This month we conclude our series of interviews as Mid-America Union president Gary Thurber talks with Pastor Victor Wilson about his experiences.
Pastor Wilson, please tell us about your background.
I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Then I attended high school in my father’s home territory of Bermuda. After that, I went to Oakwood College (now University).
What did you learn about racial issues from your parents?
They both attended Oakwood during the early 70’s. My parents taught us how to talk when we were outside the house, what to do when approached by police, how to dress to avoid stereotyping, how to not look suspicious. We were basically taught how to survive, just like other parents of a darker hue must still teach their kids. It seemed like a lot. Actually, it’s still a lot because my fear of being stopped by police has ratcheted over the past five years.
How does racism impact your life?
It affects many things. If I’m outside after dark and meet a Caucasian lady, I raise my voice an octave so as not to frighten her. Racism also impacts how you name your children (not ethnic sounding) so they can get good jobs when they grow up and someone looks at their resume. Our culture has even conditioned us to fear ourselves the way others fear us. It’s so disheartening to see this fear spread globally to every continent. It impacts your psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being, especially when you layer on the pandemic challenges in addition to the racial challenges.
What do you think when people say “I’m colorblind?”
They are basically saying, I don’t see race as long as you operate in the way I see as the best model. But as soon as there is something different, that can’t be right. Your experience is not valued unless it fits this container. As long as you assimilate into culture, your color doesn’t matter. Caucasians can have black friends and still be disparaging of black culture.
How do you feel when you are the only person of color in a group?
It happens often. You just switch gears. You put on your professional/corporate personality to blend in. You’re more conscious of not being what people see as stereotypical. You’re more guarded because you are representing the race. You have to be intentional about authenticity.
What would you like your fellow Caucasian Christians to know about the African-American experience?
Just believe that my experience with discrimination is true, even if it doesn’t seem real to you. I also wish others understood that African-Americans have generational PTSD, that we are not able to bear more than others, that we have the same range of emotions, and we are not “less than.” Our story is also your story.
How has God helped you deal with systematic racism?
God is working with me in multiple ways. Sometimes rage builds up and I have to go to the Lord in prayer. Looking at the Bible in a non-Eurocentric way is helpful. Most denominations have a Europeanized version of Jesus. But studying history, we see Jesus was a Person of Color. And He experienced being poor, mistreated, not having the best supplied to Him. His example of submission to the Father and giving Himself on the cross helps to sustain me as a man, a believer, an Adventist. The fact that more non-African American individuals participated in rallies after the death of George Floyd is encouraging. Many people want to know how to help. They’re asking how they can be a part of racial justice.
What do you think are the biggest barriers to working together?
Our Caucasian brothers and sisters often think they have the answers and they are bringing salvation to the rest of us. Sometimes Caucasians feel the need to fix a problem, but they don’t ask about the deeper challenges. Making blanket statements about culture (for example “drums in church are evil”) when something feels uncomfortable is definitely a barrier. There have been so many accounts in history where People of Color have trusted white “allies” and have been burned. In the Adventist Church, pastors of color had a lower retirement income than white pastors. Often we do better one-on-one than we do as a system.
Do you have hope that hearts can change and we as a church community can improve?
The simple answer is Yes. But the more complex answer is I don’t know. It depends on what heart changes people will allow. Look at the Bible stories of Peter at different times in his life. It’s disheartening and I wonder, Can the gospel impact our institutionalized organization? We like to say we’re a movement, but as a whole we are not. There are pockets of movements within the Adventist Church, but honestly I have less hope in our denominational leadership making progress than I do in the local level.
What could our church do more or less of to promote healing?
Our Bible study materials could reflect more diversity, rather than looking European. There was once a picture of Jesus at His second coming with an afro hairstyle, but it was quickly replaced. One of the classes I appreciated in seminary dealt with misinformation and encouraged an effort to let go of unfounded traditions that have been a part of our institutionalized racism. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to have His rightful role. Don’t live in an echo chamber. Instead, ask, How are we aligning with the gospel and where are we failing? We like to talk about the last days, but People of Color have been experiencing the time of trouble for a long time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us a clear view that impacts how we lead, teach, train. We should pause the factory of Adventism long enough to find out why people are not only losing fingers but also going out in body bags. Why are people leaving the church or rising up and saying, We can’t go on like this?
Pastor Wilson, what would you like to ask me as we close?
Our theology and world views impact our daily interactions. So, are you stepping back and asking yourself, How am I preaching? Is it comfortable or biblical? Am I being quick to listen? Also, I would ask, Do you know how to use your influence and position as a white individual to make a difference for good? Through these interviews, is a plan opening up for impacting our church through Holy Spirit-led transformation surrounding issues of equality in race, class and gender?
Pastor Victor Wilson has been serving in the Lake Region Conference for 14 years. The church he currently pastors, Minneapolis Glendale Church, was planted years ago when territories covered different areas. So the Glendale Church—although in Minnesota— is still part of the Lake Region Conference in the Lake Union. His church was not that far away from where Mr. George Floyd lost his life. He has been on the ground working in the community.
Watch this interview on our YouTube channel.