Separate, but United? The Conundrum of Race-based Conferences

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Where are all of the white students? I wondered, as I looked around the bus that was headed to Oakwood University. It was DEEP (Diversity Education Exchange Program) Sabbath, a semiannual event where students from Oakwood University and Southern Adventist University come together to worship and build positive relationships. Oakwood is a historically black university and Southern is a primary white university, but from the representation of people on the Southern bus that day, one would think otherwise. Over 80 percent of the Southern students on the bus were black, myself included. After we arrived at Oakwood, we participated in an icebreaker where students were to talk to someone who did not attend their same school. Only one student from Oakwood approached me. Perhaps, the rest assumed that since I am black, I attended Oakwood as well. When the icebreaker finished, students quickly returned to the company of students from their own school.

When it came time for Southern to host DEEP Sabbath a few months later, there was still a lack of interaction between the schools. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, many of the white students chose that weekend to attend church off campus or stay inside of their dorm rooms. The Oakwood students preferred to wander around the campus in self-segregated groups, not using the visit as an opportunity to meet new people. This pattern of behavior for students has been the norm at DEEP Sabbath for the past four years that I have attended Southern.

Although these interactions do not represent all the students at Oakwood and Southern, I have noticed that there is little motivation for white and black students to get to know each other, and we are comfortable keeping our distance. Oakwood is located less than two hours away from Southern, yet the two schools worship together only twice year while many Southern students spend the equivalent amount of time to Atlanta almost every weekend. Misinformation about the rude and arrogant behavior of students at the other school is common gossip for students, furthering the divide between the schools.

It is unfortunate that at institutions of higher learning, we encounter such levels of narrow-mindedness. Southern and Oakwood are the examples in this case, but I suspect that students at other Adventist universities in the United States share similar sentiments toward race relations.

Yet is it really a surprise that students act this way when there is racial division in the Seventh-day Adventist world church?

 Why are we separate?

The church in the North America Division (NAD) is racially divided. Within each union, there are regional and state conferences, or as identified by most, black and white conferences. The black conference encompasses all the states within the union, while the white conference covers a single state. Each conference has its own churches, schools, and camp meetings. Each functions as a unit on its own with hardly any interactions between the two regardless of their proximity. The churches of other races (Hispanic, Asian, etc.) are evenly distributed between the two conferences.

There is an interesting history to the development of black and white conferences that I assume few people my age know. Originally, the different conferences were formed for a good reason. The Seventh-day Adventist church was established in the 1860s, a time when slavery and other racial issues still divided the nation. White Adventists were not willing to accept blacks in the church, and the few times blacks were allowed to fellowship with whites, they were denied positions of leadership.

In the 1940s, blacks still faced racism, and segregation continued in many places, including the Adventist church. George Knight, in his historical work, Organizing for Mission and Growth wrote: “Black Adventists in Washington, D.C., including those who worked at the General Conference, could not eat at the denominational cafeteria, send their children to nearby Washington Missionary College, or become a patient at the Washington Missionary Sanitarium.”  

In 1944, following an incident when a black woman died after being denied treatment at the sanitarium, the General Conference Committee met to discuss the best way to deal with the racial issues. After discussing several possible options, they came up with a solution: different conferences for black members. These separate conferences would allow for blacks to have leadership roles and distance them from the racial tensions in the white conference.

Is It Wrong?

More than 60 years have passed since the creation of black and white conferences. Beside the conferences obvious inconsistency with the rest of America, which is now integrated, the segregation is destroying our witness to other Christians. There are numerous times when the church, on both the conference and local levels, has hindered the uniting of Adventists of different races, and it is safe to say that none of these reasons are justifiable today.

I remember specific cases in middle school when I began feeling uncomfortable about separate conferences. I saw the differences between the conferences because my home church belonged to the black conference, but I attended a church school which was a part of the white conference. White families would visit my church, and a member would gently persuade them to attend the white church since it probably would “better suite them.” My former pastor did not know the pastors of the white churches nearby while he stayed in contact with black pastors located other states. The worst example of separation is that my church used to be located five blocks—literally walking distance—from the church in the white conference. Even though the two churches were located extremely close to one another, they came together only once a year for a poorly-attended Thanksgiving concert.

Other young Adventists, both white and black, have encountered similar experiences, yet most have never questioned the existence of separate conferences. Many Adventists have been sheltered from racial interactions in their own church system. Some of the friends I have made at Southern have confirmed this, expressing they only attended the state or regional conference’s churches and schools and were surprised when they met people who lived in the area as them, yet were a part of a different, parallel structure. The church is responsible for rearing a generation of Adventists who do not fully understand the issue of black and white conferences. At our schools, young people are being taught that the 14th fundamental belief of the Seventh-day Adventist church is “Unity in Christ,” while at the same time they are growing up in a segregated church. This discrepancy will lead to two possible outcomes for our youth: them leaving the church because they discover the hypocrisy of our church’s message, or them remaining ignorant on the issue, therefore continuing the segregation.

What Can We Do?

 Even if the church could come to the consensus that separate conferences are wrong, there would still be the matter of determining how to resolve the issue. The first offered solution is to dissolve the separate conferences. This is the most common approach addressed by individuals in discussion forums, blogs, and letters to the editors, but to do so is a seemingly insurmountable task. If the two systems merge, people would find their job responsibilities diminished or extended, or they may find themselves out of a job completely. Some people, along with their families, would need to move hundreds of miles away to the newly determined headquarter. The various finances would have to be centralized.  A new budget would need to be created. In essence it would be utter chaos to impose this drastic change on everyone.

So do we just continue down the path of separation and give up on finding unity? I acknowledge the fact that completely restructuring the NAD is difficult, but we cannot just sit back and be content about our failing situation. A change must come.

I believe the first step toward creating unity is to have the conferences interact, especially in areas that involve the youth because they will be the ones to initiate the change.  As of now, the conferences are separate, but that does not mean they must be completely isolated from one another. Small cooperative gestures will aid in tearing down the walls of racism that have been built up over the years. Church schools need to come together and host joint events. Local events such as pathfinder camporees and Adventist Youth Society (AYS) should be open to all youth regardless of their affiliated conference.  Young people ought to be taught to discontinue the use of the restricting labels of “white” churches and “black” churches, and  replace them with terms like “houses of praise” and “houses of prayer,” where God’s people are welcomed to “worship in Spirit and in truth” (Psalm 100:4; Matthew 21:13; John 4:24 NIV).  

Through these simple measures we can begin working toward the common goal of unity among believers, which is what Jesus desires. In the garden of Gethsemane, while the entire world’s sins were pressing down upon Him, Jesus prayed these words:

“Neither pray I for these [disciples] alone, but for them also who shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them, as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-21, 23 KJV).

During one of the last moments of His life on earth, Jesus petitioned for His disciples and us future disciples to be one; this shows how important the concept of unity and love is. The church being unified is what identifies us as true followers of God. If God the Father and God the Son were not one, the plan of salvation would never have been fulfilled. In comparison, if the church is not as one—one with each other and one with God—we will not fulfill our duty to spread the gospel message to all the world.

Time To Unite

Jesus told his disciples in Mark 3:25, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand,” (NIV). We are separate, yet claim to be united. This is clearly impossible; the very two words are absolutely contradictory.  If the Adventist church does not make a change soon, we will see only more disharmonies in the church, some of which are already being duplicated by the division between our universities. I am disappointed to see that even though more than 60 years have passed since the church instituted separate conferences, no advancement has been made in resolving the division. The only thing the church has accomplished is successfully spreading the racial problem to my generation, the future leaders of the church.  How many more generations will we allow to be polluted with the ideology that isolated segregation is acceptable? It is time that we “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit,” (Ephesians 4:3 NIV) for the future of the Adventist church depends on it. 

—Mia Lindsey graduated from Southern Adventist University in 2012. 

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