During my first week serving as a teacher at Good Hope College near Cape Town a certain General Conference Vice President whisked onto campus. Staff and students were corralled into the hall and assured that they were doing a great job and within 20 minutes the gentleman was back in his car leaving a storm of dust in his wake. The Union Education Director was also on campus that day, to whom I suggested that such visits were a waste of time. "Oh Brother Pilmoor, men from the General Conference are very perceptive" he said. "I understand" said I. Eight years later at a parallel institution we received a GC AAA accreditation visit that lasted 10 days, after which we were invited to submit to the wisdom of the investigators findings. To our horror, through 90 minutes, absolutely nothing was to his liking. I recall concluding that those who visit for longer must somehow, be 'less perceptive'.
The episode still haunts me. Will people be encouraged as a consequence of my travel, or will they be relieved at my departure? After all, people remember not what we say, but how we make them feel.
The Drs. Valentine happened to visit our office in England last Friday. "Hey Gil, I was just listening to your Glendale speech last night," said I. "Oh dear" said they, "We didn't realise that Spectrum would broadcast," with a tinge a trepidation while reflecting on the consequence of speaking truth to power.
Together we spent an hour sharing our perceptions of the San Antonio General Conference Session. Not least among these was the cloud that concentrates the influence of ecclesiastical power on the one hand, and the paranoia of people who fear expressing themselves following the fiasco of public voting.
What have we come to? How do people get this kind of influence? How do we end up with people feeling insecure about the acceptance of their calling? How does a church that professes to be non-combatant, affirms religious liberty, freedom of speech and conscience get to be so riven with fear?
Let me offer an alternate context:
On the first Friday evening of the 2015 General Conference Session, I spotted a lonely bent old man shuffling his way through the Alamodome to the Southern Africa section. I recognised him as one of my boyhood heroes. Duane Brennaman was a 27 year old missionary when I first met him in 1961. He was Director at Liumba Hill Mission in Barotseland—Zambia's Western Province along the banks of the Zambesi. He even had to strap his Land Rover to a barge to get 500 miles into obscurity. Next day, I met Ted Gilbert, Ron and Sharon Follett who together with Duane & Phyllis were our neighbours at Rusangu. All of these people were missionaries who simply did their job, no task beneath them, no glory, no vanity, no titles. These were people in circumstance with much to be feared, yet they exuded courage, fortitude and determination. For them abolishing poverty and ignorance through education was their motive. They taught Agriculture, Commerce, Industrial & Domestic Arts, not to speak of inventiveness and self-sufficiency. They also taught the Gospel, with humour and humanity. Phyllis and Sharon contributed to the musical tradition of those parts with some class. These were for me, real Seventh-day Adventists—committed and fearless, with no trace of 'hocus pocus', their official credential: Missionary.
Not for them the goal-hanging semantics of Advent corporatism, not for them the faux-celebrity of church broadcasts, not for them the fear of secret apocalyptic signals from Rome, Jerusalem or Washington DC, not for them the cap-doffing smarminess of hierarchical elitism.
So what would do we say to the 'men from the east'?
I would remind them that those with real mission mindedness are people who value hope more than fear. Indeed I would point out that power induced fear causes poverty of body, mind and spirit.
I would remind them that those who really crave God's kingdom, are not impressed by Dollar grubbing fantasists who are obsessed with the independence of their own ministry.
I would remind them that unity is no longer achievable through the control of official channels. It is achieved through openness, transparency, candidness and the confession of failure.
I would remind them them that 'the want of the world, is for men and women who will stand for the right though the heavens fall, people who are true to duty, like the needle to the pole'. They will not be silenced or cowed by populist resolutions. Language can be massaged but the mountains will not move.
I would remind them that there are veterans who survived one wave of last-day perfectionist bullying, who are not about to be intimidated by the next.
I would remind them, that 'if you want to make God laugh, show him your plans'. No doubt he is amused by our strategic machinations.
I would remind them that being a courageous missionary was good for Paul and Silas, and it's good enough for me.
Victor Pilmoor is the Treasurer of the British Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists who served as a delegate at the 60th General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.