Latinxs and the Adventist Nonsense of Segregation

Latinxs and the Adventist Nonsense of Segregation

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December 15, 2020

Francisco Fuentes, a janitor at Kodak, the film company in Rochester, arrived in Upstate New York in the 1960s during a migratory wave flowing from Puerto Rico. Before reaching Rochester, he settled in Brooklyn, New York, with his family, wife, two daughters, and two sons. Drawn by the kindness of a Spanish language Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brooklyn, part of the Greater New York Conference (the white conference), the family converted to Adventism. Hearing of better-paying jobs in Upstate New York, Fuentes took another leap in his migratory trek. In Rochester, the family found the Jefferson Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church of the North Eastern Conference (a Black conference), which they joined.[1]

The Fuentes family, one of the first Latinx families to join a Black conference, had no idea the Adventist Church in the United States maintained a color line, which split Adventism into Black and white churches, schools, and conferences. Latinxs, who range from blue-eyed white to dark chocolate brown in skin color, struggle to understand Adventist apartheid when they arrive in the United States. In most Latin American countries, skin color does not sway church structure.

In Rochester, the Fuentes arrived with no idea that Latinxs did not join Black conferences, mainly because Black conferences did not have Spanish-speaking churches or pastors. Language, in Adventist worship, offered an alternative in the New York City boroughs. In Upstate New York, however, that option did not exist. Furthermore, in the 1960s, the President of the Black conference, George Earle, received a message from the President of the white conference that his conference evangelized Latinxs and Earle must limit his operations to the African American community.[2]

Since the 1920s, Spanish-speaking Adventists, who appeared in New York City, joined a handful of the Spanish-speaking SDA Churches in the white conference.[3] Moreover, when the first Puerto Ricans moved into the city in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, Black conferences did not exist.

Once settled in Rochester, Fuentes, who matured into a dedicated Adventist, gave Bible studies to his countrymen in Rochester's emerging Puerto Rican Barrio. The Barrio, located on the opposite end of town, plagued with drug addicts, prostitution, and unemployed high school dropouts, became his mission field. Fuentes opened a Sabbath School class and a Wednesday night prayer meeting in Spanish and bought a Ford van to transport his pupils. Several members of the Jefferson Avenue congregation, who spoke Spanish, helped him.

Within a couple of years, Rochester's small group got a Spanish-speaking pastor, the first one hired by a Black conference, and grew into a company. In the Spring of 1972, the Northeastern Conference organized the first Latinx Adventist Church in a Black conference,[4] planting 39 Latinx churches, employing 15 pastors, and adding 4,210 Latinx members in the next four decades.[5] As the Northeastern Conference attracted Latinx members, the other eight Black conferences followed. Today, Black conferences in the United States include dozens of Latinx churches, a growing number of Latinx pastors, and thousands of Latinx members.[6]

For about fifty years, Latinxs have been confounding the maintenance of the Adventist color line. Furthermore, the issue, hotly debated in recent years, of whether Adventists in America should tolerate the existence of Black conferences, escalates into irrelevance. As a Latinx retired professor who worked at a Black Adventist university for the last twenty years of my career, the Adventist color line appears to be evaporating. When I started teaching at Oakwood, I was the only Latinx on the faculty with no Latinx students. Today, a Latinx church and the faculty who hold membership draw dozens of Latinx students into the University community.

One external issue to the Church and two internal will continue the shift of drawing Latinxs into Black conferences.

First: Latinx Migratory Patterns

The Adventist Church has welcomed immigrants into its community since its formation. In the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, Norwegian, Danes, Germans, French, and Irish immigrants shaped Adventist growth. With each generation, a new wave of immigrants arrived in the United States and sculpted Adventist culture. Additionally, internal migrants, like the millions pushed out of the South in the first half of the twentieth century during the Great Migration, opened the door for hundreds to flow into Adventist churches.

Latinxs formed part of what today we call the United States for several generations before the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. The first city founded in the United States, Saint Augustine in 1565, became one of many Latinx communities that spread northward on the Atlantic Coast and eastward across the Florida Panhandle into Alabama. However, Latinxs in the nation did not impact the Seventh-day Adventist Church until the twentieth century.

For most of the history of the United States, large communities of Latinxs lived in the American South West. Few appeared in the Northeast until the first half of the twentieth century. Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States as immigrants in the last years of the nineteenth century when the island was a Spanish colony. As a U.S. colony, after the Spanish American War, Puerto Ricans traveled as migrants, needing only a passport. The Congress of the United States passed the Jones Act in 1917, which gave partial citizenship to all Puerto Ricans.[7] From that date, Puerto Ricans moved freely between the United States and the island. Massive migration waves surged with the advent of commercial planes. Pan American Airlines started the first nonstop flights from San Juan to New York City on July 7, 1946.[8]

The air bridge opened the migratory floodgates. In 1940 only 1,483 Puerto Ricans lived in New York City; by 1950, 187,420. In the following decades, 1960, 1970, and 1980, the numbers continued to explode to 621,574, 817,712, and 860,552. Today over a million Puerto Ricans live in New York State alone. And Puerto Rican communities thrive in all fifty States.[9]

Another door opened in 1965 when the Immigration Nationality Act struck down racial quotas that limited the number of people of color migrating to the United States.[10] Until that date, only Latinxs, considered white by immigration officials, obtained green cards. Today, over 50 million Latinxs live in the United States, and a percentage of them are Black. Additionally, there are eleven million Latinxs without documents, frequently called "illegal" immigrants. Merging both groups gives these 61 million Latinxs the status of the largest minority group in the nation.[11]

In some Latin American nations, Argentina, for example, Latinxs see themselves as white. In other countries, Latinxs see themselves as people of mixed blood, for example, in Colombia or Mexico. In some nations like Guatemala, Latinxs perceive themselves as Native. Many, who arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru consider themselves Black. Latinxs from all of the countries mentioned above usually live in the same urban communities. Language unites them. Consequently, a color line makes little sense.

In the United States, Americans think of Latinxs as residents of the Southwest, especially California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, which border Mexico. But Latinx communities thrive in all of the Union. The most recent U.S. Census documents that the fastest growth for Latinxs happens in Southern rural communities. In the last three decades, a new migratory flow provoked by large multinational corporations that process and pack meat, especially chicken, for the fast-food industry and a world market, pull thousands of Latinxs into the South from Mexico, Guatemala, and several Central American Countries.[12]

For example, in 1994, a poultry plant in Morton, Mississippi, launched a "Hispanic Project":

Its goal was to replace African American workers, who were seeking a union, with immigrant workers who'd be more pliant. It placed ads in Miami newspapers, arranged transportation for immigrants, and charged them for housing in dilapidated trailers. Within four years, it had brought roughly 5,000 mainly Latino workers to Morton and another meatpacking town in Mississippi, enlarging their population by more than 50 percent.[13]

But it is not only the South that is recruiting Latinos into the United States. Large corporations and hundreds of small businesses, like the President's golf courses, draw thousands of Latinxs to the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, the Dominican population in the U.S. increased from 765,000 to 1.4 million. Likewise, the Guatemalans from 372,000 to 1.04 million, Hondurans from 218,000 to 633,000, Nicaraguans from 178,000 to 348,000, and Salvadorans from 655,000 to 1.6 million.[14]

In summary, the massive migration flow instigated by American Business, climate change, and horrendous living conditions in Latin America push and pull millions of Latinxs into the United States.

Second: Adventist Empathy Toward Latinxs

Besides migratory patterns, Adventist empathy for the oppressed plays a vital role in drawing Latinxs into Black conferences. In the Adventist mindset sits the notion that a good Christian must have compassion for the oppressed. This Adventist stalwart, which palpitates in the Adventist Canon, and sits at the core of growing conferences and churches, contributes to the influx of Latinxs into Black conferences. The words of Ellen White capture the notion:

No church should become so lifted up that its members shall feel above the poor, and the poor feel that they cannot enter freely into the house of God. A church that is too rich for the poor to feel at home is too aristocratic for Jesus to make one in its assembly. This narrow exclusiveness that shuts man away from his brother is an abomination in the sight of God.[15]

This mindset draws Adventists to the men, women, and children flowing in migratory streams.

A good example comes from the June 2020 issue of Adventist Journey, the North American Division’s official publication. The story details the experience of an Adventist dentist, Randy Griffin, who fell from a ladder and broke his wrist. Having to leave his practice because of the tragedy and looking for ways to help, he assisted in establishing the Adventist Health Initiative (AHI), an organization designed to help the oppressed. He threw his life into the project. Since its founding in 2015, the group has coordinated 80 free dental and vision clinics in the Lake Region of the United States. More the 12,000 persons, who could not afford badly needed dental and vision work, saw dentists and doctors for free. The AHI gave away services valued in the neighborhood of $4 million.[16]

Francisco Fuentes was pulled, like thousands of immigrants, and arrived in America vulnerable and defenseless. Like all migrants and immigrants, whether they be white "Okies" from Oklahoma arriving in Bakersfield, California and pulled into the Church by a Voice of Prophecy evangelistic tent, or Black Alabamians who left the cotton fields and migrated to Detroit, the migrants arrive in a world filled with confusion and chaos. Pushed and pulled into vulnerable, defenseless, and exposed socio-economic conditions Latinxs, as other migrants and immigrants, cry for assistance. Frequently an Adventist, filled with empathy, hears the cry.

In the 1950s, Puerto Ricans, who arrived by the thousands in New York City, took jobs most Americans were unwilling to do. Later, Dominicans rushed to New York to fill positions the Puerto Ricans left behind as they climbed into the middle class. Then came the Salvadorans, the Mexicans, the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the Colombians. This is similar to what happened when African Americans and poor whites left mechanized cotton fields in the South. Or when Germans left revolutions in Europe for Nebraska in 1848. Pushed and pulled immigrants and migrants come to know suffering, discrimination, sorrow, and distress. They often lose their identity, whacked into puddles of confusion, intensified by the boot of oppression, and forced to look for relief, help, and understanding. Adventist laypeople often find them, and pull them to a tent meeting offering Bible studies that help them understand the world around them.

Adventists understand the immigrant experience because their parents or grandparents experienced the same. Adventist communities provide services most are unwilling to give because they know what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Most African Americans in the industrial cities of the North live only a generation or two from the migratory experience. Their history of slavery in the United States gave them a clear understanding of what it meant to be marginalized, subjected to bigotry, and the object of humiliation and degradation. For them, empathy for the newcomers comes easy.

Although the languages remained different, the experiences endured indistinguishably. Many African American Adventists bonded with the newly arrived immigrants, especially those who came from Black Spanish-speaking cultures like Panama or Costa Rica. They welcomed the immigrant to their churches, into their homes, and in time into the Adventist Church.

Francisco Fuentes, in Rochester, provides a good example. He received much help from Logan Bowen, a Jamaican who loved languages and wanted to learn one more, and Brother Robinson, a bilingual Panamanian who grew up speaking Spanish and loved to help. Both members of Jefferson Avenue Adventist Church drew near to Fuentes when they learned of his arrival. They offered their services, frequently teaching the Sabbath School lesson in Spanish and preaching. When the Spanish-speaking company organized, Brother Bowen followed the group and became the first Elder until his retirement.

In brief, the downtrodden are lured into Adventism by its service to them, whether the immigrant is Norwegian, Mexican, or Ghanaian. Immigrants provided a fertile opportunity to cultivate empathy. In the Review and Herald in 1901, Ellen White's words define the Adventist value, which draws Latinx into Adventist congregations:

In placing among us the poor and the suffering, the Lord is testing us to reveal to us what is in our hearts. We cannot with safety swerve from principle, we cannot violate justice, we cannot neglect mercy. When we see a brother falling into decay we are not to pass him by on the other side, but are to make decision and immediate efforts to fulfill the word of God by helping him. We cannot work contrary to God's special directions without having the result of our work reflect upon us. It should be firmly settled, rooted, and grounded in the conscience, that whatever dishonors God in our course of action cannot benefit us.[17]

Adventists who see suffering tend to go out of their way to assist and support. This disposition modeled by Black Adventist churches in the urban centers of the Nation on the East Coast and the Deep South became a breath of fresh air to the newly arrived immigrants struggling to make sense of the world.

Third: The Lure of the Adventist Worldview

People leave their homeland because they expect things to be better on the other side of the fence. Revolutions, violent upheavals, natural disasters, and climate change push and pull people. Migrants do not flow to wars, economic disasters, or natural calamities. They always flow to the perceived Land of Opportunity. Africans flow to Europe, Filipinos to the Arab World, Middle Easterners to Germany because they expect their lot to improve. However, the Promised Land does not always materialize. Immigrants find discrimination, oppression, and subjugation in the Land they believed flowed with milk and honey. The contradictions open the door for the Adventist Church to bond with Latinxs through the most important avenue: a novel worldview.

I remember playing at church with the children of a family who had just arrived in Southern California from Mexico when I was in 7th grade. The father worked in a factory and received Bible studies from my father, a pastor. During the Bible studies, the factory worker accepted the Adventist worldview, which offered the idea that Adventists are pilgrims, passing through, on their way to the Kingdom of God. Living conditions may be harmful in the present, but tomorrow will be better. The Adventist worldview inspired hard work, respect for one's immune system, transparency, and love for one's neighbor.

This mindset lured the factory worker and family into the Adventist fold. Soon after baptism, he began working a second job where he took empty tin cans from restaurants, painted them black, and sold them as plant holders to nurseries. When he quit his factory job, he generated enough business to hire several men to help him pick up cans and paint them; eventually, he discovered it was easier and cheaper to make plastic containers. It took many years, but the next time I ran into him, he owned a factory that made them. Along the way, he purchased several nurseries, became wealthy and generous with his prosperity, donating large chunks of money to build Spanish churches in Southern California and funding theology majors from his village in Mexico. The worldview of the Adventist Church allowed him to prosper and practice generosity.

Like a magnet, the mindset granted by the Adventist Church draws Latinxs to a new life, not only for them but even more critical for their children.

According to a Pew Research poll in 2010, sixty-seven percent of Latinxs in the United States identify with the Catholic Church. The overwhelming majority practiced Catholicism in their homeland. Only three years later, in 2013, almost half of Latinxs in the United were non-Catholics. Nearly a third (thirty-one percent), according to interviews, found a congregation that reached out and helped them. Twenty percent of Latinxs who joined Protestant denominations stated that the decision came with a "deep personal crisis." Another twenty-three percent explained that their switch came from the fact that they moved into a new community.[18]

Leaving the homeland, traveling through hazardous conditions, finding hostiles who despise their presence, crossing deserts and rivers, finding unemployment, illness, and fear tends to confuse, obfuscate, and baffle. A good worldview can set the puzzle in order — migrants and immigrants need to make sense of the confusion, chaos, and turmoil swirling around them. A worldview helps them separate fact from fiction, liberating them from the tangled web of conspiracy theories that tend to dominate American culture.

Adventist congregations who identify, understand, and extend a helping hand to migrants and immigrants continuously grow. Since immigrants need a smile, a helping hand, and an explanation of what is going on in their lives, the Adventist churches working in rundown sectors of American cities fit the newcomer like a glove. Churches that identify and connect with Latinxs expand effortlessly.

Latinxs join Black conferences because Black churches continue to operate in the communities where Latinxs find apartments to rent. Churches located in these communities see, understand, and come up with empathy for the new arrivals. Like Francisco Fuentes, Latinx immigrants who see no purpose for a color line gravitate to the kindness of the Adventists in their neighborhood. Often unaware that segregation holds a title role in the Adventist Church, an extended hand, a smile, and friendship overrides the nonsense of segregation.

 

Notes & References:

[1] I picked up the story of Francisco Fuentes and his family in the early 1970s when he was the First Elder of the first Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rochester, New York.

[2] This information came through an oral interview which I had with George Earle in 1969 in Rochester, New York.

[3] N. H. Kinser “Spanish Church Organized in New York City.” Atlantic Union Gleaner. July 17, 1929. 1, 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See the North Eastern Conference website which has names, pastors, and members in each of their organized churches. www.northeastern.org/

[6] It is very difficult to get precise numbers either from the North American Division or the Unions. There is some scant information on the websites of each of the nine Regional Conferences. The Secretary of the Northeastern Conference, Lorraine Archie, emailed me the statistical information for her Conference on July 7, 2016.

[7] On March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act. This law gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. The Jones Act separated the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of Puerto Rican government, provided civil rights to individuals, and created a locally elected bicameral legislature.

[9] United States Census 2010

[10] See Michael LeMay and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds., U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History, Greenwood Press, 1999 and John Lescott-Leszczynski, The History of U.S. Ethnic Policy and Its Impact on European Ethnics, Westview Press, 1984

[11] See the United States Census for 2010.

[12] Ames, N., Hancock, T., & Behnke, A. Latino church leaders and domestic violence: Attitudes and knowledge. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 92(2), 2011 161-167.

[13] Eric Schlosser. “Why It’s Immigrants Who Pack Your Meat.” The Atlantic. August 16, 2019.

[14] See U.S. Census Bureau, "The Hispanic Population: 2010," Table 1.

[15] Ellen G. White. “Blessed is He that Considereth the Poor.” Signs of the Times. June 1892.        

[16] Becky St. Clair. “Loving People.” Adventist Journey June 2020 4

[17] Ellen G. White. Testimonies to the Church Volume 6. Battle Creek, Michigan. Review and Herald Publishing Association. 1901 251, 262.

[18] "The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States: Nearly One-in Four Latinos Are Former Catholics" Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life found in http://www.pewforum.org/2014/05/07/the-shifting-religious-identity-of-latinos-in-the-united-states/, found on June 20, 2016

 

Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives with his wife on a farm in Southern Tennessee. His latest book A Path Out: Educating the Children of Poverty, traces the birth and spread of Adventist Manual Training Schools, which became the motor behind the growth of the Adventist Church. Before his retirement, he chaired the History Department at Oakwood University for twelve years.

Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

 

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