Daniel R. Jackson, president of the North American Division, G. Alexander Bryant, NAD executive secretary, and Randy Robinson, NAD treasurer, recently sat down with Mylon Medley, assistant director of NAD communication, to discuss recent events related to racial injustice, the history and relevancy of regional conferences, and the presence of racism in the denomination’s past and present.
Mylon Medley: Hello. It’s wonderful to sit down with the three of you guys. This is an interesting time in this territory with dealing with racism and social justice. It’s a privilege to come to sit with you three gentlemen to talk about these issues as it relates to the church. So, thank you so much for joining me. I have Daniel Jackson, the president of the North American Division, G. Alexander Bryant, who is the executive secretary of the North American Division, and then Randy Robinson, who is the treasurer. Welcome.
G. Alexander Bryant: Thank you.
Daniel Jackson: Thank you very much.
Mylon Medley: So, the catalyst of why we’re here today, this movement that we’re all a part of right now, [is] the unjust death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Can you share with me what were your thoughts, initial thoughts, when you first heard about their deaths?
Bryant: For me, when I first heard it, I didn’t see the pictures. In fact, someone texts me and told me that there had been another murder of a young Black man. And my first thought was here we go again. Not another one. And so, it hurts your heart to see that happening in our country. But when I saw the video, I had another type of deep guttural reaction to it.
Medley: This is the video on George Floyd?
Bryant: Video of George Floyd dying. And watching someone, the very life being taken out of them, was very difficult. But you had to think that maybe this type of video footage, watching it in real-time, maybe would have a reaction that others have not. And maybe this could hopefully do something to wake up the conscious of our nation.
Medley: Elder Jackson?
Jackson: You know, I tend to relate a lot of things to music. I do. And when I was a kid, there was a song that wound up with, “When will we ever learn?” When will they ever learn? And I was shocked by the brutality of the George Floyd murder. I was shocked. Sadly speaking, I was not surprised because so much has gone on over the past many years, where lives have been snuffed out for reasons that defy logic.
And I think my first reaction was one of, you know, why? You know, why would one human being—I don’t care if you’re a police officer or anything, why would a human being be that brutal with another? How could a person stand for eight and a half minutes, or kneel for eight and a half minutes, with his knee on a person’s neck?
I find that there’s something very cold and onerous in that thought because it all comes out as hatred.
Medley: Yeah. Elder Robinson, how about you?
Randy Robinson: Yeah, I’m kind of an Internet news junkie. I don’t watch the network news, typically, but I do get it on the Internet. And I’d seen so many of these before, and I didn’t have a lot of context. I read the headline about George Floyd. And I had the same reaction Elder Bryant did. “Oh boy, here we go again.” But when I saw the video, I just got sick to my stomach. It was somehow different for me than some of the others. I mean, the poor gentleman, he’s crying for his mother. He’s saying, “Stop. Help me breathe.”
And there was no reaction by the officer. And I just—I couldn’t understand that. And I just got sick to my stomach. That was my reaction.
Bryant: You know, I think the power of the video did something to people, to watch life leave a man with another man in total control, with his knee on his neck, and watching the man die.
We all watched it. And to walk away from something like that and say that we don’t have—because it was saying more than what we saw. It was saying something about the value of that particular life. This is nothing. It’s almost like stepping on a bug. I’m just going to keep my knee here. I’m going to press it. I don’t care what you say.
I don’t care what others around me are saying. But you mean nothing to me. And I think that that did something. I don’t know what to everyone, but it did something to our country. I think it did something to our world. Because, in this particular moment, it was undeniable.
Medley: Yeah. And I like how you said the video ... it prompted you to do something or to say, you know, make the world react. So, the three of you guys represent the officers — you guys are the officers of this division, or a part of the administrative team of this division. So, when did the admin team begin to talk about this?
Jackson: I think it was within the first week if I’m not mistaken.
Bryant: I think the first couple of days.
Robinson: Yeah, within the first day or so.
Bryant: It was, I think. When I first found out about it, it was on a Wednesday. The event happened on Monday night on Memorial Day, George Floyd’s death. And I heard it, but I didn’t see it. Didn’t see the video. And I think when the video came out, we started talking within the next day or so.
Jackson: On Friday. We had a meeting on Friday. That’s right.
Medley: Yeah. And you all released a statement on May 29, and I just wanted to read an excerpt from the statement. It says, “Some of those who have been trusted to protect all members of society have broken their solemn pact to serve others, especially those in need.
Americans should never have to live in fear of going out in public just because of the color of their skin or ethnicity. We can and must do better. We urge all of our members to prayerfully consider how they interact with everyone in their communities. We ask you to speak out against injustice and hatred just as Jesus did when he was on earth. We can make a difference for those who are marginalized and betrayed by others, and we must provide a forum for the voices of victims of hatred and racism.”
So, why did you feel the need to draft the statement?
Bryant: Well, I think that we all felt that we had to speak. We had to react to what was happening and it was such an egregious act,
And not to speak would have been, to me, almost as egregious. And so, I think we all decided we needed to speak. It was what were we going to say and how to say it became more of the discussion, not if we should or should not say — but how should we say it.
If we are followers of Christ, of Jesus, as we say we are, Jesus spoke up for the marginalized. He spoke up for those who could not speak up for themselves. And I think that was the driving force behind me deciding to speak, and to say something about this egregious act on Mr. Floyd. On the Black race. On humanity.
Medley: So, sitting here as representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we cannot discuss racism without also discussing regional conferences.
To put into perspective, there are a few petitions circulating online calling for the disbandment of regional conferences. In many opinions, they believe that the existence of regional conferences is an example of systemic racism that permeates our church.
So, I wanted to take some time to discuss this. So, Elder Robinson, let’s first set the stage into these different terms because people can just say regional conference but don’t quite understand, technically speaking, what we’re talking about. So, can you first set the stage, what is a conference and how many do we have?
Robinson: Sure. A conference is a division, a geographic division of what we call a union. And a union is made up of several conferences. And then our division, the North American Division, is made up of several unions.
But a conference typically is a geographic territory that is defined by a number of members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a number of churches in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There are several churches within that make up and constitute a conference. And in the North American Division, we have, depending on how you count, we have 59 conferences in the North American Division.
Medley: So, what are the other types of conferences aside from regional?
Robinson: Yeah, they are essentially two kinds of conferences that we put a moniker on, a name to. As you mentioned, we have regional conferences, which typically are larger, geographically, than what we call a state conference. State conferences typically are just what they say. They represent a state territory.
Some go a little a little over boundaries, and have multiple states involved, but many are just dealing with one single state. So, we have those two names. We have a state conference and we have a regional conference. And regional conferences typically take up a little more territory than a state conference.
Medley: Yeah, so, I’m thinking about Michigan Conference and Illinois, and Indiana. But, for those, you have the Lake Regional Conference that covers that territory.
Robinson: There’s a territory.
Medley: So, Elder Bryant, what is a regional conference and why were they formed?
Bryant: Thank you for that question because I think a lot of people do not understand the origin or what a regional conference is. A regional conference, as Elder Robinson was stating, covers multiple states. And the word “regional” means that it is a multi-state conference versus an individual state.
And so, the regional conference functions just as the state conferences do. The regional conferences are multiethnic conferences. Most of our regional conferences, not all of them, they have Caucasian congregations, Hispanic congregations, Korean congregations, and others from across the globe. I think, one told me they have 27 different ethnic groups in their regional conference.
The reason the regional conferences were formed was because of the segregation that’s in the history of our country, and the unfairness that was there at the time. The regional conference was formed by the church at-large. And as a way to try to deal with the societal unrest when it came to race. What was happening in the church, outside the church, was also present in the church, in terms of you [Black people] couldn’t go to a school. You couldn’t go to a hospital. You couldn’t go to these different places. And so, the regional conference was formed as a way to move forward with the mission of sending out this message among Black people in the United States.
Many people think they are just Black conferences, but they’re not. They are, today, they have grown. They have blossomed from what the original intent was, to be a mission-focused, mission organization where they take in people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds and colors.
Medley: I want to circle back to when you said it was created by the church. Did the Black leaders, of the time, want to separate from their own conference? Was that something they wanted?
Bryant: In 1946, they were formed. Prior to 1946, there had been a call for justice.
There had been a call for equality and a call for unity. That call consistently was denied. Eventually there was a call to have their own conferences. Can we have our own conferences? Since we’re not treated fairly in the state conferences, can we have conferences that we administer and deal with our own culture, finances, and do all that?
At the moment they were formed in 1946, it came as a result of the church, even though the request had been made for decades, the Lucy Byard incident that happened here in Washington, actually.
Medley: Do you mind explaining that a little bit for people who may be unfamiliar with that story?
Bryant: There’s a story of a Black lady that was here in Washington, D.C. She went to an Adventist hospital to be cared for, and she was denied care. She was denied entrance. This was at an Adventist hospital. And she died. And that set off with a storm around the country and in our church. And the church decided, at that point, we better go on and provide regional conferences.
Now, it’s interesting, if you go to conference-by-conference, you will find many Black churches did not want to become a part of the regional conferences, but they were forced to at that particular point. The state conference said, well, you can’t – no, you have to go with them, you can’t stay here.
That was the kind of the genesis that brought them into existence. There had been calls for them prior because of the racial unrest among our Seventh-day Adventist family here in North America.
Medley: Yeah. Thank you for that history. Elder Jackson, how have the regional conferences operated since their creation?
Jackson: Elder Bryant has been very polite in saying what he said. There are more kinds of brutality than physical brutality. When people who are world-class leaders, who are acknowledged not only in the church, but in the world as leaders, when these men who had been called to the General Conference couldn’t even go to the restroom with their White colleagues, there is a brutality to that – a brutality that says you’re not as good as me. So, you know, the Lucy Byard story is one story.
And I have often said to my colleagues that the soft underbelly of the North American Division is racism. That which makes us more vulnerable is racism.
So, if you can’t get a fair shake, if you can have opportunity to lead when you have the skills. When you can’t function on the same basis as your colleague who went to the same classes and graduated when you did—the brethren finally say, “Okay, you can have regional conference.” People took advantage of that.
How have they done? I think they’ve done amazingly well. They have appealed and done ministry in Black communities throughout this division that would never have been successful if Caucasians had been doing those ministries. There’s a whole lot of things that can be unpacked in this whole story.
You know, my experience, and I’ll try to say this quickly. When I became president of the North American Division, I got word immediately from a colleague from Canada who came to me and said, ‘The regional presidents believe you were elected to do away with regional conferences.’ That was within, you know, within an hour of being elected.
So, I said to that person, and I said it just like this, “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants. If you’re really telling the truth, you take me to every one of those people who are afraid.” And so, he did. What I did is that I pulled every one of those [people who were afraid]—there were only three or four—I went to them and said, “I’m going to hug you, man.” When I hugged them, I said, “I didn’t come to do away with regional conferences. I came to be the wind beneath your wings.”
My association with the leadership of the regional conferences in the last ten years has been absolutely a wonderful experience. I see them as effective missional agencies that have done what God asked them to do. And I’m very proud of them.
Medley: I wanted to touch on something that you said earlier about how racism is the underbelly of Adventism in North America. Would you then say that there should be an apology issued from the church to address the systemic racism that existed back and the evidence of it to this day?
Jackson: Well let me put it this way, there have been apologies, and I’ve heard them with my own ears. Al McClure gave a very stirring apology at an NAD Year-End Meeting. He was the NAD president. He came after Elder Bradford. He was the second president of the North American Division.
That was very stirring. I have heard other apologies. I know that, you know, I, myself, have apologized. But should there be another apology? I think as long as it is a genuine apology. There are a lot of apologies that come off as very superficial. I think organizations ought to be very careful how they apologize.
I believe that for this generation, we could offer another apology. I don’t see a problem as long as that apology is a heartfelt apology. As long as we sense the very thing I said. That the soft underbelly of the church has been racism.
Bryant: I want to mention something that Elder Jackson referenced in his comments about regional conferences. It’s very interesting when you go back and look at the history of the church and leadership.
It is significant what the church has discovered and stumbled upon is that when indigenous people are leading their own people in mission, the mission goes forward at a greater level.
If you would go back and look at the first 50 years from 1896 is what I looked at it—I didn’t look at the first 50 years of the growth of the church among people of color.
For those first 50 years, it was at a certain level. I don’t remember the numbers now. If you look at the next 50 years, once regional conference had started, it’s like 20 or 30 times the growth in the same amount of time with indigenous people leading their own people, leading the mission.
They understand the culture of the people they’re trying to reach. They understand the mindset of people they’re trying to reach. And that’s not only true here in North America with that Blacks with regional conferences, but everywhere else in the world church. When the indigenous people took over leadership after the White, Caucasian leaders were gone, the church grew in untold numbers. That’s true in Africa. It’s true over in Asia. It’s true in India. It’s true everywhere we go.
So, there is another thing to look at besides the race component that exists at the regional conferences. You look at the missional component and what it has done to not only grow numerically, but what it had done to grow tithe and to reach communities in urban America, that if they [regional conferences] were not there, those communities would not be reached at the same level that they were and are.
Medley: I like that because you’ve both said they’re mission-based, not racially-based.
Bryant: They are mission-based. They’re not race-based.
Medley: Elder Robinson, so it’s been said, but I want to make sure we say it clearly. Do regional conferences only have Black churches, and do state conferences only have White churches? And can I, as a Black person, go to a state conference church, and can a Caucasian person, who goes to a state conference church, go to a regional conference church?
Robinson: It is absolutely untrue, patently untrue that regional conferences only have Black churches and state conferences only have White-based churches. Patently untrue. The church I attend, presently, in Ellicott City is a state conference-based church but is exceedingly multicultural. I can’t even count the number of ethnicities that worship together in that church. And that church is typical, I would say, even typical of state conference churches.
I have a very good friend who incidentally, shares my name, is also a Randy. He is the lay pastor of a church in a regional conference and is a White man.
So, at the cultural differences ebb and flow throughout regional and state conferences dramatically. It’s very diverse. State conferences are typically very diverse. Now, I’m not saying that it doesn’t ebb and flow. You know, in places like the Pacific Northwest, there are less people of color than maybe some other parts of the country.
In my experience and my understanding, and I’ve gone to many, many, many churches, visited many, many churches in both of those types of conferences, and they’re very multi-cultural in nature. So, it’s patently untrue that they are segregated in the way that you describe.
Medley: And that’s the word that’s being used in these petitions and these campaigns online. Regional conferences and state conferences — look how segregated the Adventist church is.
Robinson: Not true.
Jackson: The mindset that people want to impose on regional conferences, as opposed to state conferences, it’s not there. Of course, it can be there, and I think we have to be honest.
Will every Black person be thoroughly welcomed in a White congregation? Not always. And vice-versa, not always. But the goodwill of our people. The good will of our people. The impact of the gospel of Jesus on the lives of most of our members brings about a good relationship, I believe.
Medley: That was something I was going to bring up in terms of like the feeling unwelcomed, because there is the social phenomenon of “White flight.”
If you’re in a predominantly White congregation or even school, and you have people of color, Black people, starting to attend those congregations and schools, the more and more Black people attend, the more White people start to leave and to form their own thing. The Adventist Church has not been immune to that as well.
Jackson: Not at all.
Medley: And, also, for our schools as well.
Bryant: That’s a great point, and that does exist. That’s why I think that the conversation about regional conferences and racism in the church is a superficial view of what’s happening. The existence in the regional conferences is not the issue of racism. The question we need to ask is why do they exist? And if you get to that answer, then you get to the underbelly that Elder Jackson talked about in the church. But it’s not the existence of the regional conference is why they have to exist. The church only can do so much.
I would challenge anyone listening to this program or watching to go and read the church’s viewpoint, official statement on race, unity, and harmony. It is spot on. That’s what the church voted to do. We, in session, at our General Conference in session, this is the kind of church we want to be. This is what we believe are the ideals of disciples of Jesus Christ. Not to judge anybody by the color of their skin, by their gender. That is all there. It’s not that. It’s how do you get people to follow up on that on an individual basis, and that’s where the struggle in the church is, because you can’t legislate that. That takes a transformation of heart. It takes the spirit of God.
The church has done a lot. We need to do more. We haven’t done nearly enough when it comes to this. We tried to have race summits. We’ve created an Office of Human Relations to deal with the injustices in the church and all that. That’s not enough, because the real bottom line issue is the transformation of the human heart. And so, you can say everyone can attend every church, but you can’t make people feel comfortable with that happening because they’ll leave and they’ll go to another church. I think that the challenge before us, in terms of race in the church, is not regional conferences.
Everybody wants to go there. Well, when we do away with regional conferences, we’ll do away with racism. That’s not true. We have to look at the individual person, the individual situation, congregation. There are systematic structures that we have to also address. But as we address those, unless we do the other, it just pops up in another form.
Jackson: What most people don’t know or don’t understand is that the church can’t dictate the elimination of regional conferences — that is the North American Division or the general conference. If there ever was to be a shift – to be honest, I don’t know that it will happen or not — it would be because the constituency comprising the regional conference would vote to do away with the regional conference.
It would not come from a vote of the General Conference or the North American Division. No. We are a constituency-based organization. We don’t just declare, “Let’s do away with regional conferences.”
Medley: I’m glad you did bring that up — the constituency base. Basically, if you want it to go away, you have to tell it to go away. And that’s definitely not what we’re saying here, but …
Medley: … the petitions, the language used, are like, ‘You must disband it now.’ That’s impossible, like, literally impossible in the way that we are structured, unless you get a whole bunch of people to vote themselves out and…
Jackson: Not likely to happen.
Medley: Not likely to happen. Let’s transition to ...
Bryant: Let me make one quick statement on this.
Medley: Yes, no problem.
Bryant: You know, the interesting thing about this discussion is you will find people think all Blacks think alike on this issue. You will find Blacks who say that we need to do away with regional conferences. To say that a Black person said it doesn’t mean it’s legitimate because it came from a Black person. In fact, if you look at the membership of the North American Division, there are almost as many Blacks in the state conferences as there are in the regional conferences.
Almost. It’s very close. And, so, I mean, they’re there [in state conferences] because that’s where they want to be. And so, it’s not very difficult to find a person of color the say we think we should do away with regional conferences. But that’s the that’s the viewpoint that they have the right to have, but it does not speak to everyone, nor does it speak to that particular situation.
I thought it was important for people to know that because that’s why you, sometimes hear that coming from that particular area and you feel that they are speaking for the people in the regional conferences. Most often, they’re not.
Medley: Very good point. Everyone, all people groups, were not monolith in voices.
Bryant: That’s right.
Medley: So, some personal experiences. I’ll start with you, Elder Robinson. When have you witnessed racism within the Adventist church and how did you respond?
Robinson: My exposure to racism, probably, by and large, has been in seeing subtle evidences of racism. I’ll be very honest and open. Sometimes, I would speak up and sometimes I would not. That’s been my large exposure.
I have to say more recently, I’ve spoken with many of my friends, who have shared their personal experiences, crazy stuff, that, I, as a White person, don’t ever – it doesn’t even hit my radar. I won’t even repeat it, some of the just terrible things that have happened to my Black colleagues and friends.
Medley: And this is in recent years?
Robinson: Yes, very recent years. People, who I’ve worked with and love as friends and colleagues, very well-educated people. You know, leaders, major leaders in the church, who have been just marginalized beyond belief.
But what is been heartbreaking to me I had a conversation just days ago with a neighbor who is not an Adventist, but just asking them how they’re doing. They’re an African American couple, great neighbors that we have just right across the street from us. They just shared their heart. [begins to weep]
It was heartbreaking.
Medley: What did they say?
Robinson: They have young adult children. One is a male. They said to me, “We were talking to our child, our son, the first time he went driving. The first time by himself.”
And they sent him off and just talked to him about making sure you’re aware of your surroundings and being, you know, just being appropriate. The first time, just down the street, he was stopped by a police officer. In that experience the officer, in that case, was polite and nice, and it was it was uneventful in that reality.
Just seeing that pain of having to tell your male child just be careful about how you engage with authority. As a White person, it doesn’t hit my radar. That’s not something I worry about. I have two sons. I never had to tell them that when they were growing up. But to see that pain just breaks my heart.
Jackson: I have seen racism on both sides of the border of the United States and Canada. Probably, the most blatant experience that I’ve heard had to do with the son of one of our employees who went out for a drive in his dad’s car and was stopped by the police. The police made a very thorough search and discovered that the owner of the vehicle hadn’t had his emissions tests done and the young man was put in jail for three days. It was absolute clear case of racial profiling.
I have heard words stated. I have heard …
Medley: Words stated within places of work?
Jackson: Between workplaces, meetings, and so on. Words. Little innuendos. Jokes.
Medley: In recent years?
Jackson: Oh, yes. That are demeaning. Now, people are becoming very, very, very cautious about doing it now, but the some of the attitudes still exist. I have a similar belief to Randy in this. For me, the minute you believe that you’re better than another person that somehow your diet, or your language, or your school, or your food makes you a superior human being to any other person, not just church members, then you have just disconnected from the gospel of Jesus Christ. See, for me, we all fail. We are all broken. But to call oneself a Christian, and to think I am superior to another human being. You’re not a Christian. So, I have seen it in the election process at times where people just couldn’t vote for an African American.
Medley: Oh, wow.
Jackson: But, I think, mainly, and what have I done?
I think, in many of the occasions, I have spoken up. Some occasions, I have not. But does it exist? Yes, it does. Have I seen it and sensed it? Yes, I have.
And, to be quite honest, it makes me not only upset, it makes me quite mad. It makes me quite angry. Because to put someone into the position of disadvantage because of the color of the skin is just not Christian.
It doesn’t fit in our language. It just doesn’t. And I have seen this at each level of the church, from the General Conference, to the North American Division, to the Unions and Conferences. I have seen this. And it makes my heart quite sad.
We had an African American preacher come to one of our camp meetings up in Canada who was a good preacher. He got up and he waxed eloquent. And at the end, I had someone come to me and say, “That’s not Adventist preaching. This is our Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting. Why is that person here?” [laughter] And I said to him, “You don’t get out much, do you?” [laughter] You just don’t get out much.
And this person had lived in a part of Canada that has some ethnicity, but not racial diversity. And, I kept thinking, You’ve got get out more. You’ve got to see and be educated and understand the beauty of each culture.
Medley: Elder Bryant, similar question, but a little deeper. When have you experienced—personally—racism within the Adventist church, and how has that compared to experiences outside of the church?
Bryant: You know, racism in the church is lot more subtle. It’s more difficult to put your hands around. I did have an experience when I was in the seminary with a professor that really shocked me. I went to an all-Black high school. I went to Oakwood—all-Black. So, I didn’t have the opportunity to cross over with other cultures until going to the seminary.
I was really shocked with some statements that the professor made very public about Black students and our inability to be able to perform at a particular level because of our “diminished mental capacity.”
Medley: Said this to a classroom?
Bryant: That was spoken in the classroom, and to the students, particularly from Oakwood. He said, “We understand you all have some limitations.”
And, so, I complained, along with some of my other brothers from Oakwood, to the seminary dean. And, of course, he said, “Oh, that’s the way he is.”
Jackson: But that was a Baptist seminary, right?
Bryant: No, the Andrews Theological Seminary of Seventh-day Adventists.
Medley: And he wasn’t disciplined for that?
Bryant: Not immediately. He had a history of this. Actually, as it got out, I started receiving a lot of phone calls that said, “You know, that happened to me 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” etc.
Eventually, one of the professors prompted me to write a letter to the board, and he said he would deliver the letter to the board. And this is the first few months later. Elder Bradford happened to be the chairman of the board, and they took care of the issue. So, that was my experience.
I’ve had experiences in the church, out of the church, being arrested with—actually, I was coming from a United Youth Congress, and I was pulled over. Just had driven a thousand miles, and I was one mile from home when I was pulled over. The police officer said I was going seven miles over the speed limit. Probably, maybe, I was going five or six miles over the speed limit. But he said, “We have a warrant for your arrest.” And I said, “Sir, I haven’t done anything for the warrant.” I pleaded with him not to handcuff me in front of my sons. I had three younger sons at the time. I said, “Please don’t do that.” And then come to find out it was a permit that one of the elders of the church had gotten for an alarm system, they had not finalized a permit at the police station. That’s what they took me to lock me up for in the jail.
The incident Elder Jackson was talking about was about my son here in Maryland a few years ago. I was out of the country. My wife and I both were out of the country. [starts to weep] He didn’t know anyone else here. They took him. I mean, it was an emissions test.
You know, in Maryland, they give you dates. And I have one date and the computer had another date. And they took them and locked him up with people who were arrested for murdering and robbing. And it’s just really took something out of him.
Medley: How old was he during this when he was arrested?
Bryant: Twenty-three, maybe 24.
I have a Mercedes Benz. Now, it’s not like it sounds. It’s an old Mercedes Benz that’s 20 years old.
Jackson: The rest of us aren’t wealthy enough to drive. [crosstalk, laughter]
Bryant: It’s a 20-year-old Mercedes Benz. But I noticed that every time he drove my Mercedes, almost every time, they would stop him for something. “Rolling stop, you didn’t properly stop at the stop sign," etc. So, I had to tell him to stop. I told him “You cannot drive my Benz.” My wife has a Toyota Camry.
We’ve had these conversations since they were young, but this is his first time actually seeing the impact of what I have been talking about. And to try to help him through that was a very challenging situation.
And so, people say, Well, the church isn’t like that. That is true. But there are other ways that you can still bring the same amount of pain to a life of a person when you treat them inferiorly.
And, in the church, I see it. There are racists in the church, but then there are people who are racially insensitive. And then you have people who exercise unconscious bias. They may not be racist, but the impact to the person who is disenfranchised is really the same. But you can’t prove it. I can go and tell you the stories of the police officers. And everybody says, “Well, they shouldn’t have done that.” It’s very difficult to do that in the church and say it in a way that a person can see through your lens. And I think that’s one of the challenges we have in the church in trying to get our hands around this.
It is not a mirage. It is not a figment of our imagination, but it is still God’s church. We have to speak out. We have to change things. We have to do all that we must do to help the church be what God wanted it to be, but to still stay anchored in this place, because this is the place that God has put us. This is the place the God has established. And we have to keep working through it until we can make it a better place.
Medley: I like how you say, you know, we have to work through it. We have to make the changes. We can’t just say, “Oh yeah, it’s been with us since the beginning. You know, it’s going to be hard, so let’s just act like, you know, it’s been working well this long. Let’s just keep it going,” No, there has to be action.
So, Elder Jackson, whose responsibility is it then to address and work to end the racism that’s present in the Adventist church? Is it the general conference? Is it you as the officers of the division? Is it pastors? Who makes the call with that?
Jackson: You know, one of the things that has occurred to me in this whole current crisis is that it will never change, the direction will never go in another way until I recognize that it’s my problem.
If David could say to God, “Search me and know my heart, and see if there is any wicked way within me and lead me in the way of everlasting righteousness.” If David could say that, then I need to say that, too, and it’s not because I have any blatant racist feelings.
There may be things that I just accept that are unacceptable. There may be ways of talking and acting. You know, listening to the racial slur. Laughing at the joke. You know, listening to the innuendo and not commenting. I am just as guilty of that as the person who says it. Right?
So, while I think that there is an element of corporate responsibility, this is not something that can be legislated by a body, the General Conference in Session has said, “We hereby do away with racism.” No. Elder Bryant’s idea, the heart work. All of us must do heart work. For me, it is to be a part of the solution. I have to recognize that maybe, in this whole huge cataclysmic problem, there’s a place for me to get involved. Maybe God is going to use this to call me and all of us to a higher level of understanding and a higher level of spirituality.
Robinson: I would add, Mylon, you asked whose responsibility—and I totally agree that’s got to start here in my heart—I’ve got to recognize it as an issue that I have to deal with, with God.
But I do think that in any leadership scenario, such as the three of us, I believe we can set a tone. We can set a tone. I can, as an officer, I can go to a fellow officer. I can go to Alex, and say, “Alex, help me understand. As a White person talking to a Black man, help me understand.”
We can set that tone as officers. But, absolutely, it has to start in my heart. You know, I have to beg God—as Dan mentioned David. I think that’s a classic text. I have to beg God to find what is wrong in my heart that I may not even see.
I don’t even recognize it. I don’t perceive it. But God perceives it. And let’s beg God through his spirit to reveal that to me as an individual, and let me act on that. Let me see people, whoever they may be, through the eyes of Jesus.
Medley: And I like that point about setting the tone. Because, as leaders, that is an actionable item that you can do it. Of course, it starts from the heart. It is a heart matter, but to set the direction of this is, you know, to say this behavior is unacceptable, this is what we are trying to do. This is how we’re trying to do better.
Bryant: And, I think, in addition to that, I think, as leaders, we are in a place where we can bring certain issues to light. We have a platform to do so. When we look at our organization, one of the things, I think if we look at George Floyd’s life and the movement is happening about George Floyd, if all we see is there needs to be a reform in police brutality, I think, we miss what God has for us. I think each organization, each entity, each individual has something to learn from the death of George Floyd, whether you actually did the murder or not is immaterial. It’s how are you interacting with the people around you in terms of marginalization? I think all of us have to ask that question of ourselves.
I think, as leaders, the answer your question is all of the above. I think it takes the General Conference. It takes the North America Division. It takes the conferences. It takes the pastors. It takes the members. All of us have to be engaged in this issue because you can’t legislate it at all. You can’t enact a law from the General Conference and everything is right all the way down. That’s why I think the heart part is a significant part, but I think we can call certain things out. I think we can say that we need to have representation around the table so that we can hear the different perspectives. Because some of the challenge is you don’t have representation. So, you had a leadership group, there’s no one to speak to this particular issue because there’s a lack of experience around a table of that particular issue.
I think that there are certain things that we can do in that regard on a practical level. You look at the movement that has happened as a result of [George Floyd’s] death. There have been decades of people talking about some of these statues that need to come down. They’re coming down. Then there’s the Confederate flag. Now, wherever you are on that side of the issue, but someone’s heart was moved upon to say, you know what, “It’s time to take it down.” And for NASCAR to say, “It’s time to take it down.” For these, there is something else going on here that spurred something, the hearts of men and women to say, “You know what? Enough is enough.”
There needs to be reform. Absolutely. But there needs to be more than that. It needs to resonate and reverberate throughout the country through every organization. And what I’ve appreciated about what has happened is that they are beginning to do that. Nike and some of these companies, everyone in their own institutional viewpoint is saying, “What can we do to be better?” And I think the church fails itself if we don’t ask ourselves that question. What can we do in this regard to race to be a better church, to be the church of Jesus Christ?
Medley: I think that’s a perfect segue to the final question for our time together. And that’s what would a racially reconciled Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America look like?
And to say reconciled, it sounds like a great word and it may sound like something that can happen quickly, but it cannot happen quickly. But it’s something that’s been systemic, that’s been present since the beginning of our institution, and just we’re surrounded by it, you know, in our nation throughout the division. It’s a process that starts with listening — creating safe spaces for people affected by hatred and racism, and then repentance from people doing these racist acts. So, it’s a process.
But let’s say we could peek into the future, whatever year that is, if it’ll happen in our in our lifetimes. What would a racially reconciled Seventh-day Adventist Church here look like?
Jackson: Well, you know, I will quote the Scripture: “Of every nation, kindred, tribe, tongue, and people, God has the dream.” And when God sees the future, it’s that men and women sit as equals together at the table.
That people function in a seamless way through the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m going tell you one little snippet. For me, in the past 10 years, I’ve experienced a lot of that. There have been many times when I’ve sat with Elder Bryant and talked through these issues. We have opened up some serious, serious issues related to race and talked them through with each other. I have never felt, with him or my colleagues in the office, that there was a racial divide between us personally.
I know that it’s easier, and appropriate even, for African Americans to relate more easily to African Americans. That’s only natural. If you put me in a group of Canadians, I’ll be saying “eh” every second word. [laughter]
Jackson: But I have experienced some of that, and it is it has been a huge blessing to me.
So, for me, the church that I would dream about is a church where I can talk about anything with anybody. And, though, we will not always agree, we will always walk away being brothers and sisters. We may quite strongly disagree with each other, but it does not mean, at the end of the day, because you didn’t agree with me, you’re a lesser mortal.
Robinson: Yeah, I think, God has the ideal. Elder Jackson, you mentioned it.
I’m so grateful that in our in our faith community, we have heaven to look forward to. That description in Revelation is designed for everybody. For everybody. You mentioned the verse, “For every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” That means everyone.
I’m so grateful that we have that that ideal to look forward to. Someday, that will happen. Whether we can get there here is up to us and God. You know, I pray that God gives me the ability to love and to see others like He sees them. Elder Bryant, you mentioned the heart change. That’s what has to happen for us to get to what you’re asking.
Medley: Elder Bryant?
Bryant: Well, I, concur with my colleagues and what they have shared. As I think about it, I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but I do have a good picture in my head of what it will feel like. And what it will feel like in this utopia church that you talked about is everyone’s accepted for who they are and what they are—from a Black person, or a Brown person, or any person of color, I would like to feel that I’m accepted, not because of my color of my skin, but in spite of what that color may be. I would like to feel that walking into a church and into a conference office, or union office, or division office, or a General Conference office.
It seems to me it would feel like seeing people who don’t feel marginalized because of these particular things that they don’t have control over. If I could feel that I’m accepted, that I’m loved, and that I’m a part of God’s family because I belong to him, I think we will achieve a lot.
Medley: To feel—that is the difference. You can say it, but it’s not until it’s a felt experience that it becomes real.
Well, gentlemen, our time has come to an end. I want to thank you again for sitting down to talk about this topic, not only what’s going on in this territory, but what’s going on in our church. I hope it inspires more conversation throughout the division to have frank observations and discussions on ways racism is present within their sphere of influences and how they can work to address its presence. So, thank you for your time.
Jackson: Thank you.
Bryant: Thank you very much.
This video originally appeared on the NAD website.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10558