Kaleb Eisele in Orangeburg, South Carolina, hopes that his short profiles featuring a wide variety of Adventists will initiate conversation and encourage empathy, connecting people through stories.
Question: You have started a "Humans of Adventism" page, modeled on the hugely popular "Humans of New York" page that pictures random, ordinary people on the streets of New York along with captions that tell a little of their stories. When did you officially take your project public and what made you want to launch it in the first place?
Answer: "Humans of Adventism" has been in the works for over a year now. It started as a project I wanted to do with our church Facebook page. I wanted to do photos of our members and share their stories, but kept I running into issues featuring our congregation as they are almost entirely older, more private people.
Six months ago, I reached out to a group of other Adventist content creators I'd met through "The Haystack," presenting the bare bones of "Humans of Adventism" to them. They pitched in when they could, and we hammered out the details. [Read Kaleb Eisele's "Haystack" post here.]
I had to ask a lot of questions before the launch: how would I choose whom to feature? How would I find stories after cycling through people I knew? Where would the photos come from? What will I allow on the page and what won't I? Who will do the work? Each of these were answered over time, but I'm always looking for ways to improve on what I do.
But why did I want to do it in the first place? Because I know the impact "Humans of New York" has had on me. I can actually feel myself growing more empathetic as I read the stories and learn about the obstacles people are facing. It's a glimpse behind the public mask; it's context for why people might act or believe the way they do.
My experiences outside of the Adventist bubble have made it clear to me that we need this kind of bridge building — we need to be able to understand each other better as Adventists, but we also have a lot of work to do in being relevant and relatable people in our communities.
So can you answer a few of those basic questions for us? How many people have you featured so far? How frequently do you intend to post? How do you choose whom you will picture? How will you ensure a good cross section of people?
I have interviewed over thirty Adventists for the page so far. The stories are scheduled out for a few months already, generally set for Wednesdays and Fridays at 3 p.m. unless I'm doing a special series or something.
Choosing interviewees at this point is based on whether they are willing to be vulnerable and whether they can provide a photo I can use. I'm working hard to expand our abilities to include more diversity, especially in age. Millennials and Gen Z tend to be far more comfortable having their photos taken and posted outside of a studio or family setting.
Photos aside, though, featuring a good cross-section of people will always be a deliberate effort. There are so many barriers dividing us in society and within the church: age, race, orientation, social class, language, ideology, personality, health, involvement level. There's never going to be a time when I think "Humans of Adventism" is representative of our church as a whole, but that will always be a goal I pursue.
I have plans in motion to set up physical representatives and photographers who can actually visit and speak to people in person, but that's a ways off. For now, I'm limited to the research and communication I can conduct online. The internet is an incredible tool if you use it right, and I intend to continue my deliberate efforts to reach into pockets of people who I am not already a part of.
Do you have geographic parameters (like only featuring people in the U.S.), or is your page intended to be global? Your page says that the pictures are provided by the interviewees. This seems to be a departure from most other "Humans of" pages, which are hosted by a photographer. I suppose you decided this because you want to feature people who are not near you? Do you have rules about what kinds of photos you will use or not use?
One of the big reasons it took me so long to make "Humans of Adventism" public was that, at first, I had my mind set on doing the photography myself. After three months went by and I had only interviewed four people, I decided that I was standing in the way of stories being told.
It definitely diverges from other “Humans of” pages in method, but I'd like to think it shares most of the same kind of mission: people connecting through stories.
For the early stages, I've been largely limited to Adventist communities that I already have contact with, but I will push across geographic borders as time goes on. In every area I see "Humans of Adventism" like a root system: we start with what we can do and follow the paths that open up for us. But even things that seem simple, like choosing the right photo, can be a challenge. I try to only use images that speak life and are decent quality—no selfies, very few studio-esque images if I can help it. The image tells a story as much as the text does.
It seems that you do not post your subjects' names on your page. Why is that?
Anonymity is not a set policy for me, but I do value the way it's worked so far. There's a certain vulnerability to people when they know they won't be directly tagged in a photo. I want honesty and candid conversation, so I leave it up to the interviewee. If someone wanted to have their name included, I would have no problem with that.
What do you hope that your "Humans of Adventism" page will accomplish?
I want "Humans of Adventism" to initiate conversation. For those of us in the Adventist community, I hope that it will help each of us explore our own beliefs and bias as well as expose us to those of the people we share a faith with.
But there's another mission here — a desperately necessary ministry. I feel that the gap between Adventists and the people we are supposed to be serving and reaching is growing at an alarming rate. A lot of that is due to how we've handled the mission God has given us. In 2017, we have to go all the way back to our basic connection to others: the human experience. Without first establishing a relationship, I think we close ourselves to reaching the people around us.
Are there specific questions that you ask your subjects?
A few, yes. Sometimes I give them a question based on something I know about them. But the answers rarely end up the way I expect them to. I'll ask something like “What is an Adventist’s role in the community?” but the conversation will turn toward a past experience the interviewer had. Other times, someone comes to me with something specific they'd like to share and we talk through that. The topic isn’t always directly related to their church experience or faith. Sometimes there's just something important happening in their life that they need to talk about.
What has been your favorite, or most surprising, post so far?
It's hard to narrow it down because of how differently they turn out, but one does stick out. I got in contact with a young woman from Andrews who was so firm in her faith — not just in Christ, but in the Adventist church. It was so refreshing to hear about her experience. She told me she felt that if everyone had experienced religion the way she had, they would never leave the church.
So many stories from my peers are about disconnecting, about barely hanging on to their relationships with their churches, so I was really inspired by her positive outlook.
What is your day job? What other projects are you working on?
I manage equipment for a pest control company during the weekdays. I have several hours during the day where I am monitoring things and have the freedom to work on things like "Humans of Adventism." I've never been idle — my hands and mind are always engaged in something. I spend a lot of time helping strategize for our little church, and I also write for other publications and websites whenever I can. I publish a monthly piece through "The Haystack."
Where did you go to school?
A lot of people can claim to be a product of the Adventist educational system, but when I say it, I mean it literally. My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and my wife and I all graduated from Indiana Academy. I went to a little elementary school just up the street from there for my first eight years, spent my first two years of college at Kettering, and then ended up attending the College of Charleston where I graduated in 2016 with a degree in English.
How did transitioning to a non-Adventist school impact you?
I honestly believe that was what sparked my anxiety about the current state of our church. I'd been led to believe that public colleges were full of sinful people who hated Christians. What I found was the complete opposite. If anything, I found people who were interested in getting to know about my faith. My professors were willing to work around any Sabbath activities to accommodate me. The rare uncomfortable situation I found myself in was just between myself and someone who needed to see that I actually cared about them.
I feel that much of our negative reputation in the world has been earned simply by not loving people who don't share our beliefs. I really struggled with that. I saw atheists and agnostics dedicating far more time to loving causes than my fellow church members. For a while it was such a problem that I stopped attending church. When I heard sermons talking about how superior Adventists were or how sinful everyone else was, it just didn't match what I was actually seeing in the world.
You are 25 years old. You said that many of your peers are disconnecting from their church. Have more of your Adventist friends that you grew up with still attend church, or have the majority decided to leave?
I was lucky enough to grow up with a stellar group of friends, the majority of whom have remained in the Adventist church in some capacity. But there is a clear and major disconnect even among those who have stayed.
Ironically, it's the study of Jesus’ life that’s driving much of this. We look at His attitude and how He handled interaction, then we look at how we're being encouraged to interact, and in many cases the two are nearly opposite. Of those who stayed, I feel that all of us recognize that something is wrong. We're just struggling to figure out what it is.
Why have you decided to remain an Adventist?
I stopped going to church for about two years, but I never stopped — or even wanted to stop — understanding the Bible through the Adventist lens. I believe that the majority of what we teach is rooted in something beautiful and theologically sound. My main concerns are with the culture of Adventism — the priorities we've made our idols.
I rarely feel that building relationships with non-Adventists is a priority when I visit other churches, but I've found something different in Orangeburg, where I live. That's what brought me back. In the past few years our church has undertaken an incredible change and nearly doubled its membership. We started focusing outward. We started confronting our own barriers head-on. I was allowed to contribute and minister using the skills I had worked so hard to develop. We started talking about the differences in communication between age groups and grew more empathetic across our generational and other lines. I feel like my church is moving forward. The Bible itself is what kept me Adventist, but Orangeburg is what brought me back to church.
Can you tell us more about your involvement with the Orangeburg Church in South Carolina?
Somehow several members of my family relocated to Orangeburg from various other places at roughly the same time. At the time, the church members were discussing closing its doors. This provided an incredible opportunity to rebuild from the ground up and allowed us the flexibility to start ministering using the strengths that we each brought to the table. My education and passion is internet ministry. I stood before my congregation and presented that idea to them. Few followed all the details, but to their credit, they pitched in and outfitted the church with the technology necessary to make it happen. I am a Sabbath School teacher now and handle our social media. Occasionally, I also give the sermon.
Where do you see yourself in five years? What is your dream job? Where do you see the "Humans of Adventism" page going?
I'm tied to principles, not specifics. I am open to God’s call. If "Humans of Adventism" becomes a powerful force for spreading His love, I hope I can still be a part of that on whatever level He wants it to be. I would love to go full-time, to be able to meet my financial responsibilities traveling and interviewing Adventists and helping churches reach my peers and our younger brothers and sisters in a relevant way. But maybe that's not God’s plan for me. I could see "Humans of Adventism" solidifying into a series I could take and preach on or maybe create a podcast. Whenever it is and wherever I am, I exist to be used for God’s will.
Image Courtesy of Kaleb Eisele.
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