Why I Go To Church.

I wrote this a couple weeks ago while flying home from a business trip. Now I’m posting it in the context of the recent killing of nine African-American Christians in Charleston, SC. And since I’m sitting at home on a Sabbath morning instead of sitting in church, apparently I should write a follow-up essay, Why I Don’t Go To Church. :)

Church-goers Anonymous:

“My name is Jeff, and I go to church.”

“Hi, Jeff.”

Yes, I am a church member. I attend a local congregation. I was part of a conversation recently about why I go to church. My basic answer was that at church I get connected to the people who are the local “body of Christ.”i That deserves some serious unpacking (by someone more insightful than me, but I’ll do my best).

I should clarify from the outset that my answer is not really about a congregation, a denomination, or a building, although each of those is inherently involved. A more complete response about attending church would deal with these directly, but that’s not my focus here.

I go to church to be in the community that, I believe, is in some mysterious way the body of Christ on earth. As an aside, for my friends who are atheists or followers of other spiritual paths, if you momentarily allow a resurrected Jesus for argument’s sake, can you imagine how frustrating it must be for him to be identified with many—okay, all—of his professed-followers? The church being the body of Jesus on earth, with Jesus being the head, sounds ridiculous from either side of that question. With that admitted, I’ll return to the argument at hand.

Being part of Jesus’ body means a few overlapping things to me at this point in my walk. First, it means to me that Jesus intends his disciples to be in community. My culture idolizes individuality and supposed independence, but my God favors community and interdependence. If God desires introverts and extroverts to be Jesus’ body together, then I need to overcome my urge to go it alone and instead explore life in community. On some level, this is about my identity (my being; who I am). My identity is part of the world-wide body of Jesus, and I engage this in my local setting (more on this soon).

Second, and this order is not necessarily sequential, this means to me that I need to believe some things relating to Jesus. The faith community is where we teach each other as we continually wrestle with the written word in a community of discernment. In church I listen, discuss, read, pray, learn, and teach (thinking/knowing). Learning and believing are community activities. Some of us may read the Bible on our own, but this is only possible in the era of the printing press. Paul wrote his letters to churches, not individuals. They were read and digested in a community. There is no private interpretation, it is said (try to figure that out).ii

Some people may personally prefer to learn through reading alone, but the authors of those books are almost certainly members of congregations and learning communities. Their thoughts didn’t appear out of a vacuum; they were formed in community even if they are later read in private.

In my faith community I have also learned that knowing things about Jesus is insufficient. I need to understand and believe the things Jesus actually taught. Believing the Apostle’s Creed is not sufficient or else I think Jesus would have written it himself. Instead, he said things like: love your neighbors, friends, and enemies; forgive people; treat people as we want to be treated; be generous; don’t fear; be humble; hunger and thirst for righteous/justiceiii; and care for people who are powerless, disrespected, and marginalized.iv To believe things about Jesus (e.g., virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) and not believe the things he is reported to have said is in my mind to miss the boat. This leads to the third point—our actions.

While psychologists have found that we act our way into thinking and not only think our way into acting, it still seems logical to me that our actions (doing) should be consistent with our identities (being) and our beliefs (knowing).

I think my actions reveal what I really believe, regardless of what I say I believe. Values are expressed in actions. Do my actions embody the teachings of Jesus? Do I forgive people, practice compassion, do justly, show impartiality, and speak honestly? If I’m more interested in religious observance than in pursuing the life of discipleship (following the way of Jesus), then I might be missing Jesus’ point.

Within this context, I want to highlight one facet of this community that is especially meaningful to me. Jesus’ opponents recognized that he showed partiality to no one.v Later, James spoke about this value, as did Peter and Paul.vi Here’s the thing: impartiality and equality presume and require community. I can’t be equal with myself in any meaningful way beyond a simple tautology. I can’t demonstrate this feature of the kingdom on my own. It’s impossible. In a community we can express equality across lines of race (so called), gender, nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic level, and all other social markers.

This radical equality should emerge in a community where members are committed to pursuing the way of Jesus, and I want to be part of this social revolution. I want to live in this egalitarian community where everyone has value, everyone is cared for, and everyone is safe. I believe this is the meaning of the body of Christ. This is why I go to church.

At this point I can imagine at least two objections, even from people who would be inclined to agree with me. First, a person doesn’t need to sit in a pew to be part of the body of Christ. Second, I’ve never seen a local congregation that looked anything like what you’ve described here. You’re ignoring how dysfunctional, oppressive, and hurtful the church can be… and frequently is.

There are other objections (e.g., Jesus was a rabbi, not God, so this is all ridiculous), but these two arguments stand out foremost in my mind. I think they are fair, and they’re worth reflecting on. Very briefly, here is my attempt at a response.

Yes, I don’t want to confine God to a certain building, day, ritual, or anything else. I can’t pretend to set or know God’s limits. I simply mean to say that in some unique way, meeting with other people who also want to live as Jesus’ body in this world has a special significance for me. Even when I feel out of rhythm or out of place in the community, I still find some form of meaning in sharing life’s journey with those who are seeking to live for Jesus, in Jesus, with Jesus (and hopefully more and more like Jesus).

And yes, the church—broadly defined—has serious problems. I am not under the delusion that Christians—again broadly defined—live up to the description I’ve given here. We aren’t that—I’m not that—but those are the ideals I want my community to embrace as established by our head, Jesus. I want to be an influence in my faith community, and I want to be part of a community that influences me in this way.

So despite the serious flaws of the church, and despite God’s presence far beyond a religiously-dedicated building or ritual, I continue to find meaning in being part of the body that Jesus has invited to join to himself. And that level of humility on Jesus’ part (joining our bodies and reputations to his) tells me that I need to be mighty welcoming of others as well!

I’ll conclude with a series of questions posed by Craig Nessan:

What would it mean for the church to take seriously the theological conviction that Jesus Christ is present in the world today as a collective person in the form of the church? How would we need to revise our individualistic notions of the Christian faith? Instead of focusing on what Christ has done and can do for me, I would instead see myself as a member whose functioning contributes to the well-being of the whole body…. I begin to search for how Christ encounters us as members of the body of Christ. I begin to think corporately about how we together give expression to Christ’s presence in the world. (Shalom Church, p. 45)

I have a feeling we can find significance in both realities—individual and corporate—without losing the other. We are individuals, and we are a body together. May we become all that Jesus would have his body to be in this world.

i 1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:12, 5:23.

ii 2 Peter 1:20.

iii For a description of the relationship between justice and righteousness, see “The Strand of Justice” by Steven Thompson in Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living, edited by Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby (2014).

iv Matt. 22: 36-40; John 15:13; Matt. 5:43-48; Matt. 18:21-22; Matt. 7:12; Luke 12:15; Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 14:7-14; Matt. 5:6; Matt. 25:31-46.

v Mark 12:14.

vi James 2; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; 1 Tim. 5:21; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Eph. 2:14. “The apostle Paul said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Historian Thomas Cahill says that this was the first statement of egalitarianism in human literature” (John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?, p. 41).

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ADRA Continues to Respond to Earthquakes in Nepal

Adventist Today reported on ADRA’s response to the devastating earthquake on April 25 (link). Subsequent tremors and quakes in the area have caused additional damage. Regardless of the risks, ADRA continues to work in the area, as seen in this news release:

ADRA and GlobalMedic partner to distribute tents to replace health posts

KATHMANDU, NEPAL— ADRA and GlobalMedic have partnered to provide large tents that will provide a temporary place for health posts that have been damaged or destroyed by last month’s earthquake.

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This 36-by-20-foot (10-by-6-meter) tent will increase Scheer Memorial Hospital capacity to take in patients hurt by last month’s earthquake. Credit: ADRA International

“The people of 10 communities in Kavre District will have a better place to receive health services through ADRA working with GlobalMedic and Scheer Memorial Hospital,” explained Simon Lewis, former ADRA Nepal country director and emergency response team member.

Yesterday, ADRA and GlobalMedic delivered a 36-by-20-foot (10-by-6-meter) tent to Scheer Memorial Hospital that will help increase capacity for patients at the hospital.

“This tent is going to allow us to hang onto patients that could go back but don’t have a home to go back to,” said Dale Mole, president of Scheer Memorial Hospital. “After the earthquake we had to have C-sections outdoors because patients were too afraid to enter. This tent gives us capacity we’ve never had before.”

For now, ADRA and GlobalMedic are distributing a total of 15 tents—10 in Kavre, including one at Scheer Memorial Hospital and five in Dhading.

“These tents are so multipurpose,” said David Sakaki, GlobalMedic volunteer. “They could be used for hospitals or for child-friendly spaces, or medical storage.”

A total of 240 health posts were destroyed in areas affected by the earthquake as well as 347 health posts have suffered severe damage. Lewis explained that while these 15 tents will make a large difference in these communities, there’s a lot of unmet need.

“For now, these communities in Dhading and Kavre will have somewhere safe, secure, and dry to meet their doctor, nurse or health worker in dignity,” said Lewis. “But we still need support from the global community to help us provide tents for healthcare.”

NOTE: You can support these efforts by donating here.

About ADRA

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency is the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Its work empowers communities and changes lives around the globe by providing sustainable community development and disaster relief. For more information, visit ADRA.org.

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Headline Round-Up (27 March 2015)

Here is an unsystematic and incomplete listing of some recent Adventist headlines relating to social ethics and action (excerpts included). Click on the titles to access the complete articles.

AU to hold Social Justice Summit: Race and Justice in America (Adv Peace Fellowship, 27 Mar 2015)

The Social Justice Series presents a conversation on race and justice in America. 51 years later, and still fighting for civil rights.

San Antonio to Get $10 Million in Free Adventist Healthcare (McChesney, Adv Review, 27 Mar 2015)

Hundreds of healthcare professionals are gearing up to provide more than $10 million in free medical and dental services as part of a Seventh-day Adventist initiative in San Antonio, Texas, next month. The April 8-10 event at the Alamodome stadium will be one of the Adventist Church’s biggest outreach projects of 2015 and seeks to introduce local residents to the church ahead of the General Conference session, a major church business meeting that will be held in the stadium in July.

Adventists in Nigeria Urged to Not Vote in Election on Sabbath (Adv Today, 27 Mar 2015)

Adventists in Nigeria have been urged by denominational leaders to refrain from voting tomorrow (March 28) on the Sabbath.

ADRA’s Docuseries Brings Viewers to Remote Projects (Byrd, Spectrum, 26 Mar 2015)

Question: ADRA’s nine-part docuseries, “A Closer Walk,” concludes this week on the Hope Channel. What was the message of the series?

Answer [Natalia López-Thismón]: We wanted people who watch “A Closer Walk” to be educated and to be inspired. Many people think they know ADRA — but our work around the world is more than responding to disasters (even though that is some of our most visible work). We work around the world to make sure that people can rise out of poverty in a sustainable way. We provide resources and hope. My favorite part of ADRA’s ministry is that we act as the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth — doing practical work that meets people’s most essential needs.

Adventist Denominational Leaders Address Issues of Ethnicity & Structure (Adv Today, 26 Mar)

The leadership of the Adventist denomination in North America has voted a statement addressing recent discussions on the topic of how the organization deals with ethnic minorities. The statement affirms “the historical establishment and current role and function of Regional Conferences [as] structurally essential, mission effective, and relevant in reaching the diverse populations and urban centers within our division.”

Mission Trip Aims to Prepare San Antonio for World Church Gathering (Adv Today, 26 Mar 2015)

For two weeks leading to the Adventist Global Youth Day on March 21, nearly 150 youth and their sponsors participated in service projects in San Antonio. The MOREcompassion Mission Trip was planned by the Texas Conference, which “has been working towards preparing San Antonio for the General Conference this summer,” Armando Miranda told Adventist Today.

More Compassion in San Antonio (Miranda, NAD Ministerial, ND)

The simple concept of helping people seems to get lost in our churches with so much “church” work that we get carried away by it. One of the best things that I have heard from participants and pastors alike is the aspect of service without the intention of getting something in return. People seem interested to know why we are mowing their lawns at no charge, why we are picking up trash and giving them food for free.

Interview with Kevin Kuehmichel, Pastor Committed to Community Service (Boyd, Adv Today, 25 Mar 2015)

AToday: Did church members get involved?

Kuehmichel: It took awhile, but I got a number of church members to engage the youth…. When we had a regular group of 12 or 14 kids coming every night, and I kept telling church members stories about these kids and encouraging people, I did get some people to start coming. They said, “Hey, this isn’t that hard. We just have to care about people.”

Boarding Academy to Save Big With Solar Energy (Zerne & McChesney, Adv Review, 25 Mar 2015)

Highland View Academy, based in Hagerstown, Maryland, will save $30,000 a year in electricity costs when the solar field comes online late this year and take a leading position among Adventist institutions in embracing renewable energy.

Religious Freedom: A Communal Right (Bussey, CCCC, 24 Mar 2015)

On March 19, the Supreme Court of Canada released its long-anticipated Loyola decision and came very close to saying that there is a religious freedom right, protected by the Charter, for religious corporations. It was only one vote short. However, the entire seven-member panel of the Court ruled that religious freedom does have “communal aspects.”

PUC Student Drops Out To Join “Limbless Evangelist” (Logan, Spectrum, 24 Mar 2015)

Nineteen-year-old Pacific Union College student Bradon Schwarz is dropping out of school to join “limbless evangelist” Nick Vujicic in ministry around the world.

Shakespeare Walla Walla Presents “A Gay SDA Play” (Wright, Spectrum, 24 Mar 2015)

Don’t let the April 1 event date fool you—Shakespeare Walla Walla’s presentation of “A Gay SDA Play” is a serious depiction of the lives of two dozen Seventh-day Adventists (some have left the denomination) who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

My Story: My Experience With Race and Racism as an Adventist (Fernandez, TheHaystack.TV, 23 Mar 2015)

To begin with: I’m mixed, both ethnically and racially (that’s my family and I in the picture above at my brothers wedding last year). My father is an Afro-Caribbean from the Dominican Republic, with some Haitian decent. My mother is from the Central American country of El Salvador. Although many people may think all Hispanic countries are the same (no, we don’t all eat tortillas), these two cultures are vastly different.  Here is where my struggle with cultural, ethic, and racial identity begins.

The Other Side of the Cheese: My Response to Dr. Dwight Nelson’s Sermon on Ending “Ethnically Separate Conferences” (Edmond, SCC, 23 Mar 2015)

I thought about something that the former President of our conference, Elder Joseph McCoy, used to say (he may have gotten it from one of our former Pastors, the late Elder Xavier Butler) “no matter how thinly you slice the cheese, there is always two sides.”

ADRA Celebrates World Water Day (Adv Today, 22 Mar 2015)

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, joined the United Nations (UN) and other nongovernmental organizations in celebrating World Water Day on Sunday, March 22. ADRA implements a range of projects that make water available to individuals and communities around the world.

Records Broken as Young Adventists ‘Are the Sermon’ (McChesney, Adv Review, 21 Mar 2015)

Hundreds of thousands of Adventist young people shared Jesus’ love in 132 countries for Global Youth Day on Sabbath, March 21, setting a new record that surpassed organizers’ expectations.

Unity 2015 Campaign Looks Toward General Conference Vote (Wright, Spectrum, 21 Mar 2015)

A statement targeting Seventh-day Adventist Church members entitled “Affirming Adventist Unity” garnered over 1,000 signatures in its first seven days online, averaging about 185 signatures a day. People in 44 states in the United States and in several more countries added their names to the statement.

The statement endorses a YES vote on the question of whether each major geographic division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church can decide to ordain women pastors. The vote on that question will be held at the 2015 General Conference Session in July.

Millions of Adventist Teens, Young Adults Do Social Action Projects This Weekend (Adv Today, 19 Mar 2015)

The denomination’s General Conference (GC) has asked every Adventist local church to observe Global Youth Day with activities “that will inspire daily acts of kindness throughout the entire church. The goal is to integrate daily acts of kindness into our lifestyles, both as individuals and as a church,” states the official materials from the GC youth department

ADRA Responds to Cyclone Pam’s Devastation on Vanuatu (Adv Today, 19 Mar 2015)

Before Tropical Cyclone Pam hit the archipelago of Vanuatu on March 13 and 14, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was prepositioned to assist in recovery. Despite this preparation, devastation caused by winds averaging 167 miles per hour near the eye of the storm is making it difficult for ADRA and other agencies to respond.

Millions of Young Adventists to Share Food and Hugs on Sabbath (Kingston & Stevens, Adv Review, 19 Mar 2015)

Millions of Adventist young people from Norway and Mexico to the cyclone-devastated South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu will share food, visit hospitals, and offer hugs to passersby as they seek to show Jesus’ love in their communities on Sabbath, March 21.

Ebola Survivor Finds New Life at ADRA (McChesney, Adv Review, 17 Mar 2015)

Henry Tony lost his wife, little son, mother, and grandmother to Ebola last fall. But the 31-year-old Liberian native says he has reason to praise God. He survived the deadly virus and is now playing a role in ADRA’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency recently announced plans to employ survivors, who face widespread discrimination, and Tony is one of the first to be hired.

Adventist Church Makes History in Cuba With Major Health Fair (IAD/Adv Review, 17 Mar 2015)

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cuba made history with 2,000 young people donating blood, conducting health screenings, and distributing thousands of books at two of the communist island’s most revered sites.

Adventist Church adopts stance on vaccines (McChessney, ANN/Adv Review, 16 Mar 2015)

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has issued an official statement on vaccines, saying it “encourages responsible immunization” and has no faith-based reason to discourage believers from participating in immunization programs.

Peacemaking through Medical Care (Weir, Adv Peace Fellowship, 16 Mar 2015)

On March 12, 2015, students and professors gathered in Newbold auditorium at Andrews University to hear how doctors in western Galilee are using medicine to build trust and promote peace between Israel and Syria.

Andrews University Holds Forum On Racially Divided Conferences (Boyd, Adv Peace Fellowship, 12 Mar 2015)

On March 7, 2015, the Andrews University APF Chapter, along with a number of other student organizations, sponsored an event which looked at the state and regional conference structure within the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Brazilian Adventists Give Roses to Prostitutes (Ayanne, Adv Review, 11 Mar 2015)

As many countries around the world celebrated International Women’s Day last weekend, Seventh-day Adventists in a Brazilian city presented prostitutes with red roses. A group from the Carapina Grande Adventist Church hit the sidewalk in the southeast coastal city of Serra at 9 p.m. Saturday, the eve of the March 8 holiday, and spent four hours passing out flowers and DVDs to the surprised and delighted young women.

ADRA Gets $2 Million to Turn Young Romanians Into Business Owners (McChesney, 8 Mar 2015)

ADRA has received a European Union grant of 2 million euros ($2.16 million) to help young Romanian adults open their own businesses, part of an effort by the Adventist-run organization to give people the tools they need to improve their lives.

Church Fears Same-Sex Marriage Ruling May Stifle Religious Freedom (McChesney, Adv Review, 6 Mar 2015)

The Seventh-day Adventist Church filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Count on Friday asking that it provide legal protections to religious denominations in a potentially landmark same-sex marriage case.

Seventh-day Adventists and the WWI tribunals (Hulbert, Everyday Lives in War, 26 Feb 2015)

John Benefield was both a baker and a Conscientious Objector. Working in an essential industry he was exempt from the armed service as his skills were needed at home. Nevertheless, every few months he had to attend a tribunal in order to re-establish his status. This took place in a court house 13 miles from his home in Bournemouth. As losses mounted the Tribunal became more strict, constantly looking for any loop hole they could to dispatch even essential workers to the front.

Abercrombie & Fitch, The Supreme Court and You (Leslie, Huffington Post, 25 Feb 2015)

The issue in question concerns a young woman who believes differently than I do. And yet, I care deeply about this case that is being heard by the Supreme Court involving a young Muslim woman who was denied employment by Abercrombie & Fitch due to the headscarf she wore for religious reasons… because this conflicted with Abercrombie & Fitch’s “look policy.”

Adventists in Central Jamaica fight crime by putting youth to work (Coke, IAD, 24 Feb 2015)

More than 2,000 Seventh-day Adventist young people took to Jamaican streets last weekend to spruce up neighborhoods and encourage healthy lifestyles as part of a church initiative to keep youth away from crime.

Adventist Church’s Ebola response highlights coordinated effort (Oliver, ANN, 20 Feb 2015)

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s coordinated response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa includes eradication projects in the affected countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as support for several hospitals and more than two-dozen schools, most of which still remain closed.

In Sierra Leone, ADRA decontaminating homes to stop Ebola’s spread (ANN/ADRA, 3 Feb 2013)

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Sierra Leone is helping to operate a home decontamination program to prevent the spread of Ebola, an initiative that agency officials say is the only one of its kind in the country.

A History Lesson (Hines, Spectrum, 2 Feb 2015)

In 1905 the Spanish philosopher George Santayana published Reason in Common Sense, in which he penned the often quoted (and misquoted) phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems we have the same problem in the Adventist Church. One of the great travesties of Adventism is that the church in America is still structurally segregated.

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Viewpoints #19: Kevin Kuehmichel, Pastor Committed to Community Service

Pastor Kevin Kuehmichel is the founding pastor of Walk of Faith Fellowship in Cleveland, Ohio. After 17 years there, he recently accepted a new pastoral position in California. In the latest installment of the Viewpoints Interview Series, I asked Kevin about starting this church plant and the role community service played in the congregation’s ministry.


AToday: What would you like to say to pastors or laypeople who are interested in pursuing community service ministry like this?

Kuehmichel: I’m learning right now with this change of venue how difficult it is to do this kind of work in traditional churches. I have already tried to move them to this and have received a lot of push-back because of the comfort issue. I’m moving them out of their comfort zone. When they interviewed me, I told them I was going to be out of the box. They were excited, but I don’t think they really understood what this meant. I have made a number of people very uncomfortable.

And what I did in Cleveland with Walk of Faith is not totally reproducible in other areas. You have to find your niche in your context. We found a need, and we tried to figure out the best way to meet that need. Some of the things I did in Cleveland are not going to relate to the people in the community where I am now. The basic concepts will—caring about people, finding a place to serve them—but you have to find out what the needs are.

You can read the complete interview here. And you can access the other interviews in the series here.

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Viewpoints #18: Todd Leonard, Pastor and Peace Church Advocate

The Glendale City Church is the first Seventh-day Adventist congregation to complete the Adventist Peace Fellowship certification process to be a “peace church.” I spoke with Todd Leonard, who pastors the congregation, about this process and the significance of the designation.

Here is an excerpt:

AToday: Your congregation recently completed the process of becoming a “peace church” in the Adventist Peace Fellowship network. You were actually the first to be certified. Why do you want your congregation to embrace the values of a peace church? Why are peace and justice important to you in your congregational ministry?

Leonard: I really feel that bringing peace into communities, bringing peace into our world seems to be at the heart of the gospel. From what I read in the prophets, from looking at what Jesus did during his ministry and then carried on in the early church, there appears to be this work to include more people in the goodness of God, in the blessings of God. And our job is to make sure that every chance we get we bring good news in very tangible ways into the lives of people so they are not excluded from all that God wants for them to have and to experience.

Read the entire interview here. And find links to previous conversations in the series here.

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Racial Divides in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

My primary area of social action involvement is human trafficking. As the research coordinator at a Christian nonprofit that works against trafficking in Nepal, I still find myself continually learning. I also work in media, where I report on various peace and justice topics along with other less controversial material. When working on these stories, I struggle because I have so much to learn about each topic, not to mention the complexity of themes at their intersections. On any given topic I am thankful for the patient people who help me to see the issues more deeply and broadly. Learning takes humility, an admission that I know I don’t yet have complete insight.

This week alone I worked on stories relating to LGBT youth and racial divides in Adventism, both areas in which I am not an expert. I use that as a preface to say I am still learning about the racial issues that affect the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I’m not saying this background excuses my blind spots, but it is to situate my comments for those who do not know me or where I’m coming from.

I grew up in small, predominantly white communities in predominantly white western states, to over-simplify a bit. I did not experience any code switching, moving between different cultures or ethnic groups or races; my life experiences–at home, school and church–were in a mostly-white fairly-rural very-Adventist bubble (boarding academy campuses).

I don’t remember when I first heard there existed two different church structures in mid-western and eastern parts of the United States. (I also don’t recall when I learned about the existence of the NAD or the GC. We just didn’t talk about it. Growing up, I only remember talking about the local church, school and conference.) When did you find out? What did you think about it? I know I was slow to realize the fact and its significance. In fact, I didn’t even know one state I lived in during my teen years even had a regional conference; I found out much later. I presume people who lived in urban areas were more aware of these things.

I do remember the first time the structural differences stung, the first time I began to think through the history and meaning of the present structure. Jump ahead to my 30s. At a peace conference my Mennonite grad school was hosting, I shared lunch with an Anabaptist activist from Australia. When he heard I was Adventist he asked, “How can you stay in a denomination that is still officially segregated?”

I didn’t have an answer.

If our message is a gospel of peace, if we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, if we all have the same image of God in us, if we are all one in Jesus, then why are we as the supposed body of Christ not able to overcome the racism that divided us? Doesn’t God want to do the work in the hearts of the white leaders and laypeople to bring them to a place to want to make amends with those who the white Adventist community abused and marginalized? What would it take for the white community to repent of our history and pursue a path of just and right reconciliation? What about me? What is my role in this conversation now?

Some have debated whether repentance and reconciliation needs to come from the top leaders or to begin at local congregations and other institutions (top-down or grassroots?). I believe it’s both. Individuals and individual organizations need to do local work, like Union College has recently begun. But for church-wide change, I believe we need leaders who will start the conversations at the appropriate levels. In peacemaking and conflict resolution, we talk about the different roles that top leaders and grassroots activists can take (See Lederach, Building Peace, 1997, p. 39). One is not more important than the other; both have a proper sphere of influence.

In a recent episode of Justice Speaks (posted below), the participants discuss where the current impetus for the racial conversation is coming from. Why do people seem to care more now? And why are people interested in unity now?

For me, the path started from the topic of economic equality and more broadly, social justice. I concentrated on international development in my peace studies. This led me to pay more attention to both racial and gender equality. Within my non-academic social justice reading, Shane Claiborne introduced me some years ago to the Christian Community Development Association, which was started by John Perkins. Here, and other places, I learned more about racial reconciliation. As this value grew in me, I increasingly wanted to see it in my church, not just in the wider world.

Another personal factor has also made recent events and discussions particularly relevant to me is that my wife and I are in the process of adoption, and we have attended trans-racial adoption training events to help us think through what it could mean to be an inter-racial family. One white gentleman in a training said that he was raised to not see race, to which I eventually added that I no longer see gender. Not helpful, I know. We don’t know who will choose us to parent their child, but no matter the shade of the mother’s skin–whether similar to ours or quite different (okay, different means darker; I have Swedish ancestry, and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so like Jim Gaffigan, people are only darker than me)–we are glad to have a diverse group of people to travel with us on the journey.

Gaining a wider spectrum of friends has also been important. I was interested in international intercultural relations before I was interested in domestic racial relations (“Intercultural Business Relations” was one of my favorite MBA classes), and studying in diverse communities helped me form friendships that expanded my views and awareness. Even in little things. For example, my wife and I went with a friend to visit Mars Hill, a non-denominational church in Michigan. My reaction when I had first visited was: Wow, the seating and stage arrangement are really different. Our African-American friend’s reaction was different: Wow, this place is really white. Over time, these observations and other conversations began to open my eyes to things I was oblivious to.

I can’t say why our society is paying more attention to #BlackLivesMatter now, why the press is giving more attention to issue now–it is arguably more than just a matter of coverage of protests, since other protests did not receive the same coverage–but I think that the stories in the news prompt Adventists like Dwight Nelson to speak out, and then others with similar concerns add their voices to the mix.

Why do I want us to pursue a path toward full administrative equality–no more separate but equal? Because I believe it is the right and just thing to do, if reconciliation is based on repentance, forgiveness and acceptance of diversity in appearance, thought and action. Unity in diversity. Originally, I was in favor of some sort of coming together in order to improve the witness of the Adventist church, but now I see it as the way things should be because separation was caused by a wrong and that wrong needs to be made right.

I’m actually fine with there being Korean congregations and Spanish-speaking congregations and Ghanian congregations, as well as congregations marked by other ethnic or racial characteristics (setting aside the “existence of race” issue for sake of simpler writing; a concession that may do more harm than good). Even though I greatly appreciated the diverse English-speaking congregation my wife and I used to attend when we lived in the greater Detroit area, I can understand the value in local, voluntary segregation in the future even if formal structures are united. I don’t blame those who prefer that. Why shouldn’t people be able to gather as they please for worship, such as is the case in the Berrien Springs area around Andrews University? I also saw this when working in South Korea, where English-speaking military personnel would gather at a center for worship even though there were other English church options with those outside the military. [Update: We also appreciate our current congregation, though it is not quite as diverse as our last community. When we moved here and I was “church shopping,” an African-American lady invited me to stay for potluck. Then she made space for me at her table. Then she invited me to her small group. That’s hospitality, and that’s where we stayed. Plus there is a Spanish-speaking group that meets at the same time as the English-speaking gathering, and then we share potluck together twice a month.]

We like to be with people who are most similar to us, where we have to do the least amount of explaining about ourselves, where we most easily fit. But I hope that every congregation would get equal support from leaders, so that no group would feel the need to be separate in order to excel, as was the reality that prompted the formation of regional conferences.

But here’s the thing for me: confession of and repentance from past racist sins is important even if we don’t find a way to end segregated conferences. That needs to happen regardless of the outcome. And as I said, I’m still learning. Maybe steps have been taken toward this that I’m not aware of. But to me, the fact that I’m not aware of them says that even if they did exist, they were too small or too local or too insignificant to have an impact on broader race relations within the North American Division.

And this is the final piece for now: even if we do not restructure, or especially if we do not restructure, we need to find other ways to demonstrate to society that God has the power to bring humanity together despite everything else that would divide us. I have written elsewhere about the importance of demonstration within an Adventist understanding of the great controversy. Words were insufficient for God’s plan. God had to act to demonstrate God’s character for the world and for the universe. I believe God calls us to the same–to not only proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven in word, but also in action. May we work for the healing of people groups–of nations–today as the leaves of the tree will do in the story’s next chapter.

Below these discussion questions you can find videos and links to take you deeper:

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SimplyCity Mission (Part I & 2)

Adventist Mission posted these short videos on YouTube. They look at community service in Allentown, PA.

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