It is at this gathering that I first meet Warren S. Banfield, invited as a special guest of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization. At first glance one notices the stately bearing, the shoulders slightly hunched with the onset of years. His gait is somewhat labored but deliberate, purposeful, the walk of someone who's always going places. The face is inviting, like that of a grandfather whose smile seems to put wrong things right and whose very presence leaves one filled up.
Then there are the eyes. There is a focus-some might call it a fire-in the eyes of Warren St. Claire Banfield that is unmistakable. Those eyes are the window to deeply held convictions about issues of equality and equity, and the role of God's people in a perishing world. It is evident this day as he recalls his early days in ministry.
"Every Sunday I visit a different church here in Washington, D.C. I pray with the Muslims; I take communion with the Catholics; I praise with the Baptists and Pentecostals. I remember going to one church where the minister had whipped the congregation into a frenzy of excitement. The music was blaring, and the people were preparing for a special healing service. The minister said something like 'Hold up $50 if you want to be healed,'" Banfield smiles. "The people began to pull out money, and some were running down to the front to be healed.
"That sounds like a funny story, but seeing that helped me to understand to a great degree what people are clamoring for and how they are being fed."
While a pastor Banfield would seek to build bridges with other ministers. "I invited local religious leaders to come and speak at my church-of course, I would be careful about the theological underpinnings of the faith. They, in turn, would invite me to their churches. We would forge bonds that we used to help our people spiritually and socially."
While ministering in the Tampa, Florida, area during the turbulent fifties and sixties Banfield became so active in civic affairs that he was voted president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, and that while he was out of town on a trip. "I was a member of the Urban League and even served as president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for a period of time," he adds. In the latter post Banfield was threatened with bodily harm several times.
"This was a very difficult time for me and my family," he recalls. "I received death threats by phone and mail. People threatened my family. Several of my peers had warned me that this would happen. But there are times when the cause becomes greater than one's personal interest. Then you've got to sink or swim."
Swim he did. Banfield's activism on behalf of Tampa's community of color was highlighted when he received the Frontiers of America Community Service Award in 1959 and 1963 from the NAACP. What is striking about these accomplishments is the fact that Banfield saw civic activism as part and parcel of his call to ministry. And lest it ever be said that the former took precedence over the latter, one need only examine the record to find the truth.
Banfield's ministry to the members of the South Atlantic Conference was so complete that in 1962, a mere 12 years after he became an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister, he was elected president of the South Atlantic Conference, where he served until 1971-quite an accomplishment. During this time Banfield became a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Whenever Dr. King would come to the Atlanta area I was often on the stage in the arena where he spoke," Banfield remembers. "I've been on the platform with him when bomb threats were made and we all would have to leave and later reassemble so he could finish his speech."
Banfield has many fond memories of the civil rights leader. "Dr. King would often ask me to attend Sunday services at his church. After church he would invite us and Joyce Bryant, a local Adventist singer King enjoyed hearing, to join his family for dinner at Paschal's Restaurant in Atlanta. He was a warm and extremely personable person. Our families became quite close. My wife and his wife exchanged letters for many years."
It's a relationship that bore fruit during the dangerous Southern freedom marches of the 1960s. "Our medical vans would follow the marchers to care for them," says Banfield. "We would send our medical personnel to help marchers who became ill or hurt. Dr. King really appreciated this support."
From 1971 to 1976 Banfield was associate secretary of the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, after which he was asked to join W. W. Fordham in the newly formed Regional Department.
This was a difficult assignment for Banfield, for it placed him in the line of fire during a challenging period in the growth of the Seventh-day Ad-ventist Church in North America.
The issues that challenged society as a whole were present in the ranks of communities of faith-no matter how its leaders and laity professed otherwise.
During the seventies the Adventist Church in North America was experiencing some growing pains. An exploding African-American membership and its leadership was increasingly discomfited by the lack of representation in the higher ranks of the church. Banfield recalls with some sorrow the way things were.
"There were few opportunities for people of color to move up in church administration. There always seemed to be something they lacked. Few Blacks served at the union level, to say nothing of the division level. It was a difficult time."
The problem was multidimensional, pitting several interest groups against each other, Banfield notes. "Black conference presidents were pressing for Black unions. At the time Elder Fordham and I did not support the thrust for Black unions-a hot issue at the time that is now no longer a point of friction.
"When we failed to support regional unions," Banfield continues, "part of the fallout was the dissolution of the Regional Department, and the Informat, which was a journal published by the department, ceased puublication."
Banfield realized that the hostilities on both sides of the issue required a department that would help the church work through these human relations problems as well as other issues. He suggested the idea to Neal C. Wilson, who agreed. Thus the Office of Human Relations for the North American Division was born, and Warren S. Banfield was installed as its new director. Banfield immediately asked that a Spanish associate be added to the staff to address growing discontent among some Hispanic populations of the church who were seeking the development of their own conferences. Now, he thought, if I only had a budget.
Office of Human Relations
There was no budget, of course, and Banfield was charged with the task of developing the entire department from scratch. "I remember thinking, Lord, how are we ever going to get anything accomplished?" Banfield muses. Then there were the hostilities of different interest groups within the church. "It was a minefield. I received hostilities from many sources. Thank God they have been reconciled."
Things got even dicier as women's issues came to the fore. "One of the most dominant challenges of the day was women's issues," says Banfield. "There were disparities in pay, promotions, hiring practices, etc. Women's ordination was also a huge issue at the time. Women were demanding that changes be made. Some were suing the church."
With Banfield's tireless effort, the support of Adventist educational institutions and churches, and a team of dedicated professionals, the fledgling Office of Human Relations came into its own. "I really don't want to name names, because I'm certain to forget someone," he smiles, "but I must mention Dr. Reger Smith of Andrews University and Dr. Robert Wilson, then a professor at Columbia Union College. Dr. Smith led the development of resource materials for the office, and Dr. Wilson, though sight-impaired, traveled across the nation with me conducting workshops. I am indebted to them."
With Banfield's guidance, a landmark 16-point plan to address race issues within the church was put forward by the regional Presidents' Caucus and supported by the office of Human Relations. This document was later voted under the leadership of Dr. Rosa Banks, current director of the Office of Human Relations. The plan was important because it gave shape to the debate on how the church in North America would address its human relations problems.
Banfield's labors also led to other changes. It was at Banfield's suggestion that baptismal vows be amended to include a statement on race relations and diversity. He also suggested that similar statements be added to Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines, published in 1988. "With God's help we were able to open opportunities at the faculty level for people of color serving in our schools. Black and White students were no longer separated by color. Interracial dating was allowed."
Another outgrowth of Warren Banfield's tenure was the organization of the North American Division Women's Ministries Department, an accomplishment for which he is especially proud. When asked about the current state of racial and gender affairs, Banfield is at once pleased with the progress made and wowed by the work yet to be done. "Some racial issues have returned," he says quietly. "I think eternal vigilance is necessary to ensure freedom. We all must continue to live together and love each other until Jesus comes."
Dwain Neilson Esmond is associate editor of Message magazine.