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The Beginning of Regional Conferences in the US III

September 5, 2006

In October 1928, W. H. Green—the Colored Secretary of the General Conference (GC)—died. His position was not filled immediately as many Black ministers felt that “the only way to improve the work among Negroes of the country is to organize colored conferences, whereby the colored people may handle their own money, employ their own workers and so develop administrative ability and all cultural lines of work…to organize Negro conferences that would function in exactly the same relation to the General Conference as white conferences.” (Quoted in Jacob Justiss Angels in Ebony p46.)

After discussion, the GC appointed a commission of eleven Whites and five Blacks to study the issue. J. K. Humphrey had been one of the Black ministers calling for Black Conferences and was one of those appointed to the commission. Humphrey later accused the White members of the committee of meeting separately and asking the Black members of the committee to rubber-stamp their decision that Black Conferences were not appropriate. Humphrey later left the SDA Church and formed the United Sabbath Day Adventist Church.

J. K. Humphrey

By 1944 however, the situation had changed—the Black membership of the church had grown considerably and Black members were better educated and more confident than in the past. This lead a group of Black SDA laity to form the National Association for the Advancement of World-wide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists on October 16, 1943. The group was chaired by Joseph T. Dodson, other members included Eva B. Dykes—one of the first Black American woman to receive a PhD, while the Corresponding Secretary was Valarie Justiss—the second SDA Black woman to receive a PhD.

Eva B Dykes

Eva B. Dykes

The group met on at least two occasions with J. L. McElheney—GC President. They presented a petition entitled Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among SDAs? to the GC leadership in Washington DC. (The document takes it’s name from the State of the Union address given by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941. The four freedoms were:
1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear (See Wikipedia entry. See a copy of the speech.)
The group was not requesting the formation of Black conferences but rather recommending an end to racial discrimination in all SDA institutions. Graham states that the group also “asked for a full accounting of the money that Black people were contributing to the denomination and requested that their Black leaders be treated with courtesy.” (Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation” in Perspectives: Black Seventh-Day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century Calvin B. Rock ed. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1996, 136)

Racial discrimination was rife at SDA institutions and the Four Freedoms document did not hesitate to point out specific cases:
· “The Washington Sanitarium refuses to admit colored people.”
· “Colored girls are denied admittance to the Washington sanitarium School of Nurses and some other schools open to the whites.”
· It was the policy of Emmanuel Missionary College to seat Black students at the rear during chapel services.
· “There are no Negroes so far as we know on staffs of Adventist institutions.”
· “There is not even one General Conference office filled by a colored person.”
· “There is no colored editor, circulation manager, and business manager of the only Adventist periodical devoted exclusively to the interest of the 13,000,000 colored people in the United States.”
The document draws frequent contrast between SDA practice in these areas and the practices of secular or other religious organizations. These include:
“Since white and colored eat without friction daily in the cafeterias of the Library of Congress, Union Station, National Art Gallery, Interior Department, and other government buildings, it is illegal to segregate the Secretary of the Colored department for his meals.” (All quotes from Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among SDAs?

One of the impetuses for the petition was the tragic case of Lucy Byard. Byard was a light-skinned Black SDA from Brooklyn who was admitted to the SDA owned and operated Washington Sanitarium and hospital based on her appearance. When her true racial identity was discovered from her admittance forms, Byard was wheeled into a hallway without examination or treatment, while a place in another hospital was sought for her. She was eventually taken to Freedman’s Hospital where she died shortly after of pneumonia. While it is impossible to ascertain, it is often stated that her condition—at the very least—worsened due to the time spent in the drafty hallway of Washington Sanitarium.

McElheney introduced the topic of Regional Conferences to the GC Committee’s Spring Council held April 8-19, 1944, in Chicago. Following some debate (Of the 22 speakers on record, 17 spoke in favour, 3 against, and 2 asked questions of clarity. See Delbert W. Baker “Regional Conferences: 50 Years of Progress” Adventist Review November 2, 1995, p11.) a resolution was passed:
“WHEREAS, The present development of the work among the colored people in North America has resulted, under the signal blessing of God, in the establishment of some 233 churches with some 17,000 members: and WHEREAS, It appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance in soul-winning endeavours; therefore WE RECOMMEND, That in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized.” (Quoted in Baker, “Regional Conferences” p14.)

From 1945 to 1947, seven Black Conferences were formed: Allegheny, Lake Region, and Northeastern (1945), South Atlantic and South Central (1946), and Central States and Southwest Region (1947). In 1967 Allegheny divided into the Allegheny East and Allegheny West, while the South Atlantic divided into the South Atlantic and Southeastern Conferences in 1981. Regional Conferences were not formed in the two westernmost districts: Pacific and North Pacific Union Conferences. Work amongst the Black population in these areas was coordinated by a Regional Affairs Office. (Baker, “Regional Conferences”, p14.)

It should be noted that there has been some recent agitation amongst Black SDAs in these western Union Conferences regarding the formation of a Black Conference. (See articles in Adventist Today.)

References:

Delbert W. Baker “Delbert W. Baker Regional Conferences: 50 Years of ProgressAdventist Review November 2, 1995, p11-15.

Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation” in Perspectives: Black Seventh-Day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century Calvin B. Rock ed. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1996, 136)

Jacob Justiss Angels in Ebony chapter entitled “Regional Conferences”. Available as part of the Telling the Story Anthology (Part 2, p37-48)

Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among SDAs?

15 comments

  1. Thanks for the excellent summary. Very enlightening. Any thoughts on regional conferences in the future?


  2. I strongly feel that Regional Conferences are a disgrace. They are a symptom that we as a church are not acting as “a sign, symbol, & foretaste of the kingdom of God.” They are a bandaid solution that does not address the real issues–in this case the NAD is exacerbating the problem in other parts of the world. Why can’t the Afrikaaners here in South Africa have their own conferences?


  3. Just a note to let those interested that there’s a now a book out on James K. Humphrey & the United Sabbath-day Adventists. It’s written by R. Clifford Jones of Andrews University & published by the University Press of Mississippi. Check it out here:
    http://www.upress.state.ms.us/catalog/fall2006/james_k_humphrey.html


  4. The cynic in me sees the church in the U.S. mirroring in many ways the race politics of the nation–about a decade behind. I do agree that the region conference system has to go, but it’ll be a real struggle because race politics is so deeply entrenched in the system. Perhaps the best time to take a go at this issue is when (hopefully, not if) the NAD goes through an organizational overhaul (a la 1901-03) and the division/union/conference hierarchy is re-thought. My hope is that this will happen during Elder Paulsen’s tenure.


  5. Thanks for your comment Julius, I’m enjoying your blog. You are correct when you say that the best opportunity for overhauling the Regional Conferences is as part of a larger restructuring. It will be interesting to see if the SDA Church makes any significant (and much-needed) headway as a result of the current consultations.


  6. I have been trying to find contact info for the Black Conferences but cannot. Do they still exist?
    gs


  7. Hi Glen, thanks for dropping by. Yes, the US Regional Conferences still exist in the SDA Church. The webpage of the Office for Regional Conference Ministry: http://www.regionalministry.org/ carries links with contact details for the 9 current regional conferences.


  8. Thanks for the historical info. By the look at some comments it’s a sadly neglected part of our church’s history.
    But why is it that as soon as this topic is discussed, there is a call for the regional conferences to disband. It was not the black part of our church that brought this about. It was the blatant racism of WHITE Adventists that killed Lucy Byard. And it is White Privilege that keeps fuelling the foolish arguments.
    Why don’t we get rid of the state (white) conferences? In the end, it’s not administrative bodies that need to disband, it’s a particular mindset that has to go…


  9. You are correct Stefan when you say that it is a mistake to focus on doing away with the regional conferences. What is needed is a larger restructuring of the system in general. I am not in favour of any system divided administratively by race – the current situation is morally untenable.


  10. To ignore the context in which the Regional Conferences emerged would constitute a great deal of disregard to our brethren, but the world is different today. Are the Regional Conference relevant to minister the spiritual needs of our brethren? Where the Regional Conferences stand when it comes to real mission, real growth, and commitment to the challenges that we face as a people?
    What about reional Conferences taking in their jurisdiction Spanish congregations? This only contributes to make the situation quite worse. L=Can we forget the past and work together not in behalf of our etnia but to the Kingdom of God?


  11. There are many sides to this argument really. Some say lets keep Regional Conferences, some want to disband them, yet still most are indifferent to the matter. The problem is that our standards are based on what happened and how we feel rather than our mission. Regional Conferences and White State Conferences is no doubt a disgrace to all Christ has done and is continuing to do for humanity. Christ would never want his body to be racially divided. What’s the point of strategically attempting soul winning by being racial divided when this action dividing us. Do we not know that dividing ourselves from each other is amputating Christ? Whenever the people or the work of God is divided it is an act of SIN.


  12. It’s amazing there are SDA members that really want change in the church we love so dearly! I do believe those changes would make a great deal of difference in the work we, as body of Christ, sould do. to much bureaucracy in our organization seems to lead the focus of our leaders to the institution rather than on the mission of divulgating the Gospel and on God’s people. too many well qualify people are behind desk every day rather than behind unbelievers’ doors. We need reform in our organization.


  13. I understand, as a latin person, sometimes we need to take our administration in our own hands when we see that thinks are not exactly been done for our own goodness. We were somehow overlooked bye the white administration (that is not happening anymore)… and black people was in the same condition.
    Then, the black administration is doing thinks with the spanish people that are not exactly helping the church. Regional spanish churches have a clearly dedicated agenda to still members from the other conference. They are accepting people without even investigating the reason of their leaving from their original conference.
    They call this: growing; but is not growing… they are growing with people with serious unresolved problems… at the end, we the spanish, have a place to go to purge our sins without any discipline… the black regional spanish sda churches…


  14. What an awesome blog!. I also have a blog as an anonymous facilitator hoping to open a forum for change and ideas theforgottenshepherdess.wordpress.com please visit us sometime.


  15. I am the communication director for a regional conference. I am seeking permission to include this article in my conference magazine. I also need your name so that I may give your credit for your work.



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