“F*&k white privilege” “We’re coming for the land next” “Senzeni na?” “White people owe us an apology!” “Privilege” “Decolonise” “Afrocentric” “Culture!”
I read these words from placards. I hear them in my conversations with friends and classmates. I feel almost suffocated by the amount of anger, hurt and brokenness. My natural instinct is usually to fix things, to make it go away somehow and now in the midst of this pandemonium and high surging emotions I desire to remind people of a Saviour who cares and show them that His people care too. That in the land that we’re headed to none of the pain will exist. That we can live in harmony somehow if we put selfishness aside and let love reign as God initially designed. I have one problem, however. The people claiming to have fully experienced this love, that are awaiting the return of Jesus, that claim to be future citizens of heaven, have not come together in unity. Although we may not be burning each others’ churches or cursing at one another, the anger and hatred– yes I said hatred– the racial separation and bigotry is just as real in the church, in my church.
“White people will never mix with us” “The conferences will never come together” “We just don’t worship in the same way” “I just want to protect my cultural heritage” “I just prefer my home church” “They should apologise” “The church does not care about us” “African worship” “Afrikaans worship”
Yet at 11:00 every sabbath (well 12:00 sometimes depending on the church you’re attending) we all desire to hear the message, we want to declare this message. In separated unison we declare the word:
“To every nation, tongue and kindred”
The situation is, of course, complex yet our clandestine bigotry, covered under a cloak of a desire for religious freedom, renders our segregation all the more intolerable. We desire to help the world know love ye,t the log in our eye could house a whole family of squirrels.
And thus I’ve spent sleepless nights trying to think of how we can fix this. Below are a few of my thoughts on the racial segregation in Adventist churches.
The beginning: when did I get bothered
I grew up in Randfontein. The name suggests that there were many Afrikaans kids walking around barefoot. I went to Kinderland kleuterskool. I was one of four black kids walking around barefoot while we sang” Afrikaners is plesierig.” Every sabbath morning, however, we would drive past a church five minutes from home and drive 15 minutes into Mohlakeng for worship. I would always wonder what the Sewendedag Adventiste Kerk was like. Maybe Michelle went there (my kleuterskool bestie) or maybe Lienerd (my kleuterskool kerel). My mother told me I would never be allowed there because of who I was. I was too young to understand then and just thought she was just avoiding changing churches. Although we moved out of Randfontein I was still constantly plagued by the fact that every other day of the week I was surrounded by white people, except on sabbath. Where were the white Seventh-Day Adventists?
Varsity made it worse. I realised that every SDASM was just black– even Stellies guys! Mowbray, Claremont and Plumstead were in areas that had lots of white folks in them but the churches were predominantly black with a few, old, white soldiers. I knew no SDAs my age that were white( I knew quite a few of coloured folks though). What made it worse was that I knew many white Christians my age. Hillsong buses were full and multiracial. Friends would invite me to their churches where my white peers were leading and giving the devotions. Not so in the remnant. We had no Jabulani-Africa-singing-offbeat clapping-enthusiastic white folk (no shade). And to be honest it got to me. In a generation where many of my white friends are looking to see Christians that will embrace rainbow-nation-love I could not bring them with me to church because they would not find it where I was. And I understood the desire to have people who are similar to you around you; which could make the one vanilla cupcake feel less left out in a bakery full of chocolate so I left my vanillas at school.
My distress escalated when I read an article comparing the success of the work in Bulawayo to the failures in the Cape Colony. The unwillingness of the saints to spread the word to the natives of the Cape Colony lead to a breakdown– the Holy Spirit simply could not bless this separation. I even remember reading a quotation that said until the work was spread to the natives, and the racial bigotry had been repented of, the fullest results of the harvest would not be experienced.
Rhodesmustfall (I can’t hasttage it because my laptop is strange) then hurled me into a state of white distrust. I had white peers around me that for the first time voiced that I was not as good as them–albeit not as blatantly. I saw my white friends protest and recognise the problem and found solace and silence for my trust issues but every sabbath morning I was reminded of the indentations segregation had made in my church, my safe space. Where were the white SDAs my age? Placard slogans flashed though my mind.
“Equality!” “White people never loved us.”” The rainbow nation is a lie”
Segregation and discrimination always yield a baleful harvest. Paul’s arrest was facilitated by discrimination, though it was furtive, between the Jews and Gentiles. There was loss because people did not have Christlike love. So it is in the history of the work in South Africa. Adventists were at the forefront of racial segregation even before apartheid. Many felt that they were just trying to prevent the non-SDA white folk from being turned away from the faith by the close interaction between black and white. Although racial segregation was prominent, even before apartheid, Adventists were very adamant to keep it that way; even with the private institutions (the church institutions) not accepting and black or coloured students– despite having authority to do so. In all honesty, many pioneers covered their racial prejudices under a guise of evangelistic efforts and self denial. Notice what Philip Wessels, a pioneer, writes to Aunty Ellen in 1893:
“I do not want my children to associate with the lower classes of coloured people. I will labor for them and teach my children to do so. But I do not want my children to mix with them for such is detrimental to their moral welfare. Nor do I want my children to think there is no difference in society that they should finally associate and marry into coloured blood…So there is the colour line drawn which is very distinctly drawn here in society. For my part I do not care. I can shake hands with the coloured people and so forth. But our association with them is going to spoil our influence with others who are accustomed to these things…to have any influence with the higher class of people, we must respect these differences.”
Wessels sites moral detriment as the first reason he will keep his children away from the black people. The idea of moral racism will be discussed briefly later. He also wanted his children to know that there was a difference. It is only after these reasons that the colour line and influence arguments are cited. There was more than just noble evangelistic self-sacrifice when it came to the separation. Often when in contact with the white Adventist– the evangelistic segregationalists– black Adventist were still mistreated.
Even post-apartheid, segregation continues. Is it still evangelistic?
Imagine if the story was different: If God’s people had made decided efforts for reconciliation and interracial association before the official law came. Imagine if they had not given expression and voice to a desire for separation. Imagine if after every restriction to free association between races had been put away, Adventists were eagerly awaiting a reunion with their brothers and sisters on the other side of the race spectrum. Post 1994 everyone was looking for a model of reconciliation that would work. Imagine if the church had taken its place, yeah its dutiful position, as the example of reconciliation; as those that Christ has made ministers thereof (2 Cor 5: 19). All the spiritual Gentiles would have flocked to our light, for aid, for repose, for a solution (Is 60:3)
“Detrimental to their moral welfare” “Lower classes of coloured people” “Every nation, kindred, tongue and people” “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile”
Factors leading to the segregationalist mindset
There were three main factors, that I can think of, that lead our pioneers to develop this mindset and desire for segregation.
- Dutch Reformed Church influence– many of the converts to Adventism are from the Dutch Reformed Church. The conservative nature of the church appealed to more studious individuals who were likely to convert to Adventism, and the church was the most popular at the time. The church also held notoriously racist views– with “biblical” evidence– making segregation a moral issue. This explains Wessels’ statement. We can all say that our B.C days flash through at times; this was the case with our pioneers just that they’re BC tendency was racist. When many became Adventist they did not renounce the moral racism that they were raised in.
- Science–The science of racism and eugenics were mainstream. Physical features were said to determine one’s temperament and intelligence and positive eugenics( breeding with the more favourable groups of people) was subtly promoted within the church.
- Supremacy and greed– Some genuinely believed white people were better and deserved better and should not be tainted by the savage black people (part of the moral racist ideology). Aunty Ellen even documents that greed was a high motivating factor to keeping separation in the South in the USA, and probably here too. She says: “One of the difficulties attending the work is that many of the white people living where the colored people are numerous are not willing that special efforts should be put forth to uplift them. When they see schools established for them, when they see them being taught to be self-supporting, to follow trades, to provide themselves with comfortable homes instead of continuing to live in hovels, they see the possibility that selfish plans will be interfered with–that they will no longer be able to hire the Negro for a mere pittance; and their enmity is aroused. They feel that they are injured and abused. “9T 204
- The norm–This one for me is a weak reason because Adventists are so used to going against the norms of society. Yet, some did feel gently nudged into the segregationalist mindset because it was the normal thing to do.
When I was 13 (2006) there was a call to merge the separated conferences. I, being a trainee of the CIA yet to be discovered, overheard the church members speaking about what happened in the session. Reasons like black people breast feeding in church, differences in worship style, times, and language were stated as reasons why they just could not join forces. It eventually got so bad that the discussions ended.
“Again under GC pressure, the attempted “realignment” of the Oranje-Transvaal Field and the Transvaal Conference in 2006 did not occur when delegates at the proposed meeting refused to participate in the process and the meeting was called off.” Crocombe J.
I’ll only pay attention to the least petty reasons that were stated for the conferences to keep separate.
- Language: I have come to appreciate this reason as a factor, a serious issue, for the older generation. Afrikaans is more than just a language to Afrikaans people. It’s a symbol of their national pride and one of the only few beacons that they have of their cultural heritage. Afrikaner nationalism is strongly promoted, especially after the Anglo-Boer war. When the first Afrikaans newspaper was published the following was penned: : “True Afrikaners, we call upon you to acknowledge together with us that the Afrikaans language is the mother tongue that our Dear Lord gave us; and to make a stand with us through thick and thin for our language; and not to rest before our language is generally acknowledged as the national language of our country.” English was seen as a sign of the British imperialism and colonisation, as much as Afrikaans is viewed by many black people as a symbol of apartheid. It was thrust upon them and thus they seek by all means to escape it and to keep their national pride.Fluency in worship is also desired by all. You want to relate to God comfortably without trying to make sure you’re pronouncing words right (as if Bible names aren’t hard enough). It was proposed that mixed churches should worship in English and this was rejected very quickly.
- Worship styles: Language and culture also influence how we relate to God. Jabulani Africa and Thuma mina kind of songs foster unity but sometimes don’t express the hearts inner desire for real worship informed by cultural preferences. I mean, time then also becomes an issue–but I’ll leave that one.
- Two hurt groups: This task was as hard as trying to force two crying teenage girls to understand where the other was coming from. Afrikaans people still bore the scars of the Anglo-Boer war. They received no apology and minimal sympathy from the English. They had their national pride stripped from them and now they had to worship with the descendants of those who had killed their family members–the English. The scars are still fresh because its only about 3 or 4 generations ago. Now I must pray in English? Waarvoor? And while the Afrikaner is crying the black person wondering why they’re so upset. It is difficult to sympathise with one who has caused you pain and anger. Manje wena ukhalelani? Now I must worship in English? Vir ini? Some lived through the horrors of apartheid and the racial bigotry still continues. How is it possible to foster love amidst the distrust? The scars are real. Imagine not being able to attend your graduation because you were coloured, as was the case with the first coloured graduate from HBC. The guy had separate facilities for everything and for four years had to endure being treated as sub-human by those who claimed to know God and then could not even celebrate his success because the room was not big enough to host him and his family with the white families. The anger is real.
- Geographic separation: Adventists are meant to worship and evangelise in the areas that they live in. For the most part black people still live in townships surrounded by other black people. No racially intergrated church can be birthed here.
“White tears” “I want to be free when I worship” “I still feel the pain” “Afrikaans sal bly” “OpenStellenbosch” “Why can’t you just move on” “I wasn’t in apartheid”
The issue of race is complex. And I still have a log in my eye. Part 2 will look at why the above reasons are unsubstantial in my generation and also some starters to the solution of the Adventist log of separation.
–I didn’t reference because it’s not meant to be that stressful but here are some articles.