Legacy of Race: Implications and Historical Considerations in Adventist Culture
Third of an 8-part Series
By Cleran Hollancid, May 25, 2017: Does any of this resonate or have any impact on Seventh-day Adventist culture? Whether it’s these sentiments or other thoughts on race, these ideas have entered the church fully clad and armored, and in fact are being handed down to the next generation. Think about not just the implications or the net effect, but the type of morale that is built into the very foundation of the denomination. Granted, one will argue that generations X, Y, millennial, etc., are living in a different world from their boomer parents and forebears; but even that has not wiped out bigotry both in and outside the church. You might be surprised to learn of deep-seated division still prevalent among Adventist youth, and the separatist views that some Adventist youth hold.
All told, the Adventist Church, like other denominations, has allowed the world to dictate patterns and practices; so that racial prejudice and discriminatory behavior in the wider society, in North America and elsewhere, have entered the church; both the wider society (social institutions, organizations, neighborhood, etc.) and the church have hugged each other and collaborate on matters of bigotry, sometimes with the church leading the way.
This is in reference to what I call the hug of malice, segregation and woe, that leads to an irksome bitterness and unsettling rivalry; dishonorable indeed, and absolutely unacceptable. The church would do well to strip itself of the outer layers of pretense and deal with the rottenness inside. Intransigent racism, the infamous color-line, hardcore Jim Crowism, unsettling prejudice, stuck-up and incorrigible attitudes, and unchecked bigotry, not to mention the filthy stench of hypocrisy in American religion, is so wildly rampant, that it appears as if the world is actually learning from the church. This is sick! This out-of-control madness of the basest of passions has to stop.
If no one says anything, and all the sheep remain asleep, then everyone thinks it’s OK. Talk about the blind and unconverted leading the blind! If this were a once-upon-a-time phenomenon, one might have been inclined to think that the church still has a modicum of decency left. This is all in the present, and is getting worse, particularly among born-again, Bible-believing Christians. Racial prejudice, tension, exclusionary tactics, policies, and practices, scarred by perverted and pervasive racial politics, however underhanded, continue to plague the Adventist Church – in a variety of areas, and on a number of levels – from the very highest church administrative position down to conference hiring practices, and the local church. And of course, of notable mention in that regard, is the structurally-divided Black-White Adventist conference system at the local level, established in 1944, as a direct result of the prejudice and hardness of the hearts of the White Adventist leadership.
And looking at a more general picture, around 90 percent of all churches (across the denominational spectrum) in America exhibit some type of segregation. You can talk about the color-line in church all you want, including the notion that it’s like a marketplace whereby the worshippers can choose Black or White. But just remember that there is an actual racialized history, the back story.
White flight still plagues the Adventist Church today in churches and in schools. And Canada, which is part of the North American Division, is no exception. While Canada has no structure of segregation like that of the United States, that does not mean that it’s totally free from prejudice, either. Dan Jackson (himself Canadian), the current president of the North American Division, spoke candidly about racial prejudice and the problem of White-flight in Canadian Adventist churches in an interview earlier in 2015 with Pastor Frank E. Legette III of the Allegheny East Conference.
Yes, it is appalling and shameful to admit that skin color matters in the church because people make it matter. But such factors must be admitted and then reconciliation sought with an open heart in order for true repentance and catharsis to take place. Otherwise, the church at large just continues to mask the real problems and the seriousness of it all.
Despite what many say about the ‘success of the Black work’ due to the semi-autonomous position of Blacks in the denomination, particularly since 1944, Adventists are still left with the legacy of segregation. And racial segregation in the American context, no matter how you dice it, by its very definition is inextricably linked to White supremacy, the Atlantic slave trade, western eugenics (including that of Nazi Germany, and the history of American eugenic societies), the concepts of racial purity, racial hygiene, racial inferiority, and mental inferiority of Blacks and non-Whites, among other things. White Adventist leaders, at least in the past, thought that Blacks were intellectually inferior to them and thus incapable of leading or even learning in certain academic areas; and that included seeing Blacks as incompetent in overseeing financial matters as well. There is so much to say, but I cannot even begin to talk about the horrors of slavery, the deep wounds inflicted upon the souls of men, women, and children, its continuing impact, and its mutated forms today. Racism is gross sin to participate in the functions and program of ‘race,’ race-baiting, segregation and the like, knowing the evil force behind it.
Now let’s connect that with some Adventist minds. The following are reflective of some of the responses or reactions that I’ve personally received, insofar as they pertain to the race problem, segregation, and the Adventist Church in America:
- It can cause more harm than good to address it.
- “Don’t rock the boat.”
- Why should I address the problem, if it’s going to affect my social position?
- Why not let the conference officials deal with it or address it instead of the local church; they have qualified persons that can do a good job with that. Besides, the pastor already has his hands full.
- I’d rather just leave it alone and let my life be an example (note, while such sentiment has some virtue in it, it also undermines the liability and responsibility of church leadership and the system of operation; also, such view is the antithesis to the first part of point 4 above).
- I do not want to offend people, particularly those that financially support my publishing work or ministry.
- Ellen White spoke of the problems of ‘interracial’ marriage. Blacks should not marry Whites; besides, I’m really concerned about the kids of interracial marriage (i.e., fear for the safety of the kids).
- Ellen White said something to the effect of let Blacks minister to Blacks, and Whites to Whites until the Lord shows us a better way.
Note again that such responses are not my views, but the type of reactions I’ve received on the matter.
Meanwhile, a high church official in the United States has plainly indicated that it is up to the constituents to do something about it racial segregation if anything at all has to be done. The leaders are mighty quick and happy to absolve themselves of all culpability, hiding behind technicalities and the question of who has the right to do what, while placing all the burden on the constituents, and guess what? The ball now gets kicked to the goalpost of the local conference leadership. And need I tell you how the local conference leaders handle the whole affair? So then it becomes a quaint game of what I call ‘church kickball.’ Not surprising.
In spite of the fact that it was the White Adventist church leadership that officially authorized Black-White racial segregation in the 1940s, today, church leaders are nonchalantly using nice words, and forming committees, etc., while continuing to use any tactic in the book just to keep the ball out of their court. These are the deeply spiritual and anointed leaders that run the Adventist Church, and the characters that you continue to elect into office. Quite frankly, I hate seeing the word ‘elect’ in connection with church office, due to political morass, for instance, that has scandalized the church.
The Adventist Church in the U.S., no doubt, has had a very ugly history of anti-Black prejudice, and race discrimination, including institutional racism, some of which are still evident today. You’re not supposed to say anything, lest you upset the status quo. That subject, however, is actually the material of research, Adventist archives, forums, articles, and books. But I would, nonetheless, proceed to proffer an idea of such historical reckoning in the church, to expose some of the deep or even hidden anger and hurt involved, not as a means of inflaming the issue more, but rather as a vehicle for clearance or as a beginning toward that objective.
Blacks feel that Whites are simply sweeping the history of oppression, as well as continuing prejudice, under the rug; while many Whites, for their part, continue to voice silently or openly, “Why can’t Blacks just move on, and stop clinging to the past, particularly in this new century of color-blindness, full equality, and participation.”
On top of that, today, in the twenty-first century there is still the belief, in the Adventist Church, that Blacks and Whites should not marry each other. Again, not all Adventists feel that way, but the belief is certainly an elephant in the room, which points to the racist attitude of some.
A friend of mine who works for a conference even told me how he was discouraged by more than one conference official from dating outside his race; in this case it was a White male with a Black female. Apparently the image of an interracial couple ‘did not look good’ or presentable enough to some critics; so he was essentially encouraged to find a nice Adventist White lady. This is the kind of racist thinking that is whispered and disseminated around some Adventist tables. This attitude is connected to the racist mindset of the anti-miscegenation agenda, including a link to American eugenics policies and practices, and the militant and unflinching White supremacy evident in the ideology of Neo-Nazism, and links to more practices and mindsets.
Blacks, including some Adventist leaders, continue to think of Whites as insensitive, ungodly and selfish, while they also see Adventist Whites as not willing to let go of their racist attitudes, and grip on power. Meanwhile, a form of Black power, in terms of accepting some measure of self-determination, has been the response by many Blacks, evidenced in the segregated structure of the church itself. This creates an intractable and palpable tension. And some Black members themselves advocate the ‘stick to your own race’ ideology.
If Adventists do not confront the notion of racial ideals, it will continue to cast a malignant spell over the church, leaving in its wake a train of brainwashing and enmity. And as unthinkable as it may be, who is to say it will not lead to bloodshed? These things have a funny way of evolving when the roots of the matter are not dealt with. Yet so many would rather not talk about it, but instead praise the segregation by talking about the ‘good’ outcome of it, putting a pretty mask over the inescapable problem. How long will this pretense continue?
Cleran L. Hollancid is a life-long Adventist who belongs to a congregation in Michigan. He is a PhD candidate in the sociology of religion at Western Michigan University. His research has focused on racial segregation in the Adventist Church in the United States of America. He completed a BA in theology at Caribbean Union College, the Master of Divinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, an MA in anthropology and an MA in sociology at Wayne State University. Is an adjunct professor in the Religious Studies Program at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. The purpose of this eight-part series is to offer beginning steps toward racial reconciliation in the Adventist faith community.
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