|The Adventist Review has continued to receive many thoughtful responses to Fredrick Russell’'s February 21 column, “The Obama Message.” Among these was this focused piece from Calvin B. Rock, a longtime church pastor, educator, and administrator. We offer it here to continue the dialogue about how the Adventist Church in North America should address the continuing challenge of racial and cultural differences among its members.—Editors.
ASTOR FREDRICK Russell’s column of several months ago, “The Obama Message,” contains several disturbing misjudgments, and a curious conclusion that the early successes of Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination signal that our church has no further need for its structural accommodation labeled Black or regional conferences.
These points are worth noting:
1. Communities of nontested Whites, be they large (England/France) or small (Iowa/Wisconsin), where there are few Blacks, are often very liberal in social outlook. It is when Blacks or any ethnic minority assemble in significant numbers that racial and cultural tensions erupt. Modern England and France are excellent examples of this phenomenon. Remember how socially liberal England was before the West Indian proliferation?
2. Socially conservative religious groups such as Seventh-day Adventists tend to function at the rear of the curve in matters of racial acceptance. This is well documented by Adventist performance on racial issues in the U.S. before, during, and since the civil rights era. Even if Obama’s early success were a true barometer of racial acceptance in the general society—and it is not—it does not follow that it is a reflection of postures within the church.
3. Suggesting that Obama’s electoral success thus far indicates that we should now dismantle Black conferences is tantamount to saying that since some states voted for him we should now dismantle the Illinois voting district responsible for sending him to the U.S. Senate! That is curious reasoning indeed, since he would not be in the Senate in position to run for president were it not for the mostly Black political district that sent him there. In that case, instead of there being one Black (Obama) among the 100 U.S. senators, there would be none. This is a reminder of the importance of indigenous sociopolitical units for both community planning and structural mobility.
4. It is not fair to target only Black conferences in this discussion. The two North American Division union conferences where Black conferences do not exist—North Pacific and Pacific—have also found it necessary to provide structural accommodation for augmenting the Black work at both the local and union levels. These are called regional departments or ministries. These units have Black elected coordinators, separate committees, camp meetings, convocations, retreats, workshops, publications, scholarships, federations, budgets, office personnel, and facilities. Should Obama’s success in the primaries and caucuses suggest their demise as well? In other words, does the phenomenon of a major-party Black presidential candidate really suggest our capacity to jettison all structural accommodations? What about Oakwood University, Message magazine, and the Breath of Life telecast?
The larger question for those who think this way is this: Will the means justify the ends? Black conferences are not separatist. They are united with their union offices and local sister conferences by doctrine and policy, are highly productive, and generously integrated. The nine Black conferences currently in place house more than 70 other ethnic congregations—Hispanic, Korean, Portuguese, Caucasian, etc.—not to mention thousands of ethnic members worshipping in hundreds of individual congregations. That being the case, exactly what is the problem with their existence? How would solving that perceived problem by their dissolution be a greater benefit than that which their presence provides?
5. The most sobering deterrent to optimism regarding racial conditions in the U.S. is Ellen White’s telling statement of more than a century ago: “The relation of the two races has been a matter hard to deal with, and I fear that it will ever remain a most perplexing problem” (The Southern Work, p. 84). Gratefully, progress toward racial parity has been made in our country and our church. But the 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.
Pastor Russell’s mention of the long-ago decision of the United Methodist Church to dismantle its accommodation for Blacks is a case in point. What actually happened as a consequence of the dissolving of their Black Central Jurisdiction was a loss of Black membership; a loss of Black employees, particularly pastors; and what Black United Methodists regarded as irreparable damage to mission. They found out that being completely assimilated politically while mainly separated culturally is a worse consequence than being largely separated culturally and accommodated politically.
Many are now asking, “Does not the election of Black union conference presidents tell us that Black local conferences are no longer needed?” The answer is No, it does not. What it does say is that more and more union conference committees and constituencies are willing to recognize talent and experience in an unbiased manner. That
is commendable. But such elections do absolutely nothing to change attitudes and social conditions in the neighborhoods where White and Black churches function; local community dynamics were the primary reasons Black conferences were created and continue to exist. Highly placed Blacks are welcomed role models positioned to influence policy and planning in ways their White counterparts may not have imagined. But more than the occasional Black placed in a high position, we need bona fide vehicles for maximizing mission at the “grassroots” or neighborhood level.
White flight and the hardiness of Black culture have to a great extent prevented African-Americans’ absorption into the nation’s cultural melting pot. Consequently, there is a huge difference between “structural integration” (relationships in the corporate office or workplace) and voluntary “social integration” in which the masses congregate and worship.
This reality reminds us that the ultimate operational good is not elevating Blacks to conspicuous posts within the general structure of the church; it is elevating men and women by gospel proclamation in the neighborhoods where the vast majority of Blacks live and die. Black conferences are functioning exceptionally well in this regard, and in ways clearly superior to the other accommodation, Black coordinators.
Why not leave them alone?
Calvin B. Rock retired in 2002 as a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. During nearly 50 years of service to his church, he also served as a pastor, an evangelist, and president of Oakwood College (now Oakwood University), in Huntsville, Alabama. He now serves as senior pastor of the Abundant Life Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.