Racial Divides in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

My primary area of social action involvement is human trafficking. As the research coordinator at a Christian nonprofit that works against trafficking in Nepal, I still find myself continually learning. I also work in media, where I report on various peace and justice topics along with other less controversial material. When working on these stories, I struggle because I have so much to learn about each topic, not to mention the complexity of themes at their intersections. On any given topic I am thankful for the patient people who help me to see the issues more deeply and broadly. Learning takes humility, an admission that I know I don’t yet have complete insight.

This week alone I worked on stories relating to LGBT youth and racial divides in Adventism, both areas in which I am not an expert. I use that as a preface to say I am still learning about the racial issues that affect the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I’m not saying this background excuses my blind spots, but it is to situate my comments for those who do not know me or where I’m coming from.

I grew up in small, predominantly white communities in predominantly white western states, to over-simplify a bit. I did not experience any code switching, moving between different cultures or ethnic groups or races; my life experiences–at home, school and church–were in a mostly-white fairly-rural very-Adventist bubble (boarding academy campuses).

I don’t remember when I first heard there existed two different church structures in mid-western and eastern parts of the United States. (I also don’t recall when I learned about the existence of the NAD or the GC. We just didn’t talk about it. Growing up, I only remember talking about the local church, school and conference.) When did you find out? What did you think about it? I know I was slow to realize the fact and its significance. In fact, I didn’t even know one state I lived in during my teen years even had a regional conference; I found out much later. I presume people who lived in urban areas were more aware of these things.

I do remember the first time the structural differences stung, the first time I began to think through the history and meaning of the present structure. Jump ahead to my 30s. At a peace conference my Mennonite grad school was hosting, I shared lunch with an Anabaptist activist from Australia. When he heard I was Adventist he asked, “How can you stay in a denomination that is still officially segregated?”

I didn’t have an answer.

If our message is a gospel of peace, if we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, if we all have the same image of God in us, if we are all one in Jesus, then why are we as the supposed body of Christ not able to overcome the racism that divided us? Doesn’t God want to do the work in the hearts of the white leaders and laypeople to bring them to a place to want to make amends with those who the white Adventist community abused and marginalized? What would it take for the white community to repent of our history and pursue a path of just and right reconciliation? What about me? What is my role in this conversation now?

Some have debated whether repentance and reconciliation needs to come from the top leaders or to begin at local congregations and other institutions (top-down or grassroots?). I believe it’s both. Individuals and individual organizations need to do local work, like Union College has recently begun. But for church-wide change, I believe we need leaders who will start the conversations at the appropriate levels. In peacemaking and conflict resolution, we talk about the different roles that top leaders and grassroots activists can take (See Lederach, Building Peace, 1997, p. 39). One is not more important than the other; both have a proper sphere of influence.

In a recent episode of Justice Speaks (posted below), the participants discuss where the current impetus for the racial conversation is coming from. Why do people seem to care more now? And why are people interested in unity now?

For me, the path started from the topic of economic equality and more broadly, social justice. I concentrated on international development in my peace studies. This led me to pay more attention to both racial and gender equality. Within my non-academic social justice reading, Shane Claiborne introduced me some years ago to the Christian Community Development Association, which was started by John Perkins. Here, and other places, I learned more about racial reconciliation. As this value grew in me, I increasingly wanted to see it in my church, not just in the wider world.

Another personal factor has also made recent events and discussions particularly relevant to me is that my wife and I are in the process of adoption, and we have attended trans-racial adoption training events to help us think through what it could mean to be an inter-racial family. One white gentleman in a training said that he was raised to not see race, to which I eventually added that I no longer see gender. Not helpful, I know. We don’t know who will choose us to parent their child, but no matter the shade of the mother’s skin–whether similar to ours or quite different (okay, different means darker; I have Swedish ancestry, and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so like Jim Gaffigan, people are only darker than me)–we are glad to have a diverse group of people to travel with us on the journey.

Gaining a wider spectrum of friends has also been important. I was interested in international intercultural relations before I was interested in domestic racial relations (“Intercultural Business Relations” was one of my favorite MBA classes), and studying in diverse communities helped me form friendships that expanded my views and awareness. Even in little things. For example, my wife and I went with a friend to visit Mars Hill, a non-denominational church in Michigan. My reaction when I had first visited was: Wow, the seating and stage arrangement are really different. Our African-American friend’s reaction was different: Wow, this place is really white. Over time, these observations and other conversations began to open my eyes to things I was oblivious to.

I can’t say why our society is paying more attention to #BlackLivesMatter now, why the press is giving more attention to issue now–it is arguably more than just a matter of coverage of protests, since other protests did not receive the same coverage–but I think that the stories in the news prompt Adventists like Dwight Nelson to speak out, and then others with similar concerns add their voices to the mix.

Why do I want us to pursue a path toward full administrative equality–no more separate but equal? Because I believe it is the right and just thing to do, if reconciliation is based on repentance, forgiveness and acceptance of diversity in appearance, thought and action. Unity in diversity. Originally, I was in favor of some sort of coming together in order to improve the witness of the Adventist church, but now I see it as the way things should be because separation was caused by a wrong and that wrong needs to be made right.

I’m actually fine with there being Korean congregations and Spanish-speaking congregations and Ghanian congregations, as well as congregations marked by other ethnic or racial characteristics (setting aside the “existence of race” issue for sake of simpler writing; a concession that may do more harm than good). Even though I greatly appreciated the diverse English-speaking congregation my wife and I used to attend when we lived in the greater Detroit area, I can understand the value in local, voluntary segregation in the future even if formal structures are united. I don’t blame those who prefer that. Why shouldn’t people be able to gather as they please for worship, such as is the case in the Berrien Springs area around Andrews University? I also saw this when working in South Korea, where English-speaking military personnel would gather at a center for worship even though there were other English church options with those outside the military. [Update: We also appreciate our current congregation, though it is not quite as diverse as our last community. When we moved here and I was “church shopping,” an African-American lady invited me to stay for potluck. Then she made space for me at her table. Then she invited me to her small group. That’s hospitality, and that’s where we stayed. Plus there is a Spanish-speaking group that meets at the same time as the English-speaking gathering, and then we share potluck together twice a month.]

We like to be with people who are most similar to us, where we have to do the least amount of explaining about ourselves, where we most easily fit. But I hope that every congregation would get equal support from leaders, so that no group would feel the need to be separate in order to excel, as was the reality that prompted the formation of regional conferences.

But here’s the thing for me: confession of and repentance from past racist sins is important even if we don’t find a way to end segregated conferences. That needs to happen regardless of the outcome. And as I said, I’m still learning. Maybe steps have been taken toward this that I’m not aware of. But to me, the fact that I’m not aware of them says that even if they did exist, they were too small or too local or too insignificant to have an impact on broader race relations within the North American Division.

And this is the final piece for now: even if we do not restructure, or especially if we do not restructure, we need to find other ways to demonstrate to society that God has the power to bring humanity together despite everything else that would divide us. I have written elsewhere about the importance of demonstration within an Adventist understanding of the great controversy. Words were insufficient for God’s plan. God had to act to demonstrate God’s character for the world and for the universe. I believe God calls us to the same–to not only proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven in word, but also in action. May we work for the healing of people groups–of nations–today as the leaves of the tree will do in the story’s next chapter.

Below these discussion questions you can find videos and links to take you deeper:

  1. What do you think about segregated church structures?
  2. What type of church structure would you like to see? What values or priorities guide this?
  3. How can you work for racial reconciliation where you are, both within and outside of the Adventist church?
  4. What steps do you think would be appropriate to take in order to promote reconciliation within the church?
  5. In a diverse NAD, should we have more regional type conferences for other groups (e.g., Latino conferences in the Southwest)? Would this be more effective at sharing the story and love of Jesus?
  6. What things do you currently see happening that make reconciliation difficult?
  7. What intersectionality do you see in Adventism that we need to pay attention to? For instance, in the recent Andrews University forum, the topic of women in ministry was brought up in this context.
  8. Are these even the right or sufficient questions? Who am I answering them in conversation with?

Recent articles and resources [UPDATED 3/27/15]:

Videos (Adventist):

Conversation on Race & Justice in America (Andrews University, 10 Apr 2015)

A Forum On State and Regional Conferences (weareAUSA, 7 Mar 2015)

Justice Speaks (Jaime Kowlessar, 12 Mar 2015)

Thursday Series | Michael Polite (Andrews University, 5 Feb 2015)

Allegheny East Conference (coming Sunday, Mar 15 at 8:00pm; link)

Jubilee! The Birth and Progress of Regional Conferences (1995)

Find more at the Black SDA History YouTube channel (link).

Videos (general):

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow” – 2013 George E. Kent Lecture

James Hal Cone and Bill Moyers (The Cross and the Lynching Tree)

Cornel West (Race Matters, UWTV)

bell hooks and Cornel West (Beloved Community: Racial Justice and a World Free of Racism)

Tim Wise (Between Barack and a Hard Place: Challenging Racism, Privilege and Denial in the Age of Obama, Villanova University)

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6 Responses to Racial Divides in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

  1. Reblogged this on michaeltnixon and commented:
    This is a great resource!

  2. Jeff Boyd says:

    Thanks, Michael. And thanks for your article “…Not As I Do.” That is an important post. Excellent. I was glad to include it here.

    • Thanks for including it Jeff. I too feel that we can all agree that repentance and reconciliation definitely needs to happen — regardless of how we decide to be structured going forward. We need to focus more on that than what our conferences are named…for the time being.

      • Jeff Boyd says:

        That’s how I currently understand the priorities. I don’t know how to support or facilitate that conversation or work, but I do think that’s where we need to start as a community.

  3. Jaime Kowlessar says:

    Powerful piece. I strongly believe that the first step is an acknowledgment of our past before we can move forward. There are still many people in the ‘black’ community who have not fully healed from being told that we should start our own conferences. I appreciate your honesty, and your willingness to share.

  4. Jeff Boyd says:

    Thanks for stopping by to read this, Jaime. I really appreciated the conversation you led and posted. I’ve learned a lot from Ben Baker and Black SDA History, but I’m definitely still in the process of sorting through what this means for me and figuring out what voice I can have in the conversation. It feels like a risky conversation for me because it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to be off base about something and will need to make amends for things I say now when I’ll better understand them in the future.

    “Another white guy talking about stuff he’s clueless about,” is my fear of hearing since I don’t want to look dumb or bigoted. God make my heart right so I can apologize well when needed and keep learning!

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