Dwight Nelson's MLK-Weekend Sermon Spurs Petition to Eradicate Ethnic Conferences

During his January 17, 2015 sermon entitled “Why I Believe in the 1,000 Man March After Ferguson,” Pastor Dwight K. Nelson, senior pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church, called for an end to ethnically separated conferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Shortly afterward, a petition from Pioneer Memorial Church to the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists went up on Change.org.

Nelson's sermon on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was part of a series at Pioneer Memorial on the Adventist pioneers entitled "Stories in the Rearview Mirror." It was not the first time Pastor Nelson took the MLK Day weekend as an opportunity to decry regional conferences. In 2010, he preached a sermon entitled "The Truth in Black and White" with a similar message.

In this year's "Why I Believe" sermon, Nelson invoked the spirit of the Adventist pioneers, whom he described as young social activists. Recalling how Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the social conscience of the Adventist pioneers' generation on the injustices of slavery, Nelson turned to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York State in which protesters demonstrated against racial injustice and police brutality. Nelson noted that the Adventist Church has had a tough time knowing how to handle race relations in the post-slavery era--from 1865 to today.

Nelson quoted a letter on race relations from Ellen White, in which she described a "high partition" built by white Adventists between themselves and the "colored race."

Then he turned to ethic conferences within the Adventist denomination and questioned whether their presence points to the continuation of a partition separating church members.

"I need to be candid with you, and I need you to hear the heart more than the lips. Could it be that we are still building a high partition in this movement of faith? Do separate conferences and separate congregations demonstrate this Bible appeal on the basis of self-sacrificing love?" he asked rhetorically.

"With American society racially fragmenting in front of our eyes, how persuasive is church organization that depends on 'separate but equal' still, when the nation long ago abandoned it? How can we appeal to a fragmented society on the basis of love when we ourselves are fragmented?"

Retelling a story he heard from a student of Andrews University about growing up in a black conference and being surprised to find out there were white people in the Adventist denomination, Nelson said, "Guys, somebody is keeping a story going that needs to stop! Stop that story! It's time to write a new one."

Nelson appealed directly to the young college students in the audience, telling them, "We need a new generation of reformers. We need a new generation of activists in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and that's why you were born. That's why you're here."

Nelson invited the congregation to join him in a 1,000 man march in Benton Harbor, a predominantly black community near Berrien Springs. Benton Harbor had the lowest per capita income of any city in Michigan in the 2000 census. Marchers were bused from the Andrews University campus to the Benton Harbor march on Martin Luther King Day.

At the close of his sermon, Nelson asked the congregation to fill out response cards with three options:

1. Pray for race relations in America.

2. Join the march in Benton Harbor on MLK Day.

3. Through email and social media, appeal for the organization of conferences that model racial unity on the basis of love.

In his closing prayer, Nelson said, "O God, this is your character on the line. Why would a nation ever go to a church that is fragmented?"

One day after Nelson delivered his sermon, a petition appeared on Change.org calling for the integration of racially divided conferences.

The petition reads:

In the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United States there are church conferences that are organized on the basis of ethnicity.

For example, predominantly white churches in the state of Michigan belong to the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Predominantly black churches in the state of Michigan belong to the Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

But what if instead we chose to organize churches and conferences based upon the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17—“that they may be one as We are one”?

Changing long-held customs and practice is always a difficult undertaking. But the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts has shown Himself well able to guide the minds and decisions of leaders to make radical change for the growth of Christ’s Kingdom and the triumph of His love.

Adding your name to the list will speak loudly to the church that it is high time we all come together “on the basis of love” (Philemon 9) and model to society the unity that only Christ can bring.

The time has come to end this separation. Let’s begin “a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19/44:3).

Reactions to the petition on social media have been mixed. In a public comment on Facebook, David de la Vega wrote, “The subtle racism that many of us ignorantly experienced not only shaped today's leadership but also segregated the church. Unless we acknowledge the racism of the past we will only deny its presence today and allow its legacy to continue. The question is, have we become so accustomed to the segregation in conferences, schools, churches, and family values that we see no need to change them?”

Jason O’Rourke expressed his concerns in the petition’s comment section, “Separated conferences is a manifestation of the racism which birthed them. Changing the structure is only one step in ending the racist bias still prevalent within our church.”

Richard Davisson, another petition commenter, wrote, “I believe that we as a church should be Christ-like examples of love and acceptance. I think that having separated conferences based on ethnic background suggests that we are living in the past of "separate but equal." With the racial discord that is present in our society, our church needs to be an example of unity and love within diversity.”

Dwight Nelson was among those signing the petition. He commented alongside his signature, "I'm signing this because the time has come at last to live out Jesus' radical command to love one another that we may be one in Him. I hope you will join me."

The petition calls for 1,000 supporters, and as of this article's publication, appeared set to reach its goal.

While the petition and agitation from Pastor Dwight Nelson seemed aimed primarily at the black-white racial divide (there were no calls for disbanding hispanic, asian, or other ethnic churches where immigrant communities predominate), notably absent from the discussion on the petition site and on social media were black voices. Those sharing, liking, and commenting on the petition on Facebook were overwhelmingly caucasian individuals, followed--distantly--by hispanics.

Black Adventists have not demonstrated the same eagerness to do away with ethnic conferences and congregations. In 1995, Delbert Baker (now serving as General Conference vice president) wrote in the Adventist Review that, "Regional conferences have positivley changed the face of Adventism, and made notable contributions to every facet of the church's ministry."

In 2008 after the election of President Barack Obama, Pastor Fredrick Russell (an African-American Adventist) wrote in the Review that it was time to do away with regional conferences. He said then,

Like other denominations that have traveled a similar path as ours, we will at some point need to disassemble the last symbols of our historical divide—racially segregated conferences in the United States. Let me quickly say that there are more than nine racially defined conferences in North America; the majority of conferences in the United States are racially defined at their core. That doesn’t mean any deliberate intent on the part of any conference to discriminate. But it does represent a reality that facilitates a racial divide.

Retired General Conference vice president and former Oakwood College (now University) president Calvin Rock responded to Russell's piece, also in the Review, pushing back hard against the idea that Obama's election indicated a new racial era that warranted doing away with regional conferences. Rock wrote:

[T]he unvarnished reality is that there are more Black families living in separated neighborhoods and a lesser percentage of Black students studying in integrated grade schools now than there were 54 years ago when “separate but equal” was repealed in the famed Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. It is both inaccurate and inefficient to superimpose the Christian and secular liberals’ construct of “social ought” upon the pervasive “is” of American sociality and function “as if” the day of general racial acceptance has come. Such a position is delusionary, and destructive to mission in the Black community.

In October 2014, Dr. Leslie Pollard, the current president of Oakwood University, a historically black Adventist college in Huntsville, Alabama, presented a paper at the Adventist Society for Religious Studies in which he called on Adventist theologians to further examine the utility of regional conferences in light of ecclesiological and missiological concerns. Dr. Pollard tied regional conferences to Adventist mission. He noted in his paper the negative characterization with which Adventists have described regional conferences:

Adventist writers or speakers have described the existence of Regional Conference structures as “race-based organizational segregation,” “Adventist apartheid,” “the sin we don’t want to overcome,” “an abnormality” “a disgrace.” “morally untenable,” and “a lingering evil.”

Calling organizational structure indespensible for fulfilling Adventist mission, Pollard argued that regional conferences are essential in the advancement of Adventist eschatology, which he called "a primary engine of Adventist mission." Form should follow function, Pollard said in essence, and in that light, regional conferences are as necessary now as they have ever been.

In NAD, mission primacy for reaching the 37.6 million African-Americans in NAD has been delegated to Regional Conference ministries. The present structure therefore, is the tool used to facilitate that mission to deliver the SDA message.

Whether the North American Division, whom the online petition targets, will take up the issue of regional conferences if the petition garners 1,000 signatures remains to be seen. Whatever the case, the discussion of regional conferences in the North American Division is far from settled.

Alisa Williams is Spirituality Editor for Spectrum. Jared Wright is Spectrum's Managing Editor.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6582
1 Like

It’s past due!
But I am not sure the Christian doctrine has yet made the necessary effect to change people’s hearts.
Realistically, in a Denomination that still supports discrimination of women, and may be far from stoping it, how far may ending racial discrimination actually be?

Nelson’s proposition is superb! But, is the Church ready to do superb moves in the right direction? I don’t see it happening any soon! Much less with the kind of leadership we have at the GC.
Let’s keep pursuing it though!

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i think it’s up to blacks in the church to decide whether they want to continue with separate conferences or not…whites have no standing towards any decisions when it comes to racism…it’s like straights telling gays how to live their lives…

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Look at the picture on the petition, George… (I tried to copy it here but was not successful.)

Read what the Black leaders say.

I think the picture says it all… a white hand reaching down to clasp a black one. Isn’t that accurately representing the white attitude in this? And doesn’t it accurately reflect how the blacks themselves see it?

Consider what happens to the black conference/church structure and relationship if conference lines were to be redrawn in each Union. Most Unions have only one black local conference. Even the “deep South” only has three. So redraw the lines so there is one conference per state. Suddenly the majority of black churches are placed under white conferences.

And this is only the beginning of administrational problems… to say nothing of social and psychological problems as blacks wrestle with both feelings and facts of disenfranchisement.

It’s a nice dream… and a utopia to idolize… but like perfectionism, focusing and pushing for it before homogenization occurs naturally will do more harm… and hurt more people… that it can possible accomplish that would be good.

The present intentional efforts to form alliances between black and white conferences in local areas… working together on specific projects for the good of all … is a much more realistic route that can, in some generation yet to come, lead to complete integration of administrative units. In the meantime, let’s listen more carefully to each other… and let’s make sure a more sensitive photographer can come up with a new picture that puts each hand on the same level.

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Way past time for this. We never knew this "ethnically separated conferences " even happened. In Australia, the 15 years or so I went to church - this was unheard of. I only learned of this recently. This reminds me of a quote in an essay “Christendom seems … late to the place the rest of the nation has already reached” ( in the context of social justice etc) . Laurie Goodstein quoted in an essay by the lovely Becky De Olivera in her essay in the book “Do justice: a call to the faithful” - signs publishing.

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I think you are on point here. When blacks, rather than Whites say they want them done away with, then it can happen. Nelson is a great guy, and doing what he thinks he should, but it has to come from the Blacks, or it is imposing White will on them. See quote below.
There may be some financial issues as well, as I believe the black conferences have racked up a fair piece of debt.

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I’m not sure that was the perfect analogy but I understand your intent.

I remember as a small child when we first started attending an all-white church. The pastor was so very friendly and warm he slowly drew families from all cultures and ethnicities. Unfortunately, as the church grew in diversity, white families started attending other all-white churches. In a span of 5-10 years, the church went from 200+ whites to maybe 2. This wasn’t the late 60s or 70s. This was the late 90s and early 2000s. And while it is true we should focus on God and not the imperfections we see in the church, I would be lying if I said it didn’t have a deep impact on my faith journey.

I only share my story to say that the road to healing our church is a two way street. We are long overdue for such a relevant discussion in our church and I thank you all for helping to spread such meaningful discussion.

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Perhaps the better picture would have been two guys, one Black, one White giving each other a welcoming hug instead of just a handshake.
I dont know how it is in other cities, but here in Macon, GA, the Black church has more members than the “white” church. Recently the White church now has a good size Black membership, about half of the attendees now are Black.
However, both the Black church and the White church do not talk to each other, do not plan any combined community Evangelistic activities together. In the 10 years I have been attending the White church, the Black church has NEVER even been mentioned. In the white church it is like the Black Church does not even exist in Macon.

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when this issue was addressed years ago, Elder Bradford said, “By all means, you guys join us!” There is now a Black President of the Southern Union. Tom Z

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I understand your point Allen, but again, if the call to end racial division has to be made by Blacks, it only shows division again. This call has to be made by all, by anyone. The color of the skin is not important, what matters is the person inside that skin!!!

At least Pastor Nelson is making the right call. Those who want,to join him, of any color, are free to do it.

I am in the US for over 25 years now and it’s still very difficult for me to think and to talk about this issue having to refer to blacks and whites. I was not raised (brainwashed) to think in such a dichotomous way. I think the other way must also be true, i.e., very difficult not to think this way if the person was raised in an environment that thought in a dichotomous way.

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I’m not sure if the author missed the ‘black voices’, but here was my response to this petition:

"This to me is a preposterous proposal. First, one of the main issues why Regional Conferences were established was due in large part to our Caucasian brethren’s penchant for control and power. Let’s not be coy about this proposal. The State Conferences are struggling financially and their numbers are dwindling. Their demographics are getting older if not already reached. Many state conferences are losing their youth and their older members are passing away at an alarming rate without any means or actions to replenish the membership with effective, sustaining, and quality evangelism initiatives.

One of the reasons for the sustained growth and stability of the Regional Conferences has been our continued push towards ‘liberal methodologies’ and solid evangelistic thrusts that have kept our ‘mission’ alive for many years. What we are finding in this proposal is that the paradigm has shifted. There are those who are now calling for this ‘inclusion’ and joining, at the expense of the Regional Conferences. We have extended the ‘olive branch’ towards our fellow brothers/sisters for many years.

We’ve asked to be included in the decisions and mission of the church for many years, only to be marginalized, voted down/out, and asked to ‘stay in our place’, all the while our ‘leaders’ have brought the ‘Work’ to it’s current state, ex. MVA on the brink of closure, ABC stores closing and some already shut down, R&H shut down, and numerous other SDA institutions and churches on the brink of closure and financial problems. Let’s not forget the unacceptable and offensive retirement plan that the Regional Conference all but begged the GC to make better and change. We had to not only remove ourselves from that plan, but create our own better plan for our workers.

The only way this works is this: Those who seek and crave power must humble themselves and choose to share the power and responsibility of leadership. Finances must be shared and allocated equally across ALL conferences and churches. While I could add more, and I concur with my colleague Gamal T Alexander on his points, there also needs to be a shared cultural diversity insofar as worship, community service, preaching, and church sinergy is concerned.

Let me say this last point. I learned from Dr. James Doggette Sr. this philosophy: “Conservative Theology, Liberal Methodology.” This is my opinion and in no way would I ‘drag’ Professor Doggette into my opinion. He may think differently on this matter. But here’s mine: What has allowed the state conferences, and yea many of our ‘state conference/union run’ institutions to fail or begin failing is Conservative Methods that have not worked for decades.

You can’t keep doing the LE work as it was done 40-50 years ago, and expect better results in 2014-15.
You can’t keep doing Adventist Education the same way we’ve been doing it for decades, and expect our academies to stay relevant and stable in 2015.
You can’t keep using antiquated and archaic methods in parish ministry (pastoring) and expect your church to grow and be a viable worship center in your community.
You can’t keep preaching the same tired old sermons you preached in 1985, and expect it to impact the lives of your listeners in 2015.
You can’t keep using old evangelism methods from yesteryear, baptize 2 souls a year, and expect your church to grow.

I agree that our Adventist message should NEVER change. But we must have liberal methods in today’s times to meet our ever changing church in an ever changing world."

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Finally!! What an embarrassment, waste of resources, etc, etc, in maintaining these separate conferences has been.

Now, I wish that I could say that this is just a black/white issue- but it is not. One of the last SDA churches that I attended ( mixed race: white, asian, hispanic ) had the “privilege” to host the local Korean group who were trying to build their own church. There were suggestions that perhaps we could all pool our resources and build a newer and larger church on the same property. That came to a screeching halt because, quite frankly, the Koreans liked to control what they did and so did the other members in my church. The whole thing was basically a fiasco with separate potlucks, activities, etc.

So, my conclusion is that it is less about race and cultural issues and more about power and control.

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These are some excellent points to consider. But when I read the petition (and I signed it also), I understood it to mean not a putting of black conferences under white one but rather a complete reorganization of all conferences under a completely new system based on different criteria.
And one more thought. If we followed the logic of one black leader quoted in the article, we should, to be fair, set up separate conferences for not only hispanics, asians and any other distinction but also set up separate conference for women as well. If we are going to support segregation for the purpose of keeping power separated from competition, lets do it right and go all the way.

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Yes, Steve…and this is the case virtually all over the US. And it happens that even when it is not a “color” thing that the local churches love to run their own show and do not coordinate with other churches that happen to be a few miles away.

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You see solutions and they sound reasonable…let’s see if they can “humble” themselves. It hasn’t happened as of yet even though the Ship has sprung leaks a long time ago and is listing to the side.

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the head Elder of the Augusta SDA Church is Black. a graduate of Loma Linda College of Dentistry. the congregation is mixed racially Latino, Black, White. There seems no tension. A retired G.C. Officer found the pastors lacking to which I agreed. He finally moved to Flecher. Tom Z

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He is right on target and I question Nelson’s motive in stirring up the pot. One wonders whether it’s time for him to be replaced. His call for a march is inconsistent with the example of Christ.

Note the following: " The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying
abuses,–extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart." DA 509.

Jesus led no marches but then is Nelson wiser?
In The Grip Of Truth

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This reminds me Jesus’ lonely triumphal entrance in Jerusalem…

In The Grip of the Little Donkey!

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Regional conferences were originally established, if I understand the history of it correctly, to give some autonomy and authority to African American Adventists to determine their own course of action resulting, it was assumed, in a quicker, more effective, spread of the gospel/Adventism among African Americans in the U.S. It is possible that this situation has changed. African Americans who want to be more involved in the pan-racial conferences should certainly be welcomed into leadership positions (many are already there).

I have confidence that African Americans themselves should, and ultimately will, determine the future of Regional conferences. Whatever their decision might be, they should be able to count on support and encouragement from the rest of us. My belief is that when predominantly caucasian congregations intentionally recruit African American leadership and when these congregations do a better job of making African Americans feel an abundance of love and acceptance, then we will see the end of regional conferences. The change that comes must come from the people and not from an administrative decree.

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Life is complicated.

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