February is Black History Month. I remember when I worked in the South Central Conference, seemingly every year, there was a large Adventist entity-where when Black History Month was celebrated-there was always a backlash against the celebration of the contributions of African-Americans to society and to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Inevitably, there was an ugly incident where individuals of the majority culture did or said something that made it clear that that celebration was not appreciated. Inevitably, individuals would ask “Why do we have to celebrate Black History Month?”
I have been gone from South Central for a while now; it has been nearly 4 years since I left the conference office there. So, perhaps those incidents no longer occur at that large Adventist entity.
But I had the privilege of being in Bermuda a few days ago and in speaking with one of the leaders there, they said that question comes up there-even on an island where the majority of people are people of color and whose people went through there some of the same oppression that black people faced in the United States.
So-why do we need Black History Month? After all, some argue-there is no corresponding White History Month? There is no longer slavery, the Civil Rights Movement is over; there was even-once upon a time-a black man living in the White House. Why-some ask every year-do we need to keep talking about those things?
I would suggest that there are some important reasons for Black people (and everyone else) to know the history of what Black people have experienced in this country and our church and what they have contributed to this country and our church. Here are a few of them:
- If our story does not constantly get told, then our story will get lost. I noticed that in Johannesburg, South Africa that even though the dominant language spoken was English, everyone seemed to be bi-lingual.
I asked a person from there how many languages he spoke. He said, ”Nine” (no-that is not a misprint. He told me “Nine”. And this was not some linguist scholar, with multiple degrees-he had an ordinary job and he might have finished undergraduate school.) But he said that while English was taught in school, parents made sure that their children continued speaking in the native language(s) of their parents because they did not want that language to be lost-to be swallowed up in assimilation.
What God has done for Black people in this country and in our church is truly remarkable. To have been sold into slavery, brought thousands of miles across the seas under horrific conditions-then to be treated horrifically for a couple hundred years, where our men where lynched, our women raped and our children separated by slavery, to have been denied freedom, rights, education and human decency, but still somehow-not only surviving as a people-but in many ways-thriving as a people.
Take the Seventh-day Adventist Church, for example. Despite all the challenges people of African descent have faced in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (and most other churches, I would suspect), the largest demographic group in the Seventh-day Adventist Church-by far-are people of African descent. Nearly 45% of Seventh-day Adventists’ reside on the continent of Africa-and that does not include people of African descent in North America, the Caribbean and, even Europe. In North America, despite starting nearly 100 years after State Conferences began, despite having approximately a third less tithe than State Conferences as a whole, Regional Conferences over the past 70 years have grown a rate 4 times faster than the rest of the conferences.
The story of African-Americans and our brothers of African descent is a remarkable story of what God has done and how He preserved a people whom the devil seemed to have especially targeted and marked for extinction. Why wouldn’t we want to praise God and the story of what He has done?
- Black People Seem to Be the Only People Criticized for Telling Their Story: No one in the United States says that the story of the history of our country should not be told-and re-told, again and again. We celebrate every Thanksgiving the story of the Pilgrims coming to America in search of a better life (not unlike the story of our Latino brothers seeking to come to America in search of a better life). We celebrate the story of the Declaration of Independence when the colonists said to Britain, ”We know how to govern ourselves better than you do-especially since you are thousands of miles away”. No one tells Americans to stop celebrating July 4 or to cease talking about Paul Revere, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution. Far from not talking about them, we have built monuments, to them.
Certainly there seems to be less pressure on our Jewish brothers and sisters to stop telling the awful story of the Holocaust and other things that have happened to them. Our Jewish brethren have basically taken the position: We shall never stop telling our story because telling our story is the only way to ensure that this story never happens again.
- Lastly…We Need to Keep Telling Our Story Because the Greatest Threat to Us-Both As Black People and As Black Seventh-Day Adventists-Is If We Forget What God Has Done for Us: Just before Moses died, he called the children of Israel one final time and essentially said: My biggest concern for you is that after the struggle for the Promised Land is over-after God has fulfilled all of His promises and you are prosperous-that you will forget about God and what He has done. Which is exactly what they did. And the children of Israel went from being the most powerful nation in the world under King David-to losing their nation. They lost everything that God gave them because-after the struggle with external foes was over, they forgot that there is an internal struggle that is never over-the struggle to remember God.
In a lot of ways, Black people-and Black Seventh-day Adventists-have gotten to somewhat of the Promised Land. This is a very different country and a very different church-than when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama and a young preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King and others organized the Montgomery bus boycott that pretty much birthed the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. If Martin Luther Ling were around today-especially if he could have seen Black people go from not being able to vote at all in the South-to being able to elect the first Black President of the United States-I think Dr. King might say -at least in some ways-“I didn’t get there with you-but we as a people really did get to the Promised Land”.
I shall remember for the rest of my life, sitting in a room, where my good friend, Dr. Ronald C. Smith, was elected the first President of the largest union in the North American Division and the wealthiest tithe union in the world church-the Southern Union. I watched him chair the boards of entities that black people could not get into when I was growing up. Dr. King might say-that at least in some ways-that we reached the Promised Land.
I just came out of a meeting where one of the items that was discussed was the challenges of finding young people to work in the Seventh-day Adventist Church because young people have so many more opportunities today than my generation and previous generations of Black people had; opportunities to make far more money than people make in the church. I remember a young person just coming out of Oakwood and turning down an entry level position that would have paid more than I was making after years of working for the church. I believe that Dr. King might say that in some ways, we reached the Promise Land.
But however far we’ve come, it was God that brought us here. The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened without the black church and the God of that church. A lot of the people who helped us get to where we are today, were church-going people. It is very likely that what gave those people the courage to face baseball bats and police attack dogs and fire hoses that were turned up full blast and bombs that blew up their homes and their churches was their faith in God.
Their story is our story. And if we don’t tell that story, then we run the risk of those who come behind us not only forgetting the amazing courage and faith of people before us who risked everything so that we could have something-but even worse-them forgetting that it was only through the miraculous intervention and the grace of God that there was even a story to tell.
However, the greatest risk we face as a people is-having in at least some ways, reached the Promise Land-that we forget the God Who got us there.
That is part of the risk of not telling our story. And that is why we must continue to tell that story.
By Elder Dana Edmond