The Disappearing Anglo Adventist
I’ve been thinking about this for a week, and now you’re going to help me think about it.
Last Thursday, I was sitting with a good friend, enjoying the dedication of the new North American Division conference office in Columbia, Maryland. A large academy choir marched in and my friend leaned over and asked, “Is that Pine Forge?” He asked because the choir was all black and Pine Forge is a predominantly black academy down the road. I also assumed it was Pine Forge until, to our surprise, we were informed that the choir was not from Pine Forge but Takoma Park Academy. Things have really changed at Takoma Park!
Now, I’m not a D.C. expert, but I have traveled to the area regularly since my wife taught at DuPont Park Elementary School years ago. But that little incident made me curious. I did a bit of searching and discovered this.
Practically every Adventist institution in the D.M.V. (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) that was once predominantly Anglo, is now predominantly black.
It’s a sensitive subject and it defies easy answers. The problem is influenced by birth rates, and death rates, and baptismal rates. And there is probably the influence of house churches, internet churches, café churches, and boring churches. Again, there are issues to explore.
But make no mistake about it, a consistent culprit is one of the oldest enemies of racial progress, white flight. It is no respecter of religion and certainly no stranger to the Adventist church. It seems that when people of color, particularly African Americans, begin to join Anglo institutions, at some point the Anglos begin to leave. And it’s not just a DMV problem. It has been repeated so often that in many major urban areas, there is no appreciable Anglo Adventist presence at all.
The Experiment That Should Have Worked
In August of 1993, Dr. Henry Wright became the pastor of an Adventist church in Alexandria, Virginia. The vision many had was a multi-cultural church that could provide a model for others with the same vision and passion. And frankly, they had all the right ingredients. A multi- gifted pastor/teacher with a once in a generation preaching gift. An Anglo congregation declaring to be open to an influx of new energy and members.
Did it work? Yes, it did. The church grew from 57 members to 1200 with a tithe of over 2.4 million dollars. They planted another congregation that grew to 600 and counting.
Did it work? No, it didn’t. Both of the congregations are predominantly black and the original vision is a fond memory.
Why do I care?
Good question. In some ways, I don’t. I’m not criticizing a church or organization for being predominantly one color or culture. People attend churches for all manner of reasons. We have different missions. I teach at an institution that has been called to do a special work for people of color and that mission will last as long as the need exists. I’m also a proud product of the black church, black community, and a black university. I like black shirts and if I had my choice I’d only drive a black car. I am perfectly fine with spending the rest of my life working for and with black people.
But I’m not stupid. I am critical of any organization, mine included, that doesn’t look for best practices and relationships in any color or culture. When you only listen to yourself, you live in a dangerous echo chamber. Every culture has its bright spots and blind spots.
So, what I do like is collaboration. What I don’t like is hypocrisy. And what I see in the DMV, the home of the General Conference and North American Division, is hypocrisy.
The issue is not THAT a church has shifted from white to black, the issue is WHY a church has shifted from white to black. If the answer is White Flight, then we have a significant problem. Here’s why white flight among Seventh Day Adventist Christians is a problem
Because it reinforces age old stereotypes
White flight is not a racial myth, it’s a historical fact. The term originated in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s and applied to the large-scale migration of people of various European ancestries away from urban regions and minority communities. White flight was marked by redlining, mortgage discrimination, and racially restrictive community covenants. It was real then and it’s real now.
The old joke is that black members don’t need to buy new churches, all they need to do is coordinate their visits to white churches and pretty soon they will have the church to themselves. When Anglo Adventists migrate away from churches and communities of color, for reasons of color, it’s white flight at its worse.
Because one-way integration is fool’s gold
It is true that some of our churches and institutions are experiencing an integration of sorts. Some of them even advertise their multiculturalism. But take a closer look. Where there is integration, most often it’s people of color moving toward Anglos and rarely if ever the other way around. Southern Adventist University, Washington Adventist University and a host of academies and churches are examples.
That type of integration is deceptive. It might look good in an Alumni magazine or enrollment brochure, but it’s fool’s gold. It’s not the real thing. And it actually works against real change by providing an illusion of progress.
Because the church seems to have nothing to offer
Our nation is in a racial mess. Over 80% of white evangelicals voted for a president that over 80% of African Americans voted against. That’s a symbol of a nation in racial trouble. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. This witches brew of racial tension, religious fervor, white fright, political pandering, and fake news is a recipe for disaster. And in the area of race relations, the church seems to have nothing to offer.
My fear is that we’ve lost a generation of urban young people who can’t separate the Christian church from the Republican party because the two seem to be joined at the hip. Racism is explained away. Sexism is explained away. Greed is explained away. Many evangelical Christians seem to have placed “safety” and self- interest and a supreme court justice above the gospel.
I am absolutely convinced that the community that can make the greatest contribution to this racial divide is the Anglo community. My response to those who complain about racism in the church and community is that nothing is going to happen until Anglos lead the charge. Until Anglos begin to sacrifice. Until Anglos get some skin in the game. Complaints from people of color are often dismissed as whining and self -serving. People of color have neither the power nor platform to get at some of these protracted racial issues.
And where are Anglo Adventists at this moment of need and opportunity? Well, many of them seem to have disappeared.
What do you think? Am I reading it wrong? Am I reading it right? Any suggestions?