“Race” and the Adventist Church

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“Race” and the Adventist Church

Considering the place of notions of “race,” “ethnicity,” and “culture” in the Christian Church, and in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in particular, first calls for clarifications. It should be noted that these three notions, which are taken for granted, are all constructed in nature. Of all three, the term “culture” can perhaps be considered the least invidious. But of course that depends on what one means by “culture” and the degree to which culture is engaged. Furthermore, one still has to be leery, since the notion of “culture wars,” for example, is still of vitriolic reckoning in modern life.

Nonetheless, we pick up the discussion by first taking a look at race—shall we? (The other two areas in this broader category—i.e., ethnicity and culture—can be addressed in a subsequent presentation.)

What is race? The answers one receives to this question are rather diverse, vague at best, and anything but uniform. In fact, when confronted with the question, people may actually be fazed for a moment, as if taken by storm.

Can you blame them? For the concept of race itself has nothing to do with biology, but is a mere social construct, albeit a very expensive, conflict-causing, divisive, and life-threatening construct. What does that mean? Race is and has been the cause of much social conflict throughout the world, including the church; the cause of bigotry, bloodshed, and unremitting war. A seemingly naïve and benign word to some, yet it is arguably the most corrupt and greatest of monsters engineered by the human mind.

“Race” has been used as a tool in the hands of the oppressor, to suit particular whims and fancies, in academic methodologies and theories, for political “ideals,” for economic ends, and for all other imaginable and unimaginable enticements (including slavery and sex slavery)—and yet it’s not real.[1] Can you imagine that? Something as unreal as race, yet dominating every facet of human life.

It is at this juncture that, troubled, someone will joltingly insert: “Wait a minute—did you say that race is not real?” That is to say, if it’s not real, then how come we look so different and have different tastes, different hair textures, etc., etc.?

I hate to burst your bubble, but the last time I checked, all humans are the same—one color of blood. As Acts 17:26 aptly puts it, God “hath made of one blood all nations of men [and women]” (KJV). The fact of the matter is, we have been duped and guided by “race” sense for so long that “race” along with all its diabolic and subtle implications has been thoroughly ingrained in the human psyche. So embedded is it that only the power of God can break the chains and set the captives free—much like setting the demoniac man free of the evil spirits that took uncanny possession of his soul (Mark 5:1-20).[2]

Just to be clear, the differences to which people refer have nothing to do with “race.” In fact, there is no such thing as a gene for “race.” The differences in appearance, melanin, etc., are simply a matter of phenotypic variation. And that says nothing, other than the fact that God created us that way. So what you see and hear is actually a gross overplay, and people are making a bigger hype about phenotype than is warranted.

But here is the boomerang question: Do humans have to be divided (in more ways than one)? Despite our insistence on being divided, which we see throughout the human saga, is it possible to break that mental slavery mold of “division” that has fully taken over the human mind like a cancerous sore? Emancipation, it seems, is still forthcoming.

The “race” concept suggests unwarranted cleavage that continues to cast the human family in the limelight of exclusivity, confusion, bigotry, conflict, and bloodshed. And for what? That’s why it’s always good to stop and take a reflective look not only at your condition, but at the ideologies, thoughts, social systems, etc., surrounding you that impact your supposed disposition. That need becomes painfully clear in light of the “race” prejudice, discrimination, segregation, and drama that have embraced Seventh-day Adventism. Sincere contemplation itself, from that standpoint, can be freeing, in the sense that it carries cathartic value; it is good for the individual soul as well as the Adventist soul.

Just to illustrate the underlying deceit of the “race” concept: If any married couple were to trace their lineage back far enough, husband and wife would soon realize that they are not only conjugally related, but, lo and behold, they are actually blood relatives. What does that mean? Simple. It brings to the fore the concept of “monogenesis” as opposed to “polygenesis.” Monogenesis says that we all came from the very same parents. Yet there are all sorts of twisted and ideologically bankrupt views running around wild in society—like the notion of the so-called evils of “miscegenation” and the notion that there are multiple species of humans. Some bold-facedly declare or believe that since humans are not all fundamentally the same—which means that some are either subhuman or a different type of human—then certain features like sterility are a certainty if one is a different type of human or “species.”

Do people actually think that way? You better believe it. In fact, there are much more corrupt and brainwashing thoughts and tactics running around, the subject matter of which may be engaged on a different occasion. But such is the kind of thinking that adds to the perverseness and shallowness of our social sphere, and believe it or not, has taken up residence in the church.

Racism in the Church

Does any of this have any impact on Seventh-day Adventism? Oh yes—whether it’s these exact sentiments or other thoughts on notions of “maintaining the purity of the white race” or “master race.” They have entered the church fully clad and armored, and in fact are being handed down to the next generation, placing one member at strange odds with the other. Granted, one will argue that the younger generations—X, Y, millennials, etc.—are living in a different world from their parents and foreparents, but even that has evidently not wiped out traces of bigotry and the mentality of “racial superiority” both inside and outside the church. You might be surprised to find out the types of deep-seated divisions still prevalent not only among adult Seventh-day Adventists, but Adventist youth as well, and the separatist views that some Adventist youth hold, both black and white. (Notice I said some.)

Suffice it to say that the Seventh-day Adventist Church, like other religious groups and denominations, has allowed the world to dictate patterns and practices. In fact, sometimes it is the church that leads the way in separatist views and racial antagonism. “Racial” prejudice, segregation, and discriminatory behavior in the wider society, in North America and elsewhere, play out in symmetry, as both the church and the wider society (social institutions, organizations, neighborhoods, etc.) hug and imitate each other. Shameful and disturbing indeed. This is in particular reference to what I call the “hug of segregation and woe,” that, not surprisingly, leads to an irksome bitterness and unsettling rivalry.

And it’s not like this is a once-upon-a-time occurrence. Segregation, white flight, and “racial” prejudice continue to plague the Seventh-day Adventist Church in a variety of areas, including top church administrative hiring, academy and local church attendance, and the notably divisive politics and dynamics played out in the structurally divided black/white conference system. That includes segregated campgrounds and the persistent inequality caused by segregation in Adventist grade schools, for instance.

The church itself resembles a battleground—“blacks” vs. “whites”[3]—with each side laying down solid stakes, making visible their political territory and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, backed by loyal troops (i.e., members and conference workers) who support those respective positions. Yet the administration and constituents on both sides are all marching to the very same heaven!

This gives one pause to wonder which is worse: the maintenance of church segregation with its underlying tensions, cover-ups, and embarrassments, or the fact that the church insists on flaunting its divisive dynamics with a disingenuous smile in the public sphere, while the world watches? When you really stop to think about it, why is it so hard, and what is so wrong about seeing each other simply as humans, without having to resort to socially induced qualifiers: “white,” “black,” etc.?

Socio-historical “Racial” Dynamics and the SDA Church

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the U.S. has had a very ugly history of “race” discrimination. That subject is the content material of research, archives, articles, and books. But I would, nonetheless, proffer an idea of such historical reckoning in the church.

Going back to the early 1800s we find that blacks were already involved with the Millerite movement, including their engagement in public presentations. By the time you get to 1863 (the year the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally established), there were already blacks in the mostly white Adventist congregations, particularly in New England. And in the mid-1850s there was the notable case of William Hardy—a black man elected to public office and a beloved local Adventist leader among whites—and his family in Michigan.[4]

But it is not until the late 1880s that we find Charles Kinney, considered the “father of Black Adventism” due to his great pioneering efforts. It is in Kinney’s era that we find the idea of separate conferences for blacks circulating, and in this respect it is important to underscore that he was forced to entertain the idea. Kinney literally ached in his heart to even think about such a proposition, due to the hardened prejudicial attitudes and egregious discriminatory practices of the white leadership and brethren.[5]

The racial saga dragged on into the twentieth century, so that by the early to mid-twentieth century, nearly all Adventist colleges, for instance, did not admit blacks.[6] And if they did, like Andrews University (previously Emmanuel Missionary College or EMC), there was a strict quota system in place.[7] One student was invited to enroll at EMC, but upon the school’s realization that he was black, he was denied, and even his application fee was deemed nonrefundable by the college.[8] Clearly, the idea was that the black presence had to be very limited and contained.

Not only was there a quota in place for enrollment of “colored students,” but they also had to suffer the humiliation of “having to wait on their meals until there might be a ‘quota’ of colored students to fill a table.”[9] Another form of outrageous indignity dictated that “colored students” be “assigned to the rear seat during worship at chapel.”[10] Around 1968 there were confederate flags in the dorms at Andrews University along with a cross burning on campus, all in the name of intimidating black students.[11] In another unimaginable instance, in an Adventist college, if no white student invited a black student to sit and eat, then that black student had to suffer the acrimonious shame and horror of having to stand against the cafeteria wall to eat with or without tray in hand.[12] These examples give only an idea of the unfathomable heartaches and depths of racial hatred and injustice in Adventism.

The same type of narrative has sadly colored other Adventist institutions, such as not permitting blacks in the General Conference or Review and Herald cafeteria, not admitting blacks to Adventist nursing programs, and not admitting black patients at Adventist hospitals. The case of Lucy Byard is the classic example (but not a solitary case) cited in that regard, and it stands as a critical hallmark of Adventism’s historical racism; so much so that this example is seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, in light of a long list of other heavy racist straws and policies.[13] (By the way, my use of language such as “racist” and my citation of historical anecdotes are not to point fingers at anyone, but rather to tell of the depth and severity of the problem, rather than downplay it. Facing the past honestly and openly can help us in better apprehending the present and in moving into the future by God’s grace.)

The Lucy Byard story is crucial in setting up the framework for this piece. We go back some 73 years to the fall of 1943, or the onset of early winter in the northeast United States. Lucy was brought by her husband for treatment to the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital (later named Washington Adventist Hospital). They both were black, but being of light complexion apparently allowed them to bypass the racial detectors of hospital personnel, at least for a moment. After looking at her chart, however, and realizing that she was black, the Adventist hospital personnel then boldly phoned around, looking for another hospital that would admit blacks. Long story short—the hospital staff finally found another hospital across state lines that agreed to admit Lucy.

Poor Lucy. Can you imagine yourself gut-sick and being told “sorry”—you can’t be treated because of your skin color or perceived “racial” group—by a Seventh-day Adventist institution, no less? Imagine what was going through the minds of hospital staff and administrators: “Sorry, we Christians don’t treat colored people; you will have to die first.”

I can only imagine the gut-wrenching thoughts, the ghastly shock on their countenances, and the aching dejection that may have pulsed through Lucy’s and her husband’s hearts, perhaps marked by fear, anger, sorrow, anxiety, or a mix of it all. Meanwhile, rubbing salt in the wound, white Adventist leaders and hospital administrators stood by their disclaimer that “it is against public policy” to admit “negroes” in the Washington Sanitarium with white patients.[14]

I must pause here to clarify that it is gross error to paint all whites—Adventist and non-Adventist—with a broad brush of calumny and racism. That would be outright misrepresentation and unfair characterization to say the least. It is because both the church and society back then (around mid-twentieth century) were predominantly white, and because racist policies (Jim Crowism, etc.) were put in place by whites, that it appears as if all whites are hateful and the same. Oh no, there are always the exceptions. On that same token, not all blacks in the denomination are necessarily forgiving of the racial injustice and social inequality they experience or in favor of integrative measures. Consequently, attitudes of exclusivity and prejudice, and unresolved feelings of animosity reside on both sides, undergirded by nagging racial tensions that persist, despite the fervor of religious activities, and in spite of emphases on spiritual revival, the imminent return of Christ, remnant distinctiveness, and prophecy fulfillment.

With this caveat in mind, let us wrap up the Lucy episode. As the story goes, she was eventually transported to the Freedmen’s Hospital (the forerunner to Howard University Hospital), where she died shortly thereafter of pneumonia, supposedly caused by a draft due to being lightly clothed with a hospital gown in the hallway. Granted, there are varying views as to the actual cause of Lucy’s death, depending on your source material.[15] And then, of course, there is that nagging question: Would she have died if she had been attended to at the Adventist hospital in the first place?

There are a lot more crucial details to the story, particularly its aftermath, involving the General Conference, the North American Division, and very concerned black members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The black members’ concerns had to do with understandable frustration with the discriminatory treatment by the church over a sustained period of time. One of those concerns was that they were financially supporting the church yet were denied access to its facilities and institutions.

There is a direct causal link between that dark hospital episode and the creation of regional conferences in 1944.[16] Black lay members in particular were not looking for separate conferences, inasmuch as they were seeking equal treatment and respect as well as total integration. But the white General Conference leadership did not think that such equality was reasonable or possible, and instead opted for the GC-authorized cleavage.[17]

Thus it may not be totally surprising that, due to the persistence of prejudice and racial tensions in the denomination even some decades after the formation of regional conferences, black leaders were once again on the move, this time pushing earnestly for black union conferences in the 1960s and 1970s.[18] Such a petition was taken up by the General Conference but ultimately turned down.

But if we are really honest about the whole affair, the truth of the matter is that the ongoing maintenance of the segregated conference system is the direct result of white supremacy and racial discrimination by the white Adventist leadership of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[19] In light of all of this, therefore, any consideration of integrative measures ought to place the heavier burden on church leadership rather than expecting the entire initiative to be taken up by the constituents themselves.

Moreover, for a church that boasts of equality, any serious attempt to move forward must also take into consideration the fact that the divided structure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is “separate and unequal,” and furthermore exacerbates inequality—although some may like to think of the current arrangement as “separate but equal.” I have personally heard complaints from black church members about the lack of resources and the persistent economic inequality faced by grade schools run by the regional conference, for instance, as opposed to the resources and benefits afforded by the state conference. Yet, besides the fact that many blacks reaffirm the value of regional conferences, the North American Division not only claims to be working in concert with regional conferences, but also affirms the need for regional conferences, pretending that all is well—as seen, for example, in a recent (2015) NAD response to Andrews University student groups’ concern for the division in the church.[20]

Again, one has to wonder which is worse—upholding racial segregation backed by its animosity and inequality, or making the world believe the segregation is all good? Segregation is segregation no matter how rosy you paint the picture, and, furthermore, it is rooted in white racism (as already seen), particularly in reference to the American Adventist context. It matters not what color you paint the elephant; in the final analysis, the “elephant in the room” is still an elephant.

Confronted with the weighty matter of such considerations, we can also ask another pivotal question for solemn introspection, in thinking about the prospects of Seventh-day Adventism. Is the Jim Crow framework of “separate but equal” justly warranted in the SDA Church? And while you’re at it, you can contemplate: What is the meaning of separate but equal? Is there such a thing? Is it valuable, enriching, etc.?

Ultimately, however, the question is: Where do we go from here?

Implications and Considerations for Seventh-day Adventism

On SDA discussion blogs, articles, presentations, and so forth, person after person has written on and responded to the issue of Seventh-day Adventism and “race” relations, yet no one is addressing a more fundamental issue: What is race? This, I believe, will help to demystify the issue and hopefully will allow clear-thinking, proactive minds to prevail. But I warn you that because the concept of “race” is such a diehard notion, if you are indeed serious about tackling the issue, it means absolutely relentless pursuit, fearless of any man, woman, or church policy, but motivated only by the fear of God and by the grace of God.

Where does that leave Seventh-day Adventism? As I conclude, another apparently unassuming yet profound question comes to mind: What will it take for Adventists, from the GC president to the member in the pew, to put themselves second and God first in confronting the “terrible beast of race”? Ah, but verily I say unto you, be not deceived—God will move when He will move, with or without your surrender.

So, to all fellow travelers on this upward journey, in earnest soul-searching and prayer, I suggest that a depth of understanding of the nature of division and its underlying causes and effects first be fully grasped and absorbed, including the ramifications, in order to really catch a glimpse of the bitter sting of the matter. This point must be emphasized because many in the Seventh-day Adventist Church feel that this is an issue that one can just leave on the burner behind the back burner (i.e., one that doesn’t exist), and perhaps “luck” and chance will take care of it. Only when the weight of the matter is properly absorbed with the guiding and penetrating light of God can the shackles that blind the mind, eyes, intellect, and heart be truly broken. And then like Paul you may finally see the light and make that 180-degree turn, with a conviction so strong that nothing in heaven and earth will shake it.

But the finger-pointing. What about it? This immature game of “whites” pointing at “blacks” and “blacks” pointing at “whites,” declaring that the other isn’t ready yet, or is stalling, or doesn’t want it, or worships differently, can’t work any longer. It’s the perfect epic of what I call “SDA World War I stalemate in the trenches.” Neither “side” is gaining any positive ground as long as the status quo is endorsed. The name of the new game is “integration at all costs.”

How do you break the impasse? As already ascertained, one has to unconditionally surrender oneself to God, deny self, and allow Him to perform the surgery—for it is a “transplanting of the heart” issue. Short of that critical step, it won’t work. For it is only then that all material endowments like salary, retirement package, and position will dim and lose their value and cease to be a stumbling block to what God has been patiently waiting to impress upon the heart.

All would do well to take individual stock of whatever part they may play in maintaining division, for no doubt it is an unnecessary evil. Don’t exclude yourself. The problem is that we ourselves are or can be the most incorrigible barriers to unity. Granted, much of it is systemic as well. But understand this: individual people make up the system, and whether or not it has to do with idiosyncrasies of one financial structure for “black,” “white,” and “other,” or power-sharing, there’s always something blocking the path to progress.

Thus, where we go from here really depends, not merely upon how conscientious we are, but more so on how much we allow God to work on our hearts, taking full control, leading us to concrete steps and unimaginable places that would prove refreshing to the soul.

______

Notes:

[1] For more insight on the topic, please refer to Cleran Hollancid, Evolution Declassified (Detroit, MI: Gold Leaf Press, 2012). And among a host of other references, see for example, Robert Bernasconi and Tommy Lee Lott (eds.), The Idea of Race (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000).

[2] This narrative falls directly between that of Jesus speaking to the winds and the sea and the story of Jairus (a ruler of the synagogue) coming for healing for his daughter, while Jesus is also intercepted by the woman with the issue of blood. So much excitement, but we can’t stop here. This telling episode (even more dramatic than the same story found in Luke 8) of the demoniac man, “Legion,” seems to have taken place on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Can you imagine someone night and day in the mountains and tombs, crying and cutting himself with stones? Any sleep? I wonder how long this went on. Wow—this is not good.

[3] My use throughout this article of terms like “race,” “ethnic,” “white,” “black” and variations of such terms (though constructs) is solely for conventional purposes—to convey the message.

[4] Sheila McGrath, “Michigan Township to Name Pond After First Black Adventist,” Adventist Review (September 29, 2015); and Lawrence W. Onsager and James R. Nix, “Adventism’s First Black Family,” Adventist Review (February 24, 2011).

[5] See “C.M. Kinney’s Statement on the Concept of Regional Conferences,” in Delbert Baker (compiler), “Telling the Story: An Anthology on the Development of the Black SDA Work.” On Black SDA History – A Collection of Historical Documents, Articles, and Visuals on Selected Topics Relevant to the Black SDA Work. (Done in Cooperation with the Black Caucus of SDA Administrators). Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Printing Services (March, 1996, second printing), 2/8-9.

[6] See online video with panel discussion, from 2005, on “The Creation of SDA Regional Conferences,” with leading black SDA figures, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuzbSJZO6EI (for quick reference, begin video at 1:21:00). Compare with Helderberg College’s history (in South Africa) of exclusion of “blacks” and “non-whites” from campus and events, with the same issue currently plaguing or having infected other parts of the SDA world.

[7] Refer to online video, panel discussion, 2005.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In Delbert Baker, 2/11.

[10] Op. cit., and see 2/10-12 for fuller details.

[11] Refer to online video, panel discussion, 2005.

[12] Kyle Berg, “Union College Takes A Step Forward: Reconciliation at Last” [with reference to apology for past SDA racial injustice], The Clocktower the Associated Student Body of Union College (February 22, 2015).

[13] Baker, 1996, 2/3.

[14] In Baker, 1996, 2/12. This is part of the documentary article entitled, “Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among Seventh-day Adventists?” by Joseph T. Dodson, 2/10-16.

[15] See Baker, 1996, 1/12 and 2/37-38, for example. Ironically enough, it was a black Adventist graduate of Loma Linda, interning at Freedmen’s Hospital, who attended to or at least welcomed Lucy to Freedmen’s (Ibid., 2/37). Cf. excerpt online, http://archives.adventistreview.org/article/2406/archives/issue-2009-1505/death-in-d-c

[16] To examine, in great detail, more of that direct causal link, see Baker, 1996, 1/12-13, and all of Section 2, specifically 2/3-7 and 2/37-48; and for the exact wording of the text authorizing the official creation of regional conferences on April 10, 1944, based on the vote and “Action of the Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee,” read 2/5 and 2/40-41.

[17] Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation,” in Perspectives: Black Seventh-day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century, Calvin Rock, ed., pp. 127-37 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1996); and Baker, 1996, 2/3, cf. 2/10-16.

[18] For discussion on the matter, including pros and cons, see, for example, Edward E. Cleveland, “Regional Union Conferences,” Spectrum 2/2 (Spring Issue, 1970), 41-46; Benjamin Reeves, “The Call for Black Unions,” Spectrum 9/3 (1978), 2-3; Calvin B. Rock, “Cultural Pluralism and Black Unions,” Spectrum 9/3 (1978), 4-12; and Lorenzo Grant, “Ethical Implications of the Quest for Black Power,” Spectrum 9/3 (1978), 13-22.

[19] For some treatment of earlier prejudicial attitudes of the white Adventist leadership, see, for example, Holly Fisher, “Oakwood College Students’ Quest for Social Justice Before and During the Civil Rights Era,” The Journal of African American History 88/2 (2003), 110-125. This piece by Fisher also includes the outrageous and telling narrative of how a white church deacon or official called the police to escort black Oakwood students out of a white SDA Church in Alabama, for no reason other than simply being black.

[20] Alisa Williams, “North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Affirms Role of Regional Conferences,” Spectrum (Spring Issue, 2015); and Alexandra Yeboah, “NAD Defends Racially Separate Conferences,” ADVindicate (Spring Publication, 2015).

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Cleran Hollancid is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology (of religion) at Western Michigan University and holds graduate degrees in anthropology and sociology. He also holds a Master of Divinity from Andrews University. Cleran has taught various courses in religion and social science. He has a particular passion for discourse on God, science, and society.