It Is Time to Talk, Part 2: Why Racial Integration Is So Hard

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It Is Time to Talk, Part 2: Why Racial Integration Is So Hard

7-17-2020 Editorial Note: This series was originally published in January 2016 to address the issue of segregated conferences. Within the North American Division (NAD) of Seventh-day Adventists, a parallel structure of both local state and regional conferences exists which are largely divided along racial lines. This article is part of a series entitled It Is Time to Talk, by David Penno, PhD (Leadership). Penno highlights the need for careful dialogue on the subject of segregated conferences within Adventism towards fostering more cooperation and collaboration between state and regional conferences and their respective constituencies. Given the continued call for racial and organizational unity within the NAD, The Compass Magazine provides this series as a helpful guide to this ongoing conversation. 

In this series of articles we are exploring some key areas that need to be addressed in any serious discussion about ethnic separation in the Adventist Church. The previous article reviewed the theological debate that speaks to the issue of organizational segregation in the church. Does the Word of God demand integration at all levels of the organization, or does it allow for some form of segregation? In this article we will describe some of the psychological and sociological realities that lead us to naturally segregate ourselves.[1]

Psychological Dynamics

As human beings we view ourselves and the world around us in particular ways, which in turn affect how we view other people. Our sense of who we are and where we fit in reality has a strong bearing on whom we want to associate with.

Miller rejects the “binary logic” of Freud that creates either/or thinking. This leads to the “misconception that to value self or group necessarily entails disvaluing that which is other.” Yet it would seem that in practical life many do indeed to some degree embrace binary logic. For example, if someone else is chosen for a promotion, we often interpret that as a statement of our own insufficiency, and we tend to feel devalued or rejected.[2]

Tatum has studied the development of self-identity among African-American youth. Her research indicates that Black young people who live in White neighborhoods and attend predominantly White schools benefit psychologically from time alone with other Black students and Black adults who can facilitate discussion of issues like racism and Black identity. [3] Tatum also sees Black churches as providing Blacks with “cultural space” to immerse themselves in Black culture.[4] She sees this dynamic as essential to the development and maintenance of a healthy race identity for Blacks in White America. If this is true, then one could argue that Black churches are necessary for the psychological well-being of African-American Adventists in North America.

Sociological Dynamics

Certain sociological pressures push humans toward homogeneous groups. Often unconsciously, people are attracted to others like themselves.


Homophily refers to this human tendency to associate with those who are similar to us. “Similarity breeds connection.”[5] McPherson et al. reviewed a host of studies on social networks. Their conclusion was that “homophily in race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order.”[6] From surveying a number of studies, the researchers found that ethnicity is a strong divider of people in a range of relationships, including marriage, confidants, friends at school, relationships at work, appearing in public with someone, or even just “knowing about someone else.” They found that even crime and rape “relationships” follow this pattern. People tend to victimize those of their own social group.

Homophily circumscribes people’s social world by restricting information, attitudes, and interactions with others. Because people have more contact with people similar to themselves, “cultural, behavioral, genetic, or material information that flows through networks tends to be localized.”[7]

This social dynamic explains why we have such variety in culture, language, worldview, and physical characteristics among the peoples of the world. The unique qualities of a particular group are reinforced as the individuals in that group tend to build relationships more with those within the group than those without. As time goes on, groups become more and more distinct and distant from each other, unless there is intentional connecting and interacting between groups.

Schaller believes that recent economic and sociological changes have strengthened this tendency toward homophily. “The combination of affluence and the demand for self-determination has produced an affirmation of ethnic separation that now competes with the goal of racial integration.” [8]

Another study looked at interracial marriage and interracial crime. This study confirms that “crime is primarily an intraracial occurrence.”[9] It appears from this study that the greater the distinction between two ethnic groups in several factors, such as income, geographic location, and group size, the less likely they are to interact with each other in either positive or negative ways. Interestingly, these authors found that an increase in positive or “cordial” relationships between ethnic groups correlated positively with an increase in conflict across ethnic lines. So, it would seem that when attempts are made to integrate across ethnic lines, one should be prepared for an increase in both positive and negative interactions between members of the various groups.

Edwards[10] concludes from her research into multiethnic churches that “interracial churches with a substantial white attendance will work (by this I mean sustain a racially or ethnically diverse attendance) to the extent that they are first comfortable places for whites to attend.” She believes that this comes about because of Whites’ dominant position in the culture at large. Her findings indicate that churches with large groups of both African-Americans and Caucasians differed from African-American churches “on nearly every measure of worship practice and congregational activity” that she studied. Yet these same congregations were nearly identical to the Caucasian churches in the study on these same measures. Edwards posits that, because Whites are unwilling to deal with racial issues, a multiethnic church must submit to White dominance, and the non-Whites must accede to this dynamic. Otherwise, the Whites will leave the congregation, even if they are a large percentage of the membership.

Marti,[11] on the other hand, found in two case studies of multiracial churches that churches can develop an “ethnic transcendence” when the members “co-construct” a new religious identity that supersedes ethnic identities. Ethnic transcendence is based on the theory that race and religion are not bound to each other in such a way that one’s race will predict one’s religious behavior. Marti calls this “ethnic fluidity.” Ethnic fluidity allows people of various backgrounds to come together and create a religious/spiritual identity that transcends their individual ethnic identities. But these individual identities are not ignored; they simply are no longer the primary basis for a person’s self-identification. The common religious identity allows people of various backgrounds to see themselves as one group that they all strongly identify with.

The critical moment of identity reorientation is when a member moves away from defining himself or herself on the basis of interests, values, and preferences found outside the congregation, and defines himself or herself more with a shared identity that is co-constructed within the history, values, and beliefs of the congregation.[12]

Marti found that this reorientation is encouraged through a variety of formal and informal activities and behaviors in the local congregation. A new status system is developed where the valued religious/spiritual attitudes and behaviors give one status in the group, rather than the attitudes and behaviors that give one status in the outside culture. “Multiethnic/multicultural congregations, then, successfully reorient personal identity such that people of various ethnic and racial heritages subdue their distinctions in favor of one common religious identity within a diverse congregation.”

Marti did find that if a person held strongly to his or her ethnic identity as the primary definer of self-identity, then usually that person would leave the multicultural church and join a homogenous church that matched that self-identity.

The Costs of Diversity

It is one thing to talk of unity as an abstraction or a theological idea. It is another to count the cost of implementing those ideas. “Racial reconciliation and multiracial congregations often come at a cost and with sacrifice.”[13] Christerson and Emerson[14] did a case study of a multiethnic church in Los Angeles County where the dominant culture was Filipino. They discovered that there is a price to be paid by church members who are not a part of the dominant culture within the church.

Members of cultures that were a minority in the church tended to have closer relationships with people outside the congregation, whereas members of the majority culture were more likely to have strong friendships with persons inside the congregation. This is due, say the authors, to two sociological dynamics: the niche edge effect and the niche overlap effect. The niche edge effect means that members on the edge of the group, described as “atypical,” leave the group at a faster rate than do typical members. The niche overlap effect means that these atypical members are more likely to be recruited by other groups, as they have more in common with some outside groups than do typical members. Both of these dynamics cause fringe members near the edge of a group to be much more likely to leave the group and to join one where the members are more like them.

The majority of Filipinos in this study seemed to so enjoy their fellowship with other Filipinos that they neglected to include non-Filipinos in their circle. The non-Filipinos, unable to “break in,” sought friendship with people of their own ethnic group outside the congregation. Perhaps Christerson and Emerson’s most amazing conclusion is that there are those who persist in multicultural churches despite these costs.

It seems that for many of the congregants of this church, the value they have placed on worshipping in a diverse congregation is so high that they have simply ruled out the option of returning to a homogenous congregation, even when they recognize the greater benefits they would receive by doing so. This is an important finding because it offers a potential explanation for the existence of multiethnic churches despite the costs that they place on their members.[15]

So the costs to the minority members in a multicultural church include less satisfying relationships with members of the majority ethnic group within the congregation and the need to persevere as a member of the church despite a less than ideal social relationship.

Reconciliation in South Africa

Gibson[16] studied how creating a collective memory of the apartheid experience correlated with racial reconciliation among the four major ethnic groups in South Africa (African, White, Colored, and Asian origin). Gibson sought to evaluate the effects of the truth commissions that were conducted in South Africa to investigate the human rights violations that had occurred under apartheid. He interviewed more than 3,000 South Africans from all four groups to discern if the information received from the truth commissions led people to greater reconciliation with the people in the other three groups. He found that there was a strong positive correlation for Whites and a substantial one for Coloreds and those of Asian origin. For Africans, however, he found neither a positive nor a negative correlation. These findings may shed light on how to facilitate reconciliation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

Gibson also looked at the contact hypothesis (the idea that more interaction between groups can promote better relationships) and reconciliation. He found that South Africans who have meaningful interaction with individuals of other groups tend to have more trust and understanding toward members of other groups and hold less to negative stereotypes. The problem, however, is that “racial isolation seems to make racial reconciliation much more difficult to achieve in South Africa.” “Blacks rarely have any meaningful interaction with whites, making interracial understanding difficult at best.” As we think about relationships between African-Americans and Caucasians in the church in the United States, these findings might inform our dialogue. Relationships across ethnic lines are vital for genuine reconciliation and unity.

Those who support the homogeneous unit principle (see Part 1) will be interested in another finding from this study. It was found that some South Africans, including some Africans, actually thought that apartheid was based on good ideas and principles, though acknowledging that the system was abused and used to oppress. Gibson notes that the “separate development” aspect of apartheid was actually agreeable to groups like the Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan-Africanist Congress. He posits that perhaps there are those in all groups who see a “right to a separate existence” for each ethnic group.

A Basis for Discussion

So far in this series we have reviewed the theological debate and the psychological/sociological dynamics that inform the dialogue about organizational segregation in the church. If we are to create the safe “container” and seriously talk about the current situation in the church in North America, we will have to include in that discussion how the theological and psychological/sociological realities relate to each other. Does the latter take precedence, as McGavran and Wagner would argue, or should the theological push toward unity at all levels of the organization guide our decisions? Agreement here would be vital before any practical changes in the organization could even be considered.

In our next article we will review some historical events in the Seventh-day Adventist Church that have led us to the place where we are today.

For discussion: What “costs” will the Adventist Church and its members have to pay if we choose to integrate our organizational structure? Are we willing to pay those costs?



[1] The content of this series of articles has been adapted from David Penno, An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity Concerning Race-based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Doctoral dissertation, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2009).

[2] M. Miller, “Identity Development and an Antiracist/pro-reconciliation Agenda,” Encounter 68 (2007), 45-62.

[3] B. D. Tatum, “’Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’: And Other Conversations About Race (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997), 71-74.

[4] Ibid., 80, 82, 83.

[5]M. McPherson, L. Smith-Lovin, and J. M. Cook, “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001), 415-444.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]L. E. Schaller, From Geography to Affinity: How Congregations Can Learn From One Another (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 84.

[9] S. J. South and S. F. Messner, “Structural Determinants of Intergroup Association: Interracial Marriage and Crime,” The American Journal of Sociology 91 (1986), 1409-1430.

[10] K. Edwards, “Bring Race to the Center: The Importance of Race in Racially Diverse Religious Organizations,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47 (2008), 5-9.

[11] G. Marti, “Fluid Ethnicity and Ethnic Transcendence in Multiracial Churches,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47 (2008), 11-16.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] C. P. DeYoung, M. O. Emerson, G. Yancey, and K. C. Kim, United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford University Press, 2003), 36.

[14] B. Christerson and M. Emerson, “The Costs of Diversity in Religious Organizations: An In-depth Case Study,” Sociology of Religion 64 (2003), 163-181.

[15] Ibid., 177.

[16] J. L. Gibson, “Does Truth Lead to Reconciliation? Testing the Causal Assumptions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process,” American Journal of Political Science 48 (2004), 201-217.

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About the author


David Penno, Ph.D., is associate professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and serves as project coach for the Doctor of Ministry program. He previously spent 25 years in pastoral ministry and served as evangelism coordinator in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He holds a doctorate in leadership from Andrews University.