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The Church in Black and White

A few years ago at a pastors’ meeting, one of the young pastors publicly asked our conference president, “Are you doing anything to try to bring the black regional conferences and the regular conferences together? It is a scandal that we can’t work under one conference structure.”

Heads nodded around the room.

Biblically there’s little support for Christians separating by race. (Or by denomination either—but that’s another essay.) For one thing, it eats up more of the church’s money on a bloated bureaucracy—something Adventist laypeople have been far too willing to put up with from us church leaders.

Administratively ,it has been a headache, too, to have separate conferences covering the same geographical area. For example, occasionally a conference wants to build a school and tries to get the other conference occupying the territory to join in the building program, since all know that children from both conferences will attend. It almost never succeeds.

I thought of this a few months ago when I heard Dr. Leslie Pollard speak at Oakwood College. Leslie is a seminary classmate of mine, a wonderfully nice gentleman, who serves as vice president for diversity at the Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center. He told about speaking at a non-regional conference pastors’ meeting where one (white) pastor kept raising his hand and asking this question: “Why can’t we all, black and white and the rest, join into the same conference?”

After the third or fourth time, Leslie said, “Good idea. If you really believe in this, then at your next conference constituency meeting, stand up and make a motion that you dissolve your conference, and join all your churches and offices and assets into the regional conference.”

A moment of silence, then the questioner asked, “Do you have any other ideas?”

There’s the rub. We really haven’t thought through what working together would look like, and we’re still uncomfortable enough with each others’ worlds that it makes sharing power complicated.

It is a fact that work among African-Americans was going nowhere until the regional conferences were established in the mid-1940’s. Even then, it took years until black people could eat in the General Conference dining room, much less black pastors hold significant church offices.

An African American friend has helped me understand this better. Well-educated, gifted, and gregarious, he still encounters racism, nowadays often subtle. His experiences with racism have been minor compared to those of his father and grandfather, who told stories of being scorned, excluded, and even physically manhandled, just for being black.

And as for the church, it wasn’t unknown even a few years back for black people entering white churches on Sabbath morning to be given directions to the nearest black church. If that had happened to me, I’m not sure I’d have stuck with it, Sabbath truth or no Sabbath truth. It is a testimony to the working of God’s Spirit that the African-American Adventist church is as large and strong as it is.

My friend admits that his children are growing up with an experience as much different from his as his was from his parents’. He sees black and white children respecting one another to a degree their grandparents couldn’t have imagined. But cultural DNA persists for generations, and it is not without reason that among those experiencing poverty and other social problems African Americans are still heavily represented, in spite of a black president and a growing black middle and professional class.

It is easy for those of us in the majority group to rear up on our hind legs and say, “Now that we’ve seen the light about race relations, you folks ought to forget what happened in the past and move on with us.” That’s the moral high road. It is right, and even biblical. Of course, we’re brushing aside much painful history when we say that—or, like the young pastor at that conference meeting, are too young to have experienced the history.

And it’s a level of acceptance beyond what we may be able to practice ourselves. Many Americans still hold it against all Moslem people because seven years ago a handful terrorized us on U.S. soil. How hard would it be for us to forgive and forget if Moslems had subjugated us for generations?

A unified church is clearly the goal of Scripture.: “…one lord, one faith, one baptism,” (Eph. 4:5), and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). I don’t see those as abstract ideas. They describe a reality we should be trying to achieve.

But let’s be patient. Healing takes time.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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