Adventist History

Elephants in the Room: The Regional Conference Debate, pt. 3

March 3, 2014

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author and the provided comments on these blogs are the authors and his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Carolina Conference of Seventh day-Adventists, its churches or other employee thereof.

ElephantInTheRoom1

I usually put up the header above when what I’m about to write may spark some controversy!

As I mentioned from the outset, it is not the intention of this series to cover every step of history. This is a blog that I try to keep as short as possible.  I offer an invitation for those who would be willing: to write up to a 2000-word, 4 page (max) paper regarding any related area of study that I have or have not covered, I am willing to feature it on a future blog posting.  However, too often have I seen our church spend more time in contemplating theory instead of engaging in action. You can spend your entire life looking at the why and the what if instead of looking at the ever important question of what now?

Hopefully, though, the past couple of blogs have given some indication of my familiarity with this issue from a conceptual, historical standpoint.  That is to say, I get why we as a church are where we are today. To be clear, from my study, I found that the accommodation to establish regional conferences was just that: an accommodation.  It started with tense race relations (both within the church and the larger society as a whole) and moved on into institutionalized segregation. Take, for instance, a letter that Edson White wrote to his mother Ellen White (one of the Adventist Church founders), in 1899 regarding the opposition to the Battle Creek segregation practices.  He explained that their adaptations were made in order to protect the lives of people of both races who were connected with their work.

“The fact is, the people of the North do not know anything of the true situation in this awful field.  It is “Ku Klux” days right over and we are in the midst of it… the North MUST realize that the workers coming here will have to be the most careful that is possible for them to be.  If not, they will not only imperil their own lives, but will also imperil the lives and bring distress upon the colored people themselves.”[1]

Ellen White also spoke regarding the methods used in the Southern field:

“I wish to say that it is necessary to use the greatest caution in working with the colored people… Those who go to the South must be very careful of what they say.  Let them not criticize the white people in regard to the way in which the colored people have been treated.”[2]

It is clear that Ellen White’s statement encouraging missionary accommodations were made against the backdrop of racial violence and a deep concern for the success of the Black work. Her fundamental belief in the equality of the races and the Christian duty to treat all people with respect had not changed. [3]

Even with all its defects, I love my church; I am speaking as a pastor within the system, not standing on the outskirts throwing rocks.  So as I share what may be some frank thoughts on the matter, understand I want the best for the organization and am expressing what I see holding it back from reaching the potential that I believe God has for it.

Let’s assume for moment that these issues in 2014 were only a two-sided issue, a black vs. white thing.  Here is a gross over-generalization of what I am seeing as I travel around the country and we as Adventists get comfortable enough with each other to discuss these race-related issues in our church:

Whites: Many are oblivious to the reality that regional conferences exist and/or of their history.  One pastor shared with me that one of his members came across a regional conference church, not knowing it was one.  The member took a picture of this church in my area and took it to him asking if this church was in fact a “legitimate” Adventist church, or if they were just using the name Adventist (implying that they might have to get the legal department involved).  There is another group that has not had much interaction with other culture groups, and some of the things said in ignorance about race thus come across as racist.  Their ignorance can feed into the cycle of negative tension that keeps this divide alive.  Take, for instance, one churchgoer who (when I told him I was Hispanic) responded with a surprised, yet honest, inquisitive question, “But pastor, I could’ve sworn that you had some Negro blood in you too!”  Others feel so bad about the fact that regional conferences exist, they would much rather talk about something else instead of this issue.

Some just don’t know where to start.

Blacks (non-Caribbean’s): Many inside and outside the regional conference structure still seem hurt about past injustices, and the impression is that they are looking for more than just an apology; it sounds like they are looking for the Adventist equivalent of reparations[4]. I grew up in, and still visit, regional conference churches and some of the comments that I hear from pastors and members is all about “how bad the ‘White’ conferences treated us” and why things will never change.  A lot of it seems deep-seated and personal.

Whenever you bring up the subject, the air gets tense because you sense resentment.

Interestingly enough, in response to my question, “Why should the distinction between state and regional conferences still exist?” the only answers that I currently have received from those in favor of this distinction revolve around the following areas:

1.       Money and retirement
2.       Infrastructure logistics and leadership makeup
3.       History and reluctance for change

You know what I rarely hear as reasons for why they should remain? Mission, unity, and reconciliation for the advancement of the Gospel.

Look, I am willing to be proven wrong. I do not expect these three or four posts to change the world, but I would like a real, legitimate reason why we should remain in this divide that we are in. But, I will not accept an answer of “it can’t be done.” Like I said earlier, let’s assume for a second that this issue in 2014 is only a two-sided issue, a black vs. white thing.  However, the world that we live in is not a black and white one; there are many different ethnicities that comprise the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Let’s now throw in the fastest growing racial demographic in the country: Hispanics. Here is a hypothetical, logistical reason why the current divide we have in our church gets really redundant, confusing, and terribly frustrating.

Question: If regional conferences were started with the intention to better reach and serve the needs of Blacks in the United States, which conference is responsible for doing the same with Hispanics?

Answer: It’s a trick question; BOTH conferences do the same thing today.

Let’s assume that we are all in Texas, the territory for both the Texas Conference and Southwest Regional Conference.texas-map

Church “A” in Houston is a church within the Texas Conference.  Texas has their own Hispanic pastors and their own Hispanic Coordinator, or VP of Hispanic Ministries (or whatever title you give him), who specifically works doing outreach within this minority group.  Let’s say that an issue arises within this church: the pastor falls out of favor with Church A and the members want their pastor gone yesterday.  Time passes and the members of Church A don’t feel like the Texas Conference has done anything to remedy the situation (such as kick the pastor out).  So, what can they do?

Simple: they can talk to the Southwest Regional Conference and ask to be members of their conference… forming a new church, Church B, in the Southwest Regional Conference made up of all the members of Church A (minus the pastor).  Yes, the entire church.  Putting aside the ethical fairness of what this church may be doing, they would be within their rights to do exactly what I have described.  After all, there are two conferences competing for the same people group in the same territory.

Fact: Most Hispanics in the U.S. are natives (born here)-says Barna

Fact: Most Hispanics in the U.S. are natives (born here)-says Barna

This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as you may think.  While many conferences have begun working together to ensure that these types of things don’t happen anymore, I can’t count the times I have seen this very scenario take place in many different territories from the Atlantic, Southern, Southwestern, and Lake Unions (and these are only the situations that I personally know about; there are many untold stories among Hispanics that would corroborate this scenario).

So, tell me, how can this administrative divide be considered a blessing to God’s work?  You may say, “Well, double the workers means double the work being done in the area.”  That would be true if the left hand knew what the right hand was doing.  Among Hispanics, the reasons for the establishment of regional conferences are irrelevant to their everyday function.

Notice that I didn’t say that it’s not important; I said that is isn’t relevant to them, probably since this history doesn’t involve them directly.  The question many of them have is, “Why is there another Spanish church across the city with the same Adventist name as us, but for some reason, are not part of the same conference?”

Unfortunately, because many do not understand the history, some Hispanic pastors have even counseled their member to not be involved with churches from the other conference.  Even from a secular standpoint, any efficient business would be forced streamline this duplicity.

Why does God’s business have to flounder around like this?  It’s because we are more concerned with clinging to our history, money, power, and prestige than going through the inconvenient transition that real change brings.

I fear that we as a people have been stuck in a holding pattern in this desert before reaching the Promised Land.

Why?

Like the generation in the Exodus story, I fear God has to allow those who refuse to trust in His power to bring us together to either retire, or be laid to rest, before He can entrust his vision to a generation that will be willing to step out in faith.  Don’t get me wrong; I know there will be some Caleb’s and Joshua’s from the previous generation who will join in the movement to unite and march together. These are people who had an eye for this future even in the past.  These are leaders and laypeople that wanted the church to trust in God’s promises and move forward corporately but were held back because popular opinion was against them.

Whether this is a right assessment or not, those are my two cents and we are still here today.  It turns out there will have to be a part 4 since this is already a lengthy post in itself.  The last part will deal entirely with practical suggested solutions for members and leaders as we seek to move from where we are to where, I believe, God wants us to be as a people in this journey into the Promised Land together.  I know I will get heat for this…but I thank you for at least hearing me out.

Till next time!

[1] J.E. White to Ellen G. White, 14 May 1899, quoted in Graybill, E.G. White and Church Race Relations, 61-62.

[2] Ellen G. White, “The Southern Work,” 202-203.

[3] For a treatment of this topic, see Graybill, E.G. White and Church Race Relations; Roy L. Branson, “Ellen G. White- Racist or Champion of Equality?- 3: The crisis of the Nineties,” Review 147. No. 17 (17 April 1973): 4-6.

[4] Reparations are a proposal that some type of compensation should be provided to the descendants of enslaved people in the United States, in consideration of the coerced and uncompensated labor their ancestors performed over centuries.

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