Growing up as a Black Seventh-day Adventist in a rural Adventist university community, Black History Weekend was one of very few times a Black person was invited to speak on Sabbath morning or participate in the day’s program. Under most circumstances Black people were not invited as program participants at the main university church. At that time, to see or hear a Black person in any official capacity on Sabbath morning, one had to go to the Black conference church or the international church, both of which were located a few miles away.
During Black History Weekend, however, the university church would transform from the quiet, mostly White congregation to a colorful, enthusiastic, vocal community of believers. I would excitedly watch as the divine service speaker would change, the music would change, and the church would change to one filled with melodic voices saying such things as “Amen”; “Yes”; “Thank you, Jesus”; “Um-hum”; and “Preach!” during the service! It was something to behold, and I looked forward to it every year.
Like traveling actors in a Broadway play, people of color from far and near would descend upon the campus, while some portion of the regular membership seemed to practically disappear, choosing to visit another church or stay at home. From all appearances, Black History Weekend was for Black people and bothersome to the majority congregation. For those who stayed, this was evidenced by their shaking heads as they walked out of the sanctuary, the called-in bomb threats designed to intimidate the guests, and the heated debates questioning the minister’s theological assertions that simmered for weeks afterward. As a child, I always had the impression that if they could, they would have those in charge eliminate the weekend altogether.
Now decades away from the practices and prejudices of the 1970s and 1980s, and with that small rural university community largely integrated when compared to the way it was in my youth, I am also aware that as a larger Adventist family we have not much expanded our attitudes about what Black History Month is all about. Instead of a universal celebration of the accomplishments of Black people, an opportunity for open discussion, and a recognition of the struggles Black people have suffered in secular and Adventist society, there are still those who take offense at even the idea of the month or view it as a time for Black people to have a free pass to celebrate themselves while everyone else grants them forbearance. In the wake of the tragedies of 2020 that caused many of us to wake up and think, even if only for a moment, shouldn’t Adventists see the month of February as something more than a time to be endured? Or a Black History Sabbath as more than a day to sing Negro spirituals or “Lift Every Voice and Sing”?
Black History Month was created to raise widespread awareness about the vast contributions of Black people in American society in an effort to dispel prejudice and misinformation. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford designated it as an “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” In practice, however, we spend our time concentrating on only four or five characters in Black history and miss the greater opportunity referred to by President Ford.
Open discourse contributes to better understanding. It may help us to move beyond somewhat begrudging attitudes toward Black History Month. The consequential social events of 2020 have caused some Adventists and other Christians to align themselves with those who would change the predicament of Black people in our society. They also revealed that far too many of my fellow Adventists would rather ignore, avoid, or criticize those who desire true change.
The reality is that this is not cause for total surprise. Our Savior reminded us that “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12, KJV). But Jesus also reminded us that He did not come to maintain the status quo and ignore the legalized mistreatment or slanderous mischaracterization of others by the people who call themselves by His name. He shows us that inequity requires some action from each of us because our attitude toward the mistreated mirrors our attitude toward Him (see Matt. 25:40). He asks us to examine ourselves and discern His body. This is not strictly a quiet, contemplative activity. It should involve a discussion throughout the diverse collective body of believers and call us all to make a decision regarding what we are willing to do in answer to His invitation to attend His feast. The questions remain: Do we care enough to do something? Do we recognize this as an issue relevant to our salvation, or are we satisfied with our current lukewarm existence?
Leesa Thomas-Banks, J.D., is a licensed attorney, currently serving as department chair and assistant professor in the Department of Business, Management, and Accounting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.