A controversial debate about racism in the United Pentecostal Church International is now raging in the denomination after an interracial couple who led one of the denomination’s churches in Missouri for 15 years announced their exit from the group on Sunday.
With some 42,000 congregations globally serving nearly 5 million members, the UPCI is the world’s largest Oneness Pentecostal denomination. It emerged in 1945 after racism and Jim Crow laws caused white Pentecostals to split from the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World — an interracial organization at the time.
While the UPCI has since opposed “racism, prejudice, and segregation” and proudly states that it is an organization that is predominantly non-white globally, Pastor Adam Medina of New Destiny Apostolic Church in Maplewood and his wife Dawn say the church body isn’t doing nearly enough stateside. And that’s why they are now part of a group called Apostolic International Ministries and have renamed their church the New Destiny Worship Center.
“We are leaving as a protest against racism,” Pastor Medina said in the video announcement that has been viewed more than 80,000 times and triggered more than 2,000 comments since it was published Sunday.
“Many black Apostolics are having to readjust their thinking just to maintain their positions in the church. Many that we have talked to are having to continually bite their tongues and talk amongst each other to vent but not see change happen,” he said.
Medina and his wife said in the video that they had been praying about the decision for five years and tried unsuccessfully to get leaders of the church to properly address the concerns and pain of people of color who have either left the denomination in frustration or were simply suffering in silence.
“We feel that it is important that the church be the center of the community. Standing for the Word of God with love and compassion. However, here in the St. Louis area we have not experienced the church standing against what is literally pulling our city apart — racism,” explained Medina.
“This goes further than having the right to choose a side. However, the UPCI decided to stand on one side of the issue and not address the hurt or racial profiling and injustices. And as a family that has been victim to racial profiling, it would have been such a healing balm for the St. Louis community if the church would have had at least expressed empathy for those apostolic black men and women who have experienced racial profiling in complete innocence. What should have been addressed is, if it’s affecting my brother or sister of any race that share the same savior, Jesus Christ, it affects me,” he said.
In her assessment of the way the UPCI seeks to engage the African-American community, Dawn criticized the organization’s stereotypical approach of focusing on negative issues like poverty as if it is an issue endemic to the black community.
The UPCI’s I AM Urban Campaign, which is a part of its Building the Bridge Ministries, is the denomination’s African-American outreach arm.
On the campaign’s website, it is listed as an “aid in reaching the African-American community and increasing urban evangelism while facilitating successful cross-cultural assimilation into the church.”
“This ministry is uniquely equipped and positioned to play this role for the UPCI as it has been predominately focused for the past 30 years on the African-American community which has long been dealing with the effects of those negative urban influences. We recognize that this influence now transcends some of the traditional cultural and socio-economic barriers, and all of our churches must be equipped to deal with it,” the campaign explains.
Dawn argued in the video, “I have a family member who was exposed to the I Am Urban campaign. He is a professor at a local college here in St. Louis. He surmised that he could not be a part of an organization that believes there is destruction in the African-American people to the point of needing ministry that focuses only on their hardships.”
“The African-American community is full of educated, accomplished people from all social and economic backgrounds. Statistically, per capita, 22 percent of African Americans are in poverty and statistically 8 percent of white Americans are in poverty. However, if you strip the numbers down based on population that means 17 million white Americans are in poverty and only 9 million African Americans are in poverty. At that raw number level, there are more white Americans that need welfare, that need financial assistance, that struggle with hardships et cetera. What is the campaign for that?” she said.
She also pointed to a video that appeared on the campaign’s Instagram page they found offensive.
“There is currently a video on the I Am Urban Instagram that has a white minister puffing his lips saying that he and the black minister he’s standing next to are family because of lip size. The black minister laughed it off and said, ‘we will edit this video.’ The video unfortunately is still up. This is a very small minor example of racism. Saying that you are related to blacks or urban based on your lip is inexcusable,” she said.
Speaking with The Christian Post in an interview Wednesday, David P. Johnson, the UPCI’s director of communications, said they were working on an official response to the Medinas’ criticisms but noted that they were saddened by the concerns raised by the couple.
“Obviously, we are deeply saddened to find that people may still be experiencing any form of racism in some places within the UPCI. When you have 42,000 self-governing churches and humans are involved, that’s bound to happen. And that is deeply saddening. We are taking positive steps and have been for the past few years to do what we can to educate people within the UPCI to increase awareness. Obviously, we can’t control every word that’s spoken,” Johnson said.
He said their aim is to have each church in the organization reflect the “truth of the Gospel,” which is “Jesus Christ died for everyone. He loves everyone. Everyone is equal.”
Since Sunday, Johnson said UPCI leaders have had dialogue with the couple and they are working to address their concerns.
“After the video came out, we had our director of the Building Bridge ministries which they referenced … in the video, he called them personally as soon as he saw the video a day or two ago,” Johnson said.
“We invited them to come into our headquarters in Weldon Springs, Missouri, and they sat down and spoke with our general superintendent, which is the highest leader in our organization for a couple of hours … they were very respectful, appreciative that we were reaching out,” he continued.
“We do take these allegations seriously and are committed to make changes where possible but I think we also have to communicate what we have been doing in the past,” he said.
In August, the UPCI published a report about minority participation in the denomination that reflected decades of efforts to achieve biblical unity.
“In recent decades the UPCI has sought to recapture the biblical unity of the apostolic church and the early Oneness movement. In Christ, there are no divisions based on race, culture, socioeconomic status, or sex,” the group noted.
The denomination also referenced a position paper adopted in 2008, titled Racial and Ethnic Affirmation, which condemned racism and bigotry.
Johnson said the UPCI currently has minority representation on all of their boards and committees but it is a bigger issue in certain states like Oregon, where the black population is small.
In an interview with The Christian Post on Sunday, the couple said they were intentionally vague about the extent of the racism they were protesting but gave a detailed account of their concerns to David K. Bernard, the UPCI’s general superintendent.
“Brother Bernard did express to us his stance on having black people integrated into the organization and how he was appointing certain people … We acknowledged that and said he was doing a great work. However, our stance is not about that. It is about systemic racism,” Dawn said. “In order for the racism to be combatted there has to be a system change.”
She said they suggested a number of solutions, including a request that Bernard talk with the entire organization about not tolerating racism in the organization and acknowledging it as a problem.
“The other thing we suggested was that there would be resolutions made with the bylaws and the structure of the UPC and he did mention to us that he wrote a position paper on racism and this was the position on racism as far as the UPC is concerned. But in our opinion that does not help the systemic problem of racism where the UPC is concerned,” Dawn said.
In its August report, the UPCI said it conducted a survey that examined the composition of its leadership in relationship to the past, their constituency, and to the general population and found that diversity had improved among its ranks.
Of districts surveyed in the U.S. and Canada, 80 percent reported having at least one leader who identifies as African American or Black, Asian or Native American, or Hispanic, while 20 percent of the districts reported having leaders in all three of those categories.
“This is a significant increase from 2012 when thirty-nine districts (71 percent) reported at least one minority leader.  These leaders include twenty-five African-American or Black, ten Asian or Native American, and twenty-two Hispanic District Board members,” the denomination noted.
Dawn argued that while efforts to improve diversity by the current UPCI leadership is commendable, it doesn’t come with any guarantees for forward movement.
“Our problem is not the amount of people that you add that are black or of color to the organization. What we expressed to him is, although you are working to advance this, what’s going to happen when the next general superintendent is voted in and they don’t agree with this? How does the racism stop? Our suggestion was that there has to be resolutions. There has to be different things in the law that includes everyone,” she said.
Dawn said there wasn’t a clear response from Bernard to the concerns she raised about future leaders but noted that after about 90 minutes he asked about the video and noted that it was shining a negative light on the UPCI.
“Our response was ‘well, we are not saying that everyone in the UPCI is racist; we are saying there is racism in the organization and people have left because of it,'” she said.
Addressing concerns from critics who felt they should have tried to raise the issue privately, the husband and wife team said the video was a last resort.
“As far as we are concerned we went through the proper channels to get this to Brother Bernard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after our video, almost 36 hours later, we had a meeting and was able to sit with Brother Bernard and talk to him about specific issues and concerns that we have,” Dawn said.
And while some people may have questioned their tactics, the people in the UPCI who have been most impacted by racism have thanked them for speaking out.
“The outpouring of people that are saying ‘thank you for being our voice because this is why I left.’ Or ‘I’m in but I can’t talk because I’m afraid of being ostracized or being called a troublemaker.’ To be perfectly honest, we felt like we had no other choice but to voice it this way because of the intimidation,'” Dawn said.