BERRIEN SPRINGS - The Andrews University chapter of the Adventist Peace Fellowship in collaboration with the Andrews University Student Association, Black Student Christian Forum and thirteen student clubs on campus, held a forum on State and Regional Conferences Saturday, March 7, addressing a topic that has generated a great deal of conversation in the past month.
The event invitation circulated on Facebook the week preceding the forum stated:
“This forum seeks to educate the Andrews community about a very current issue in our church: the administrative separation of our conferences along racial lines.
In light of the recent national conversations on race and race relations, this aspect of our church organization can seem strange. We want to learn about the current structure, the history behind it, and some of the opinions people have about it.”
Participants in the forum (listed in alphabetical order) included:
- Shastri Lloyd, Columnist for the Student Movement and Senior Theology major
- Nicholas Miller, Professor of Church History at Andrews University and Director of the International Religious Liberty Institute
- Taurus Montgomery, Pastor at Harbor of Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church
- Dwight Nelson, Senior Pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church
- Timothy Nixon, Executive Secretary of the Lake Region Conference
- Michael Polite, Associate Chaplin at Andrews University
- Melodie Roschman, Editor-in-Chief of the Student Movement and Senior English and Journalism major
This article is a summary of the forum discussion and includes an overview of the discussion and quotes from the panelists. The forum, in its entirety, can be viewed here.
Adrian Marston, Black Student Christian Forum (BSCF) President and Olivia Ruiz-Knott, Andrews University Student Association (AUSA) President, served as moderators of the forum.
Ruiz-Knott began by stating, “Some of us probably come to this conversation with strong feelings or opinions about what should or shouldn’t happen in the church regarding this issue. That’s awesome. I’d rather us be engaged than unaware or apathetic. Our hope is to create a space here where we can have and talk about those feelings and opinions, all the while maintaining in our heads the possibility that we are wrong. There may be a better way than ours and we are here to learn about it. This largeness of spirit and openness of mind are really expectations that we have for everyone in this room.”
The forum included a phone number for the audience to text in questions for the panelists. Audience members were also encouraged to post thoughts and opinions about the forum on social media using the hashtag #TwoChurchDoors throughout the session. At various points throughout the discussion, the audience was also instructed to visit a website and answer polling questions on the topic of state and regional conferences, the results of which were immediately shown on screen. Those polling questions included, “My home church is in (a state conference, a regional conference or I don’t know)” and “I feel that the church structure should (change, remain the same, or I don’t know).”
Before the panel discussion began, Olivia Ruiz-Knott took the audience through a breakdown of church structure and the various state and regional conferences that exist across the nation. Fellow AUSA Officer, Merlique Blackwood, then presented a short summary of the history of how regional conferences came into existence. Later in the panel discussion, a blog post written by Pastor Timothy Nixon’s son, Michael T. Nixon, was referenced which gives a more extensive history on this issue.
The seven panelists were then called to the stage, with Olivia Ruiz-Knott and Adrian Marston (President of the Andrews University Black Student Christian Forum) moderating.
ORK: “We want this to be an educational event that exposes the Andrews community to the diversity of opinions on this issue.”
AM: “Pastor Dwight, you’ve been a point of integrating the two conferences on the grounds of church unity. Could you tell us a little more about your perspective?”
DKN: “On the night before Jesus died, he prayed one prayer four times. That they Father may be one as you and I are one, that they Father may be one as you and I are one, that they Father may be one as you and I are one, and then the fourth prayer, that they may be brought to complete unity.
I love my church, I love our church, but with apologies to Robert Frost, I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the church. Because for the life of me, I can’t see how Jesus’ last prayer for the church can ever be answered as long as we are divided along racial lines in the Seventh-day Adventist church in the United States.
And so I preached a sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in which I shared this burden on my heart. Unfortunately, Spectrum Magazine, God bless them, got ahold of that sermon and reported ‘Dwight Nelson Calls for the Eradication of All Regional Conferences.’ But nothing could be further from the truth. I have never called for the eradication of any regional conference and I’m not presently calling for that. My humble appeal is for the Seventh-day Adventist church to be organized, not on the basis of separation, but on the basis of unity.
I understand that the church has failed. We have shamed the cause of Christ and we have done wrong…. I understand the church has shame upon its faith and its heart and the church is going to have to repent of those terrible wrongs. There is no way we can get beyond the present until we have dealt with the past.”
The next question was posed to Pastor Nixon.
ORK: “You currently serve as the Secretary of the Lake Region Conference and have been in favor of the current organizational structure. Could you tell us more about your perspective.”
TN: “I don’t know if the question reflects my position. I think our structure should follow two basic principles. The first is that it should always reflect Jesus Christ. Number two, it should facilitate fulfilling the mission that God has given us. And I think that on both of those scales our church has failed to follow those principles. I think that’s the discussion we’re not having as a church. We are allowing our structure to determine how we function and because of that, we are not examining what best facilitates what will best allow us to fulfill our mission. And until we’re prepared to have that discussion, to talk about dismantling regional conferences is a false argument to have. It’s a waste of time to have that argument.
I’m always troubled by the fact that when this topic comes up, no one ever talks about dismantling state conferences. Why is that? People heard Pastor Dwight’s sermon and no one ever broached the subject of dismantling the system that created the segregation... When I read the article in Spectrum, I thought that Dwight had preached a different sermon, before the sermon that I heard… So I went back and listened…and I said, ‘ok, you know, that’s Dwight. That’s just Dwight, you know.’ And then I saw the article and so I listened to it again, and I did not hear him say anything about dismantling regional conferences. But people hear this issue and they bypass the state conference structure and they only focus on regional conferences. What’s that about? Why is it that no one looks at the structure that is responsible for creating regional conferences and saying that we need to get to the root of the problem and start there, and start again. So, I think that there’s a fundamental problem that we have when we talk about this whole issue and until we really get to the crux of saying what reflects Christ and what fulfills God’s mission…then we are just dancing around the issue as far as I’m concerned.”
ORK: “Chaplain Polite, you’ve spoken about how you feel the conversation of reconciliation should begin with both sides. Could you share with us your thoughts on that?”
MP: “I’m going to inject some youthful exuberance into this conversation. So, I am always going to be uncomfortable, one-hundred percent, when an Anglo or Caucasian Adventist approaches me and says ‘don’t you think we need to get back together?’ I will always feel uncomfortable and here’s why. I do have a pastoral/counseling background to my training and one thing we always say when we are counseling with a domestic violence victim is that it is inappropriate for the abuser to ask the abused to come back into a relationship because God says He hates divorce. At some point, we must understand the fact that the abuser who abused the victim has lost the right now to ask for there to be this coming together and we exist underneath the same roof. As a matter of fact, we in pastoral counseling would say to the abuser that’s unhealthy. All of a sudden though, when we look at these state and regional conferences, with a history of abuse and victimization… we become very comfortable with approaching the abused and asking them to come back under the same roof with the abuser. And I’m saying as I would in a counseling venue, I don’t know if that is so healthy. It is not healthy because in this scenario of abuse, I think we’d be better waiting for the abused victim to actually come to the conclusion that they are ready to try out the relationship again. And I think as an abused victim they have earned the right to do so. And individuals who are trying to hold above them a theology that says ‘oh wait, forget about the abuse that you suffered and forgive!’ I would challenge them to be a little bit more respectful and responsible with their application of that theology.
I want to conclude in this way. I am very open to talking about reconciliation but instead of the abuser coming to my people, the abused, saying ‘why don’t we get back together?’ I would prefer for them to start the conversation instead with this question: what can we do to make things right?”
AM to Pastor Montgomery: “So you are an African American pastor working in a predominately African American community, though you and your church, Harbor of Hope, are part of the Michigan Conference, rather than the regional conference. We wonder how or if this affects your ministry. Do you feel your ministry would be more effective if you were sponsored by a regional conference? If so, why?”
TM: “To be honest with you, it really doesn’t matter because at the end of the day I’m going to preach Christ. At the end of the day, I’m about spreading the gospel in my community and fulfilling the mission that God has given me, so it really doesn’t matter to me what conference it is under.
What this has taught me, going from a regional conference that is predominantly African American to a state conference that is predominantly Caucasian, is that it’s forced me to deal with my own prejudices I didn’t even know I had. As we talk about the conference and the NAD… I think this is a healthy conversation, I think it’s a needed conversation, but I also realized that unity doesn’t come through policy.”
ORK: “Melodie Roschman, my next question is for you. You wrote an editorial in the Student Movement about the importance of this issue. As a student, could you tell us a little more about your perspective and why you think it’s important for students to understand.”
MR: “I would like to begin by saying I’m an outsider in almost every way. I am part of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Canada and so I have never grown up with any kind of racial division in my conferences… Secondly, I am an outsider because I am neither black nor white. I am in fact, biracial. I’m half Sri Lankan and half…German/English, but I pass as white and I experience white privilege and I constantly have to reconcile what it feels like to be identified as white but not fully identify as white. Third, I am a woman, and so as you can see from the makeup of this panel, in the current structure…as things stand, regardless of whether these conferences remain united or separate, I’m still never going to be at the top of them.
However, I am also an insider. I have been in Adventist schools my entire life. My father is a pastor; my mom works for the church as a teacher. And I remember as young as age six, seven, eight, being completely disillusioned with power struggles, with infighting, in the united conference of the Canadian union.
…I just want to read my statement and where I’m coming from, that I wrote in my editorial in January: How can we claim that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female for all of you who are all one in Christ Jesus when we still accept institutionalized and societal divisions and marginalization? ...Until we are also fighting to end wealth disparity, and the exploitation of the poor here and in developing countries, until we combat the sexism present in church policy and popular media, and sexual exploitation worldwide, until we fight for the mental health and wellbeing of LGBT individuals and welcome with open arms those who are earnestly seeking God, until we are consistent in embodying the all-encompassing love and mercy of Jesus Christ, our message will ring false to the world watching us.”
AM: “Shastri, you wrote a column in the Student Movement called ‘Modern Blackness.’ Could you tell us a little about this issue and why you think this is important for students to understand.”
SL: “I feel as though we’ve forgotten part of our history. As soon as we hear we have separate conferences, the first thing we think about is Jim Crow segregation… but while there was Jim Crow segregation in the South, there was integration in the North. As Malcom X, as someone who was an activist in the North, who had integration, it didn’t work out that well for him. Now, this is a quote from him. He says, ‘we don’t go for segregation, we go for separation. Separation is when you have your own, you control your own economy, you control your own society, you control your own everything. You have yours and control yours. We have ours and we control ours.’ Now, I think this is important to remember because as soon as you hear segregation you think black people are being discriminated against, but [with this issue] it’s completely different. We have our own voice, we speak for our own issues, we have representation at the NAD level and…we can now represent ourselves, we can speak for ourselves…And it’s important to have our own representation at the NAD level because racism still exists in the Seventh-day Adventist church.
It’s impossible to jump on a train that is still moving. Racism is this moving train. We cannot jump on the train until it’s still… we have to have the train stop before we get on the train.”
The next set of questions was directed at all panel members.
AM: “What are some challenges that you see arising when talking about integrating? How critical do you think these issues are?”
SL: “If they restructured the church and everyone got a job…my biggest concern would be, ok now the church is restructured but now it’s time to make policies and the policies are still anti-blackness which exists all over America…racism will continue to prevail if we integrate.”
TN: “I think the challenge of integration is always the challenge of accepting difference…There’s a joke among black members that if we want a new church then just go to a nice white church and after a few months we’ll have a new church…We’re talking about coming together and we’re always talking about dismantling regional conferences, but if we dismantled regional conferences tomorrow, that’s not going to stop that from happening. And that’s the real issue. So, you know, when we talk about integrating, we’re talking about how do we handle dealing with the differences that we have. That learning how to live together that becomes larger than just racial. It’s also generational. How do the generations get along? It’s a big issue right now in our church, and we’re not going to survive as a church if we do not learn how to deal with difference and change. We’re not going to survive as a church and so I think it’s a major issue that we have to deal with…We have to understand the importance of difference and loving difference and seeing our difference as a blessing not a burden.”
MP: “I really think the issue with integration can best be seen with our understanding of harmony. Most individuals today define harmony as when we dissolve distinctions. So when we do not recognize difference anymore, then that’s when harmony takes place. But that is so far from the truth. If you read Acts 2 and look at this term in the Greek, when it says the disciples were then on one accord. It’s actually a musical term being used in the Greek there. Now if we look at a piano and we say we want to integrate these notes to create harmony, what we would not do is tell each note to forfeit their difference on behalf of the greater good of the piano. No, instead, what we would do is we would value each note. We would allow each note to have a different name. We’d even allow each note to have a different sound. What we would say is, the notes are in harmony when we decide to use their difference at the same time to create accord.”
AM: “Some have suggested that the change shouldn’t happen on a conference level before it happens on a church level. What are your thoughts on this?”
MR: “Growing up, I was deeply disillusioned with the conference structures entirely. I watched people stab each other in the back, I watched coups happen, I watched my dad come home stressed out because he had to go away from his church on the Sabbath and stop dealing with people’s divorces and their depression and go to meetings and argue over who was going to be our president next. As a Millennial, I am also usually deeply disillusioned with authority, I am disillusioned with structure, I am disillusioned with hierarchy…The NAD’s youngest employee is over the age of 30. And they wonder why they aren’t keeping young people in the church. Our values are different than those…who are in power, we care about different things. Race is something we care about very much. We have made that clear actively and vocally by protesting in the streets. We care about things in a different way and we care about them because the church for us can only be a movement because we are not in institutional power. So, you ask me if we want change at the church level? We have to. That’s the only place that the youngest generation has a voice. We want to see a future where we can appreciate diversity. Harmony by definition in music is playing a different tune that sounds good with the melody. That means we have to appreciate this diversity and simultaneously work toward unity by looking not just at separation in structures, but at structures in general. By saying we were supposed to be in heaven by now. And instead, we are wondering whether or not we should entrench our bureaucracy further and further and I can’t help but ask if this is a question of who gets power and not just whether we can work together for the rest of the world, not within our conference.”
SL: “What’s really wrong with people who have a similar language and a similar culture…having their own separate church and community?”
DKN: “I’m really conflicted about where this change should come from, where it should start. I think if you’re talking repentance…it’s going to have to start at the top… At some point, the move for change through repentance will have to begin with our leadership…Either the division or the General Conference will have to step into this reality and from the top the word goes out, ‘We have done a terrible wrong in the past…we are still perpetuating some of that wrong today, and behalf of the church in the United States…I am asking for the forgiveness of the African American community in America. It is unacceptable…’ If the president of the General Conference came out and opened their hearts honestly and humbly, I’m telling you like dominoes, it would drop right down the church structure, it would hit the local churches. If the Adventist Review ran a story on what happened and why we need to repent, if every paper opened its soul to the union and said ‘we have done wrong.’ It has to start with somebody and I think the repentance piece has to begin at the top.”
NM: “I concur with that but I think that while institutional evil is global and universal…the particular wrongs are local and you don’t restore trust to the system until those local wrongs are dealt with.”
ORK: “What would be your recommendation for the conference structure in the NAD? How does your proposed structure affect the Adventist mission of spreading the gospel in the NAD and around the world?”
MP: “My recommendation would be to actually teach the people how powerful they are. I meet Adventists all the time who actually think the GC runs their local church. That the NAD actually runs their local church. That the union office actually has some say in their local church. The issue I think with the loss of young adults in the Adventist church is the fact that they haven’t been educated to how powerful they are…If I can make any appeal to this audience it would be to recognize how much power you have. Stop looking to these tiers to change things and you get with your friends in your local church and you say, ‘we’re going to the black churches,’ or you say, ‘we’re going to go fellowship with our white brothers and sisters’ and watch how your grassroots movement changes the entire world.”
AM: “We’ve discussed whether change like this begins at the local church level or at the administrative level. With that in mind, do you think the people of the church are at a place where we can redesign the conference structure? Why are why not?”
NM: “I think at the local level, we seem to be ready for this as a church…the trust needs to be developed but it seems the vast majority of people at the ground level are in favor of moving toward some kind of resolution.”
SL: “From what I’ve been hearing on the panel, I would actually say the exact opposite…realistically, when it comes down to the real act of doing it, it looks as though that’s not true at all…I don’t think we’re honestly at that place.”
TN: “I think that what Shastri is saying is true…the jury is still out on multicultural churches…people talk about wanting to have multicultural churches and they know that’s the ideal, that’s what people talk about, but when you look at where the growth is…the growth is still homogenous.”
MR: “If you’ve ever looked at statistics on the NAD’s membership, I believe the average age of a member today is over 50. Our church loses 43 members for every 100 it takes in…People who are in this church are leaving and the question we have to ask is why? It’s the question we’ve been asking in polls and in surveys and they ask us every day in our classes and they wonder why still when we graduate after 16 years of Adventist education, at least half of us are going to leave and we are so disillusioned. We look at this church that claims to have the absolute, complete, one-hundred percent special truth. We are the ‘right’ ones. And we look at our parents and our grandparents and our pastors and our teachers and they never stop fighting. We look at a church that is fractured across lines of race and across lines of gender, sexuality, politics, economics and national policy. And we ask, ‘how do I have a future in a church that can’t make up its mind over anything?’ And you ask are we at a place to change things yet, are we at a place to completely reimagine this church. And I don’t know how we have another option.”
TM: “The younger generation is more ready to move in some direction that reflects something different than what we see now. To be honest, I would like to see a conversation within the regional conference between the younger generation of pastors and the older generation pastors before we come to the table and start talking about integration and what this looks like with the state conferences…There seems to me to be a difference between what ministers my age, my generation are thinking than those who are older than us. So, I would like to see that conversation happen. I personally don’t believe that the church at large is ready…
….This may not be a popular thing to say as a Black person, as an African American person, but we talk about this repentance coming from our white brethren. Which I believe is absolutely necessary. It’s important, but Peter asks Jesus the question how many times am I to forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? And he said seventy times seven. I’m saying that to say it’s one thing to…expect people to repent, but it’s another thing, a different thing to actually forgive them…We have to learn to forgive people even when they don’t say they’re sorry…When it comes to this church’s leadership, whether they repent or not, at the end of the day, I have to be willing, we have to be willing, to forgive.”
The next questions came from audience members who texted in and were chosen and read by Merlique Blackwood and Debbie Weithers (Associate Dean for Student Life and Diversity):
“If we do find a way for conferences to unite but remain segregated during the worship hour, are we going to be better off? People are still feeling the uncomfortable tension that it’s still us vs. them. There’s still the abuser and the abused. People are uncomfortable and some people, in fact one of our texters said it’s a false analogy to use the illustration of abuse…that blacks are not abused today. That’s one person’s opinion…there are still misconceptions at best between the two sides…so how can we come together when we have a hard time having a conversation right here, right now?”
TN: “Did you see the DOJ’s report on Ferguson? And you don’t believe black people are being abused?”
DW: “However, the real concern, and a fact that’s been illustrated on our campus…there’s a huge disparity between how people believe what their personal reality is and what others’ reality is. And the understanding of the two seems to be very far apart, so how can we come together, and I realize I’m pushing about six questions together, to where we have some understanding of each other?”
MP: “One thing that I’m very passionate for Adventism to understand about its own history is that oftentimes we champion the fact that we are counter culture without recognizing the fact the aspects of the wider culture that actually countered us…Adventism came out of America. America is founded on the basis of racial division, racial tension. Without this racial division and racial tension, the America that we see now will cease to exist. It was built upon these principles, therefore, we a lot of times discount the fact that Adventism, Seventh-day Adventism, is an American denomination, which means if it was the fabric of this country, we should not be surprised that we’re sitting here in 2015 speaking about the same fabric being integrated into our own denomination. So when individuals can still say within Adventism…'who abused you?' I am appalled because it first seems to or attempts to me to wipe away the pain and the hurt that I have and give me an invitation to just overlook it so we can be buddy-buddy again…
…As I’m looking at this question and trying to funnel through all the nuances of it, I think I can crystallize the issue in one sentence. Adventism is American; therefore, Adventism has problems with racism.”
MR: “Racism is part of this church and people do not understand each other yet and there are all these tensions below the surface…you have to be willing to recognize that you don’t see everything. You have a particular experience and that gives you blindness in some ways…Everyone has their different perspective. And sometimes some perspectives are more valid than others, based on their experience.
…We have to talk. We have to be willing to listen, and we have to be willing to express our experiences…We must recognize that we are coming from different places and that we are united in Christ but that we are also living in a world that is not united. The only thing that seems to unite us is that we are all living on the same planet. And we have to recognize our own privilege…because we all have different sets of privilege. We have to recognize that sometimes people don’t know what they’re saying or where they’re coming from. And finally…we have to remember…that the Seventh-day Adventist church may have started in America but it’s now a world church. And more importantly, I’ve barely heard the word ‘God’ in the past two hours. We are an institution, we are a group of fallen human beings, but we’re supposed to be united. Not the same. Not homogenous. Not all just humans. But we are different. We are unique. And we have all had different struggles. But we are supposed to be loving the same God. And that God loves us in our divisions and in our diversity and he welcomes us because we are unique, but if we lose sight of the fact that we are all here because we worship the same God, then what are we going to do?”
After the panel discussion ended, the AUSA officers unveiled the language of an official request to the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists calling for a restructuring of conferences and an explanation of the reasons for the current organizational structure.
Alisa Williams is Spirituality Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.