Sixth of an 8-part Series
By Cleran Hollancid, June 7, 2017: Where has the twenty-first century led? Particularly around the end of the twentieth century, Dr. Delbert Baker, former president of Oakwood University and now vice chancellor of the Adventist University of Africa, among many others, hailed Regional Conferences as a success and celebrated their progress. Given that Adventist Blacks were subjugated, humiliated, and have been steady objects of discrimination, the only way forward according to the 1944 decision was to create a racial divide within the broader structure.
Due to the hardness of the hearts of White church leaders in the 1944 decision, they did not think that full equality, including fair administrative representation at all levels of the church, for Blacks was possible. And now the Church is stuck with that legacy of prejudice and racial segregation, as leaders call it every name in the book except “the emperor has no clothes.” But the more they gloss over this matter and “move on,” the more it continues to stare them directly in the face, until such time as one or a few brave leaders are courageous enough to throw off the Adventist shackles of this mockery of a pretense and glaring hypocrisy. Meanwhile, some members and local leaders are describing the matter every which way just to cover up the church’s errors, as if that will ever make it right. That is grossly wrong, and should be called out for what it is.
In the twenty-first century of “color blindness” amidst racial tension, the saga drags on. In 2015, Regional Conferences celebrated the 70th anniversary of their existence. The weekend of the celebrations and earlier on June 20, 2015, Lake Region Conference (LRC), for example, had just ended a weekend celebration at Camp Wagner in Cassopolis, Michigan, commemorating 70 years of service. Michigan is a classic example of Adventists having one Black campground for the Regional Conference and a separate White campground for the Michigan Conference.
In light of all that, the North American Division (NAD) leadership is currently claiming that it works in unity with the Regional Conferences, and tries to show that they are moving forward together in evangelism and ministry. Without rehashing what I’ve already described, why do they insist on avoiding the real issue, and call their scheme “unity”? Who exactly is the leadership trying to fool? In this specific instance, I am referring primarily to the NAD response around March 25, 2015, mainly as a result of Andrews University students’ inquiry, as they sought answers with respect to Regional Conferences and the divided structure in the NAD.
What is togetherness when, for example, “It was 1965 before the largest White Seventh-day Adventist church in Detroit, … would accept its first Black member.” (Rock, page 22) But not for long. And guess what? Adventist White flight, as well as the wider societal White flight, picked up steam and has left its stamp of decay on the churches as well as the city at large. Togetherness? Unity? This is the “remnant” image that the church presents to the world. Some areas of the city look like scenes taken directly from the midst of Armageddon. That’s not to badmouth the city, but on the contrary, to offer you an exhibit for consideration. And it is not surprising, given the diminishing tax-base, the flight of capital, worsening employment conditions and therefore living conditions, dilapidated and abandoned housing, garbage-strewn streets, etc. A predominantly Black, if not all Black, church membership was left behind.
You’re surely well aware that this anecdote of Detroit is not an isolated case. In a number of ways, as the church continues in the practice of purposeful deception, trying to make people believe that everything is fine. There is only one Adventist Church in the city of Detroit that belongs to the Michigan Conference, and I can honestly say that I did not see one White member there, when I visited on Sabbath morning. The fleeing White church members from urban communities has been a growing phenomenon in American cities. Aside from that, but in relation to it, one Black Adventist church I visited in the greater Detroit area was on life support. And this is the very same southeast Michigan area where earlier in the twentieth century, there was outright discrimination against Black Adventist youth by the White Adventist membership, for example, barring Black Adventist youth from using the White campground, due to “segregation policy.”
The Detroit area was not alone in this sort of Black Adventist disenfranchisement, with Chicago and Pittsburgh having a similar history. In the summer of 1941, Black Adventist youth and leaders from various parts of the U.S. came together in Detroit, to officially launch the National Association for the Advancement of Adventist Youth (NAAAY). Among other notable locales, this marks Detroit as an abiding symbol of American Adventist apartheid. There are many more outrageous stories waiting to free themselves from the spell of Adventist prejudice, racism, doublespeak, divisive tactics and outright hypocrisy. Should we keep silent, do nothing, so we can say all is fine?
What good does it do for the NAD to consistently affirm the Regional Conferences while ignoring the roots of the problem, choosing deception over transparency, actual unity, and a clean conscience? Who precisely is the target of the empty words by Adventist leadership with regard to race since the nineteenth century? This is simply another shameful act in the very long line of reprehensible acts of the church dodging the issue?
Many Adventist Blacks have become settled in their niches and have accepted their segregated lot. Recently, I sat and listened to the full recording of a panel discussion which took place at a camp meeting in 2005, with prominent Black Adventist leaders, including at least two who have previously held General Conference positions. The pervasive mood was “Look how far we’ve come” after 60 years of Regional Conferences. One member of the panel even suggested that other Adventist ethnic groups should manage their own local affairs, similar to the Regional Conference model. To place this in proper context, however, all this is in light of White racism and prevailing prejudicial attitudes which has helped to cement the Black attitude toward the situation.
Some Black Adventist leaders are the very ones helping to perpetuate segregation, by issuing all sorts of justifications for racial division. For example, I’ve even come across one Black Adventist leader who speaks of “mission particularity” (including biblical justification) regarding the current NAD structure. The idea is to justify segregation by any means necessary, since it has already become a way of life among Adventists. But if everyone indulges that attitude, who will be left to challenge the system? No matter how you slice it, at the end of the day we are still left with the roots of the problem intact, while people are trying to palliate their consciences.
In all of this, Blacks, Whites, everyone, irrespective of their ethnicity, can learn something from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa. There are certainly virtue points to take away from the TRC story: coming to terms with the past, taking a hard look at the present and future, courage, faith, trust, moral accountability, reconciliation, endurance, unmistakable patience, impossible love in action, taking the offender under your wing, etc. Can we profit from this example?
Justiss, Jacob Justiss, (1975). “Regional Conferences,” In Baker, Delbert W. ed., (1996). Telling the Story: An Anthology on the Development of the Black Adventist Work. Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Printing Services; Section 2, pages 2-40. Extracted from Jacob Justiss (1975. Angels in Ebony. Toledo, OH: Jet Printing Services.
Rock, Calvin B. (1970). “A Better Way,” Spectrum Spring, 21-30.
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.
Next in the series:
Moving Forward: Considerations for Seventh-day Adventists