Adventist History Culture

My Story: My Experience With Race and Racism as an Adventist

March 16, 2015

In the past, I have shared my perspective on the racial divide we face as a church.

However, one aspect of this issue that I haven’t discussed yet is my own experience with race and racism within my own life and the Adventist church. I’ve been sitting on this post for over a year but, today I want to do that and share why, despite the challenges, I believe in a better future.

To begin with: I’m mixed, both ethnically and racially. My father is an Afro-Caribbean from the Dominican Republic, with some Haitian decent. My mother is from the Central American country of El Salvador. Although many people may think all Hispanic countries are the same (no, we don’t all eat tortillas), these two cultures are vastly different.  Here is where my struggle with cultural, ethic, and racial identity begins.

FAMILY

I’ve never felt fully a part of the racial or ethnic categories that I belong to. Let’s take a high-profile example: President Barack Obama. Although he’s biracial, many people tend to see him as one race or the other. Being half and half myself, I never felt like someone who belongs fully to one culture.

Case in point: I’ve never been to the Dominican Republic (this is sacrilege when I say this around my Dominican friends). I mainly know the generalities or stereotypes of the culture (mangu and plantains), but most of my knowledge comes second-hand. I don’t even know how to cook like them (although I wish I did).

I know about bits and pieces about DR’s culture and history.  I have heard many great things about the country, and though I physically resemble the people there, I have never felt culturally connected to what it means to be a true Dominican.

The same goes with my Salvadorian side.  I’ve been there twice, both times as a child, and I remember being stared at because I clearly didn’t look Salvadorian. My friend Anissa has gone through similar experiences. I loved her thoughts on this.

All of this isn’t even getting into the confusing fact that Caribbean and Central American cultures are worlds apart in music, food, and even vernacular. In short, my world was (and still is) confusing.

Another way in which I’ve never felt like I belonged is my less-than-stellar Spanish. As a 2nd generation Hispanic, my Spanish is imperfect. Although I’m a fluent speaker, I grew up here in the United States. We spoke Spanish at home, but to this day, I feel like I’m not fully able to express myself as well in Spanish as I do in English. This is, in part, one of the reasons why I rarely write posts in Spanish.

With this background in mind, you can imagine the challenge it is to answer the usually simple question, “Where are you from?”

The best answer I can give is, “I’m from Miami. My parents are Dominican and Salvadorian.”

SCHOOL

Although I was born in Miami Beach, we moved to Overtown, Miami and lived there for several years after my younger brother was born.  (Overtown is a historically Black neighborhood, which was originally called Colored Town during the Jim Crow era).  I didn’t see color then because I thought I looked just like everyone else.

My first hint of racial differences came in Kindergarten. I attended Miami Union Academy, a Regional Conference day school. When my parents weren’t able to afford it anymore, I then attended first and second grade at Phillis Wheatley Elementary, a public school in Overtown.

I couldn’t understand why, even though I looked like everyone else in the class, I was referred to as “the little Spanish boy” in both schools. I noticed shortly thereafter that my brother was much more lighter-skinned than I was, and I remember asking my mom why my brother was lighter than me. From that point on I felt different, like I wasn’t part of the Black community.

At around age 7-8 my parents moved to Miami Lakes, a suburb north of Miami. I transitioned from an all-Black neighborhood into an all-White neighborhood (by White, I’m referring to the Irish, Jewish, and light-skinned Hispanic neighbors we had). I was now part of the small group of Black students in the whole school. Now, instead of “the little the Spanish boy,” some kids referred to me as “the Black kid.” It was a different context, but I was still out of place. I was still the minority… even among the Hispanics.

I was not Black, I was not White, and I was apparently not fully Hispanic. What was I?

I committed myself to becoming a blend of everything in order to fit somewhere. This was really crystalized in my mind in 3rd grade, when I wanted to do the morning news in elementary school.  To audition, I was asked to read a small script for the teacher in charge of it.

I was told that “because of my accent,” I would not be fully understood. I remember being incredibly sad. From that point on, I worked on my pronunciation and dedicated myself to having as flat of an accent as possible in both English and Spanish. To this day, I throw people off.

A few weeks ago, someone called asking to speak with me. I told them who I was, and after a few minutes the person remarked, “You don’t sound like a Nelson Fernandez.” I get this with both English and Spanish speakers. I guess training paid off.

From the hood to the suburbs… I was the fresh prince of Miami Lakes.

CHURCH

Until the age of 8, I grew up attending Regional Conference Hispanic churches.   When we moved to the suburbs, we also switched churches and were now attending a Spanish-speaking church in the State Conference. To the Hispanic community, the Regional-State conference divide creates a huge mess.

You can read how here.

My earliest memories were spent being mostly confused regarding why another Hispanic church a few miles away wouldn’t be in the same conference as us, even though we were all Hispanic. All that we knew was that they were part of the “other conference.”

That still didn’t stop us. We attended churches from both conferences. We attended Youth Federations, campouts, camp meetings and interacted regularly with people from both conferences. My impression was that the pastors were the ones who had the chip on their shoulder about the division, because to me, as a kid, it didn’t affect me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I would be convicted that this divide was an issue that needed to be addressed at the larger levels of the church.

COLLEGE

I honestly had no idea that the Adventist church even had its own entire system of education until about 10th grade, when I had my conversion experience. Long story short, I decided to attend Greater Miami Academy, a State Conference day school, for 11th and 12th grades and settled on going to Southern for Theology after sensing the call to ministry.

While I was at Southern, my dad accepted a call to serve as an associate pastor in Fort Worth, Texas at a large Regional Conference church. I visited them during vacations and frequently got the opportunity to speak at this church, and other churches, in the area. Over the years, I was able to learn a lot of the backstory behind the regional-state conference divide, and why it existed from the Regional Conference perspective, from the conference administrators, pastors, and members of the churches. I was extremely disappointed and angry at the reality of our church’s racial divide.

I was angry not at the Regional Conferences, not at the State Conferences, but at the racism that had infiltrated the church and hid itself under the mantle of bureaucracy.

I realized that just like I had been rejected as a kid, the entire Black community had been rejected by their White “brothers in Christ.” The church had failed them.  Even after many attempts at trying to rectify the situation, the Adventist church marginalized, discriminated against, and ignored the needs of their community. The only feasible option that was left at that time in the 1940s was to divide the conferences based on race so that the Black community could finally have a voice.

It made perfect sense.

INTERVIEWS

Between my junior and senior year in college, I started becoming convicted that something needed to change in the church structure. Near the end of my time in college, I had two week of prayer series in different churches in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area. One was at a State Conference church, the other was at a Regional Conference church. Administrators from both conferences attended the respective weeks of prayer and, after hearing that I would be graduating soon, each encouraged me to send them my resume.

Speaking candidly, one of the Regional Conference Administrators told me the following:

“Don’t bother sending your resume to any State Conferences. They won’t hire you because you’re Black and Hispanic. They won’t know what to do with you.”

I put on my best poker face ever. In my mind, I’ve never believed that my skin should define how I lived my life. I grew up hearing and admiring the leaders in the Black community who fought against prejudice, not only within the White community but also within their own. One of them said something that came to my mind at that moment:

 “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Being a student at Southern, I decided to interview with the Southern Union conferences first.  I decided if that didn’t go well, I’d try the Southwest Union next. I had already amassed a pretty decent resume despite the fact that I went to a “White school.” I said, “Let God decide where I go.”

If you want to read some amusing anecdotes about how my first interviews went, you can read that journey here.

So I now work in a “White conference” but still push for racial reconciliation, not because it’s the easy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do.

The process of change started right from the beginning of my career here in the Carolina Conference. The first time I was introduced to my colleagues after Seminary at workers meetings, I was speaking with someone in the lunchline, when an onlooker then remarked, “Wow, I’m so impressed. Your English is so good!” I replied tongue-in-cheek:

“Thanks! I’m from Florida. We speak English pretty well down there.”

Conversations about race, how we each relate to it, and how we respond to racism need to happen. Andrews University had a fantastic discussion on the topic last week that I want to encourage everyone to check out.

IN CONCLUSION

We still have not arrived at Dr. King’s dream, where people are judged strictly by the content of their character.  Yet, I remain optimistic and believe that a solution is within our grasp.  Why?  Because Jesus is still on the throne. The power that united a divided group of disciples is still available to us today.  We must be willing to step forth and claim that power ourselves.

But it’s not enough to simply pray about it.  Here are a few ideas that could be practical steps in reaching a solution to this problem.

In my case, I ended up marrying someone who understood my situation because she is also the product of an interracial marriage (and tomorrow is her birthday as a St. Patrick’s baby!). However, some family members didn’t attend our wedding because of my skin color.  In our marriage, we have experienced racism, too.

At the end of the day, the core issue in the State-Regional Conference debate is not primarily a policy problem, it is a people problem. Racism is a people problem.

We also have to start learning how to talk to each other in this situation. When people say, “Let’s do away with Regional Conferences,” It sounds like we’re saying that the problem is with Regional Conferences themselves (as if the problem originally came from the constituents of Regional Conferences). Historically speaking, this is not true; the Black community was left with little choice other than accepting the reality we face today.

On this note, I’m sorry if my posts come across like I’m only singling out the existence of Regional Conferences themselves. I’m not. I’m in favor of exploring a totally new system that brings in all people groups and where each individual culture is valued, respected, and included.  I long for a church that is no longer just Black and White, but one that can have a place for the in-betweens like me. Blogging is great, but we also have to be willing to act and make hard choices, even when they may not be popular.

If you’ve read until this point, consider yourself part of the discussion towards the solution.  Have thoughts?  Leave them below!

  • Denny

    Enjoying the articles, just like to say we have the reverse issue in the UK an 83% white country with a probably 2% (if that) white church. The main ethnic groups in the BUC are African born/African descent and (Black) Caribbean born /Caribbean descent. The British/Anglo-Saxon Adventist church is dying. I wonder if regional conferences would help the British church today or send the wrong message? Not sure what the solution if for the USA but for the Holy Spirit converting the heart of the Milennial generation and the older generation (pre Generation X) who grew up under segregation dying off.

    • That’s a very interesting detail. I have been hearing some of that before too. It may be race related, in part; it may also be part of the secularization of Europe as a whole and the need for our church to speak in a way the secular audience can relate to. Each case is different.

  • Thank you so much for this blog post Nelson! I was born in America to Haitian parents. And as a pastor’s kid, I have seen what you describe first hand. We gotta keep the conversation going. Check out my blog post on the same topic and let me know what you think. God Bless brother: https://pipolag.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/racism-in-our-church/

    • I also want to see peace on the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic and Haiti need to start seeing and treating each other like brothers.

      • Read your blog man. I like it! Thanks for sharing.

  • Clayton

    This really capture my wife and myself (us being an interracial couple ( her Indian decent and myself black)) we had to read the whole thing. I have been talking about this to my wife since GC in Georgia. Many people might have seen all the cultures of the adventist church. However what I saw was a church that is strictly divided by race, ethnicity and culture (not even touching education and or profession). I am so glade that we are really starting to have discussions about this. I also have family members that left Southern due to racism as well. I don’t accept that the remnant people are struggling with this issue (remember how the Father dealt with Miriam concerning Moses’ black wife). Thanks for this post and we are glade to join the conversation.

    • We’re in the same boat. Totally with you on the Miriam analogy. If only we’d pay more attention to those stories as well.

  • Marlon Moodie Jr

    Is that the reason why theres no Black, Asians or Latinos as GC President?????
    IM KIDDING IM KIDDING, I had to say it. hahahha

  • kenia

    Great post and this is how many of US feel. We tend to forget that in heaven we will all be one.

  • Rachel

    I feel like this is a HUGE issue in the church but that as a “white person” if I ever talk about it then I am automatically deemed “racist”. I don’t even know how to broach the topic without becoming irate. My husband recently quit his job at a regional conference (he is half white and half Hispanic and worked at an all black school, there was one other non-black teacher). He worked there for 6 months and the letters and emails attacking everything from his ability to be a teacher, Christian, father, and Adventist started about 3 days into school. More than one parent actually said “what race are you anyway?” This blew me away as I felt that his skill as a teacher should have been their concern and nothing else. Claims were made when he was hired that “diversity” was a goal within the conference but even the people who hired him did not ONCE stand up for him. In fact he was told on multiple occasions that “hiring you was like putting a target on your back because you are white”. This experience really shook the faith of our family and our confidence in the Adventist church as a whole. As things stand now it’s really going to take something creative to overcome the “comfort” the conferences have found in being separate.

  • Roxane

    Wow. I pray that this conversation is started in every conference today. This is so long overdue.

  • Alba Mendez

    I came across this blog as I was getting ready for bed, and I have to say that it was a bit shocking to read that we have racism in the Adventist community. If we still see racism everywhere else…don’t know why this shocked me…
    But as a product of biracial marriages, Chinese/Peruvian, I have felt the racism, but not in matter of my skin color (my co-workers call me Blanca Nieves), but in the fact that I’m not Asian enough or Hispanic enough, I don’t know how many times I have heard: “You don’t look Asian.” or “You can’t be Hispanic, your too white.” There were times that I didn’t know how to act because I couldn’t fit in anywhere even with my own “people”. There’s a lot of prayer for us to move past this and keep our objective that God has no divides.

    • I totally can relate to that. Good hearing from you, Alba! Hope all is well. 🙂

Top