If you’re a Jeopardy! fan or tapped into American pop culture, you know that the beloved game show host, Alex Trebek, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2020. He was Canadian, but he was a fixture on US television for decades. Although he had stints on several shows before Jeopardy!, and even though he was not the game’s first host, due to his 36 year tenure, Alex was inextricably linked with the show to the point where people rarely thought about one without thinking of the other. His death was a blow to many.
Be that as it may, it was no secret that he would not last forever. Mortality is a thing. And at 80 years old, with or without cancer, he had been planning to soon step away in retirement. Although he loved his job, it would eventually be helmed by someone else. His health diagnosis merely accelerated the transition he had already discussed a few years before. Once his prognosis became apparent, he still intended to host until his current contract ended in 2022 before retiring. He wished to hand the reins over himself – he wanted the show to continue after all – but his death meant he didn’t get to do that. He died in the middle of the 2020 season. He had worked until the end.
When Alex first announced his thoughts about his inevitable retirement, another beloved personality from the entertainment and educational world expressed interest in the upcoming vacancy. LeVar Burton, who is known to many American children (now adults) as the one who introduced them to a love of books, was the host and producer of the long-running children’s show, Reading Rainbow. Older generations would recognize that he was also the star of the epic film adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots. And sci-fi nerds most closely associate him with being the brilliant engineer, Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He continues to promote literature and learning through his online show, LeVar Burton Reads. Because of his own associations with learning and intellectualism, as well as the bonds his work has formed with people across generations and genres, his experiences made him a natural fit for Jeopardy! host. And he said so. His first mention of his interest was several years before Alex’s sickness was known, even to the Trebek family, much less the wider world. Following Alex’s passing, LeVar Burton fans began circulating a petition clamoring for his consideration as the new host. He did not hide the fact that his interest in the prospect had not waned. When Sony Studios began slating guest hosts to fill Alex’s spot in the interim before a permanent person was announced, hundreds of thousands were shocked that LeVar wasn’t among the first wave. The insistence grew louder and other celebrities chimed in. LeVar was eventually added to the guest host lineup. But many wondered what took so long.
In contrast to his vast fan base, there was a small, but still perceptible group of naysayers who vocalized displeasure that LeVar expressed his desire in the first place. Their philosophy was that it’s gauche to ask for an opportunity. Admittedly, this sentiment was expressed by an extremely limited number of netizens. You will always find contrarian individuals for almost anything. Even if you post a video of puppies, someone will downvote it. Some folks thrive on negativity. And especially when you discuss replacing someone who is adored, there will be those who are resistant, regardless of who the candidates are. And there is no shortage of cantankerous Jeopardy! fans who shared their criticism of every single guest host so far. So it’s unsurprising that there were some complainers. Nevertheless, their gripes reminded me of similar disparaging remarks made about Stacey Abrams during the 2020 US presidential election cycle. When President Joe Biden secured his party’s nomination, Ms. Abrams was not shy about wanting to be considered for Vice President. She is a popular and talented political organizer. Her commitment to increasing voter turnout and fighting for voting rights were key components in getting more of the population to participate in the last election. As a result, her home state of Georgia elected two Democratic Senators and its electoral ballots were cast for President Biden. Ms. Abrams is a powerhouse. She deservedly wanted to be considered for VP. But, like the critics of LeVar, there was a contingency of those who believe it’s impolite to make your ambitions known.
This philosophy is widely echoed within Christianity also. Many will point to texts such as Proverbs 27:2 which admonishes believers to “let another man praise you” and James 4:10 telling Christians to “humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.” Because of a misapplication of the verse in Proverbs, we confuse assertiveness with haughtiness. And we misconstrue the text in James which is speaking about humbleness before God. The context of most other passages on humility point to the importance of not debasing others. Nevertheless, it is a pervasive perspective that verbalizing your wants is unchristian. Yet this ignores the teaching of Jesus: if we believe ourselves to be blessed by God, we are asked not to hide our talents (Matthew 23:14-30). Christ was considered blasphemous for factually conveying Who He was (John 8:58). But He could not lie about His Identity. Similarly, when we are imbued with acumen by God, we shouldn’t diminish that. These designations of “gauche,” “brash” or “impolite” restrain people from sharing their God-given gifts for fear of criticism. And it perpetuates inequality in every domain.
LeVar Burton and Stacey Abrams are both Black. Additionally, Stacey Abrams is a woman. It is common knowledge that both the entertainment world and the political sphere have been predominantly white spaces – both in terms of the front-facing personalities and also the folks behind the scenes. Within these realms, as well as in other industries, the oft-repeated excuse is that there isn’t a “pipeline” of diverse talent available. Or, decision-makers explain that individuals from other demographics are simply unknown to them. When major networks were criticized for their exclusively white-scripted shows, producers claimed that they engaged in “colorblind” selections. Is it their fault that this “fair” process resulted in only white people being chosen? Of course it is! If you only choose from the people in your orbit, and your orbit is homogenous, then it’s no wonder that a “random” or “blind” sampling from your pool will give you what you’ve always gotten. There’s no way to be more inclusive if you limit your recruitment efforts to those just like you.
There have always been some “tokens.” Talented individuals, yes. But only a couple at a time to “prove” that there is diversity. For a long time, Will Smith and Denzel Washington were the go-to Black stars to hire if the film wasn’t specifically targeted to a Black audience. And for the past few years, in the world of game shows, one would’ve been excused for thinking that Steve Harvey was the only non-white person in Hollywood. People often proclaim that racism is dead in the United States because the country elected a Black man as president. They ignore the constant racist attacks President Obama endured as well as the fact that he was succeeded by the most openly racist and xenophobic president in modern memory. Kamala Harris as Vice President has been subjected to both racist and sexist taunts diminishing her qualifications for office as well. These handful of examples – particularly those that are the “first” or “only” in their positions – don’t disprove the bias problem. Rather, they highlight the issue because we can still count the exceptions. And when people raise their hand and say, “Consider me! If you don’t know someone, I’m here!”, they get chastised for self-promotion.
In Adventism we have carried this idea forward into pastoral and administrative spaces. Many pastors, including myself, can recall being warned by administrators not to ask for positions. And above all things, not to inquire about ordination. Such behavior was labeled “self seeking” and would show that you should not be chosen because you aren’t humble. Just wait for someone to notice you. Our denomination doesn’t engage in regular job application processes. We don’t post openings. The people in power simply ask “God to reveal” the names of people to fill vacancies. Curiously, God often “reveals” the friends of current administrators and those who look like them. Even our “elections” are mired in obfuscation. Those who have been delegates to Constituency meetings, including General Conference Sessions, have lamented that they are often called to rubber stamp a predetermined outcome. Only in the cases of multiple backroom factions are there instances where a true decision between multiple candidates gets made. At least at the local church and Conference levels there is some modicum of openness, because the steering and nominating committees are known. Still, for the most part, people pick from among their own circles. This results in the perpetuation of the “good ol’ boys network.”
Even for preaching engagements, the same names get recycled because pastors invite their friends. Over the past year of virtual church services and workshops, people have had the chance to literally invite speakers from the entire world. Despite that, there has been no shortage of all male panels (manels). The excuse is often given that no one among the organizers knew any suitable women to participate. Alternatively, they may claim there were one or two women who were asked but, because they weren’t available, the event has no female representation. This is unfair both to those women who get frequently asked as well as those who don’t. For those who are left out, the slight is obvious. But for those handful of women who are always asked, it puts an undue burden on them to say “yes,” even if they are overextended. Otherwise, if they decline, the excuse will be that “we tried but couldn’t find anyone,” so there is no representation at all.
Contrary to the North American Division’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, we see nothing even approaching equity in representation. This is true even in the Pacific Union, which is arguably touted as the most progressive of our areas. How many conferences have female senior officers? Besides Sandra Roberts, there are no female presidents. When she leaves, what women are poised to move into leadership at the conference? There are zero female executive secretaries. Across the continent there are a handful of female treasurers in a smattering of conferences. Otherwise, there is a dearth of women in senior positions in Conferences, Unions or even the Division. And when the tokens leave, who is in the “pipeline” to move into vacancies? Will we continue to fail to give women training and experiences that will cultivate a large diverse pool of candidates from which to draw?
It saddens me to see the monolithic leadership at every level. We chalk it up to “the Lord’s Will” when many of these issues should be more honestly attributed to human biases. Don’t blame God for human discrimination. But shrouding this tradition in religiosity makes it more palatable and allows aspersions to be cast on those who question the system. Since the days of colonialism and chattel slavery, people have been using Scripture to justify unfairness. If people are taught that these selection methods are Biblical practices, then they will believe that speaking against these practices is akin to speaking against God. It’s Divine Right repackaged for modern times.
I pray that we will release people from this horrendous definition of humility as self-deprecation and/or silence about one’s abilities. If you are the best person for the job, say that! Let’s normalize allowing people to raise their hands! Particularly when it comes to minoritized groups (women, people of color, etc.), we ought to encourage, not discourage, the inclusion of their voices. We need to actively train and diversify mentorship and leadership development so there can be a plethora of individuals to choose from when opportunities arise. And we have to be more transparent about the methods for selecting leaders. The path to a position shouldn’t be a mystery.
As various appointments open up in administrative positions throughout the Church and moves are made, I hope decision-makers heed this advice. Adventism always talks about not following the world. So then why are we always behind? We should be leading by example in diversity, equity, and inclusion. We continually boast about our denomination’s diverse membership. That ought to be reflected in our leadership as well.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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