By Robbin Lewis | 26 February 2020 |
It is an issue that is painfully visible, but still too hot to touch.
Here we Adventists are in 2020, still separate. Our white churches still have white pastors, our black churches have black pastors. We even have separate administrative structures. Some believe, but rarely speak about, the probability that our prophetess Ellen White was of African-American descent. Officially it is strongly refuted, the evidence quietly buried.
Recently the Church of England apologized for, in their words, being “deeply institutionally racist.” CNN reported that the Church of England’s General Synod voted to issue an official apology and commission an outside expert to prepare a report on racism, race and ethnicity in the church. The article referenced 70 years of the Church of England’s practicing racism in their churches and congregations.
As I read it, I felt numb and sad at the same time. We Seventh-day Adventists have practiced it even longer. As a third-generation African-American Adventist, I have memories and stories passed down by my ancestors about not being allowed to attend white Adventist churches, and being dissuaded from even attempting to enroll in any of our Adventist schools—and in the event a miracle were to happen and you were enrolled, you were treated as second-class.
A deeper sadness: my own personal experience of racism within our denomination.
I was raised on the East Coast, went to an all-black Adventist church and an all-black Adventist school, with only the occasional trip outside of that capsule. I saw very few white people. Growing up, I wondered why we never co-mingled. Camp meetings, Youth Federations, summer camps—all black.
But my “safe” world was about to be upended.
My parents moved my family in the early 1970’s to—wait for it—Lincoln, Nebraska. Their story is that God told them to move. My siblings and I were getting older and our secondary education and college costs could possibly be lowered by being day students.
My parents were planning for the future, but it was culture shock for me. Shortly after our arrival, I remember, we formed a musical group at the small black Adventist church. We received an invitation to sing at College View church. At the end of the evening we were surrounded by some attendees who wanted to tell us they couldn’t wait to get to heaven to come over to “our side” to listen to our music! They believed they were complimenting us—not realizing they were implying that life in heaven would continue to be separate!
In the Adventist academy I found there was one black male in my class, and I was the only black female in my class. In the entire school there were 14 black students. That year we approached the school administration and asked permission to plan a chapel program to celebrate Black History Week. To our surprise, they agreed. It was one of those moments that made a difficult transition easier.
However, during my matriculation, racism showed up in other ways. My English teacher insisted that we read Huckleberry Finn aloud, and magically, the paragraph with the most offensive word became my paragraph to read. She would ask a black male student if she could drop her keys in his Afro hair to see if “it would bounce back.” That same teacher, after seeing my niece, told my father at my sister’s graduation, “If every black girl looked like your granddaughter, they wouldn’t mind being black.”
The experiences with that teacher showed that she had issues with minorities. Yet she was allowed to remain employed without reprimand.
It was a daily assault to one’s psyche, all under the label of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. None of us African-American students made it through unscathed. If you came to the institution uncertain of your value, you left certain that “folk of a particular hue” saw little value in you. For a teenager, that is damaging. I had to spend energy on negative actions by certain Seventh-day Adventist “mentors” that could have been used in a more positive and productive way.
As a child of God I should have been able to count on a loving, nurturing environment in my school and at my church, one that reflected Jesus and all of His teachings. I would be remiss if I did not mention one teacher who did just that. My biology teacher gave me positive affirmations each and every day, in and out of her classroom. She was a woman of God, and Christ’s spirit was always present. She saved my life, and taught me how to love unconditionally.
Changes and Apologies
We must, as fellow Adventists, be willing to stand up and no longer tolerate this division. Heaven will not be divided, and we must open all of our doors to receive anyone who signs on to the doctrines of Jesus and unconditional love.
There is a stain on the formation of the early Adventist church with reference to how the white (European) members disallowed brown and black to join and have equal standing in leadership. I do not know of any statement or press conference where the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has made a formal, public apology for their many years of institutional racism.
If we are honest, we know that is the least our church could do. It would be a beginning. From my study, heaven is not available to those who can but won’t make amends to right wrongs. If we are courageous we too could make a statement similar to the one by the archbishop of Canterbury and top cleric of the Church of England, Justin Portal Welby:
“We have damaged the Church, we have damaged the image of God and most of all, we have damaged those we victimized, unconsciously very often.”
During this month we celebrate and honor the accomplishments of Blacks in American History. As a black Seventh-day Adventist, I would feel honored if our church could make a statement of apology honoring the vanguards of black Adventist preachers, evangelists and missionaries who served God in spite of the inequities they experienced. A repentant heart is welcomed any month of the year!
Robbin Anderson Lewis attended Union College and graduated from Loma Linda University. She and her husband have been married for 40 years, and have three children and five grandchildren. She works as the office manager in her husband’s medical practice. Robbin is active in the Seventh-day Adventist church as a singer, writer, and event planner.