by Charles Eaton
Why do the two Seventh-day Adventist Conferences continue to be separated, de facto, by race?
Admittedly, I am not much of an historian, but some basic research into the history of this church demonstrates that the two conferences were indeed necessary when overt racism was rampant through the United States. It seems that they were started as an initiative by both white and black leaders in the 1940’s so that more black people could join the church while it worked out its internal racist issues; it was never intended to be a permanent division, but rather a temporary stop on the way to unification. I have no qualms with how and why we first divided into two conferences; in fact, I think it was a great idea to keep the church expanding while giving authority positions to African Americans. However, since that time, the military has pioneered racial integration during WWII, schools were racially integrated not too long after that, and we elected our first half-black President of the United States all while the church continues to split itself along racial divides in a post-modern society. Credit where credit’s due: Individual churches have done a phenomenal job inviting and including people of other races into the loving fold of fellowship, but the governing body of the Adventist church continues to foster the same “separate but equal” doctrine that African Americans fought against for decades.
Unfortunately, one of the primary reasons why that doctrine continues to be accepted into the church while it has been rejected everywhere else is because a large number of African Americans support it themselves. When I asked one prominent African American pastor about why we still have two conferences today his reply, essentially, amounted to self interest. Paraphrasing, “The reality is that the interests of the African American community rarely take center stage, or even off-center stage, when combined with European interests. We can serve our own community better by ourselves than would be possible if the two conferences were merged together.” Another black minister told me, again paraphrasing, “Quite honestly, a merging of the conferences would mean that some individuals from both sides would be forced out of power. It’s hard to convince people that it’s in their best interest to reduce their own authority.” A third person who works for the Regional Conference told me, paraphrasing, “The system has been in place for so long most people are simply satisfied with the way it works now. Also, those who want an integration of the conferences are often short on the practical ways it can be done.”
None of these reasons hold enough weight to justify the segregation of the conferences, but they are windows into the heart of race relations within Adventism. Frankly, I cannot believe that the primary excuse to continue the separation of the conferences is, of all things, inconvenience. It is inconvenient to merge the conferences, so why fix what’s not broken? It is inconvenient to risk losing power, so let’s not rock any boats. It is inconvenient to not set our own agenda for community action, so we’d rather not share. I firmly believe that we are missing out on direct blessings from God, perhaps to the point of holding off the latter rain, because of this silly segregation issue that no one wants to seriously address. The Holy Spirit did not fall upon the early believers until they were all of one accord under God’s will. It is a sad, sad day when our secular government sets any standard of social equality ahead of the church, but perhaps, with a new generation of young people who have no real living memory of white/black racism in this country, we can start to catch up.