Viewpoint: Regional Conferences--Diversified in Mission or Divided by Diversity?


(Spectrumbot) #1

When we try to put things in their right place, we begin to see them as they are. Unfortunately, that is not how our white brethren have seen those in the black community. Pastor Dwight Nelson’s recent efforts to dissolve regional conferences exposes, once again, the naiveness of white individuals in their view of the “black thing.”

In this article, I will briefly offer reasons why black people feel more comfortable in their “black thing” than merging with white communities, and suggest that this is not indicative of division as much as it is indicative of diversity and respect for one’s unique identity.

Blaming the innocent Regional conferences were a response to white supremacy and segregation by Adventist church officials. Between 1916 and 1944, there was little evangelism among the black communities. Despite the appeals of Ellen White to prioritize mission among the blacks, little effort was carried out. Edson White’s own effort to evangelize the South received minimal support from the church administration. During World War I, many blacks moved to the North to support industries in their production. The migration increased Adventist black churches as most of them came in contact with the Adventist message. The growth of the black churches brought many challenges that white administrators could not understand or attend to properly. Some of the challenges included the cost of places of worship, lack of access to Adventist schools and hospitals, and many other de facto segregational policies implicit in the church’s institutions.

Then-pastor J. K. Humphrey and others were challenged by both the physical and traditional needs of the black churches. Norman Miles, the editor of the North American Regional Voice, wrote that “J. K. Humphrey eventually came to the conclusion that blacks would never be able to carry on their work in a way that would most benefit the black congregations until they had black conferences and conference administrators who understood their needs” (Norman K. Miles, "The Establishment of Regional Conferences." North American Regional Voice for 1979 - Vol. 01 - No. 01, p. 3).

That radical notion gave birth to the first Adventist Black Conference in 1944 with a population of 15,000. By 1979, the number of black Adventists increased to 100,000 in North America. And in recent decades, black churches continue to flourish in all aspects of the church’s mission.

The Regional Conferences emerged for mission rather than division and their mission has not abated. During the Autumn Council of 1943, some of the black lay elders pleaded with the church executive for total integration within the local, union and General Conference fields. Miles wrote that “At the meeting J.J. Nethery convinced the other leaders to give blacks their own conference.” He added that “Black laymen who spearheaded the reform movement never asked for regional conferences, but for integration. Because the church was not ready to fully integrate, it saw fit to grant segregated conferences.” (See Ibid).

Aside from this historical heritage that gives shape to our worldview today, there are still more other things to consider if, indeed, we want to understand one another well. One cannot continue to call these conferences "segregated" conferences without careful reflections.

A question of Black anthropology White culture has been shaped by individualism, which has become detrimental to the church’s social health. The Western understanding of personhood has followed Rene Descartes's dictum, cogito ergo sum––I think, therefore I exist. A person in the West is “an isolated individual with rationality seeking to preserve an autonomous self” (Owino Kobo, "The Doctrine of God In African Christian Thought," p. 129).

This way of life, which has become deeply rooted in Western societies, is very contrary to black people’s worldview of personhood. To the black individual, it is cognatus ergo sum––I am related, therfore I exist. However, community is a survival unit within which the individual is reconciled to other members to actualize one’s identity and uniqueness in the social experience. The long walk of black people towards liberation and spirituality has been influenced by this intrinsic anthropological ontology. Black people uniting themselves under their own conferences corresponds very well with their natural way of life. We must see regional conferences as an anthropological issue rather than a partisan issue.

Liberating the oppressed We have gotten this far without talking about colonialism, slavery, segregation, racism and other socially-constructed facets of white society that have denigrated black people for centuries. Even the church has not been immune to some these marginalizing forces and to white supremacy over black people. Only recently have black people gotten a share in church bureaucracy and policy-making. But this has been a long walk. Such unfortunate circumstances have led to a new way of life for black people--a way to actualize their identity. We must see black conferences as a way to avert competition over church leadership, in order to prevent leadership meetings turning into “black-out, white-in,” and vice versa.

Birds of a feather do flock together I say this for the sake of the sociological experience: It is a mistake for anyone to think that the gospel overrides any cultural values. While all have come to find a new human identity in the person of God's son and in the image of God, which is spiritual rebirth, one’s unique cultural identity is not invalidated by this new spiritual experience. In the book of Acts chapter 6, we find not just Christians, but Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews. One does not leave one’s identity behind after accepting Christ. Black conferences or black churches are nothing more than an ethnically-diversified community, united by one faith in Christ. Black conferences tend to serve their members very well because they can easily relate to their traditional needs and be understood quickly, in the same way, I don't doubt, that white conferences do.

… And so what? Dwight Nelson's appeal for signatures for the dissolving of regional conferences reveals the error of the white judgment over a “black thing.” This is the same error the missionaries who came to Africa exhibited by condemning traditional values as demonic. Their failure to understand the “African thing” created a kind of Christianity that became a Westernbrand religion. There was little theological dialogue between the gospel and the African settings. It was not until the post-colonial period when African theologians began to question and to reconstruct theological understanding in the African context. Christianity must not suppress the social needs of other people. In the same way with the church’s missiology, we cannot downplay the efficacy of a community united by ethnicity. The church must rather be ashamed of how blacks were treated in the twentieth century and be glad for the direction of the Holy Spirit which has sustained the ministry of black people until now.

The black conferences do not stand for segregation. Rather, they represent a revolution against segregation. Even though they might have had roots in such divisions, there is still more beauty to it. Pastor Nelson must hold his partisan and force-branded-appeal. It is not practical enough. Trying to uproot regional conferences in the name of anti-segregationism by amassing a coalition, if in the absence of careful and wise dialogue, is absolutely incorrect (both theologically and methodologically). Black conferences do not serve only African-Americans; they also serve the African diaspora. If we should fail to understand the black culture and its history, we will fail to appropriate the message of Christ. Ethnicity is not a crime and whether conferences be black or white, we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), united in the same missiology.

Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, originally from Ghana, is pursuing a Master's of Theology degree from the inter-faculty universities of Lausanne and Geneva, Switzerland.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6589

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

A well written measured response to a well intended but mistaken appeal. Tom Z


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #3

Excellent—thorough and thoughtful. Thank you.


(Kim Green) #4

An eloquent reply to a complex issue to which there are many sides and situations and I will also agree that the tenor and tone of Nelson’s appeal could have improved. However, I still, in principle, believe adamantly that there needs to be no more regional conferences…they separate and they divide, and not at all in positive ways.

I completely understand the reasons for which they were established and much of why they still continue, but it completely bothers me why in 2015 we are still having this conversation. It does not baffle me because the issue always comes around to power and control. Racism is still alive and well within the Adventist church and it is a sad and troubling thing.


(Steve Mga) #5

The Adventist hospital in Nashville for Blacks was begun and funded by doners to Madison College. In the middle 1970s some of my black blood pressure clients in Dayton, TN, near Chattanooga, would go there for their yearly check ups.

It, like some of our other SDA hospitals in TN no longer belong to SDAs.


(Taka Da Mickey) #6

I suggest that rather than dissolve regional conferences that all Adventist churches and conferences join up under the regional conferences.

Listen to the ensuing furore and refusal of many, and all the arguments why that isn’t possible or feasible.

While well meaning, Dwight and his movement is acting in the privileged colonialist tradition.


(Carol June Hooker) #7

I am unclear as to the author’s stated concern, “The church must rather be ashamed of how blacks were treated in the twenty-first century and be glad for the direction of the Holy Spirit which has sustained the ministry of black people until now”, which seems to ignore Adventist history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while attending only to the very recent past.

[It was the author’s intent to discuss the twentieth century, and that sentence has been corrected after the fact to correct that typo. (See note directly below from author) Thanks for noting it! -Editor]


#8

Sorry, I think it was an error. It should have been read twentieth century…


(2nd Opinion) #9

Dissolving regional conferences will not end racism on the part of whites, as if by magic the very racism that made them necessary could be undone by tearing down the reminders of white privilege and prejudice. No. What must be eradicated are the structures of white privilege themselves–and they still exist, even on the campus where PMC is located. The only remedy for latent white guilt is white understanding, humility, and confession. This will lead toward true reconciliation.


(Kim Green) #10

Racism goes both ways, 2ndOpinion…I am not thinking that it will dissolve it but rather may force new structure and culture into place. Which, BTW it seems that neither most of the white nor black “brethren” want…strange.


(Kim Green) #11

Ok…I would agree with this proposal that:

This would at least be a step forward.


(Carolyn Parsons) #12

Thanks Mr. Owusu-Gyamafi. I appreciate your comments. My family was one of those, who in 1931 went to Angola, Africa to save the black man from himself. My family did much good for people medically and educationally. I am very proud to be part of that part of their mission. I also know that the overriding animus for church work was based in racism.

At the same time, great work was done and my family became part of the greater family, what you described as a relational ethos. When returning to Bongo Mission, Angola with my dad,for the first time after the civil war, I was chatting as best I could in Portuguese. I had not spoken the language much in 32 years. We were sitting at the edge of an irrigation ditch with pure cool water that came from the mountain behind us. The “seculo” or honored elder, asked me when I was moving back to Bongo. I told him I had a job and a life back in the US and it was difficult to leave that. He said “but this is your land and we our your people”. This has haunted me for 7 years now.

The scars of colonialism and racism live along side gaping wounds started in the colonial period. It has irrevocably damaged the continent. In many ways a new colonialism continues to rape natural resources and drain wealth from the average person. I have not, however, given up on helping my people of Bongo.

Very well put.

I am no expert at regional conference, even after reading your excellent historical overview. but I believe that integration should be the goal. We are one people.


(Jesse Andrews) #13

Perhaps men and women should have separate conferences, based on this reasoning. Perhaps men would be more comfortable with their “kind,” and women with their “kind.”


(2nd Opinion) #14

Prejudice, hatred or anger can go both ways, perhaps. But my understanding is that racism is power-based (prejudice + power) and by definition requires a position of cultural power and/or privilege over a less powerful group. So-called reverse racism is a misnomer, in my book. Although, I will concede that some may adhere to a different definition of racism.


#15

That is why we have both Women Ministry and Adventist Men Organisations. So I think your proposal is already implemented. We have tested this in missiology and it works that when people of the same ethnicity minister to themselves, there is always success. That is why missionaries always translate Bibles into indigenous languages and train indigenous ministers.


#16

Tell me the location of this “white conference”? It is not the Georgia Cumberland Conference where I am a member. One thing I don’t understand is why blacks who are from other countries do not desire to attend or either are not welcome in the Black Conference churches and choose primarily to join a “white conference” church. The continued existence of “Black Conferences” serves to perpetuate the separateness which necessitated their creation. The vibrancy and success of the “Black Conferences” and churches to me indicates a need for the Church as a whole to move to a congregational model with more control over the financial resources at the local level. Perhaps this is the real reason the Dwight guy is calling for an end to separate conferences, their continued existence points to a possible better way of operating.


(Kim Green) #17

Yes…racism does NOT have to have a power base an individual may simply feel that they are superior to another.

I have seen cases of racism amongst members of the american black society as well as the whites…it ALWAYS goes both ways.


(Kim Green) #18

Yes, indeed, Truman…if they are managing things better perhaps we should “spread” their model around :slight_smile:

But to address the reasons why African blacks don’t tend to join black churches here- to quote a black African friend: “I don’t have anything in common with them, the music or culture.” Pretty much sums it up.


(Carolyn Parsons) #19

And in mine. There is one thing that the majoritarian powerful can’t claim, that is to be the victims of those they oppress.


(Jesse Andrews) #20

Women’s Ministries is the same as a separate conference?