Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, his first since becoming pope, provided an opportunity of a lifetime for one Seventh-day Adventist musician, but the story proved too contentious for official Adventist media coverage.
Joy-Leilani Garbutt has loved the organ and wanted to play it as far back as she can remember.
“I began organ lessons when I was about 10 years old, and shortly after that started playing hymns for church,” Joy told me in email correspondence.
She got her start at the Clovis Seventh-day Adventist church in Central California where she grew up, and then branched out to other churches. By the time she was 14, Joy had her first official job as a church organist for St. Luke’s United Methodist church in Fresno, California.
At age 18 Joy moved to Takoma Park, Maryland to be the organ and harpsichord soloist with the New England Youth Ensemble, and continued her organ studies at what was then Columbia Union College.
Following that, she pursued a master’s degree in organ performance at Northwestern University where she was the organ scholar at the school’s Alice Millar Chapel.
After Northwestern, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland to study with an organist there and found a temporary job as organ assistant at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
She returned stateside in 2005 and began work as the director of music at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran church, and organist at the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park. Four years later when a position opened at the Takoma Park Adventist Church five minutes away from Sligo, Joy became that congregation’s organist and choral accompanist.
She continues working with both Takoma Park and St. John’s today, and described the differences between the congregations this way:
At Takoma Park I am part of a team of musicians who work with the director of music to create a service that encompasses a variety of musical genres. I play for weekly choir rehearsals and provide all of the organ-related service music for two services each Saturday.
St. John’s is a much smaller church (just under 100 members) and as director of music I am the only staff musician. I direct an adult choir, a K-12 youth and children’s chorus, a children’s hand chime program, and lead Sunday School music for the younger children. And of course play for the weekly services. St. John’s was the first Lutheran church that I worked for and I remember being impressed that such a small church would employ a salaried musician.”
Joy noted that in contrast to most Adventist congregations, Lutheran churches tend to highly prioritize music and professional musicians. “They treat it as a real profession, like that of pastor,” she said, “and from what I’ve seen, even a small Lutheran church will hire a musician before they hire a second pastor.”
Additionally, whereas most Adventist congregations will ensure that their musicians, paid and volunteer, are Adventist Church members, “St. John’s never asked if I was Lutheran, only if I could play,” Joy said.
She hastened to add that that both Takoma Park and Sligo have treated her very professionally.
In 2013 Joy went back to school to work on a Ph.D. in musicology with a minor in sacred music and organ studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. She didn’t know it at the time, but her doctoral work there would open the opportunity to showcase her musical talent in front of a massive audience—including Pope Francis—just over a week ago.
As a part of her sacred music minor at The Catholic University of America, Joy plays the organ for the school’s chamber choir. Generally, that includes concerts in the fall and spring of each year. However on the first day of this school year Catholic University’s choir director Dr. Leo Nestor asked if she would accompany the choir for the Junipero Serra Canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. during Pope Francis’ visit.
“I felt it was a huge honor to be asked to represent the school,” Joy said.
In total four organists played during the mass on September 23—two from the Basilica of the National Shrine, one from a large Catholic church in Washington D.C., and Joy. Each of the four played for different portions of the mass.
Joy remarked that not having been raised Catholic, she has taken no particular interest in popes before Francis. She suggested that part of her interest in this pope might be her paying more attention to what is going on in the world as an adult, but she had more to say about the significance of Francis’ visit and of her participation in the papal mass:
“I feel as though he is a great role model and leader, not just for the Catholic church, but for the larger Christian community, and even the secular population. (Perhaps this is what makes him such a frightening figure to some within the Adventist Church)."
She made no attempt to hide the excitement she felt on the day of the mass.
Of course on one level, it can be an adrenaline rush to be near any global celebrity. It provides an immediate cultural reference point and can help you feel connected to humanity. But this was different than attending, for example, Obama’s inauguration or a U2 concert because Pope Francis stands for something that is bigger than politics or pop culture. It was an unforgettable experience, made even more meaningful by that fact that I was able to participate in it, not just attend.”
After the event, Adventist Review contacted Joy, interested in publishing an article about her experience. News editor Andrew McChesney wrote an article that was published exclusively on the Review website entitled “Adventist Organist Plays for Pope During U.S. Visit.”
Then comments began coming in. The article’s comment section was overrun with negative responses to the story.
Throughout Francis’ visit to the United States, the Review posted a series of articles on the papacy. Among them, McChesney wrote about filmmaker and self-styled Adventist pastor Christopher Hudson’s 1 ½ hour YouTube docudrama entitled Leopard Vision, in which Hudson ties the Catholic Church to the negative imagery of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. Hudson became notorious for helping to convert “Two And a Half Men” star Angus T. Jones to Adventism. When that story blew up in 2012, the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists clarified that Hudson was not in fact an Adventist pastor.
At the bottom of McChesney’s article on Hudson’s “Leopard Vision,” the video was embedded with the disclaimer: “This film has not been officially endorsed by the General Conference or the Adventist Review.”
Though the Review’s publishing a story on an Adventist musician playing for a papal mass may seem uncharacteristic given the journal’s tendency to prioritize stories critical of the papacy and of Pope Francis, the article featuring Joy fit within the Review’s broader capitalization on Adventist interest in the pope’s visit. Nevertheless, she was caught off guard.
“I was genuinely surprised that the Review contacted me for an interview in the first place,” Joy said. “It was not a story I expected the general Adventist community to be interested in (besides family and friends).”
Neither did she (or apparently the editors of the Review) expect the backlash that followed the article’s publication. Within a short time of the article’s publication and after a volley of condemnatory comments, the article disappeared off the website.
“It took me a little while to realize that the article had in fact been pulled. At first I thought that the link I had been sent just wasn’t working. The next day I was told it was not personal, and that it was related to ‘an internal office matter.’"
Adventist Review did not respond to my request for comment on the article’s removal from the website. However, it’s not the first time that “internal office matters” have resulted in the disappearance of content created under the auspices of the Adventist Church.
In January 2014, the Adventist News Network first published, then removed an article suggesting that 10 of the 13 divisions in the Adventist Church were open to the possibility of ordaining women. Perhaps most famously, in April 2014 the General Conference halted the release of million-dollar-plus film project The Record Keeper, which it funded. An official statement said that while Record Keeper would not be released, the Church was open to the possibility of other similar creative ventures in the future.
Does the removal of Joy’s story from Adventist Review's pages speak to Adventism’s dogged adherence to an anti-papist narrative at the expense of real people’s lived experiences?
From one standpoint, the story is a great human interest story about a musician given an opportunity of a lifetime. In highlighting that, the Review got it right, prioritizing humanity over ideology. However, from the standpoint of many Adventists, the story was seemingly one bridge too far.
I asked Joy for her response to Adventists' negative preoccupation with the pope in particular and the Catholic Church generally.
"I find it all highly disappointing and I think preoccupation is a good word for it. In some ways it is an excuse for not listening, not considering that we might learn from others."
Joy said that she told Adventist Review that the mass in which she participated was about sharing the joy of the gospel and the love of Christ.
I’m not sure what Adventists find offensive about that. I went back and reread the whole sermon that Pope Francis delivered that day and I think it could be delivered just about word for word from any Adventist pastor in any Adventist church. But I doubt most Adventists would be interested in reading what Francis said because the messenger distracts them from hearing the message.”
Despite Adventists’ historic theological differences with Catholicism, Joy maintains that the Adventist Church stands to gain a great deal from inter-faith partnerships, including with Catholics.
“I don’t mean to be judgmental about this,” she says. “My work as a church musician has given me a wonderful opportunity to be involved with a variety of denominations. That’s not an experience that many people get to have, and it has made me quite ecumenical.”
Joy notes, without incredulity, that she has been welcomed by people of other faith, and wonders whether Adventists might be as gracious to, say, a Catholic organist. She also wonders what narrative might have been less offensive.
“If I had refused to play for the mass, lost my scholarship (did I mention that playing for the Chamber Choir is stipulated in my scholarship agreement?), and had to drop out of school, would that have been a more interesting story for the Adventist community? Is the headline “Adventist Organist Refuses to Play for Pope” more palatable? Is separatism and persecution more comfortable than collaboration and partnership?”
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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