Someday…But Not Today

G Russell Seay, Jr.

The issue of whether black conferences (euphemistically called Regional Conferences) in the United States have outlived their relevance has been raised in a number of quarters for some time. There are the “liberal” whites pained by their guilt of participating (via their whiteness) in the sins of their parents that resulted in the need for black conferences in the late 1940s. Then there are the blacks who have supposedly outgrown their roots and want to be absolved of their guilt from having moved on. Of course, there are also the immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and other former colonies of Caucasian nations who see black conferences as a form of apartheid. From my perspective, these groups’ questioning the significance of black conferences is irrelevant.

Such a statement may sound harsh, but it is true. White liberals’ guilt is not my issue, it is theirs. It will remain until there is true confession, repentance, and restitution on their part. Short of this, their calls for dismantling black conferences are just new forms of white paternalism in the guise of sanctimonious rhetoric. Blacks, who have outgrown their roots and have moved on, should not look for validation for being dismissive of the context that nurtured them. Those who are left “behind” do not have time for such distractions. There are more important concerns than their need for validation. Those who immigrate to the United States may never understand the African-American insistence of maintaining structures that secure their present and future. If living here for a while does not give them a clue, nothing I can say will.

The persons that concern me and warrant a response are the youth of our Regional Conferences’ community. We must with all diligence seek to understand them in order that we are understood. What is at stake is analogous of the first generation accumulating family wealth, only to have it dissipated by the third generation. I have found that the underlying issues and questions about the continuation of Black conferences by those who have been nurtured in the Regional Conference context fall into three categories:

1.) a certain naiveté about race in America, and especially in the church;

2.) a misunderstanding of the complexity of the issues involved; or

3.) a failure to see the flawed logic in their argument.

Each of these issues deserves an in-depth treatment that cannot be given in this short piece. My goal here is to provide introductory comments that hopefully will stimulate discussion around the real issues and not the red herrings that are being tossed about by those who are not vested in our community’s well being.

With respect to the naiveté about racism in America and the church, the central issue is the belief that we live in a post-racial America. The argument goes, we live in a post-racial world. Therefore, the church should reflect the same ideal. Many believed that the election of Barack Obama marked the end of a racialized America. However, the last six years have proven the opposite. Lynching has been made legal, where the rope has been exchanged for a policeman’s bullet. The late Derrick Bell, noted African-American legal scholar, argued that racism is a permanent feature of the American culture because keeping Blacks in a subservient role serves two necessary functions. On the one hand, blacks serve as convenient scapegoats when there is an economic downturn, and on the other hand, they serve as the catalyst for racial bonding between poor and elite whites cemented by white privilege.[1]

This phenomenon was manifested in the Adventist Church when the Regional Conference leadership decided to establish its own retirement plan at the time when the denomination was shifting the burden of its failed plan to the workers. The white divisional leadership made the black leaders scapegoats. They accused them of abandoning the church when the church needed their support, arguing that the church had carried the blacks for decades. This misinformation, that the church carried the black work, was disseminated among white pastors thus making black leaders scapegoats for the church’s problems. Then, white administrative elites were able to bond with the working class white pastors around a common theme of how blacks have something better than us.

Ellen G. White, the church’s prophet, when confronted with the whether to push for whites and blacks to continue worshipping together in the face of Southern racial hostility. She advised, “The best thing will be to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on their services by themselves.” She has been criticized by some for not pressing ahead with an integrationist agenda. Her counsel only highlights the complexity of the issue of race in America. Please note the issue was not because of Blacks unwillingness to worship with whites, it was “in order for the work for white people may be carried out without serious hindrance.” She counseled that whites and blacks should worship separately “until the Lord shows us a better way.”

Some would argue that in 2015 the time has come for whites and blacks to worship together. They contend that we have been shown a better way. But have we? Remember, Ellen White’s reason, was because of the hindrance to the work for whites. Have we found a better way when we have the reality that whenever we reach the tipping point of an influx of non-whites there is white-flight beginning on the church level then metastasizing to the conference level? Have we found a better way, when whites stay at home on Sabbath morning and watch 3ABN rather than worship in local churches with blacks? Have we found a better way, when the proliferation of white controlled para-church organizations allows for the financial control while maintaining influence over a church that is 80% non-white? Is the white work unhindered when white parents take their daughters out of their academies when they begin noticing the handsomeness of sun baked masculinity? A better way? Not Yet! Someday, but not today.

Martin Luther King Jr. contended that “Integration is meaningless without sharing of power. When I speak of integration, I don’t mean a romantic mixing of colors, I mean a real sharing of power and responsibility.”[2] Whites that call for integration do not call for the dissolution of white conferences, but “ethnic” conferences. With the use of the term “ethnic,” as if white/state conferences are not “ethnic” they betray their white privilege, their sense of legitimacy, and by default, the illegitimacy of the “other.” It disturbs me when the children nurtured by the Black Church community do not see or hear the subtlety of this twisted logic that delegitimizes their existence. These white liberals are not necessarily motivated by some nefarious plan. They are, as philosopher George Yancy put it, “ambushed by the own whiteness,” i.e. white privilege.[3] Motives notwithstanding, the effects are detrimental to our community.

The call for the dissolution of Regional Conferences is a red herring. Integration occurs on the church level, not the conference level. Any member has the right to become a member of any SDA church in the United States regardless of race or ethnicity. To dissolve Regional Conferences will not expedite whites and blacks coming together any more than that is occurring now. The flow is one way; blacks are going to white churches, and with disastrous results for the whites. Whites are not coming to black churches at the same extent. It is not necessary to experiment, as some have suggested, because there has been an unabated experimentation in the United States with unions that have no black conferences within their territory. The data is available right now. It speaks unequivocally to the fact the conference structures do not hinder or enhance the mutual interaction between people groups.

A better day and a better way are coming someday, but not today! 


[1] See Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Faces At the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, (1992). This text clearly express Bell’s belief that racism is a permanent feature of American society.

[2] See James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., (1986), p. 317-318.

[3] See George Yancey, Black Bodies White Gazes, (2008), p.241

G Russell Seay, Jr.
G Russell Seay, Jr.

G. Russell
Seay, Jr.

G Russell Seay, Jr., Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Oakwood University. With over thirty years of ministry experience, he has served the church on numerous levels. His research and teaching interests are theology, ethics, and African American Religious Studies. Look for Dr. Seay to post regularly on theological issues.

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