Over 100 Adventist researchers and academics from around the world gathered at Andrews University on May 16-19, 2018 for the sixth annual Adventist Human-Subject Researchers Association Conference (AHSRA).
The conference began Wednesday evening with dinner, ran through two full days (Thursday and Friday) of presentations, and ended on Sabbath with worship and a tour of the Andrews University Arboretum.
I had the opportunity to attend the Thursday and Friday sessions which featured nearly 40 “lightning” presentations on the latest research in Adventism. Duane McBride, AHSRA president and retired chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Andrews University, gave the opening introduction Thursday morning, stating that individuals from six continents and 15 countries had registered for the conference.
Just as McBride wrapped up his introduction, his colleague Curt Vanderwaal, chair of the Department of Social Work, surprised him and delighted the audience with the announcement that McBride was being honored with a Festschrift. In fact, all of the Thursday presentations were given by individuals who had worked with McBride or been influenced by him during his 45 years of service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Andrews University, and the field of behavioral sciences as a whole.
McBride expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the honor in his typical jovial way, telling the attendees that he knew when he kept getting kicked out of conference planning meetings over the past few months he was either being honored or fired, and he hadn’t been sure which but was relieved it wasn’t the latter option.
Andrews University President Andrea Luxton kicked off the Festschrift festivities by saying McBride is a legend, both at Andrews and in his field. Indeed, as a former student of McBride, I can personally attest to his passion for research, his love of great stories, and his commitment to his students. During my time as a psychology major, I witnessed McBride infuse the department with dedication to collaboration with students in research pursuits. It was commonplace for students in the behavioral sciences to graduate with multiple professional academic presentations and peer-reviewed journal publications on their CVs, alongside their undergraduate degree, ready to pursue graduate work and/or any number of career fields.
After the surprise Festschrift was announced, David Williams, professor at Harvard University, took the stage to deliver the keynote address on “Findings from Recent Scientific Research: Highlighting Priorities for Mission.” Williams is a trained theologian, sociologist, and public health officer. He began his presentation with a quote from Ellen White:
God is the author of science. . . . Rightly understood, science and the Written Word agree, and each sheds light on the other. Together they lead us to God, by teaching us something of the wise and beneficent laws through which He works. —Counsels to Teachers, p. 42
He discussed how we now know that what happens to a mother, whether in the form of physical or emotional stressors, six months to a year before conception has an effect on infant mortality and birth weight.
Additionally, children who experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, improper nutrition, or inadequate access to health care, experience negative health effects in adulthood, Williams said, citing research done by Loma Linda University professor Rhonda Spencer-Hwang, among others. Williams related this to the Bible passage that mentions a curse visiting the third and fourth generations and how, scientifically, we can see this is true.
Williams stated according to research, 52% of U.S. children have experienced at least one ACE, with Black and Hispanic children experiencing more than White children surveyed. Surprisingly, though, across the board, immigrants are healthier than native-born Americans, regardless of race. However, the longer someone stays in the U.S., the more adversely their health is affected.
Likewise, positive childhood experiences play a role as well. Children who experienced robust and supportive relationships in childhood that met their physical and emotional needs have a lower risk of disease, higher level of educational success, lower depression, and more positive social supports as adults.
Because quality of social ties in childhood is the biggest predictor of quality of life as adults, Williams questioned whether the church is fulfilling this role for children who don’t receive adequate support from their family. The research shows that positive social ties don’t have to be familial, as long as they come from somewhere, so the church has an opportunity to literally create a better life for children as they grow and become active members of society.
He also touched on the latest research regarding the detrimental health effects of everyday discrimination (micro-aggressions), especially toward minority groups, stating that these “little indignities are literally killing people” and trigger feelings of “defilement of self.”
The final topic of his address was the challenge of mental illness in contemporary society. The United States has the highest rate of diagnosed psychiatric disorders at 47%, with New Zealand and Colombia tied for second at 39%, and France a close third at 38%. “What would it take to make every Seventh-day Adventist Church a mental health promoter?” he asked the audience. He added that “sometimes we send the wrong message from the pulpit that those with mental health disorders just need more prayer.” He continued saying, “Well, we all need prayer, but if I have a cardiac disease, I pray and I go find the best cardiologist I can. It should be the same for mental health.” He closed saying we need to create safe spaces where people can speak honestly on this issue.
After a short break, the lightning presentations began. These were grouped into sessions, with each presenter given 15 minutes for the research, and then a Q&A opportunity with the audience at the end of each session. The presenters throughout the conference represented both leading Adventist researchers, graduate students, and recent grads just beginning their careers.
Four sessions with three to five presentations each occurred on Thursday, and the moderators for each session did great work keeping presenters to their allotted time and the day moving quickly. In keeping with the overarching Festschrift for McBride, each of Thursday’s session themes (Faith-based Research & Policy; Public Health Research & Policy; Government-based Research & Policy; Social Change, Motivation and Activism; and Education) represented areas of his research expertise and interests.
Ella Simmons, General Conference vice president, spoke during the Faith-based Research & Policy session but surprised the audience by forgoing her topic published in the conference program (“Meet the Mandates of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975”), instead discussing something a little more close to home. She assured attendees the original presentation would still appear in the printed Festschrift publication, but today she would be talking instead about localized versus centralized organization.
She discussed the church's way of approaching 21st century problems with 19th century solutions. She reminded the audience that the GC was never supposed to be the power of the church; rather it was supposed to act as facilitator to the unions that were the power. She said we should examine whether that is still the best model or not. The church does business in 975 languages, she added, and we need to find the best way to demonstrate “unity in diversity” throughout our world church.
She included a brief discussion on Fundamental Belief 13, which states that in the last days, “Every believer is called to have a personal part in this worldwide witness.” She said that we disagree on how that witness is demonstrated, adding, “God calls who He will call and anoints who He chooses.”
As she finished her presentation, the moderator told the audience she had forgotten to mention that Dr. Simmons works at the General Conference. Simmons joked that “well, I used to anyway!”
The following presentations covered a variety of research topics including Blue-Zone living, tithing trends in Australia, health outreach among Latino congregations, SDA intimate partner violence, LGBT+ Adventists, alcohol consumption among Adventist college students. Despite the diversity of topic, each kept with the overarching theme of David Williams’ keynote address: relating rigorous academic and scientific research back to practical application for our church.
The day ended with a poster presentation of even more research, followed by a banquet and continued the celebration of Duane McBride where personal stories were shared about the impact he has had on his many students over the years.
The next day began at full speed with five more sessions of lightning presentations. The session themes were Education, Health, Church Membership & Outreach, Church in Action, and Church Issues, with topics ranging from Adventist Millennials to the importance of biblical language training in pastoral education, an analysis of mental health first aid, and a deep dive into the results of the worldwide 2017 Church Membership Survey in various church divisions.
Theodore Brown, minister and professor of management and leadership at Oakwood University, gave an inspirational discussion that was both sermon and research presentation on validating organizational effectiveness and measuring standards of excellence is leadership. He surveyed conference presidents, executive secretaries, and treasurers and found that clear communication, collaborative leadership, educating and empowering personnel, and sound financial management all contributed to the perceived health of an organization. His passion for the Adventist Church, its leadership, and how to improve both through proven effective management strategies truly shone during his energetic presentation that kept everyone wide awake through what otherwise might have been an afternoon slog.
After the Friday presentations concluded, AHSRA participants welcomed the Sabbath with a Friday evening vespers by Edwin Hernandez, president of Adventist University of Health Sciences, who spoke on the topic of why “Denominational Research Makes a Difference,” the proof of which was on full display throughout the conference.
For more information on the Adventist Human-Subject Research Association’s annual conference, visit ahsra.net.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org
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