Confessions of a Social Justice Pastor

Hollywood Adventist Church in Hollywood, California has been named "Innovative Church of the Year" by the Church Resource Center of the North American Division. Spectrum probed behind the basic questions of what makes Hollywood Church so innovative, asking Hollywood pastor Ryan Bell about the value of innovation itself and about his own personal spiritual journey.

RD: Hollywood was recognized as the “2010 Innovative Church of the Year” during the recent Conference on Innovation in Columbus, Ohio. Congratulations! How did it happen?

RB: Since it requires someone with a very detailed working knowledge of a church to fill out the application, churches nominate themselves for the award. One of our leaders answered all the questions about what makes our church innovative, and an independent committee picked us from among the applicants.

RD: Just a quick glance at your website reveals that all sorts of out-of-the-box activities are happening at Hollywood. What do you think is most innovative about your church?

RB: Our church really values diversity. Obviously we value diversity in the immediate ways that come to mind like ethnic and racial diversity, gender and age diversity. But we are also spiritually diverse. There’s a young man who’s a regular part of our church these days who’s a self-confessed atheist. But he’s there. And there’s another guy who’s a Buddhist who comes to church with his girlfriend who grew up Adventist. We’ve got recovering Evangelicals of various types who aren’t Adventist—at least not yet. We’ve got very traditional Adventists who worry that we are not Adventist enough and who do that worrying in very constructive, conversational ways.

Probably what’s most innovative about our church is the process of innovation itself that we’ve tried to foster. We are not quick to solve the perceived problems of our church but use those perceived problems to create conversations about the role of our church in the community. We try not to rush toward answers that we think we know, but to create a space of unknowing in which people can do more thinking and research. We pray and dwell in scripture believing that God will do something fresh through that process.

RD: I remember you telling a story once along those lines. When you came to your church someone asked you, “What are we going to do, pastor?” And you said, “I don’t know.” It was a bit shocking for your church at the time! How practically have you led your congregation into spaces of waiting and unknowing? What’s your “methodology of innovation,” if you please?

RB: We have tried to place a premium on conversation. We’ve discerned that God is present in our conversation in a way that he is not present when we’re alone or making proclamations. So in terms of an intentional strategy, we’ve tried to gather people in groups around particular challenges that we sense in the church. We’ve used survey instruments and approaches like appreciative inquiry and scripture meditation in various configurations during church boards, business meetings, elders meetings, etc. So take the problem of homelessness, for instance. We noticed that we had a big homeless community around our church. The obvious question was “What shall we do?” You can imagine what almost any church might quickly say: “Lets have a soup kitchen and clothing distribution site. We know how to do that.” And my response is, “You may be right. In fact there’s a good chance you’re right that this is what we need to do. But before we jump to that conclusion, can we spend the next two or three months in scripture and in community with people who care about the same things we care about? Lets do some research in our neighborhood, find out what’s going on, ask God what he’s up to before we start processing a response.”

RD: Can you give me a quick run-down of some of the very specific things Hollywood has been involved with that might be considered “innovative”?

RB: Sure.

As a branch of our peace and justice ministry, One Mile Mission is an effort to take responsibility for the general health and well being of every person within a one-mile radius of our church.

Hollywood 4WRD is a coalition of leaders from the Hollywood Community that have adopted a ten-year plan to end homelessness in Hollywood. We’ve been offered a seat at these meetings.

Imagine LA helps congregations mentor families coming out of homelessness. We have partnered with a family through Imagine LA, offering life skills mentoring and tutoring for their children.

We have our own media ministry, New Name Pictures, which produces short creative films. One of our films, “Social Justice Christian” was recognized recently by Sojourners and The Huffington Post. It can be viewed online at www.faithforjustice.org.

Just Hollywood is the non-profit organization our church established in order to facilitate grant funding for healthy community development initiatives.

Concrete Voices is a new podcast series we have initiated that seeks to tell the unknown stories of people on the streets of LA.

We host weekly Hollywood Community Walks that gather church members and non-church members together in a common quest to understand and serve the neighborhoods in which we live.

Weekly Creative Workshops at Hollywood give local artists the chance to stretch and explore their talents in a safe space.

We are also involved with community gardening and health education efforts in and around the city. We have created partnerships with ten external organizations throughout LA, and the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council has added a standing place on their agenda to hear reports about our church activities.

Finally, our congregation is a part of LA Voice, a local, faith-based, community organization seeking to improve our communities through social change. We have partnered with churches, synagogues and mosques to address problems like affordable housing, housing for the homeless, solutions to the foreclosure crisis and more.

RD: Your approach to ministry—to Adventism—has not always been so “justice” based. Can you share with us your own faith journey and how you became the person and pastor you are now?

RB: My family became Adventist when I was six or seven and their baptism in the Loma Linda University Church had a big influence on me. I was baptized when I was nine in what is now the Riverside Community Church, but shortly before that baptism, my parents divorced. And shortly after my baptism, my brother and I moved with our mom and step-dad to southern Oregon where we didn’t really go to church and where we lived in pretty extreme poverty. I had an inner longing for God at that time, but no way to support my faith.

During my high school years I moved in with my grandparents who were very faithful, traditional Adventists, and I was drawn to their faith. I took on a very conservative orientation so that when I went to PUC as a freshman I got in with a group of friends who were tracking with all John Osborn’s “Prophecy Countdown” videos detailing the evil nature of celebration churches and condemning a certain style of music. We were also good supporters of Hope International and their publication, Our Firm Foundation. I was always a little dismayed by the militant nature of the conservative movement, but I was ideologically aligned. I was very much in the middle of all the theological debates like the nature of Christ, always championing for the conservative side.

At the time, my grandparents were volunteers at Weimar and they traveled the country in a trailer teaching NEWSTART in churches on weekends. They invested a ton of their own personal financial resources into their activities and they were very effective. Since my grandparents knew everyone at Weimar, I decided to transfer there during my junior year, and between my junior and senior years I signed up for a stint of mission service in the Philippines. I wasn’t able to finish it due to some problems that developed, so after about six or eight months I came back to serve at the Covelo Church in the Northern California Conference, where Doug Batchelor was the pastor. That would have been in 1993. I did some ministry alongside Doug when he came back to town from where he was doing an evangelistic series in Redding. I spent time at his home in Covelo; I took his kids backpacking.

It was during my time at Weimar that I had a conversion experience. For the first time in my life I understood grace; I met Jesus. I had become so conservative that I tried to get one of our religion teachers fired because he was teaching us that God loved us and accepted us without us doing anything. He said that nothing we could do could add to or take away from God’s love for us, that we were saved by God’s grace full stop, without any involvement from us. To my friends and I, this was just heresy. I’ll never forget when this particular man gave a talk at a Friday night vespers and one of our highly-esteemed professors who had all the conservative credentials stood up to the pulpit after he was done and said, “Students, what you have just heard is all the truth.” We couldn’t believe it. We thought surely he was going to get up and water down or soften what the speaker had said. But he didn’t. It was under this man’s teaching that I accepted the grace of God into my life for the first time. I’ll never forget leaving a class one day during which he had told a story about God’s grace. I remember going outside to talk with a friend of mine and it was literally like the clouds parted in the sky and the sun shone through. I said to my friend, “I think I’ve got it. I don’t have to do anything. God loves me.” We embraced with smiles across our faces that couldn’t be wiped away. It was just so amazing.

I went to work in the Pennsylvania Conference immediately out of Weimar and from there I encountered real life. I met real people who had real concerns about day-to-day challenges, and I realized that the nature of Christ was not foremost in their minds. They were concerned about their children, their personal doubts, their economic security, about forgiveness and being right with God. I was faced with difficult decisions where my ideology came up against human community. I remember we had a guy in my church who was a smoker. Twenty years before, this guy had been a member and had renounced his own membership over the smoking issue. Then he quit and rejoined the church, started smoking again, renounced his membership again, quit, and joined the church again. Now he had started smoking again and there were people who felt that it was incumbent upon me to say he should leave the church again. It was in those kinds of moments that I was like, “No, this is not how I see parents treating their children if they make a repeated mistake. They don’t throw them out until they straighten up and then accept them back. No. It’s within the safe and loving context of a human family that people learn to be who they’re supposed to be.” I realized that my harsh ideology was bumping up against real life. I realized that God is not as much about ideas as he is about people. I knew that if I didn’t love people, then I couldn’t do my ministry.

RD: Part of what makes your story so interesting is that people tend to think of you as being liberal. But your roots are actually very conservative and it doesn’t sound like you went through any huge ideological shift or conversion to “liberalism.” You just saw people’s needs and found yourself gradually moving into social justice projects (which for some reason people seem to equate with liberalism). So how do you conceive of your identity now? Who are you? Are you what everybody thinks you are?

RB: I doubt it. You’re very correct to say that I didn’t arrive at my positions by sitting down and trying to figure out, “What’s my position on this issue?” In other words, I don’t have a position on affordable housing or healthcare because I heard a speaker who articulated an ideology that I agreed with. It’s because I know people who are essentially dying for lack of healthcare, people who are working really hard at their jobs trying to raise their families. My evolution as a person has come about through a very pastoral interaction with individuals. And I think that’s what people misunderstand most about me. I am very much a concrete, on-the-ground kind of person. I don’t really operate in the realm of ideology that much, although when I write it probably sounds like ideology. All of it comes from an experience of life with people and my aspiration to be radically faithful. I want to be faithful to the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus with people. I’ve found that when I do that in my ministry it bridges ideological gaps.

I don’t think church is the place for lectures about politics and history, although those things are valuable and should come into our thinking. I think that worship is about interpreting scripture in light of present contexts and circumstances and helping people think Christianly about the world we inhabit. And that’s what I’m trying to do. Sometimes that’s going to look conservative and at other times it’s going to look liberal. But it just is what it is. The church has its own job to do.



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