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Between a Rock and a Hard Race Question

I first learned to appreciate Calvin B. Rock’s realism while reading his Church Leadership. In a recent Adventist Review essay, “Revisiting the Obama Message,” Rock trains that experienced vision on the topic of regional conferences. And he defends what he sees.

During my undergrad days, in our editorializing for Andrews University’s Student Movement, it was common to compare the separate conference system to Jim Crow (while we students self-segregated, from the cafeteria to our Friday night vespers). As Elder Rock points out, there’s more gray than some realize in the discussion over Black and White conferences.

Here’s a snip:

PASTOR FREDRICK Russell’s column of several months ago, “The Obama Message,” contains several disturbing misjudgments, and a curious conclusion that the early successes of Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination signal that our church has no further need for its structural accommodation labeled Black or regional conferences.

These points are worth noting:

1. Communities of nontested Whites, be they large (England/France) or small (Iowa/Wisconsin), where there are few Blacks, are often very liberal in social outlook. It is when Blacks or any ethnic minority assemble in significant numbers that racial and cultural tensions erupt. Modern England and France are excellent examples of this phenomenon. Remember how socially liberal England was before the West Indian proliferation?

2. Socially conservative religious groups such as Seventh-day Adventists tend to function at the rear of the curve in matters of racial acceptance. This is well documented by Adventist performance on racial issues in the U.S. before, during, and since the civil rights era. Even if Obama’s early success were a true barometer of racial acceptance in the general society—and it is not—it does not follow that it is a reflection of postures within the church.

. . .

Many are now asking, “Does not the election of Black union conference presidents tell us that Black local conferences are no longer needed?” The answer is No, it does not. What it does say is that more and more union conference committees and constituencies are willing to recognize talent and experience in an unbiased manner. That 
is commendable. But such elections do absolutely nothing to change attitudes and social conditions in the neighborhoods where White and Black churches function; local community dynamics were the primary reasons Black conferences were created and continue to exist. Highly placed Blacks are welcomed role models positioned to influence policy and planning in ways their White counterparts may not have imagined. But more than the occasional Black placed in a high position, we need bona fide vehicles for maximizing mission at the “grassroots” or neighborhood level.

White flight and the hardiness of Black culture have to a great extent prevented African-Americans’ absorption into the nation’s cultural melting pot. Consequently, there is a huge difference between “structural integration” (relationships in the corporate office or workplace) and voluntary “social integration” in which the masses congregate and worship.

What Elder Rock points out is the all too unspoken reality of “some of my best friends are” racism hiding itself quietly in geographical and institutional white flight and the soft bigotry of low opportunities. I hope to God that Pastor Russell is not compelled to write because he feels that there are white Adventists who would actually prefer separate conferences. And I hope that Elder Rock believes that present reality does not mean destiny.

Given the historical reasons for separate conference formation, it does seem that an important initial question is: what do the laity and leadership of Regional Conferences want? Perhaps this discussion between Russell and Rock reveals some (cross-generational) movement toward answering that.

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