This month we continue our series of interviews as Mid-America Union president Gary Thurber talks with Joann Herrington about her experiences.
Joann, tell us about your background.
My parents were already Christians and they joined the Seventh-day Adventist church in my infancy. They were committed to doing whatever the Lord showed them and that included Christian education for us kids. I was raised at Sharon Church in Omaha, which was a very nurturing environment. We had a wonderful choir director and I regularly played the piano and organ for church services.
Did you learn anything about racism as a child?
I wasn’t aware of the issues in first grade, but I found out later we were the first generation of African-America students allowed to attend the local Adventist elementary school. I don’t recall my parents initiating conversations about racism, but as we asked questions about things we observed, they would sit down and talk with us. I do remember my parents giving my four brothers “the talk” about what to do when you are out at night or when you are stopped by the police. They told them sternly exactly what to do and not do to help ensure that they could come home alive.
When you entered a room and were the only person of color, how did you feel?
I knew many people from various places and often my role was as a musician, which paved the way for me. My parents also had a wide swath of acquaintances from many cultures, so I was usually not uncomfortable. I do recall that after one performance a lovely lady came up to me and said how much she enjoyed the music and that she just couldn’t wait to “come over to your side of heaven and hear you people sing.” I was speechless. I thought, What is she talking about? There is a term, called cognitive dissonance, that refers to the discomfort experienced when something comes along to challenge a person’s previous beliefs. And usually it’s a good thing because as educators we know how to help students resolve it and grow. Yet as a child in the church, I heard church leaders say how much they loved God, and then I saw and heard active racism from them. This bothered me and when I asked my parents about it they said, “Not everyone who’s talking about heaven is going to heaven.” Meaning they are in the church but not yet converted by the love of God.
How has racism affected your journey?
That’s a longer answer than we have time for today, but I can give you some examples. Going away to academy was a culture shock. Certain people had ideas of who I was, but they didn’t know me. My advisor seemed to assume that because I was Black I wasn’t going to college and should not enroll in the college prep courses. But my parents backed me up and I was able to tell him I wanted to prepare for college.
You not only graduated from Union College, you taught school, were a principal and an educational superintendent. Did you experience racism while working in the church?
I worked for both regional and non-regional conferences and I experienced hard times with some supervisors where I had to choose to back away and just not engage. Later I chose to teach in public schools.
How has God helped you deal with the systematic racism in our culture?
God is still working with me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to realize that here we are in 2020 having to demonstrate and say that Black lives matter. I thought we were beyond that. I realized after the death of Mr. Floyd that it could have been one of my brothers or the many, many friends I have with someone’s knee on their neck and them begging, “Please don’t kill me.” I was horrified and so upset. I was getting lots of emails and Facebook messages from friends, mostly Caucasian, asking to talk about this and I finally had to say, “I’m dealing with this myself and I can’t take on the responsibility of educating you. Find an article, read a book–I’m just not available right now.” It takes time to process the “why.” My answer now is we live in a sinful world and Satan tries to cut us off from each other and pit us against each other to cause division.
What are some barriers that keep us from working together successfully?
We have to start talking together truthfully. We need to experience cross cultural communication that addresses the problems. But we need to be in the love mode, and talk before we reach the boiling point. The wider our circle goes the more we are enriched. When we get out of our little boxes the whole world opens to us.
What do you wish our church could do more of to promote healing?
We need to humble ourselves and ask God to help us with the racism that exists in the church. It is not compatible with the Spirit of Christ. Legislation is good because it affords accountability, but governance will not do it. It must be intrinsic, a heart change, a mind change. We need to stop being silent. Our leaders need to be proactive in being anti-racist and have a call to prayer on this issue. We also need more diversity in leadership.
What is something you wish your white brothers and sisters understood about the African-American journey?
I believe that there is a resistance on the part of white America to understand that racism in America is systemic. If you’re running a race and you have chains and weights on your body, how can you ever compete with a runner who is free of those things? I wish people knew how hard People of Color have to work to get anywhere. You have to be twice as good and work twice as hard. You have to navigate both the majority and minority cultures.
What hope do you have for the future?
As a Christian, it is my belief that the Holy Spirit is alive and well on the earth and He is able to change people. The question is whether they will allow the Spirit of Christ to be in their heart, to have the cultural humility to understand the concerns and difficulties. Just tolerating others is not the same as celebrating our diversity.
As a Black woman, what challenges have you faced?
Our system is mostly patriarchal. I do see some changes with women pastors now and I’m so happy about that because it’s related to the race issues. Children need to see role models who look like them so they can visualize themselves doing that work. God’s Spirit cannot be contained in one gender or one race.
Joann Herrington is an accomplished musician who wrote the theme song for Adventurer clubs. She was also a career educator for over 40 years and is currently serving her second term as a member of the MAUC Executive Committee.
Watch this interview on our YouTube channel.