I’m African American. For some people that means little. But if you grew up as an Adventist in NYC in the last several decades, you’d know that the Adventist population there is overwhelmingly Black (so much so that until my senior year of high school, I thought Adventism was a Black denomination ala AME or Missionary Baptists). And although there are lots of African American Adventists, in New York there is a greater likelihood that any Adventist you meet will be of Caribbean descent. A large portion of my Adventist friends from New York were either 1st or 2nd generation descendants from various Caribbean islands. So while my biological family’s traditions are replete with Southern habits, my “Adventist family heritage” is largely Caribbean. I grew up eating Johnny Cakes with friends, I know patois, and I can tell where the potluck dish is from based on whether it’s termed “rice and peas” or “peas and rice”. We memorized the hymnal—current and past versions—and learned to sing some deep cut songs with a distinctive West Indian flair. There are so many intangible things I absorbed from my friends from Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Haiti, and other locales that I don’t even distinguish as having been “adopted” cultural habits. Because of this, it was often just assumed that I was Caribbean; though I never insinuated that in the least. I’m very proud to be from Georgia by way of New York.
One day at Andrews, at a Sabbath lunch at someone’s apartment crowded with college kids, I recall a friend saying, “You know, I never asked you what island you were from”. I laughed. “Manhattan”. My friend pressed, “no, I mean your parents”. “They’re from Georgia. My family is American”. Insert record scratch. The room literally fell quiet and all eyes and ears zeroed in on our conversation. My friend was visibly shocked, “Oh, I always thought you were West Indian!” Another person chimed in, “see, Courtney, now they’re gonna start treating you different!” The apartment erupted in laughter. But in every joke, there’s a kernel of truth.
Despite our shared African heritage, there have been some tensions between Black people who are termed “indigenous African Americans” and those who immigrate from elsewhere, such as the islands or directly from a country in Africa. Although the differences basically boil down to where our ancestors were dropped off the boats. Sociologists and religious academics who specialize in this topic have done deep dives into the reasons behind these separations. Folks like Dr. Clifford Jones (former Associate Dean of Andrews Seminary and current president of Lake Region Conference) and Dr. Jesse Wilson (Associate professor at Oakwood and Director of PELC) have done thorough examinations into this phenomenon particularly as it manifests in the Adventist Church. I won’t dare attempt to do as comprehensive an exploration in this article, but suffice it to say, there are some themes that are worth noting. Biggest of all is the fact that historically, distrust between these communities is often intentionally sown to create discord for the social benefits of outside groups.
To put it plainly, many immigrants (both those of African descent and of other backgrounds) are often led to believe that they are better off distancing themselves from those who are Americans. Whether they are explicitly told that they themselves are “better”, or are fed the lie that American populations are “dangerous” or “lazy”, the overall message is that it’s in their best interest to not mix with Black Americans. These narratives are reinforced with media accounts that disproportionately focus on crimes committed by Black Americans. What’s not said is that “black on black” crime occurs at the same rate as all other interracial crimes (e.g. “white on white”, “Asian on Asian”, etc.). People are not taught that after slavery, systematic attempts were made to “legally” prevent Blacks from prospering financially, and even with that, Blacks managed to own several centers of commerce throughout the nation. Yet those business centers like Black Wall Street in Tulsa and the thriving Black community now buried under NYC’s Central Park were razed and burned. It’s never taught that 90% of lynchings during the early 20th century specifically targeted Black business owners. These things are obscured so that immigrants arriving in the 21st century are unaware that the businesses they may open are directly benefited from the previous tragedies and resistance of people who look like them but were born in the US.
On the flipside, Black Americans have also been told cautionary tales of immigrants. A recurring theme revolves around their primitive ways and unenlightened attitudes. While Black immigrants are told falsehoods about African Americans, the US media simultaneously airs images of majority Black foreign countries as technologically inferior lands run by misogynistic polygamists in dirt huts. It’s intentional that the thriving metropolises across the continent are part of the Africa you never see. It is calculated to depict West Indians and people from African countries as “backwards” and ignorantly superstitious. Loving family units with free thinking strong women are not part of the narrative of the immigrant stories the media portrays. These stereotypes are there to ensure that the various populations have a persistent distrust of one another and a dependency on the systemically racist societal model.
This particular blend of sociological discord has been formulated in “the world” but it also gets served within the church. Black American churches will often firmly reject being led by a non-African American pastor … and vice versa. It isn’t uncommon for West Indian and African and African American constituents to be separated. And if they don’t have their own congregation, it’s not unusual to find that the first two groups are more likely to worship with White people than with Black Americans. There’s nothing wrong with that—as long as it’s not motivated by harmful discriminatory tales. Unfortunately, in addition to the sociological stereotypes, the colonial mindset around “true worship” and “high worship” is still promoted. That is, worship that incorporates elements of the Historical Black Church (e.g. heavily syncopated music, call and response, etc.) are inferior compared to worship styles that are more likely to be found in predominantly White traditionalist congregations. Ellen White quotes used to decry the need for “order” and to rebuke “a bedlam of noise” are inappropriately applied. The insinuations against the liturgy of the historical Black Church is ridiculous given the fact that it is highly ordered and regimented (almost to a fault) and that the style of worship and praise found in those congregations is bar none. Despite reality, these perceptions among others help divide and conquer.
Because I’ve lived on both sides of the divide, I’m intimately acquainted with the misconceptions told to each group about the other. And I’m also painfully familiar with the divide and conquer tactic—for me it’s easy to spot when I see it. Over the years I’ve seen these harmful narratives advanced by friends—good people—who would not otherwise consider themselves prejudiced. However, these teachings are so ubiquitous and insidious that they’ve internalized them. And it reveals itself in their speech and actions in almost imperceptible ways. These expressions are often subconscious and not done with any overt malice. In fact, it is often in service of a larger noble and valid point that they may find themselves inadvertently inserting this prejudicial narrative into their discourse.
Such is what I have been witnessing in various conversations about General Conference policies. It has been repeatedly stated that Africa and Latin America are the bane of progress within our church. Perhaps not in such harsh words, but essentially that is the message. But for the fact that we must vote with these regressive territories, we could advance mission! And despite all I know about history, I was susceptible to believing this caricature.
The continual painting of “the Global South” (aka the brown countries) as the enemy of progress is harmful on several levels. And the descriptions of these regions as willing to sell their integrity and votes for material gain is a reinforcement of harmful tropes. Yes, even when it comes from someone from those regions. Even if there are some Africans and South Americans willing to co-sign on this view, many others are horribly concerned about the perpetuation of these stereotypes. I was implored by several of my colleagues from InterAmerica, Latin America, and Africa to use my own voice to speak out about these distorted pictures. One colleague, disheartened by the negative portrait of his territory, wished to remind people of a few things:
“the Executive Committee of the Southern Africa Union Conference (covering 4 countries: Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia and South Africa) had voted in support of ordination of female pastors towards San Antonio 2015. Many churches in our Union elect and ordain women elders. In my conference, we have employed two female pastors who are both serving in districts were they are servicing several churches. This is not unique to my conference, three other conferences within our Union have also employed female pastors. Before this very Annual Council, a group of thought leaders from South Africa, penned an open letter to the GC against the compliance document. A South African took to the mic and expressed his opposition to the compliance document…there is no monolithic voice in the SID. Yes there are those who are opposed to it, but equally so, there are those who are pro. And it would be helpful if the narrative that all of Africa is “anti” is not advanced. There are measures in place to work at shifting the ground within our division. At the moment, the voice of the “pros” is getting louder and louder.”
His account was (pleasantly) surprising to me. I remember being shocked to meet delegates from Zimbabwe during the 2015 session who expressed their support of women’s ordination! It wasn’t until I went to the 2010 GC that I learned that the Inter-American Division has had female Vice Presidents. And I personally know that several Nigerian churches were among early adopters of having evangelistic series using female pastors. Female colleagues from the States are often brought over to preach on a constant rotation. They are fully recognized as pastors and have been for years. These things often aren’t talked about because it doesn’t fit the stereotypes. Sadly I am guilty of having been duped by the biases in the past despite knowing from a historical perspective how this often goes.
We need to ensure that these stories get told. Instead of advancing the notion that we need to “bribe” Africans with education and development, we should support them and provide these things anyway because they are our sisters and brothers. We should have concern and care for them regardless of whether or not they vote a certain way. But with respect to the future of the denomination, we need to work with those who are supportive of progressive ideas instead of ignoring their existence and perpetuating stereotypes. Why not seek ways to acknowledge these individuals as thought leaders and increase their platform?
One of the more ridiculous suggestions for “promoting unity” that came from the GC administration has been the “shaming” of leaders who don’t comply with the GC’s philosophy of discrimination against women. Shaming never builds consensus. It may feel good to “punish” the offenders but it doesn’t promote harmony. We know that. Yet we continue to do so to entire continents—and despite evidence that homogeneity of thought within those territories is a myth. If history (and recent events) have taught us anything, it’s that divide and conquer works. I’m not interested in being a part of it.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/courtney-ray
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.