Last month, we discussed the tragic event-the death of Lucy Byard-that served as the catalyst for a very good thing: The origin of Regional Conferences. I am indebted to Edwards Woods III, Religious Liberty and PARL Director, for the Lake Region Conference, for making me aware of the recent 75th anniversary of her passing.
Make no mistake about it, the advent of Regional Conferences has been a good thing for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Consider these facts:
- When Regional Conferences began, there were approximately 18,000 Seventh-day Adventist in the United States, in 233 churches, with a total of $511,000 in tithe. As of the end of last year, there were 320,000 members in Regional Conferences, in over 1,200 churches, with 183 million dollars in tithe.
- That means that the work in Regional Conferences has grown, since their inception, 1,500%. That is 4 times the rate of growth of the rest of the North American Division.
- If all of the Regional Conferences were part of a Union Conference, that mythical “Regional Conference Union” would be the largest Union Conference in membership and tithe in the North American Division.
- If the Regional Conferences were a world Division of the General Conference, they would be the 4th largest Division (out of what would then be 14 world Divisions-there are 13- the mythical “Regional Conference Division” would make the 14th) in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
So, while there are those who look at Regional Conferences as an unfortunate product of a bygone era, I would posit (to use a word that some of my more erudite ministerial colleagues like to use) that these figures demonstrate that God took a bad thing (Lucy Byard being denied admittance to a Seventh-day Adventist hospital by other Seventh-day Adventists-for the sole reason that she was black) and used it to perform a good thing.
Which, I suppose, is the first lesson that we learn from this story:
God specializes in taking bad things and turning them into something good. You may be experiencing some challenges in your life right now-know this: God has already provided a way for that bad thing to turn into something good. In fact, at this very moment, He may be working and changing and re-arranging the circumstances of that bad thing and turning it into one of the best things in your life.
Years ago, when I was Youth Director, there was a young lady in one of our churches. She was in high school. She had everything going for her. Very smart, attractive, gifted, involved in her church, from a good family-a seemingly limitless future.
But one day, she came to her parents with those 2 words that every parent of a teenage girl live in fear that they will hear: “I’m pregnant”. The mother-in particular-was absolutely devastated. I suppose the father was as well, but it was the mother that came to me-absolutely broken. What would become of her gifted child?
I spoke with her and then, sent her to my wife-so that they could talk-mother to mother. I do not know what my wife told her, but the Lord seemed to use her to help that poor mother.
But here is what I do know: That young lady had her baby. And even though it must have been difficult, with the help of her family, she finished high school. She went on to college, finished that and became a very successful professional. Meanwhile, that mother learned what pretty much every grandparent learns: Even if they do not come the way you planned for them to come, grandchildren are one of the greatest gifts that God can ever give. In fact, grandchildren are a parent’s reward for everything children put parents through while they are parents.
That grandchild quickly healed that mother’s broken heart. She became the most doting grandmother ever; in fact, she was downright pitiful–even worse than my wife with our grandchildren. Max Lucado said in one of his books, “In the hands of God, intended evil becomes eventual good”. That is what God does; in fact, it is a big part of what makes Him God.
The second lesson from the story of Lucy Byard is the importance of knowing your history, and, learning from your history. One of the things that we learn from history is that if you do not learn from history, you are prone to repeat the mistakes from your history. Someone once said that one of the things that we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.
One of the lessons that African-American Seventh-day Adventists seem to struggle with is that if you do not know your history, if you do not tell your own story, someone else will tell your story, only they will tell it from their perspective. Too often, the narrative concerning Regional Conferences is that they are something of which our church ought to be ashamed. “Why do we have to have separate conferences?” Here is the short answer-one of several that can be given: Because in this country, it is the best way to reach people of color.
And that is exactly what has happened. In fact, when the North American Division does its demographic breakdown of the church, it would not be a surprise if African-Americans-who were the second largest demographical group in the church the last time this particular study was done-are the largest group now. Why do we need to apologize or feel badly about the success that the Lord has given Regional Conferences?
Lastly, a final lesson from the story of Lucy Byard is that-not only do we need to know our history and learn from our history-but most important of all: We need to remember that God is in control of everything that has happened, is happening and will ever be happening. However slowly God seems to be working, He is working.
Dr. Martin Luther King said “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Often, the arc of the moral universe is long-in other words, often, it seems that it takes right a long time to overtake wrong. But eventually, it will-if not always on this earth, in the next.
Sometimes, we forget that part of God being God is that He gets to decide how quickly to “bend the arc of the moral universe”. He gets to decide-can I say this-how quickly, or even whether He will intervene on the issue of whether women should be ordained. As the person who is very humbly proud of hiring the first female Pastor in the history of the South Central Conference, of assigning the first female to Pastor their own church in the history of the Southern Union and the person who hired the first female Conference Officer in the history of the South Central Conference, I personally think that they should be. But I have to trust God’s leading in when they will be.
Let’s be honest: Trusting God and waiting on God can be very difficult. If having faith were easy, then it wouldn’t be faith; by definition, faith is difficult because it requires that we believe-and keep on believing-in something that we cannot currently see. But if I am not prepared to trust God-if I am not willing to believe that He knows what He is doing even if it seems as though His church does not seem to me to know what it is doing-then that may say more about me than it says about anyone else. I cannot only trust God when He does what I want. I have to trust Him even when He doesn’t.
Because the story of Lucy Byard reminds us that God knows exactly what He is doing.
By Elder Dana Edmond