Are We Working Together? – On The Black-White Adventist Conference Divide

I was listening to Elder Dana Edmond, president of South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. To those who do not know this is a “regional” conference (well most conferences are regional today, but I keep the antiquated terminology). He was preaching at the Kentucky Tennessee Conference. A “non-regional” conference for lack of a better term (I don’t use the black-white designation).

Are We Starting To Work Together?

Elder Edmond and the president of Kentucky-Tennessee Elder Steve Haley, both spoke of their friendship and their plans to work together on initiatives including evangelizing Memphis Tennessee.

I thought that was interesting. Especially in light of Georgia Cumberland conference and South Atlantic both working together to evangelize Atlanta during the last GC Session.

Shine A Light

All of these initiatives make me wonder a few things. First, maybe we should put more effort into working together instead of complaining about the separation. The separation doesn’t stop us from doing things together. (Contrary to the view of some, this is not as hardcore a separation as the “segregation” of the Jim Crow Era)

Outreach is the place where we need to see this. We are doing it now. Educational institutions, evangelism, and community service programs. Here we are working together. Perhaps we need to do better at emphasizing and publicizing our work together. Maybe we aughta shine the light instead of cursing the darkness.

Applauding Steps Forward

I am sure there are other initiatives of which I am unaware. I am not saying that we are doing things perfectly. We certainly should do better. We must find a way to get past this separation that continues for various reasons. But the answer is to get in the foxholes and work together.

I applaud folks like Edmond, Haley, and those others who recognize the facts, providence has placed us all together, we need each other just like the arm needs the leg. Maybe the way to unite the conferences is to work together instead of trying to come up with a directive from the top.

The Separated Black And Non Black Conferences In Adventism – Will We Ever Just Talk?

It doesn’t take much to get a discussion going regarding “regional conferences” and “non regional conferences.” I was on Facebook and pointed to this article where a Black and a White church decided to come together to have a worship service. It was an interesting story in and of itself. But in the comments section the discussion quickly turned to a discussion of the Black and White church and Black conferences. This was particularly interesting to me in that the original story was not about Adventists. In addition is wasn’t about dismantling anything. It was only about worshiping together.

Black Churches and Regional Conferences Are Separate Issues

Upon reflection a few points came to mind. the first thing this told me was that we cloud the issue of Regional Conferences[1. Regional Conferences was the name given to the conferences made up of predominantly Black churches. They were called regional because they had jurisdiction over “regions” rather than “states” as the old conference structure of the Adventist church in North America.] and Black Churches.

We had Black churches before regional conferences and we will have them after. Whatever we do about regional conferences will not remove the black church. Arguments that we should worship together are only tangentially related to the “regional conference question.” I think it is interesting that there are black churches in the non regional conferences. So don’t get into a long discussion of how we should worship together and then jump to Black conferences…it is two different issues.

The existence of Black Conferences do not constitute forced segregation. To use the language of “segregation” is to imply that people cannot worship where they please. Are there any black people in the predominately white church in town? Are there any white people in your predominately Black church? Most likely the answer is yes to both of these questions. What is really interesting is that there are Black employees of non regional conferences now and even non black employees of the regional conferences. We all may agree that it is not best that we had to create these conferences, but to compare them to “segregation” is really not a correct comparison.

Our Ability To Work Together Is Questioned

Now I do agree, as noted above, that having these conferences working the same field is not our ultimate goal. The existence of regional and non regional conferences says something about our inability to work things out. Yes all sides had a role to play in this, but be not confused, the split between non regional and regional conferences happened because we allowed white racism to go unchecked. We must look at that history before we can move on.

More than that, it says something that the Black work was being undeserved before the creation of regional conferences in the south. We have seen the African American work blossom as money and resources were now going straight into the inner cities much more than before.

The Split Kept Us Together

But we also must recognize that the creation of regional conferences probably saved a split in the denomination. Look at other denominations in the United States. The Methodists split over the race issue. Baptists split. Presbyterians split. Most have different denominations. Just about everybody split. But we found a way to hold together. I agree that the existence of regional and non regional conferences in the same areas is not best, but it is better than the total split that we see in other denominational bodies.

Can We Understand Each Other?

Some Black folks support the continuance of the regional conferences because they do not trust that their issues will be treated fairly as in the past. Now some folks deny that we should fear that. Some folks get mad that some fear unfair treatment. Some folks will say that “Black folks need to get over it!” But let us for the sake of argument say that some Black folks fears are unfounded. If you don’t understand the fear and apprehension that that group would have then I question if you have done much study at all into the race question in this country.

Some white folks attach the existence of regional conferences to racism and thus accuse any Black person who supports their continuance of promoting racism or playing the race card to the detriment of the church where, according to them, race should not matter.

These white sisters and brothers want to point to a “Post Racial Church” where race does not matter and even appeal to President Barak Obama’s election as a sign that we have reached a post racial place in America. And they think the best resolution of our problem is to ignore race. Many of our Black sisters and brothers believe that racism still exists and that the call to ignore race is at best naive.

Where Do We Go Now?

So here we are. Many of our Black sisters and brothers fear that they will not be treated correctly. They have history that informs that fear. Many of our non black and international sisters and brothers think that they treat all equally and that the call of racism is something that we have largely overcome in the past.

What can we do? It is past time that we come together. It is past time that we have real conversations with one another. It is past time for our African American sisters and brothers to have space to talk about the alienation that they feel. It is past time for our sisters and brothers of other elasticities to give their perspective on the issue. Yes it is past time for us to come together and be real about why the church started these conferences. It is past time that we talk about when is the right time to remove this structural separation.

The answer is not in a top down “You will get rid of these conferences.” Neither is it in the attempt of the previous GC president in telling the young African Americans to tell their presidents that they don’t want these conferences (as if the whole reason for their existence is a “black problem.” The answer is for us to have space for dialog. Before we do anything, let us first talk. Can we stop pointing the finger…and recognize that no side can claim complete innocence…and even more than that recognize that providence has placed us together, because we need each other…

Is it Time? – Frederick Russell, Calvin Rock, and the Black Conferences

In a very interesting move, the Allegheny West Conference has elected Pastor Frederick Russell to become its next president. What is interesting to me is that this happens during the discussion in the Adventist world over the existence of so called “regional conferences.”

Russell has written an article that calls for the removal of the separated conferences in America. His plan, which looks like one of the plans presented in the General Conference document that we blogged on two years ago and can be found at this link, calls for the abolishment of both the local conference and the union conference levels and then create a new entity that is larger than a local conference, but smaller than a union conference.

In contrast, Dr. Calvin Rock disagrees with Russel. You can find his compelling piece at this link.

What to Keep in Mind

I think when we talk about the Black and White conferences we need to keep a few things in mind. First and foremost many of our brothers and sisters of other denominational traditions are being hypocritical when they condemn us for having black and white conferences. We must keep in mind that many of their denominations may not have black and white conferences, the reason being is because they have white and black Denominations. The Methodists split along the color line and so did the Baptists. Certainly today we see some black churches in predominantly white denominations, and a few in the other direction, but I have heard to many Adventists doing hand wringing when a baptist asks about Black conferences when we can at least say we didn’t split the denomination itself.

Black People Can’t Bear the Brunt of The Black Conference Existence

Another important point to keep in mind, Black people cannot bear the brunt for the reason for their existence. I sometimes hear black and white brothers and sisters blaming black people for the existence of “Black conferences.” Their existence was due to white racism totally. This was not created by so called black racism, but white racism plain and simple. If we ever do away with them, we must recognize this and state it, if we don’t it will demonstrate their need. A new way this is argued is to say “we don’t’ have white conferences we have black conferences and integrated conferences.” This is attempting to sweep it all under the rug and blame black people for its current existence.

Structural Renewal Can’t be Used to Sweep Under the Rug

Also, The real need for structural renewal cannot be used to sweep away the Black conferences without us fully dealing with why we created them in the first place.

Is it time to get rid of the Black conferences? I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it. Is it time to get together and figure out when that time would be? Well it is way past time for that determination. We pray that Frederick Russell can begin that conversation in his new role.