Saturday, April 28, 2018

Are Adventists Racists?

My Daughter (top left) with some of her Adventist Youth Group

Once in a while some well-meaning college student (usually white but not always), raises the charge that the SDA church is racist.
They're often already on their way out of the church for other reasons (dress, diet, the Sabbath cramps their style, someone's bony finger, etc.), but on their way out they fire a Parthian shot at the Region Conferences. Region Conferences are a remnant of the Jim Crow South at a time when mixed congregations could find their churches burned down around them by the Klan. It seemed safer to give our black members their own churches. After all, there were a lot of black SDAs in the South since one of the first mission fields Adventist saturated was the antebellum South. We got into a lot of trouble for it. We were teaching black children to read and training black teachers and nurses and Nathan Bedford Forrest and his ilk didn't like it.

So, I'd like to 'splain about Region Conferences as best as I know what happened!  Now, I know I'm going to probably get hammered here but here goes. I grew up in the South in the 60s and early 70s. I went to schools with kids of all races, many from the far side of the world. I went to college in my home town. My former college president at Southwestern Adventist University, the inimitable Leroy Leiske, had come from a conference president's job in one of the Southern Conferences. While there he attempted to integrate the administration. Sadly, there was some serious racial discomfort among the white brethren with that idea back then. The Klan was still active then and the SDA church was already in enough trouble with its Bible Belt neighbors. The powers that be feared change. Months into his administration, Elder Leiske got run off for his hiring policies. He then came to Texas to become president of what was then Southwestern Union College. He wasn't an academic. He was a reformer and Texas was apparently ready for some reformation. And even if they weren't, Uncle Leroy was bringing it. In just a few years he almost seamlessly integrated the school. Because the denominations only predominantly black school, Oakwood, was far off in the deep South, Leiske convinced some brave black students to give Southwestern a try. He recruited quite a few black, Asian and Hispanic students and I don't remember any real racial problems on campus. No riots. No cross-burnings. A friend of mine who was half black and half white told me he felt like he didn't quite fit in either the white or black groups on campus, but that was more an artifact of unfamiliarity than of any overt racism. And he was the perfect guy to cross the racial divide, since white, black and Hispanic girls all thought he was awfully handsome. There may have been some hard core racism, but if so I never heard about it and would have been against it if I had.  Much more I remember the student body in general embraced the new students.

Several times in Texas it was proposed that the Region Conference be blended into the Texas Conference. The conference already had a group of Hispanic churches within the Texas Conference and specific conference secretaries who were designated to care for the Hispanic churches. The Region Conferences, however, have resisted blending with the regular conferences, largely for cultural reasons. Also, there was some feeling that blacks, especially during the Civil Rights movement, might lose some control over their churches. Since then blacks have moved freely between black churches and white churches. Whites often attend black churches and lots of Adventist couples intermarry now that racism has let up so much in the South.

When I went to school back then in the late 60s and 70s bunches of us used to go to the black churches pretty regularly - easier to stay awake if you'd been in the middle of mid-terms and not been getting much sleep. We were welcomed in black churches when we came to visit. They used to tease us white kids about not expecting to get out of service at noon. And black people were welcomed in the so-called "white" churches. I'm sure there were some jerks in the white congregations, but mostly there was love. I know a pastor who was a neighbor of mine who had serious racial prejudice all of his life. He lost his minister's license in part because of it. He lived in Keene and ever once in a while, if a black minister preached in the Keene Church pulpit, he would pop up in some meeting to express his outrage. There were always plenty of people of all colors, including me, who stood up and told him he was out of line. Ex-Voice of Prophecy Quartet member John Thurber fully integrated his Adventist Youth in Action teams and nobody said a word. If they did they were marginalized pretty quickly by the rest of us..

Today in the Texas Conference there are Hispanic Adventist Churches, Black Adventist Churches and "Regular" Adventist Churches. I haven't seen a "White" SDA church in 40 years. My 2 home churches in Tyler and Keene are veritable rainbows when you look out across the congregations. The college draws kids from every corner of the Earth to Keene and I grew up in the 60s not knowing how to be racist. My grandmother used to make little comments, but my sister and I didn't let her get away with it. Even she opened up to the idea that black people were okay. As a nurse she had many black co-workers she was friendly with despite her firm non-Adventist racist upbringing.

In Tyler, we had some white people but they were becoming a minority. We had a whole lot of Filipinos, black people, Hispanic folk, and Asians. The rest of us were mutts of one sort or another. We Adventists have astonishingly little racism in our blood, even in the South. It didn't last long when openly challenged. We know better. We were brought up better than that. We sang "Red and Yellow, Black and White" we sang every Sabbath in Kindergarten and Cradle Roll and we believed it. Anything else was a shock to us as we grew up.

As a people, we Adventists flock to do mission work. My Uncle ran mission schools in Hawaii and Thailand for most of his career. I went to SWAU with some of his former students. We watch mission updates every month showing work we are doing in every corner of the work.Retired missionaries occupy honored seats in most of our North American churches, a living witness against racism. Church boards usually look quite colorful. In Tyler we had a black church, a Hispanic church and the Tyler church which took in the overflow from both of our sister churches and folk from cultures not covered by either. Our Hispanic churches are about language mostly. Our Black churches are mostly about culture and worship style. Racism has nothing to do with it. That Jim Crow influenced generation is long gone. It's so rare to find an SDA racist that we tend to swarm them like a righteously indignant flock of Guinea Hens on a rattlesnake.

My church is not in the least racist. It's against everything that we are as a people who expect the soon coming of Christ.

© 2018 by Tom King

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