Adventist Today, and Spectrum.

Adventist News Network (ANN)

Adventist Today

Spectrum

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Help Egyptian Students Escape Poverty through Education

Give Kids in Egypt a Chance. A Better Future Starts with Education!

Nile Union Academy (NUA) in Egypt is a Christian secondary school dedicated to offering a high level education to rural students from across Egypt. We have been doing this for 60 years. Now we need your help.

You Can Make a Difference

We are excited to be celebrating our 60th birthday this year! But with the joy comes danger. NUA is dedicated to offering the most affordable education possible. In a desire to help as many as possible, we have kept our tuition intentionally low. Now, before June, we need to raise $30,000 to stay in operation.

  • We need $18,000 to pay salaries for our 25 dedicated teachers and staff.
  • We need $12,000 to pay for general school expenses such as books, electricity, maintenance and dormitory expenses.
  • A donation of $250 will keep tuition at current levels for 1 student this year.
  • 100% of donations (minus Indiegogo’s bit) will go directly to the continued education of students.

NUA exists because at different times many people like you have stepped up to help these kids. Help keep the dream of education alive for all NUA students!

See the campaign’s Indiegogo page here.

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White: Gospel of Peace

In a recent writing project, I included a brief interpretation of Jesus’ assertion that he brought a sword rather than peace (Matt. 10:34; cf. Luke 12:49-53). This is what Ellen White says about Jesus’ message:

How, then, can the gospel be called a message of peace? When Isaiah foretold the birth of the Messiah, he ascribed to Him the title, “Prince of Peace.” When angels announced to the shepherds that Christ was born, they sang above the plains of Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:14. There is a seeming contradiction between these prophetic declarations and the words of Christ: “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34. But, rightly understood, the two are in perfect harmony. The gospel is a message of peace. Christianity is a system which, received and obeyed, would spread peace, harmony, and happiness throughout the earth. The religion of Christ will unite in close brotherhood all who accept its teachings. It was the mission of Jesus to reconcile men to God, and thus to one another. But the world at large are under the control of Satan, Christ’s bitterest foe. The gospel presents to them principles of life which are wholly at variance with their habits and desires, and they rise in rebellion against it. They hate the purity which reveals and condemns their sins, and they persecute and destroy those who would urge upon them its just and holy claims. It is in this sense–because the exalted truths it brings occasion hatred and strife–that the gospel is called a sword. (Ch. 2, “Persecution in the First Centuries,” The Great Controversy, 1888/1911, pp. 46-47)

Reflection Questions

  1. When have you seen the cross and Christianity bring peace? How did it bring harmony or reconciliation? What social or emotional barriers were overcome?
  2. When have you seen the cross and Christianity cause division? What issues were involved? Was this permanent, or was unity ever restored?
  3. How does reconciliation with God lead to reconciliation between people?
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Plantak: Adventists Need to Become Involved

In his doctoral dissertation published as The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, Zdravko Plantak declares:

The reason Adventists need to become involved in the world is not because they think they can turn this world into God’s eternal kingdom. On the contrary, Adventists believe and preach that his eternal kingdom is still to come. Adventists must become involved because their God cares and wants them to care for each other. Identifying with Jesus means identifying with the poor, oppressed and those whose basic rights and freedoms are denied them. It is not enough to care for a person and have no concern about the laws that affect the life of that person in society. Many issues labelled ‘political’ have a broader human dimension. It would be hypocritical not to be involved in issues that are labelled political when they concern people, when they involve the lives and fates of human beings. (p. 48)

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