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Whenever there is discussion about ending racially segregated conferences, there will inevitably be individuals wondering if that will mean having state conferences absorb the regional conferences. During one such conversation someone stated that, in his recent sermon on the topic, Dwight Nelson should have suggested state conferences being absorbed by regional conferences as a possible solution instead. I noted that there were already many prominent black ministers who have proposed that course before. But I half jokingly suggested that if Dwight were the one to publicly say so, it would probably gain more traction since the best way to popularize an idea is to have it be suggested by a privileged person. But I was only half joking.

This phenomenon is familiar to many women in male dominated workplaces: when women speak, even when they have a great idea, it can be totally ignored. Meanwhile, men in the same room speak and are heard. This is so commonplace that Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote a New York Times article on it ( As Jessica Bennett talked about in Time, when this interruption is accompanied by the co opting of ideas it’s known as “bropropriation” ( Likewise, minorities can testify to the repeated “Columbusing” of various ideas, innovations, and inventions over centuries.

But it’s unnecessary to go back too far in history. An excellent example of this took place right after the most recent Academy Awards. The media instantly grabbed hold of an image of white actor Chris Pine when he shed a single tear during a performance of Glory (  Never mind the large numbers of people of color who actually performed in Glory. Forget about the countless people of color whose real life contributions were the basis for the movie’s creation. It was the tear of a privileged white man that became the focus of attention.

Such tone deafness is also evident in the church. Just this February Nathan Davis, a white (or as he asserts, “colorless”) student from Andrews, wrote an opinion piece in the student paper questioning the utility of Black History Month. Despite a myriad of critique decrying the author’s obliviousness, there were those who credited him for at least “starting a conversation”. In blatant disregard for the countless hours minorities have devoted to promoting awareness of racial concerns and social justice issues, some people don’t consider a conversation to have been started until a white person says something.

We have had sermons preached and forums held and petitions signed in an attempt to racially unite our church in North America. Yet no action from the Division will truly bring unity if we can’t even practice the art of simply acknowledging each other. Parts of our church are talking–and have been talking– yet other parts haven’t even been listening. Demanding that the Division provide a statement defining the usefulness of regional conferences or dismantle them when the individuals within those conferences have already thoroughly outlined their utility is, again, a statement that some people don’t even recognize, or thoroughly value the opinions of their brothers and sisters of another ethnicity.

What good would it do to have a superficially united church structure while continuing to have such huge rifts in basic communication? Sure, we will look better to those outside of Adventism. There’s no doubt that having racially separate conferences brings a lot of questions; it doesn’t look good externally. However, as Jesus stated in Matthew 23, it is necessary to wash the inside of the cup instead of merely the outside. Having a whitewashed tomb of a denomination simply for the sake of appearances is hypocritical. We need to work on the internal issues first.

That responsibility belongs to all of us. Working with churches and pastors that have members who are ethnically different from us doesn’t require any Division action. Entering into a genuine dialogue about ecclesiastical and evangelistic concerns of individuals of a variety of cultural backgrounds isn’t just a good idea, it is essential to creating true and lasting unity. The single most powerful thing that can be done to heal our racial divide doesn’t lie in the hands of administrators. It begins with validating the legitimacy of ideas and opinions and voices of our brothers and sisters regardless of the color of their skin. Conversations are already happening. Let’s all join in: speaking and listening.

Courtney Ray is a pastor in Southern California Conference.

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