The issue of race relations and cultural understanding was addressed in a powerful way through several presentations from the mainstage during the Global Campmeeting. Among the speakers were Dr. Barry Black, chaplain of the United States (US) Senate, who spoke to the issue of breaking down barriers to personal ministry; and Dr. Ella Simmons, vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists with Attorney Jennifer Woods, Associate General Counsel for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, who discussed the history of racism from both a social and biblical standpoint.
Filling Dehydrated Souls
Black, whose grandfather was a sharecropper after the Civil War, began his speech with a story of his mother, a “dehydrated soul” who only achieved a fourth grade education. When she was pregnant with Black, someone placed an evangelistic flyer in her mailbox. The brochure’s catchy headline intrigued her and she went to the series, but only to satisfy her curiosity. She ultimately attended all 12 weeks of the series. The messages filled her with “water”—the Living Water—because an ambassador for Christ stepped out of their comfort zone.
Black said, “Each of us can be that ambassador, reconciling the world to Christ…God commands us, ‘as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me.’ But God also empowers us to provide drinks for dehydrated souls.”
“Our Saviour declared,” Black continued, “as the Father has sent me, even so send I you. We’re told in 2 Corinthians 5:20, that we are ambassadors, reconciling the world to Christ, pleading as if in Christ’s stead, ‘be ye reconciled.’”
God gives us a blueprint for reaching the lost, Black shared. As we read John, chapter 4, and see Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well, we learn how to touch others as He did. How? The blueprint tells us: Go out of your way to bless others; break down barriers; show friendliness; and avoid arguments and contention.
“We would be far more effective in our community outreach if we were more concerned about showing people how much we care than quoting theological matters. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” Black said. “Our Father is sending us to bring deliverance to captives, the recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are bruised.”
Black concluded his remarks with a challenge based on a Senate colleague’s idea. To break down barriers and create community between co-workers, they determined to invite someone home after church each week who didn’t look like them. Black embraced that concept and challenged listeners, in the coming days, “to make a deliberate effort to break down barriers—invite someone who doesn’t look like you home to Sabbath dinner.”
Racism Not Isolated
Continuing the discussion of breaking down barriers and exposing racial divides that currently exist within society and the Church, Woods and Simmons surveyed racism from a global perspective and the impact it has had on the Adventist Church.
Simmons, who grew up in the southern United States during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, shared personal stories of her experience with racism. While it’s important to note that significant advancements have been made recently, discrimination “in the United States and indeed throughout the world in its many forms has not disappeared but rather has taken on new dimensions, nomenclatures and codes,” she said. “Race still matters in the world and injustices still target groups of people for harm.”
Simmons referenced General Conference leaders from a number of divisions who have shared personal experiences of racial profiling, prejudice and discrimination in home territories such as Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. It is clear that racial injustice touches every part of the planet.
Jesus Left an Example to Follow
This mindset is not recent. Woods explored the biblical record and traced origins of bias and racism throughout biblical history, down to the early Church. The essence of racism began in heaven with Satan’s pride and prejudice against Jesus. From these seeds have grown racist mindsets and behaviors. We see this spirit displayed among the early believers with an “us versus them” mentality that would’ve proved harmful to the gospel message if it hadn’t been corrected.
To help Peter overcome the deep-seated prejudice instilled in him from birth, God gave him a vision of a heavenly sheet filled with unclean animals. You can read the story in Acts 10. Through the vision, God attempted to teach Peter that in heaven’s eyes everyone is the same—there is no preferential treatment for male or female, Jew or Gentile. Peter got the message.
Woods shared from Ellen White’s writings, that, in this way, “prejudice was broken down, the exclusiveness established by the customs of the ages was abandoned, and the way was opened for the gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 142).
Our early Adventist pioneers were abolitionists—meaning they were anti-slavery. In fact, Ellen White wrote strongly against prejudice. Over time, however, Adventists allowed societal norms of racism, bias and prejudice to “infect the Church,” Woods said. The Church in the United States adopted the cultural practices of the time, such as separate places of worship for Blacks and Whites and exclusion from leadership positions for Blacks in certain institutions.
This practice goes against everything Jesus stood for when He was on Earth. “Jesus defied the social order of His day,” Simmons said. “He moved beyond behavioral parameters defined by religiosity. He broke down prejudicial walls that prescribed acceptable spheres of relationships and He directly addressed the sins of racism in its many forms. The accepted norms of His day did not limit Him.”
In fact, Simmons said, the very idea of conforming to society drove Him to Samaria where He kept a divine appointment with the Samaritan woman. Jesus overcame prejudicial barriers in that moment, and as previously mentioned by Black, left an example for us to follow.
A Difficult Topic
Discussions on racism and prejudice can be difficult. Many people don’t believe they are biased, but they might hold onto implicit bias—an attitude or stereotype that we unknowingly allow to affect our understanding, actions or decisions. Everyone has these innate feelings.
Researchers have determined that implicit bias is different from known bias; implicit bias is pervasive, affecting even those who believe they are impartial; and implicit bias doesn’t necessarily reflect our “declared beliefs” or things that we endorse. For example, Woods said, people who believe that racial profiling is wrong might still subconsciously racially profile.
The question comes down to this: can our implicit biases keep us from ministering to others? Can they affect how we welcome visitors to our churches? Have our biases impacted how we view and represent Jesus to others? It’s something that we need to look into! These underlying beliefs can be unlearned.
Woods and Simmons delineated several practical steps that can be taken to “support and nurture those marginalized and mistreated because of their color, caste, tribe or ethnicity.”[i]
- Designate one person who has specific responsibilities for human relations (not human resources) in your local church, organization, or institution.
- Conduct human relations audits to determine the state of our thinking and relationships.
- Implement policy audits to determine the nature and potential outcomes of current policies for advantages and disadvantages for various groups and individuals.
- Provide human relations education and training.
- Provide specific goals, strategies and actions to improve human relations.
Simmons concluded: “We, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, must do all in our power to distinguish ourselves and the Church from the legacy of ‘Biblicized’ bigotry; from the ingrained history of racism and separation that have been perpetrated on the world by Christianity and other world religions to placate racists in their efforts to maintain illusions of racial or ethnic supremacy, social control, and economic advantage over other people…”
We do this “…by proclaiming the true Word and more so, by living the true Word,” Simmons said. Referencing the recently voted General Conference statement on Human Relations, she reminded us that “’the love of Christ’ compels us to regard people from His point of view and to be His ‘ambassadors’ in this divided world with the ‘word of reconciliation.’”[ii]