by Pastor Mark A. McCleary, August 2, 2015:     The Alamo is a Texas state shrine. Numerous non-fictional works have been produced concerning its historical impact—Disney’s Davy Crockett (1955) and The Alamo, starring John Wayne (1960), and a 2004 version starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton. July 1-11, 2015, the 60th Session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) was held around the corner from the shrine where the final epic battle of the Alamo was fought between President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s governmental forces and the revolutionary Texan army.       SDA delegates,from around the world (over 2,600) deliberated and voted on various agenda items, chief among them being “whether to allow SDA Divisions to ordain women as pastors as they felt led by God on a per Division basis.” The final vote was 1,381 (No), 997 (Yes), and 5 (Abstained). Like the pivotal Battle of the Alamo when the future land determination of Texas was decided, the SDA decision of women’s ordination and intra-church social relations will be pivotal for Church faith, practice, and unity. I believe it will be pivotal because it reflects the deep pathologies that fester in our church around race and gender.

The background to the Texas Alamo event is compelling. The fact that Santa Anna was president indicates that San Antonio was Mexican territory at the time of the infamous siege (February 23—March 6, 1836). Texas had been largely populated by immigrants from the USA. These immigrants were familiar with a federalist form of government and revolted against Mexico’s centralist approach to governance. It is recorded that Santa Anna wrote to US President Andrew Jackson concerning immigrant non-adaptation to and interference in Mexican cultural affairs.[1] I reference this episode in US history not as a strict designation of anyone or anything today being the replication of the parties involved then. Rather, this conflict is gripping because it provides a bridge for viewing what occurred at San Antonio among SDA’s in light of its own history and as it moves into its future. In my view, the SDA Church has been under siege beyond the issue of women’s ordination. My observations concern SDA dysfunctionality around social disunity while proclaiming its version of speaking for God in these last days. The following situations are evidence which, I believe, takes us [SDA’s] back to the Alamo and finds us coming away with the same ‘hidden underbelly’ of structural racism, marginalization, male supremacy, and social disunity.

First of all, at the close of business near the Session’s end, a “Question of Privilege” was offered by a delegate who serves as a Vice President of the North American Division (NAD) of SDA. His commentary concerned taking a moment of silence in respect and solidarity in the aftermath of the tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine unarmed people who were attending a Wednesday night Bible study had been murdered. The day before the women’s ordination vote, South Carolina Governor Haley stated, “This flag [Confederate], while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.” A “Question of Privilege” comes under parliamentary rules as a privileged motion and interrupts everything except a vote in process. However, it requires admission by the chair, who in this instance asked, “Didn’t someone say something about that this morning?” The Chair’s casual response to this motion and thus to events that have shocked and polarized our nation is emblematic of “SDA upper-level administrator attitudes” in my opinion. On a previous occasion, the newly elected President of a regional [black] conference asked the previous NAD President if they [morning worship gathering] could pray for the newly elected 44th President of the USA, Barack Obama. The request was denied with the retort, “You pray for him.”

Some will say I’m overly sensitive, but I respond that when I see similar Church actions, I sense a “Red Flag.” An example of such is that the now former Vice President for the General Conference, Delbert Baker, who has served the SDA Church with distinction that made him worthy of the position – such service including editor of Message Magazine and President of Oakwood University, which attained university status during his tenure – was not reelected. I hear some saying, “It was God’s will,” and “the Church must be more fiscally sound by merging responsibilities at its upper administrative levels.” I respect those opinions, but wonder why, in an increasingly diverse global Church, would we not reelect at least one of the two Black male VP’s, one of whom was Baker? I am amazed, but not surprised that there must have been much struggle with God’s will when the incumbent President Ted Wilson’s name was taken back to the nominating committee three times before it was decided to reelect him. From my Conference level experiences, presidents use their influence to effect the future downline membership of their cabinet. Perhaps Baker was not retained because of a philosophical disconnect between him and Wilson. Maybe Baker’s non-reelection also had to do with his attending the South Carolina funeral of the Emmanuel AME Nine as an “unofficial representative of the SDA Church.” Whatever it is exactly, it reminds me of Elijah Muhammad’s censor of Malcom X, when against organization restrictions, Malcolm explained to a reporter his interpretation of the John F Kennedy (JFK) assassination—“It is a matter of chickens coming home to roost.” Perhaps the recent vote against Division enablement around women’s ordination and my “red flag” observations above can be viewed as being similar to the struggle between the Mexican government and Texan immigrants that led to the Alamo showdown or to Malcolm’s editorial statement concerning JFK’s assassination.

I am “Adventist-born, Adventist-nurtured, and probably Adventist till I die.” But the stand-offish behavior of SDA’s, particularly Whites, as demonstrated in the C Hall concession area, where on several occasions I was asked, in spite of a large backdrop picture and caption that read “Pastor Dr. Mark McCleary,” if I was SDA. My sister and those who helped in our booth all described the body language of mostly Whites who avoided my concession booth at the 2015 GC. Some of the avoiders distributed materials to our next-door neighbor Spectrum and then went past us to the next manned booth. It happened too often to be an aberration. These experiences and observations give me pause that my church continues to maintain a “good old boys” or segregationist spirit. Such spirit is often ineffable yet expresses motivations and intentions that are unctuous and swim in the depths of human subconsciousness as forgotten sea monsters. These monsters have prevented the unity President Wilson called for in his message as a delegate before the women’s ordination vote and in his final Sabbath sermon. It is more like the game Simon Says, as in Missionary Volunteer Society being changed to Adventist Youth, and then I read the Valuegenesis study subsequently because “their” youth were not attending AY or are leaving the Church. “Simon says, “Lay activities should become personal ministry, while very little White-led personal ministry takes place. In reality, there is a White flight phenomenon and a shrinking urban presence of White congregations. “Simon says,” Dorcas and Adventist men should morph into Community Services, and Ingathering should be altered so our SDA White segment’s preference for reaching the community can be addressed largely by ADRA. In other words, Adventism has been under siege before the 60th Session in the shadow of San Antonio’s memorial of the Alamo. Our climactic vote against women’s ordination cannot hide its deep-seated trouble of intra-Church disharmony that stems from insensitivity, an exclusive mindset, and deafness to both its internal voices and external friends who want the SDA Church to succeed.

Re-elected President Ted Wilson made a stoic plea for unity before the “big” vote. In order for that not to end up being merely a case of political rhetoric, I suggest he speak to and seek to implement unity holistically at the grass-roots level of SDA social life. AME, AME Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal members could teach us a thing or two about dealing with what W. E. B. Dubois described as the “problem in America is the color line,” as they struggled with the same troubles within their former parent affiliation—the White-led Methodist Church. It was once the leading Protestant denomination in America, growing out of the developmental leadership of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and primarily the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, but it has subsequently struggled with intra-church unity and performed as bad stewards in the vein which gave rise to ecclesiastical revolutionaries such as Richard Allen (AME, Philadelphia, 1794); John Jamison Moore (AME Zion, New York, 1796); and the founding of the Christian (aka Colored) Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tennessee in 1870.[2] Why bring race into this? Because I definitely see a correlation with the women’s ordination vote, the promotion of GC hegemony, and the lingering matter of disharmony among us that will continue to undermine President Wilson’s public call for unity even as he winks at historic SDA intra-church social disharmony. The same spirit that laid siege to the Methodist Church is eating away at any real unity in the Adventist Church. It seems to me to be similar to Santa Anna calling for centralist Mexican control and Texan revolutionaries acting to appropriate their rights. The women’s ordination vote is over, but Wilson’s call for unity is still not being realized. It is sad to affirm the statement of the President of the Lake Region Conference of SDA, R. Clifford Jones, who in his book Utopia Park, Utopian Church: James K. Humphrey and the Emergence of Sabbath-Day Adventist states, “The denomination has struggled with the issue [equitable treatment of all people] as it relates to people of African descent, and on occasion has reflected the contradictory racial tendencies and practices of the American society in which it was born and weaned.”[3]

The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ, we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us as His children (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Matt. 28:19, 20; Ps. 133:1; 2 Cor.5:16, 17; Acts 17:26, 27; Gal. 3:27, 29; Col. 3:10-15; Eph. 4:2-6, 14-16; John 17:20-23).[4]

In 1987, I attended the Norman Road SDA Church in Newark, New Jersey [a predominantly White SDA congregation], after assuming the pastorate at the First Church of SDA in Montclair, New Jersey. Whites made up 90% of the attendance the day that I preached. Before being reassigned in 1992, I preached there again, around 1991. There were five White elderly ladies attending that day and the remaining attendees looked about 45% Afro-Caribbean; 20% Asian; 30% Hispanic, and 5% other. Since then, I have observed the same phenomenon in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, where Whites have left their former church homes for rural spaces. In my opinion, these trends are not an aberration or collective action in behalf of unity, but reflect the historic attitude and behavior of disconnection and disassociation. Our church has been under siege with this negative attitude and action for decades. A graphic example of this happened to the brother of the former mayor of Philadelphia. In a test-case effort, he went out to the then-White Boulevard Church in the mid 1960’s, when I was in my middle teens, and was “threatened” to keep him from entering the church on that Sabbath. I recall my experience at Andrews University (AU), during my matriculation there (1969-1972), when a meeting took place among the Michigan Conference President and NAD and GC personalities, convened by AU President, Richard Hammill, to discuss with a sample of Black students their apparent disconnect with the majority White students and school social life in general. This meeting included former GC President Neal Wilson, father of our current President, who was either in Communications or a GC VP (1971). When my turn came, I explained how I greeted White students daily, but was most frequently ignored. I continued to state that, “Such greetings were a part of my neighbor upbringing.” The next day, while I was approaching the Student Hall, Elder Wilson yelled, “Hey, Brother McCleary.” I was told years later that he was famous for remembering faces. In reflection, I truly believe that in his greeting he was trying to effect a change in my deportment in light of my comments the day before. However, in order for the SDA church to be responsive to President Ted Wilson’s call for unity and move beyond what are valid observations of deep pathology, he will have to focus on helping us remember and practice respecting that each of our faces are different and we come from diverse spaces. This is the unity I hope he is calling for and not uniformity to a White standard of being in Christ. The recent women’s ordination vote and our historically poor intra-Church social misbehavior makes me concerned that President Wilson and SDA White voices speak about sola scriptura while they say little about interpersonal and intragroup disharmony among us.

We seem more like the White Methodist Church, who did not respond productively by including its Black members fully, or the Assemblies of God denomination which developed (1914) around a segregationist discourse after formerly receiving its ecclesiastical endorsement from its Holiness movement parent, The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which had been led by a Black man, Charles Mason (1907).[5] What does this have to do with the recent vote, the GC, or the President’s appeal for unity? As I see it, everything, because it relates to the siege of Adventism at the social level. This is what the “Elephant in the Room” is. It is what early Black SDA pioneers such as John Mann, J. K. Humphrey, and Louis Sheafe battled with—embracing this message while struggling against White SDA leadership insensitivity, non-inclusion, and Jim Crowism. The specious nature of this siege is that SDA discourse and policy-making is more like Santa Anna’s centralist vision, whereas Blacks, women, and non-Whites are the Texans seeking their right for expression and acceptance in the face of old boy White male leader’s reluctance to share power.

Mann, Humphrey, and Sheafe all left after long battles around social issues and incidents concerning Black SDA member marginalization.[6] The late E. E. Cleveland, a giant of Adventist evangelism, reported segregated lunch rooms at the old GC building on Eastern Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Andrews University Pastor Dwight Nelson’s score-long pulpit-platform calling for unity or “come back home” sounds strangely like Pope John the XXIII’s call for Protestant “separated brethren’ to return to the mother Catholic Church during the historic Vatican II Council (opening, 1962). Why do Black Regional Conference SDA’s have to come at all or initiate organizational reform? Black SDA’s have never been at the table in sufficient numbers to affect structural transformation. Furthermore, why do we have to come back when we have already been here? Unless we picket as was done at the 1970 GC Session in Atlantic City, New Jersey, or threaten to go to the media concerning social injustice as initiated by Black SDA Ohioans (the late Doctor Frank Hale and Mr. Silas Martin) at the GC Session in San Francisco, California, in 1962, it seems that SDA upper leadership will react in acts of appeasement or tokenism.[7] [8] It is these types of reactions that, I believe, help explain White leadership’s approval of the Regional Conference Proposal after the “straw that broke the organization’s racial pathology’s back,” when the Washington Adventist Hospital refused to treat SDA patient Lucy Bayard after reading on her intake form that she was Black.[9]

So what are my suggestions to address this pathological siege of race and gender around the matter of unity that our President seeks? The vote concerning women’s ordination enabling a Division to decide independently is over. However, if we can learn anything from the interactions that led to the Battle of the Alamo, it is that honest communication that includes all of our diverse voices must be encouraged, listened to and responded to according to the principles of “It is lawful to do good” on Sabbath or at any other time. The Mexican and Texan people of 1836 missed an opportunity for unity. And unless we enter the Spirit of unity, like patrons do as they enter the Alamo Shrine to see that it was a mission for peace and not a fort for fighting, we will miss the signs of the times and not know that every SDA gender and ethnic group should be encouraged to express the three angels’ messages in their own medium of expression. Let not our top Church leader hint or ‘demand’ that people stop clapping or involving their body in affirmation or worship (Psalms 150). Let not marginalization be the norm for diverse ways for using one’s gifts for or praising God in the congregation. The substratum for unity is humility; and the substratum for humility is love; a love that embraces me as I am and invests in me to be all I can be in Christ and not just as I adapt to a White Euro-centric model of behavior and worship. Research informs us that Black men and woman were observing Sabbath in Africa long before SDA’s showed up in the presence of their missionaries. Whites have not invented nor been the exclusive arbiters of biblically grounded religious expression. In fact, Africans were shocked when White European missionaries came with Sunday.[10]

The first suggestion for us is not to retreat or succumb to non-Kingdom egalitarianism that is the obverse of Paul’s Kingdom unity (Galatians 3:27-29), but push forward together in the spirit of the Sixteen Points Program[11] and empower rather than exclude our members from leadership positions. In my opinion, the women’s ordination matter is coming back. The increase of votes in agreement, from 41 (1990) to 997 (2015) indicates the issue is not over and is more organic in nature than many recognize. We have lingering matters that are related to it and in many ways supersede it that demand immediate attention if the President’s appeal for unity is to be realized. My second suggestion is that our dear President Wilson not travel with bodyguards or wear a bullet proof vest. I pray these rumors are just mischievous gossip. If it is true, however, please remove the vest and let the guards go—“He shall give His angels charge over thee” (Ps. 34:7). As our President or spiritual high priest, stand like a tree planted by the rivers of righteousness and social justice and speak against the inertia of White flight by challenging the White descendants of our founding pioneers to practice Jesus’ prayer “That we be one even as He and His Father are one” (John 17:22)—in the city and the suburbs; in all thirteen SDA Divisions; in the lives of men and women, young and old. Remind the descendants of our organizational pioneers that to be the head of this diverse bridal Church means to lead according to Paul’s model (Eph. 5:22-33). If you focus on this, I believe true unity will be nurtured—a unity that respects the gifts of women and ethnic others; a unity borne from active and reflexive listening and negotiations that produce practical relationships in the Northeast/South/Midwest/West areas of the NAD and around the globe within SDA social life.

May we occupy together, in the true sense of unity, but not uniformity, until Jesus comes to take us to eternal bliss. This will take President Wilson, like the Pope, encouraging every Conference ministry person and pastoral leader to preach, teach, and exhort unity of the John and Jane Doe members of every nation, kindred and tongue, while not winking at or tacitly supporting behaviors of disharmony, disparity, and disassociation. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Psalms 37:11). Not an earth for men over women (Gen.1:26-28) or ghettoized and depreciated from a heavenly uptown section; or a new earth with a lower class and an upper class; or racial, ethnic or gender enclaves; nor one where White SDA leaders are going to “come over to your side [of heaven] to hear you [Black] folk sing,” but an earth where there will be justice for all as far as the sea. Maranatha! Even so, come, Lord of Unity, and help us make the unity our President appealed for a reality, where we stop fighting as if we are at the Alamo again.

 

Bibliography

Bradford, Charles E. (1999). Sabbath Roots: The African Connection, L. Brown and Sons         Printing, 1999.

Dodson, Joseph T. (1944). Chair, “Shall the Four Freedoms Function among Seventh-day         Adventists?” Committee for the Advancement of a Worldwide Work among Colored          Seventh-day Adventists. Washington, DC: General Conference Archives, 1944.

Fordham, Walter w. (1990). Righteous Rebel, Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing).

Fusllier, Anqunnet, ed., “The Divine Origins of Church of God in Christ,” The Corner stone         (1985): 32-33.

Jones, R. Clifford (2007). Utopia Park, Utopian Church: James K. Humphrey and the         Emergence of Sabbath-Day Adventist (Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 6

Justice, Jacob (1975). Angels in Ebony, Toledo, OH: Jet Printing Service.

Morgan, Doug (2010). Lewis Sheafe: Apostle to Black America. Hagerstown, MD: Review and       Herald.

Norwood, Fredrick A. The Story of American Methodism: A History of the United Methodist andtheir Relations. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1974.

Reynold, Louis, B. (1984). We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists     with an African Heritage. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Scott, Robert (2000). After the Alamo. Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press.

Sweet, William W. (1933). Methodism in American History. New York: Methodist Book         Concerns.


 

[1] Scott (2000), pp.74-75.

[2] William W. Sweet, Methodism in American History (New York: Methodist Book Concerns), 31-34; Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1974), 20-21.

[3] R. Clifford Jones, Utopia Park, Utopian Church: James K. Humphrey and the Emergence of Sabbath-Day Adventist (Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 6.

[4] Seventh-day Adventist, 28 Fundamentals Beliefs, #14. This was copied from the General Conference website, www.adventist.org/beleifs/.

[5] Anqunnet Fusllier, ed., “The Divine Origins of Church of God in Christ,” The Corner stone (1985), 32-33.

[6] Doug Morgan, Lewis Sheafe: Apostle to Black America, (Review and Herald, 2010), 291-303, 393-400.

[7] Jacob Justice, Angels in Ebony, (Toledo, OH: Jet Printing Service, 1975), 43-46; Joseph T. Dodson, Chair, “Shall the Four Freedoms Function among Seventh-day Adventists?” Committee for the Advancement of a Worldwide Work among Colored Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, DC: General Conference Archives, 1944), 2.

[8] Walter W. Fordham, Righteous Rebel, (Hagerstown, MD, Review and Herald Publishing, 1990), 76.

[9] Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists with an African Heritage, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1984), 293-294.

[10] Charles E. Bradford, Sabbath Roots: The African Connection, L. Brown and Sons Printing, 1999), 87-119.

[11] Jacob Justice, 150-151. This action grew out of discussion around Division Presidential structuration in the early 1900’s. Such deliberations prompted further discussion concerning Union and Regional [Black] Conference authority determination, particularly, a proposal for Black Unions. Eventually, this Affirmative Action plan was voted as a two-year experimental-period and compromise for dealing with racial injustice in the church.


Pastor Doctor Mark A. McCleary began serving the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1974 (Kansas City, Missouri).  His Allegheny East Conference career includes the First Church of Montclair, NJ; SW Philadelphia; The First Church of Washington, DC; and Liberty Church, Windsor Mill, MD (January, 2014).

He has been married to the former Queenie P. Bryant for over 40 years. In his opinion, she is a role model for every First Lady. They have three adult children, Brian, Michael (married to Andrenee and two children, Micah and Miles, and Michelle.

Pastor McCleary has completed the following degrees: B. A. (1974); Master of Divinity (1978); Doctor of Ministry, “Congregational Renewal” (1998); and Ph. D. “Conflict Analysis and Resolution” (2013).

Pastor McCleary has published—The Gospel Presentation; Back to Basics Bible Study; Reflections on Daniel workbook; A Guide to Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts; and Assurance, Insurance, and Reassurance: Pre-Marital and Marriage Information Series; “A Conflict Resolution Manual for Resolving Intra Church Social Conflict” is pending.

His personal vision and objective statements are: “To be recognized as a good pastor by my members and a helpful and accessible chaplain to their various communities”, and “To be a role model of Christian values, in order to inspire positive life-style transformation in others.”