It’s February. And in the United States, that means it’s Black History Month. It’s time for college campuses to ask the school’s gospel choir to perform for chapel. It’s the time of year when non-Black pastors call on their Black colleagues to pay an annual visit to their pulpits. Or, if they have no one on whom to call, it’s time to preach on unity and diversity and the reasons we should tear down racial divides. The topic of the abolishment of regional conferences is especially good material for that.
Call me cynical. Because I am. We talk about unity and inclusion . . . once a year. After these four weeks are done, how many of our campuses and congregations will be putting in tangible work towards bridging racial divides? Of course, there are more than just black/white divisions in our church, but this particular fissure is the most pronounced due to the Regional vs. State Conference organizational structures. But make no mistake; even though one may find other ethnic groups “integrated” within conferences, they are still often very much separated by congregation, many times having separate Campmeetings as well. Yes, there are legitimate language considerations in some cases, but the reality is that the visible divisions are often external projections of much deeper invisible divides.
Even if we worship with those who share our backgrounds on most weeks, how often do we venture to fellowship with people of different backgrounds? How often is a guest pastor invited to preach who doesn’t look like the congregation? How often throughout the year are our campus churches intentionally incorporating worship styles that are representative of a variety of cultures? How often do organizational leaders actively engage in pushing back against injustices and discriminatory behavior in the world around us? We often neglect to do the individual and corporate work year round, but then try to be “extra socially conscious” during certain seasons. We pick select dates to preach and teach about the only people of color we know (i.e.: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks), and we present the most palatable and bowdlerized versions of their lives at that. We subversively demonstrate that only certain forms of expression are acceptable by excluding lessons about historical contributions from various cultures to our church traditions.
And while much of this is seen as an issue in the U.S., this is not a uniquely American problem. While we boast of our church’s international presence, how much do we deliberately seek to learn about and from people who don’t look like us or who haven’t grown up where we have?
Representation and acceptance matters. Not just during special occasions. If representation didn’t matter, the Creation of humanity in God’s Image wouldn’t have been important. If it didn’t matter, the incarnation of Christ wouldn’t have been a big deal. Yet by Design, we are meant to see our connection to God through a shared Likeness. And when that was obscured by sin, Christ took on our form. In that way, we can still see ourselves in Him. Seeing yourself in someone you admire can change the path of your life as many influential people have testified time and time and time again. In order to foster true unity, we have to do more than just talk the talk one month out of twelve. We have to be purposeful in providing thoughtful representation (not just tokens) at all levels of our organization. Until this happens, all the sermons and chapel programs are just spinning their wheels. Merely talking isn’t going to unify our church. But, hey—it makes us feel good to be “unified” once a year!
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
Image Credit: Barbados Association, SDA Mission of North America
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