If You Want Me to Walk with You, Stop Runnin'!
There’s plenty of buzz about the action we took at the special constituency session on Sunday, July 29 “That the Columbia Union Conference authorize ordination to the gospel ministry without regard to gender.”
One of the issues that was raised during the discussion phase was the existence of conferences that cover the same territory, the difference between them largely being race. There are nine regional conferences and there are state conferences. The nine regional conferences are, for the most part, administratively run by African-Americans. And I think it would be fair to say that the overwhelming majority of state conferences are run by our Anglo brothers.
Some take a quick glance at this and label it “segregation” in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Let’s take a close look at the reality of the situation. Were you to walk into the urban churches that are administratively run by the state conferences, you would expect to find mostly White people. If you were to take a group photograph of the presidents of these conferences and thought that the leadership of these conferences would be reflective of the membership of these conferences, you would be mistaken. The truth is that these churches are largely comprised of black and brown people.
What? Why are there so many black and brown people in state conference churches when there are nine regional conferences? The answer is that the charge of segregation is bogus. People are choosing a church that has a worship style with which they are comfortable. In fact, these churches that are often called “White churches” are “White,” not because of the majority of their attendees; rather, because of their worship style if “White.”
So one will find many persons of African and Caribbean descent in these churches. Many of the Africans and Caribbeans that join these churches were Seventh-day Adventists before they migrated to the United States. I have visited their churches in their homeland. Though their culture embraces a lively musical art form, the indigenous people embraced not only the message brought to them by the missionaries, they also embraced the cultural worship style of the missionaries.
We often throw around terms that are emotionally charged without defining them. Segregation is an especially charged term in the United States as it brings up images of White-only bathrooms, water fountains and the like from the Jim Crow South that prohibited Blacks from full participation in American life as equal persons.
Segregation is the separation or isolation of a race, class or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a RESTRICTED area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other DISCRIMINATORY means.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States is not segregated. If we are, where are the restrictions? And who is doing the discriminating?
I can speak from the side of the regional conferences by which I am employed. Whites are welcomed into fellowship and participation in the life and membership of our churches. In fact, at Sunday’s called constituency session the first delegate to speak was a White woman who is a member of one of the nine regional conference churches. She is a member of the Walnut Street Church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. She and her husband are faithful members there. That congregation so accepts her as an authentic member of their community that they sent her as a delegate to the session as their representative.
Segregation involves restriction. There is no restriction there. Segregation involves discrimination. There is no discrimination there. In my previous and current congregation are White members. They have been invited to my home, some have served with me in church leadership and, again, the church has accepted them and involved them in church leadership. We have not restricted our White members nor have we discriminated against them.
There are plenty of anecdotes of Blacks approaching the doors of “White” congregations only to be greeted by a smiling face that lets them know that “there is a Black church down the street if you want to worship there.” I have never seen or heard of that happening to a White person who comes to one of our churches. If there was “restriction” or “discrimination” it did not come from one of the nine regional conference churches.
I see a common thread between these discussions on women’s ordination and the existence of conferences based on cultural diversity. In both cases I see a lack of sensitivity and an unwillingness to critically examine the evidence that results in a myopic view of the issues. The result is an emotionally charged discussion that leaves us minorities feeling less, not more, inclined to collaborate because the dominant culture inaccurately misdiagnosis the situation and irresponsibly prescribes a superficial exegesis of John 17 as the answer to all of our problems.
There are other considerations that must be brought into these discussions. Unity is all that was harped on by those who opposed the Columbia Union moving forward with the action to authorize ordination to the gospel ministry without regard to gender. That ought to concern us who are members of a denomination that values building doctrine “line upon line, precept upon precept.” While unity is a worthwhile value to enter into the discussion, it is not the only value to consider. Righteousness (right doing) and justice deserve a seat at the table as well. Micah 6:8 says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
As we discuss these sensitive issues we must (1) do what is right, (2) love mercy and (3) do it in a spirit of humility. What is right is determined by the Bible. We must love goodness, kindness and faithfulness. And we must not assume that we know what is best for a situation without humbly putting ourselves in the position of a learner.
It is interesting to note that none of the opponents of the ordination of women addressed the fact that women whose ministries bear the approval of Heaven are not compensated equal to their male counterparts. Jesus said the labourer is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7). Those who work deserve their pay. Paul picks up that same sentiment in 1 Timothy 5:18 when he says, “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.” For the corporate church to allow our sister pastors to work alongside their brothers in ministry for less pay is not right.
The discussion from those in opposition to women’s ordination took narrow view and appealed to us for unity based upon a superficial reading of Jesus’ high priestly prayer that we may be one.
The same thing happens whenever race is raised with respect to the existence of regional conferences. Some are embarrassed that they exist without being embarrassed at the behavior of the dominant culture whenever “too many” blacks join their organizations or move into their neighborhoods. It’s called White flight. We get into conversations with people and are embarrassed that these “necessary structural accommodations” exist without revealing the truths about White behavior in our denomination.
White is Right
There is an unwritten but understood rule that the worship style of our Anglo roots is the right worship style. The church is comprised of diverse people groups (every nation, kindred, tongue and people), but when we come together in worship, it going to sound like Dime Tabernacle in Battle Creek in the early 20th century.
I watched an African-American choir from a historically black university perform at the General Conference Session. That choir has a diverse repertoire that includes music characteristic of the Black church. They did not choose to do those selections because the director understood the unwritten but understood rule that Anglo is the order of the day.
African-Americans are expressive in their worship style. Clapping is common in Black worship. One of the very first statements from the leader of the world church was to criticize that expression in worship.
As has already been mentioned, when too many black and brown people show up, the overwhelming majority of whites leave. That is true in the wider culture. That is true in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Go to Bermuda and you will be hard pressed to find the White Seventh-day Adventists. They don’t come to the churches on the island. Go to the Potomac conference churches where Blacks have joined over the last twenty years and you will find that there again, when “too many” Blacks came, Whites found somewhere else to worship. Go to Adventist schools all around the country (Chicago, DC-Maryland, Orlando etc.) and you will find that when “too many” Blacks enrolled in schools that were formerly predominantly White, they go build another school.
And then there is the assumption that Whites ought to be in charge. In charge of the worship style. In charge of the money. In charge of the church. I am not mad at my African and Afro-Caribbean brothers and sisters for their choices, many of whom prefer to worship in “White churches.” What I don’t understand is how they can comprise the overwhelming majority of these churches without insisting that the leadership of their conferences reflect the composition of the membership.
In the book of Acts there is a story that I find helpful when discussing the continuing need for regional conferences. Acts 6:1 says, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.”
The disciples told them to find folk who had a good reputation, were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. But there is something else these chosen ones had in common. Look at their names: “...they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5). Those who spoke Greek were complaining that their needs were being neglected. What did the apostles do? They told the Greeks to find well-respected Greeks who were wise and spiritual. Verse seven tells us the happy conclusion of this plan: “God's message was preached in ever-widening circles. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.”
Leave well enough alone! Stop trying to dismantle what you can’t understand. Black culture is different. You won’t like how we run our churches. And if too many of us come, you’re leaving any how.
Let’s revisit the issue in a few years when you can truly celebrate my black son marrying your White daughter, when you’re willing to be the Sabbath School departmental leader to the African president and the Latino Treasurer, when stop running when “too many” of our children enroll in “your” schools.