In 1905 the Spanish philosopher George Santayana published Reason in Common Sense, in which he penned the often quoted (and misquoted) phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems we have the same problem in the Adventist Church. One of the great travesties of Adventism is that the church in America is still structurally segregated. While anyone can attend any church they want, regional conferences were specifically created for Black Adventists, and it remains so to this day. There have been several calls to change this structure over the years, the latest being a sermon by Dwight Nelson, the pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University. (Andrews University is considered the flagship school of Adventist higher education.) On January 17th Pastor Nelson preached a sermon entitled “Why I Believein the 1000 Man March After Ferguson,”in which he called for the end of the segregated conference structure. This is not the first time he has done this. In 2010, Pastor Nelson presented a similar sermon – “The Truth in Black and White.”In the interest of full disclosure, I was attending the Seminary at Andrews and publicly disagreed with elements of Pastor’s Nelson’s sermon. He is making the same mistakes now as he did then.
First, Pastor Nelson seems to have a whitewashed understanding of why and how regional conferences came into existence. Here’s how Pastor Nelson described the reason why regional conferences came to exist. “Accommodations were made…To allow Black leadership to flourish without overweening, overpowering superintendence by white leadership.” This is all he says in the sermon about the creation of regional conferences. If you totally trusted Pastor Nelson’s description, you might believe that the church created regional conferences for benevolent reasons. Pastor Nelson makes it sound like there weren’t enough opportunities for leadership and the church decided to create regional conferences so that Black people could have a chance. You’d almost think that regional conferences weren’t created in response to the fact that a White Adventist Hospital allowed a woman to die because they refused to attend to Black people. Pastor Nelson doesn’t mention that the General Conference decided to allow Black people to form regional conferences despite the fact that the contingent that came to petition the church asked for integration and equality within the structure of that time. Neither does he mention that members of the General Conference at the time did not believe that Black people could be successful in operating their own churches and conferences. I found it interesting that Pastor Nelson never once says the word racism in this sermon, certainly not in relation to why these conferences exist. Maybe he doesn’t need to say it, but if we are not even willing to admit the real cause of the status quo, I don’t think we have any real chance to change it.
Second, Pastor Nelson inordinately focuses on the next generation in his sermons on this subject. Here is how Pastor Nelson describes this new generation – “There is a new generation in this church today that is no longer interested in the retelling and rehashing of the stories of the past. It’s no good to keep telling the next generation the stories to fan what could be left behind.” There are two problems with this description. The first problem is the one that Santayana raises. If we are not willing to retell the stories of the past we cannot learn lessons from those stories. Despite Pastor Nelson’s reticence (and legitimate fears that it might stoke the racism that he refuses to name), it is important to continue to tell that history so that we can continue to point out how wrong we were, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. The second problem is that the past isn’t as past as Pastor Nelson would have us believe. In turning a blind eye to history, Pastor Nelson doesn’t mention the inequities in the church’s pension plan that caused Black clergy in the church to establish their own fund in the late 1990s. Or how a White pastor at the seminary attempted to argue that slavery was good for Black people because it introduced them to Christ while I was in attendance there less than ten years ago. Any move to change and integrate our conference structure has to take into account not only the mistakes and sins of the past, but also the sins of the present. To focus on this coming generation excuses this current generation from doing anything to leave this church better than when they found it. Moreover, it excuses this generation from the ways that they have perpetuated the very system that Pastor Nelson is saying should be changed.
Finally, Pastor Nelson tells the story of a Black Adventist from New Jersey who did not know that White Adventists existed until she went to an Adventist boarding school because of separate conferences. In response Pastor Nelson says, “”Guys, somebody is keeping a story going that needs to stop! Stop that story! It’s time to write a new one.” The problem with telling this story is that it gives the impression that Black people are the ones who are keeping this story going. I have often found in my own experience that Black Adventists are willing to extend themselves and work on interracial projects, and it is often White Adventists who do not seem share that same desire. Others may have different experience but at the very least both Black and White Adventists share blame for the current circumstances. And even if that it true it does not wash away the stain of White racism from the history of the Adventist Church.
I refuse to impugn Pastor Nelson’s motives. I am sure he means well. I agree with his ultimate goal. I believe, like he does, that this church cannot have the societal impact that it wants to have as long as the vestiges of racism exist in the very structure of the church. However, the ultimate failing of Pastor Nelson’s sermons on this subject is that he attempts to change a situation without addressing the root cause. Until the church is able to admit its history to itself by wrestling with and atoning for its past, there is no way it can truly accomplish the difficult but necessary goal of racial unity.
 This isn’t to say that apologies have not been given. In 1999, the President of the North American Division apologized for the racial sins of the church. While this is a step to be applauded, the racial sins of the church were perpetuated by the General Conference, which has never made such a statement. Thanks to Dr. Keith Burton for pointing me to this statement.
Jason Hines is an attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.