Over the weekend of March 19-20, 2021, Detroit-area pastors of the Lake Region and Michigan conferences, USA, led their congregations in a deep study of how the Bible addresses issues of ethnocentrism and cultural superiority among believers.
The event, titled “His Invitation: Reconciliation, Unity and Latter Rain Power,” drew hundreds of Adventist participants online and in churches.
Lake Union associate director of Communications, Debbie Michel, interviewed the main organizers of this historic event, Lake Union general vice president and Multicultural Ministry director, Carmelo Mercado, along with pastors Darryl Bentley (Michigan) and Dwayne Duncombe (Lake Region). Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
Debbie Michel: Elder Mercado, please talk to us about the journey to healing and understanding that the Lake Union has been on for the last five years.
Carmelo Mercado: Elder Don Livesay, who was at the time president of the Lake Union, came before us as officers in 2015 and said, "I feel impressed that we need to offer an apology for the injustices that have taken place within our territory."
[This apology took place] at the  camp meeting, which was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Lake Region Conference. It was moving for me. Dr. Jones responded, saying he accepted the apology.
Following that [in 2016], we decided to go one step farther. We went to Berrien Springs Village Church and held a convocation, inviting both Michigan and Lake Region people to join us as well as anyone else who wanted to attend.
It was a good dialogue. We had a panel discussion, and one question that came up was, "What next?" It was at that point when I responded, "I think we should take this across the Union. We should start holding meetings in other conferences."
In 2017, we began the journey with Indianapolis, with the pastors from the Indiana and Lake Region conferences in that city. We had several meetings in different churches.
The next year , we went into Milwaukee and met with the area pastors of both the Wisconsin and Lake Region conferences. Then in 2019, we began with Michigan Conference and Lake Region Conference pastors in the Detroit area. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had already been on a journey prior to my arrival.
Debbie Michel: Tell us a little bit about that work. What was happening?
Darryl Bentley: Obviously, we were aware of some of the things that the Lake Union was doing which were started by Elder Livesay. We had heard about the apology that was extended, and we had talked about it some. But in 2017, one of our pastors, Curt DeWitt, who was pastoring the Warren church at the time, came to me and talked to us at our monthly district meeting. He said, "We need to do something, right? We've got a territory that overlaps. You've got regional churches all around us, Michigan Conference churches interspersed between. Why aren't we talking together? Why aren't we working together?"
So we started talking about how to do that. I had met the pastor (prior to Pastor Dwayne's arrival), Keynel Cadet, who was the district leader for the [Lake Region] Motor City pastors. I had made a chance friendship with him. The Lord directed it, I'm sure. He had shown up at the Farmington Church where I was pastoring one Sabbath, and he and I ended up meeting.
It was very easy to reach out to him and say, "Hey, my guys would like to start getting together with your guys a little bit, meet your folks and start coming together as churches."
Pastor DeWitt came up with this acronym that [initially] troubled me. It was called FIGHT which stood for Fellowship In God's Healing Touch. He was trying to play on this idea of “fight for what's right.” Fight for something good. He sold me on it.
We started meeting in respective churches [in May 2017]. Michigan Conference and Lake Region churches had afternoon prayer conferences. When I say prayer conference, it's more of "Let's come together. Let's pray together. Let's pray for one another. Let's talk about some of the issues — cultural issues, ethnic issues, conference issues."
From that, we had some Sabbath gatherings every month or so, but we got a little lazy. We fell apart and stopped doing it. Then Elder Mercado came along and said, "Hey, would you guys like to come together?” And we responded with, "Well, we've done that. Sure. Let's do it again."
Debbie Michel: Pastor Duncombe, you grew up in Detroit. For those of us who may not be aware of the history of the city and some of the racial tensions, perhaps you can help us understand the divide.
Dwayne Duncombe: Detroit is a place that has erupted in racial tension multiple times. There've been riots, fires, and all sorts of things. One of the most notable times was the assassination of Martin Luther King. But these things did not just exist in Detroit in those times of flare-up. The city was really built on this racial segregation.
You may know that for a long time there was “redlining” in Detroit, which meant there were certain neighborhoods that black people could not go into. They were not able to get home loans to be able to afford those neighborhoods. Even if they could, they were not welcome. That was a clear message that there should not be a crossing over.
I've gone to several churches here in the Detroit area growing up, and those were black churches. There was very little interaction between our churches and the Michigan Conference churches or the white churches that were here in the same city, and very little interaction between our schools here in the same area. It's almost as though we grew up or interacted in very different worlds, even though we were all believers in Christ and all Seventh-day Adventists.
Debbie Michel: Pastor Bentley, do you want to add to that in terms of when you came and what you saw?
Darryl Bentley: I'm not a native Michigander; I’m from North Carolina. I've been serving in Michigan Conference since May 2008; this is my second time serving in the Metro Detroit area. The first time was with Detroit Farmington churches for about a year and a half. Then I was brought back in May of 2015, so I'm coming up on six years in the Metro Detroit area.
But one thing that's been interesting. . . I'm the pastor for the Metropolitan Church. That church started out in downtown Detroit. Some years later, it ended up in Southfield. Now, technically, our mailing address is Plymouth. Some people refer to it as ‘white flight.’ So the only Michigan Conference church that we have left with a Detroit mailing address is the Detroit Northwest Church, pastored by Stephen Conway.
You do see some of this at play, right? It didn't just affect the people who were living here as citizens of the Metro area; you see it reflected in the church. It's not something people can make up or contrive. But it doesn't mean that we're mandated by the past; we can do something about it. We are God's people and we should be willing to overcome these things.
Debbie Michel: Elder Mercado, so the meeting starts but then there seems to be something more happening with this group. Help us understand what was going on in Detroit.
Carmelo Mercado: We had gone through a process of assessing our ability to communicate cross-culturally. I saw that happening. I saw where they were getting very comfortable with relating to each other, talking plainly about some issues that were relevant. We had guest speakers, too, by the way. We had Dr. Calvin Rock who spoke about this issue, and [Harvard sociologist] Dr. David Williams also. We had some good presentations, but there was a point where they wanted to get into the Word of God. That's when Pastor Dwayne brought an idea. I'll let him explain.
Dwayne Duncombe: I really appreciated much of what we were learning. The cultural intelligence education that we received, our interaction. I learned so much from the presenters. But at a certain point, I was hoping that we would be able actually to hear some very intentional, deep-dive type of presentations into what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about these issues. Of course, we're all pastors and we believe in the Word of God, and it's not that we didn't have time in the Word. I just think sometimes that it's assumed — we've got the Word, now what else do we need? Yet we felt a need to actually get into a deep, intentional study of Scripture to see how that would inform the process.
I happened to know that my former [Oakwood University] teacher, Dr. Gregory Allen, and his wife, Carol Allen, had done quite a bit of research in this area. Not just historically, but particularly in the epistles of Paul, the letters of Paul. They had just written a book on Romans called Christ Has Welcomed You: A Case for Relational Unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I had read that book and thought, “Wow, maybe they would be able to lead us in Bible study on this issue.” I was so grateful that Elder Mercardo and the other pastors were open to that idea. And then Lord opened the way for the Allens to do four presentations with us over the course of a couple of months.
But at the end of that process, we recognized there were some key things coming up that were not necessarily common parts of the regular conversation on race, such as ethnocentrism being a sin according to Scripture. Or that our primary identity is not cultural, but in Christ and how Christ has done work to make us one new man in Himself. And then, of course, what led to our theme for the weekend, “His Invitation,” that capstone text in Romans 15:7, ‘Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.’
As the Allens explained the meaning of that text along with the rich history and implications behind it, as pastors, we all, unanimously, were blown away. We thought to ourselves, “Wow, we can't keep this to ourselves. We want everybody to hear this Word. We may not be in the position to bring it to everybody, but we can at least invite the members of our congregations in the Detroit area to have an opportunity to come together and to hear this Word together. Who knows what the Lord might be able to do with that.” And that's how we ended up moving towards planning for the “His Invitation” weekend.
Debbie Michel: Pastor Bentley, What’s your assessment [on these meetings]?
Darryl Bentley: First, I want to say a hearty “Amen!” But there is one little key element that I think is essential to bring out. Prior to us asking the question about the Allens or bringing in someone to bring us to the Word, there was this growing sense amongst the pastors of, “What are we doing? This has been good. But what are we really seeking to accomplish?”
We really needed something to take us to the next level. That's where we stopped, and I really appreciated Pastor Dwayne saying, "What we've got to do is just get into the Word. Let's just study together."
Dwayne Duncombe: If I could insert one other thing that I thought was very powerful. . . Last year the entire country entered into a major crisis over the issues of race after the killing of George Floyd and other high-profile things that happened, killings in the news, and so forth. When that happened and those racial tensions were flaring up, I thought it was so powerful that we had laid a foundation as pastors of coming together and building bonds of trust, having real conversations about these difficult issues before they came up. When that happened, it enabled us to be able to come together. I think it took our bond and our relationship to another place.
It was Pastor Darryl, at that time, who reached out to us and said, "Listen, we want to talk to you guys. Let's get together. We want to know how you're doing. How are your congregations doing? How is this affecting your families?" That meant a lot. Because of that, we were able to come together in a time of crisis in a united way because a foundation for trust and transparency already had been laid.
Debbie Michel:I want to hear the pastors’ assessment of the weekend and any feedback on how it was received.
Dwayne Duncombe: Well, for me, it was a rich, Spirit-filled, Christ-centered, fellowship weekend. I was so happy. I believe that only God, only Jesus Himself could have brought this about, and I believe He did. I'm convicted of that. It was so good to see our churches get together online. Some of our churches are still closed because of the pandemic. So many of those churches [conducted services] virtually while some of our churches are open, particularly in the Michigan Conference. So they met in congregations and watched their churches on Zoom.
I was monitoring the chat. Pastor Bentley was actually monitoring a Google voice number. He received questions there and I received questions on the chat; it was very engaging. People were very interested. They were asking questions. They were saying “Amen.” At the end of everything, they really were saying, "How do we do more of this?" That's the predominant thing that has been said to me is, "How do we do more of this? How do we continue this conversation?" We're just happy to hear that.
Darryl Bentley: I would say it was very successful, very well received. It was interesting to see how it came across to people. One of the things that I have personally learned out of this is I don't like the term “racism.” For this reason: I believe that there's one race — the human race. Differences in the human race are ethnicities. But anytime you start hearing the word “racism” or we're going to talk about ethnic issues, people start thinking, “Okay, where's this headed?” “Okay, what's this going to be?”
Because many discussions about this are so politically charged, there's an agenda, there's a movement, people start wondering, “Okay. Well, what are you guys trying to accomplish?”
It's all about bringing our people, God's remnant people, back to the work, back to recognizing [that] my identity is not a Southern boy… a white Southern boy from North Carolina…my identity is a follower of Jesus Christ.
All of that other stuff comes secondary, tertiary, whatever. So it was interesting to watch some of [what was happening to] those natural or, maybe, let's say, unnatural, defensive walls. “Okay. Where are you taking us?”But as they heard the Word of God, [you could] watch those walls come down. Like, “Okay. This is not something I've heard before. This is powerful.”
Carmelo Mercado: Right now, I'm coming out of this as a learner. I've learned what the Holy Spirit really is trying to tell us. It's always been my conviction that we do what God wants us to do, and as He leads, He's teaching us. One of the things I've learned is to listen to the Spirit. There are some things you can plan, but there are other things that just happen because you sense that's what God is calling us to do.
So, from this journey, I've seen that it's important that we, of course, understand each other, understand where we come from, why we think the way we do, how we talk, how we act. But in addition to that, also come together in the Word, in prayer, and study the Word of God. Let the Word of God speak to us.
The Lord is going to bring us together to see what is next. One thing for sure, God is moving and we move along with Him.
Dwayne Duncombe: One of the things that I learned is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I think we're so accustomed to planning our work and working our plan, that it's like a paradigm shift when something spiritual happens. In other words, when we hear the Word of Christ, the gospel of Christ then, what it really means, it's not first about action, it's first about conviction. Our worldview is confronted. It's like Paul on the [road to Damascus] getting that shining light in the middle of the day that knocks you off your high horse and causes you to say, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" That's when the Lord is able to go to work through His spirit to bring new life, to make us submissive so that He leads us along in what He's doing. I think that it's so important to stress how spiritual this has been.
Our reaction is not, “Okay, now what do we do?” First of all, we're dealing with what God has done. We're allowing our hearts to be convicted, for ourselves to be put to death, and for the life of Christ to move in us that draws us together. Then it’s for Him to say, “Now do this.” And we're ready to do whatever it is that He says is next.
Darryl Bentley: This needs to be spread. If we as God's remnant people can't figure this out, if we're not willing to embrace Biblical teaching, how can we lay claim to that title? I would even take it one step farther. How do we lay claim to the title child of God and not be willing to accept others?
I hope that conference leaders will see the merit of having this presented in a campmeeting format, either as a plenary session or seminars, or [something else]. I hope this message keeps getting perpetuated into different arenas so it can have a broader and broader impact.
I believe that, as enough people hear the message, what God wants will have to rise to the top. Because as we get ourselves out of the way, what's left? What God wants.
Carmelo Mercado: That's what I really appreciate about the pastors here; we've learned to be submissive to the Spirit. As we let the Holy Spirit work in us, we don't get impatient. We just say, “Lord, Thy will be done, but do it in our hearts and let it spread out throughout this land, throughout the world.”