When we try to put things in their right place, we begin to see them as they are. Unfortunately, that is not how our white brethren have seen those in the black community. Pastor Dwight Nelson’s recent efforts to dissolve regional conferences exposes, once again, the naiveness of white individuals in their view of the “black thing.”
In this article, I will briefly offer reasons why black people feel more comfortable in their “black thing” than merging with white communities, and suggest that this is not indicative of division as much as it is indicative of diversity and respect for one’s unique identity.
Blaming the innocent
Regional conferences were a response to white supremacy and segregation by Adventist church officials. Between 1916 and 1944, there was little evangelism among the black communities. Despite the appeals of Ellen White to prioritize mission among the blacks, little effort was carried out. Edson White’s own effort to evangelize the South received minimal support from the church administration. During World War I, many blacks moved to the North to support industries in their production. The migration increased Adventist black churches as most of them came in contact with the Adventist message. The growth of the black churches brought many challenges that white administrators could not understand or attend to properly. Some of the challenges included the cost of places of worship, lack of access to Adventist schools and hospitals, and many other de facto segregational policies implicit in the church’s institutions.
Then-pastor J. K. Humphrey and others were challenged by both the physical and traditional needs of the black churches. Norman Miles, the editor of the North American Regional Voice, wrote that “J. K. Humphrey eventually came to the conclusion that blacks would never be able to carry on their work in a way that would most benefit the black congregations until they had black conferences and conference administrators who understood their needs” (Norman K. Miles, "The Establishment of Regional Conferences." North American Regional Voice for 1979 - Vol. 01 - No. 01, p. 3).
That radical notion gave birth to the first Adventist Black Conference in 1944 with a population of 15,000. By 1979, the number of black Adventists increased to 100,000 in North America. And in recent decades, black churches continue to flourish in all aspects of the church’s mission.
The Regional Conferences emerged for mission rather than division and their mission has not abated. During the Autumn Council of 1943, some of the black lay elders pleaded with the church executive for total integration within the local, union and General Conference fields. Miles wrote that “At the meeting J.J. Nethery convinced the other leaders to give blacks their own conference.” He added that “Black laymen who spearheaded the reform movement never asked for regional conferences, but for integration. Because the church was not ready to fully integrate, it saw fit to grant segregated conferences.” (See Ibid).
Aside from this historical heritage that gives shape to our worldview today, there are still more other things to consider if, indeed, we want to understand one another well. One cannot continue to call these conferences "segregated" conferences without careful reflections.
A question of Black anthropology
White culture has been shaped by individualism, which has become detrimental to the church’s social health. The Western understanding of personhood has followed Rene Descartes's dictum, cogito ergo sum––I think, therefore I exist. A person in the West is “an isolated individual with rationality seeking to preserve an autonomous self” (Owino Kobo, "The Doctrine of God In African Christian Thought," p. 129).
This way of life, which has become deeply rooted in Western societies, is very contrary to black people’s worldview of personhood. To the black individual, it is cognatus ergo sum––I am related, therfore I exist. However, community is a survival unit within which the individual is reconciled to other members to actualize one’s identity and uniqueness in the social experience. The long walk of black people towards liberation and spirituality has been influenced by this intrinsic anthropological ontology. Black people uniting themselves under their own conferences corresponds very well with their natural way of life. We must see regional conferences as an anthropological issue rather than a partisan issue.
Liberating the oppressed
We have gotten this far without talking about colonialism, slavery, segregation, racism and other socially-constructed facets of white society that have denigrated black people for centuries. Even the church has not been immune to some of these marginalizing forces and to white supremacy over black people. Only recently have black people gotten a share in church bureaucracy and policy-making. But this has been a long walk. Such unfortunate circumstances have led to a new way of life for black people--a way to actualize their identity. We must see black conferences as a way to avert competition over church leadership, in order to prevent leadership meetings turning into “black-out, white-in,” and vice versa.
Birds of a feather do flock together
I say this for the sake of the sociological experience: It is a mistake for anyone to think that the gospel overrides any cultural values. While all have come to find a new human identity in the person of God's son and in the image of God, which is spiritual rebirth, one’s unique cultural identity is not invalidated by this new spiritual experience. In the book of Acts chapter 6, we find not just Christians, but Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews. One does not leave one’s identity behind after accepting Christ. Black conferences or black churches are nothing more than an ethnically-diversified community, united by one faith in Christ. Black conferences tend to serve their members very well because they can easily relate to their traditional needs and be understood quickly, in the same way, I don't doubt, that white conferences do.
… And so what?
Dwight Nelson's appeal for signatures for the dissolving of regional conferences reveals the error of the white judgment over a “black thing.” This is the same error the missionaries who came to Africa exhibited by condemning traditional values as demonic. Their failure to understand the “African thing” created a kind of Christianity that became a Westernbrand religion. There was little theological dialogue between the gospel and the African settings. It was not until the post-colonial period when African theologians began to question and to reconstruct theological understanding in the African context. Christianity must not suppress the social needs of other people. In the same way with the church’s missiology, we cannot downplay the efficacy of a community united by ethnicity. The church must rather be ashamed of how blacks were treated in the twentieth century and be glad for the direction of the Holy Spirit which has sustained the ministry of black people until now.
The black conferences do not stand for segregation. Rather, they represent a revolution against segregation. Even though they might have had roots in such divisions, there is still more beauty to it. Pastor Nelson must hold his partisan and force-branded-appeal. It is not practical enough. Trying to uproot regional conferences in the name of anti-segregationism by amassing a coalition, if in the absence of careful and wise dialogue, is absolutely incorrect (both theologically and methodologically). Black conferences do not serve only African-Americans; they also serve the African diaspora. If we should fail to understand the black culture and its history, we will fail to appropriate the message of Christ. Ethnicity is not a crime and whether conferences be black or white, we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), united in the same missiology.
Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, originally from Ghana, is pursuing a Master's of Theology degree from the inter-faculty universities of Lausanne and Geneva, Switzerland.