AT News Team, April 13, 2015: On Saturday evening (Apr 11), Andrews University concluded its fourth annual Summit on Social Consciousness. This year’s theme was race and justice in America. The four-day event included nightly meetings, each addressing different facets the theme.
Pastor Jose Bourget, associate chaplain at Andrews University and associate pastor at Pioneer Memorial church, told Adventist Today why he believes the topic of racial justice is important. “Christianity thrives when it follows in the steps of its namesake,” he said. “Engaging the conversation on race is at the heart of healing in an area where humanity has caused great and lasting injury. By beginning to listen for the sake of understanding, like we did this weekend, we are taking the first steps that promote restoring dignity to humanity that Christ modeled.”
On Saturday afternoon Paul Buckley, Ph.D., the keynote speaker for the summit, addressed questions of racial identity, the social meaning of racial attribution, and the white frame of racial discourse in the United States. By looking at eras of discourse on race—slavery, Jim Crow, desegregation, and others—Buckley demonstrated how racism has manifested differently throughout United States history. While some assert that U.S. society is now in a post-racial era, Buckley described how colorblindness has actually cut short important conversations about race. That is, people are not able to talk about something that they must publicly pretend not to see.
Buckley concluded with a consideration of the Sabbath commandment and its connection to justice. In the commandment itself, Buckley noted the call to community, where all have equal right to rest. Next, Buckley drew on Isaiah 58, noting that work for justice precedes finding delight in the seventh-day rest.
Given these two biblical passages, Buckley called Adventists to broaden “Sabbath discourse” in order to expand beyond only attempting to prove which day is the Sabbath. He argued that to fully enter and experience God’s spiritual and physical Sabbath rest, we must spend the prior six days working for a more just world. Because justice is central to the Sabbath and the Sabbath is central to Adventism, Buckley called church members to recognize that justice is central to Adventist faith.
Following Buckley’s far-reaching presentation, five topics were available for those who stayed for the break-out session. Karyle Barnes, who was raised near Ferguson, MO, shared what he learned from the killing of Michael Brown in August 2014. Wendora Thompson spoke about the health outcomes among minorities. Robert Bailey addressed race consciousness. Nicholas Miller presented on emerging legislation relevant to racial issues. Finally, Twyla Smith and Shannon Trecartin taught about white privilege and microaggression.
White privilege was also the main topic on Friday night, where Alex Angellakis interviewed Steve Yeagley, assistant vice president of student life at Andrews University. Yeagley compared white privilege to a backpack that is invisible to the carrier but that is quite evident to other observers. To demonstrate that being on the receiving end of systemic imbalances is not a personal indictment, Yeagley shared an analogy used by Jeremy Dowsett—how roads in the Unites States favor cars over bicycles. He argued that cars should use their status to watch out for bicycle riders rather than ignoring them or feeling guilty for having greater access to the pavement.
In this context, Yeagley looked at troubling characteristics, both past and present, within American Adventism. First, he share the Adventist media of his youth, showing pictures of white children with a white Jesus in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories and other books. He also commented briefly on the racism that contributed to the formation of Regional Conferences in the 1940s. Most congregations in Regional Conferences are historically African American, though there are a number of Hispanic congregations and those of other ethnic composition as well.
Yeagley pointed out that some Adventists too often wish to set aside problems and wait for them to be fixed when Jesus returns. “Focus on finishing the work so Jesus can return,” it is said. Yeagley asked the audience to consider what work it is that Adventists must finish? Does it not include overcoming prejudice and bigotry? He asked why Adventists so often “punt our problems to the Second Coming.”
Yolanda Clarke was recently noted in the Adventist Review as playing a musical role in the 1963 March on Washington. Yeagley pointed out that Adventist church leaders at the time actually discouraged members from getting involved with the civil rights movement. Furthermore, he argued that today many Adventist institutions with diverse memberships have predominantly white leaders.
Yeagley concluded with a call to action. Adventists, he argued, should leave their comfort zones by entering the social context of others, listen in conversation with those who are different even when it is uncomfortable, learn by educating themselves, and love “the other.”
While the weekend meetings focused on key speakers, the first two nights of the summit used other formats. On Wednesday evening, a panel of seven male university students shared their experience of race in the United States, with questions primarily addressing their experience with the police. Andrews University chaplain Michael Polite moderated the conversation.
The panel consisted of participants with backgrounds in South Africa, Canada, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States (with both European and African descent). Summit coordinator and Andrews University social work professor Twyla Smith explained to Adventist Today why only men were selected for the panel: “We keep talking about the experience of young men, but we rarely hear from them.”
On Thursday, attendees watched a video of Michelle Alexander speaking about mass incarceration. Alexander’s speech was based on her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The skewed approach of the War on Drugs and the resulting imprisonment of Black men with the enduring label of “felon,” formed the basis of her argument about the separation and control of African American communities—the New Jim Crow.
The topic for next year’s Summit on Social Consciousness has not yet been announced.