In a March 25 statement the North American Division (NAD) defended the need for regional conferences, despite concerns this structure promotes racial separation.
The statement responded to requests made March 7 by the Andrews University chapter of the Adventist Peace Fellowship, in collaboration with the Andrews University Student Association and Black Student Christian Forum and 10 other student campus groups, asking the NAD to explain the separation of church conferences along racial lines.
Regional conferences are areas of the Adventist Church in North America that have predominately African American churches, which was approved in 1944 by the General Conference Spring Council. They are essentially “colored” conferences.
Because African Americans weren’t given the opportunity to participate in local conference leadership in the early 1900’s, regional conferences were formed in order to give African Americans more involvement and leadership opportunities, as well as ease the racial tensions between blacks and whites.
After the 1944 decision, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Worldwide Work among Colored Seventh-day Adventists Joseph T. Dodson said, “They gave us our conferences instead of integration. We didn’t have a choice. In the end it was better to have segregation with power, than segregation without power.”
In his 1975 book “Angels in Ebony,” author Jacob Justiss said, “The National Association for the Advancement of World-Wide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists did not ask for Negro conferences either in their original presentation or in their agenda. They asked for complete integration.”
On March 7, 2015, the student groups made two formal requests at a forum on state and regional conferences, which took place at Andrews University. The first asked for a commission to be formed tasked with developing a strategy that culminates in the restructuring of the conferences by the year 2020. The second was for the NAD to pass a clear official statement at the NAD fall 2015 Year-end meeting, addressing why the present structure of regional conferences is maintained.
In an email interview, the Andrews University Adventist Peace Fellowship said the March 7 request was to ask “about optics [and] about how the church, on this issue, is perceived by the world, and by us.” The request was emailed to the NAD Executive Officers as well as conference and union presidents the following day.
President of the student association Olivia Ruiz-Knott said she had been heavily weighing the topic of race relations especially within the Adventist Church since early last year.
"[I found myself] lamenting that the Adventist Church was not more involved in some of the national conversations on race going on at the time, bringing a public example of Christ's love and peace,” Ruiz-Knott said. "I wondered if the church could have any real influence in the world in matters of reconciliation, particularly on this issue, when we're still living in what can look like segregation."
Regional conferences were formed in a time when racial tension abounded even in the Adventist Church. Yet, it was in the year 1890 when the idea of regional conferences was first proposed and advocated by Robert Kilgore, who was the denominational director of the Adventist work in the South. Kilgore was also instrumental in pushing for a segregation policy that was established a year later. In 1943, an incident involving an African-American lay member of the Adventist Church was another solid indicator of the conditions prevalent during that time. A black Adventist woman Lucy Byard died of pneumonia as a result of being refused treatment at the then-segregated Washington Sanitarium. Such examples further demonstrated the pressing need for ways to alleviate racism and discrimination.
In an article by Delbert Baker “Regional Conferences: 50 years of Progress” he notes regional conferences have contributed to evangelism work in our church history. He said regional conferences have “dramatically expanded the Adventist work among Black people in the United States” and “have positively changed the face of Adventism, making a notable contribution to every facet of the church’s history….” The article further suggests regional conferences have led to “new opportunities for training and ministry.”
Today Baker’s sentiments still remain.
The NAD statement released March 25 offered positive affirmation of the role regional conferences have played in church history until now, saying, “[We] vote, to affirm that the historical establishment and current role and function of Regional Conferences are structurally essential, mission effective, and relevant in reaching the diverse populations and urban centers within our division."
The statement also says the NAD would continue to seek ways and means "to further racial cooperation, understanding and growth.”
While regional conferences made contributions to the building of the Adventist Church in a racist age, what is still unclear for some is why regional conferences are still maintained in the current generation where integration is no longer illegal, and “racial cooperation” is the goal.
"It should be made clear that, at present, [the NAD] response does not satisfy either of the options presented in the request,” the Andrews University Adventist Peace Fellowship said. “Even if passed at the 2015 NAD Year-end Meeting, some feel that this statement does not offer sufficient explanation as to the maintenance of the current structure, as requested.”
However, the Andrews University Adventist Peace Fellowship also stated if this is a first attempt the NAD is making to approach this issue, they fully welcome it, but they will also continue to push to get this on the 2015 NAD Year-end meeting agenda.
The NAD had not responded to inquires at the time of publication.
A request was made that the Andrews University Adventist Peace Fellowship be recognized as the main sponsor of the March 7 request, as well as attributed for making general statements regarding the present structure of racial separation of conferences. Changes have been made to reflect this request, as well as reordering the two requests made by the student groups to the NAD.