Alabama Agitation: Notes from the 4th Annual Adventists for Social Justice Conference

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November 14, 2019

Dr. Tiffany Llewellyn introduced the fourth annual Adventists for Social Justice Conference, #AGITATE2019, with this question: “How do we think of ourselves?” The Conference was held in Huntsville, Alabama, on the campus of Oakwood University, November 8-10, 2019.

Llewellyn, president/founder of ASJ and host of the “Girl Meets Church” series on the Adventist Voices by Spectrum podcast, took note of the trauma in Huntsville, Alabama caused by police shooting a person of color and then asked, “What is our responsibility to those around us?” 

Emphasizing voting as foundational to the way ASJ will enact change, Dr. William Ellis, ASJ board member, professor at Washington Adventist University, and researcher of Adventist voting patterns, was first in the #AGITATE2019 line up when he described the initiative, “Adventists Vote,” as a way to overturn crony capitalism and return rights to all people as envisioned in the founding documents of our country.

Pastor Danielle Pilgrim used the story of Ruth to support the title of her Friday night plenary talk, “Don’t Count Me Out.” Ruth’s story was framed as a story of equality, particularly of the marginalized and outcast, showing that God actually rewards the outcast. Giving a brief history of Ruth’s people, the Moabites, as the despised descendants of Lot and his daughters, Pilgrim noted the parallels between Ruth as part of the scorned by the Israelites and the historically marginalized in this country. There was an obvious, hypocritical problem in the formation of the United States where words declaring equality for all (Declaration of Independence) were counteracted by counting a black man as three-fifths of a person and not counting women at all. She said that sins of racism and inequality are problems for Adventists and for the country. Asking how we treat people whose ethnicity is stacked against them, Pilgrim pointed to the Bible as showing that God rewards and redeems the outcast because of who He is. Boaz, a friend of God, asked God to bless Ruth; he knew God’s favor went to the outcasts, including “messed up Moabites,” even to the point of this outcast becoming a direct ancestor to King David and to Jesus.

Drawing on the conference theme, Pilgrim urged people to agitate against systems and institutions that oppress people. Pilgrim urged the adoption of responsibility to accept all, referring to the problem that “people would prefer empty pews over pews filled with people who are not like them.” The audience, overwhelmingly students, excitedly affirmed her message and erupted in loud affirmation as Pilgrim said, “You want to know a secret? God is not a Seventh-day Adventist.” Pilgrim set the stage for the theme of #AGITATE2019 with her message that God is willing to agitate for the marginalized. Likewise, those who claim to be Christians should be willing to do the same.

Sabbath morning, the plenary session began with the bestowal of an award from Oakwood University and ASJ to Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson, a prolific author on race and Christianity, was called a “truth-teller” whose life has been dedicated to the premise that justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public. Dyson specifically spoke about the concept of using intelligence before embracing those in governmental office, saying “When the White House can’t say it, the pulpit can.” Dyson spoke of gratitude for Dr. Carlton Byrd who he said is speaking truth unlike other Evangelical leaders. Referring to the ASJ conference and the efforts of ASJ, Dyson said it is not a side show, but a central church operation. “Don’t get caught in theological ecstasy while avoiding sociological misery.” Dyson spoke of the current administration’s clandestine association with people and groups involved with White Supremacy against a backdrop of the central responsibility (often shirked) of the church to tell the truth in all seasons, while lifting up the blood-stained banner of Jesus Christ.

During the worship hour, Dr. Carlton Byrd, senior pastor at Oakwood University Church, spoke from Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, emphasizing the idea that sheep are “in position” to do the practical tasks. All through Jesus’ life, He upset the elite as He ate with underprivileged and listened to those who had been disregarded. Jesus questioned current laws and the status quo, and for this, they killed Him. Jesus showed that there are times to stand up and speak truth to power, despite the consequences.

“God was angered over oppression and injustice, as we should be,” said Byrd.

Byrd said, “If Rosa Parks had not agitated, we would still be on the back of the bus and if Susan Anthony did not trouble voting waters, then no women would be voting today. If the waters at the Pool of Bethesda had not been agitated, there was no healing.”

Byrd wants the church to be “a voice, not an echo.”

Byrd said justice does not mean equality, rather, it refers to the idea of setting things right, saying, “Jesus was calling us to agitate a system that has been slavish and sinister,” and “You have to crush a rose to get fragrance and irritate an oyster to get a pearl.”

Asserting that social justice is part of the Gospel, Byrd said, “I don’t want to be at church all my life and be a goat.”

Byrd said the story of sheep and goats was a warning. Yet, people have too much distraction to give the story the attention it is due.

Byrd said Jesus was not coming back for those “straddling the fence,” but instead wanted to come and redeem those who positioned themselves to do the work at hand, to agitate for the marginalized.

Byrd wrapped up the message with a question: “How are you going to be like Jesus and not agitate? The greatest sermon ever preached is the one that is lived.” He said sometimes it will be necessary to agitate not just in the country or community, but in the church.

An afternoon plenary session by Minister Ronnie Vanderhorst was entitled “The Harriet Tubman Manifesto: Be Free or Die.” Using the story of blaming a dog for being vicious after being beat repeatedly, Vanderhorst asserted that “America drives black people mad, then executes them.” Dispelling any thought that he advocated a victim stance, Vanderhorst envisioned people healing from this trauma using three frameworks: theoretical, therapeutic, and theological.

First, Vanderhorst’s theoretical framework assumed that racism is permanent, based on the work of Derrick Bell. Then, he used Dr. Joy Degruy’s model of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. This manifests in distorted attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors and is more difficult when trauma has been caused by other humans. Vanderhorst said, “Trauma left unchallenged is trauma unaddressed” and used the African Proverb that says you cannot stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can prevent it from nesting in your hair. The first step in the process is discernment of what is happening and a clear-eyed acknowledgement of what is happening. Vanderhorst noted that frequently people who perceive the problem in the present moment are labeled as having “pathological behaviors.” He asserted that the first step to healing is acknowledging the reality. To deny reality is to perpetuate pain; he said, “Traumatized people traumatize people.”

In the context of a therapeutic framework, Vanderhorst declared that traumatized people have an “interrupted spirit” and this will affect soul and body. The mind becomes a battlefield. What one allows to occupy one’s mind will, eventually, come out of one’s mouth and affect one’s body to heal or kill a person. An interrupted spirit affects what we think and how we feel and what we do. Unresolved trauma often causes people to develop strongholds to falsify or defend wrong beliefs and easily leads to development of a trapped-victim mindset. Trauma has to be acknowledged and the victim mindset must be overcome and to do so requires the Gospel.

Vanderhorst’s theological framework is this: Gospel is more centrally rooted in trauma than doctrine. Underneath the loud talk about being saved is a hidden side of Gospel, His wounded side. Through seeing the life and death of Christ, those who suffer can fully identify with Him and this is a source of healing and peace. This will lift a person out of victimhood to service. “Hands that help are holier than lips that pray.”

The Sabbath afternoon schedule featured numerous workshops. One workshop that stood out for me was Michael Polite’s session entitled, “Upside Down Influencers.” This section provided a description of the theological grounding for #AGITATE2019, distilled from Acts 17:4-6. In the text, Polite notes the collaboration of the institution with new believers as well as with women. He also likes the New King James translation of verse 6 that refers to the group as turning the world “upside-down.” Polite notes that the name of one of the believers, Jason, also in the text, means “healing.” Healing, apparently, disrupted the status quo.

Polite says he is a pragmatic theologian and values reclaiming the revolution identity that fueled the establishment of the Advent Message. He contends this will result in cultivation of spaces where avant-garde disciples are encouraged and empowered. “God called us to be a movement, not an institution.” Polite took his audience through Christian history to see that the story of Jesus has been weaponized to quell agitators. It started with Constantine, who showed up with a Bible in one hand and a weapon in the other. He said the choice of “church or culture” is a colonial stance. He said that Jesus and the Gospel are to be embedded in culture. Christianity, in its original form, was not to be a collaborator with Western Culture, but was to embed and make culture into something else.

Polite stated the problem now is one of Christian “numbness,” claiming that believers seem to function with a sort of surge protector in place to prevent them from seeing the sad reality of the culture. For Polite, the first step to protest is to allow oneself to be grieved. He said one should prepare for the “end time” by doing what one can in one’s “own time.”

#AGITATE2019 wrapped up Sunday morning with two Oakwood community members sharing case studies of what they were doing to promote social justice. First, Oakwood student, Giana Darville, described her work on YouTube to focus on the issue of e-cigarette usage in African American teenagers. More than 25% of that demographic use e-cigarettes, and such usage quadruples the likelihood of smoking traditional cigarettes later.

The last speaker of the conference was Pastor Debleaire Snell, of First Seventh-day Adventist Church of Huntsville, who described the formation of the group, “Blackout NFL Now” and offered tips for grass roots protest movements. Snell says he started this ecumenical project, not as an activist, but as an individual with a burden. As the father of two boys, he feels police shootings of people of color is the Civil Rights issue of our time. Noting that the problem of police brutality against people of color is not new, Snell has been dismayed to note the way the majority culture has avoided the topic even with real time film documentation of the problem.

Snell contends that Kaepernick’s non-violent, respectful protest has been demonized as an act of disrespect for the flag and country, rather than the real intent of lamenting how our current society has failed to live up to the words of the founding principles. Snell sees Kaepernick’s inability to get a job to be a sort of “Corporate Lynching,” because just as lynching in years past was used primarily as a deterrent beyond punishment, Kaepernick’s current unemployment in the NFL is meant to be a public deterrent to strike fear in others who may contemplate protest on this issue. Snell sees the tension related to Kaepernick’s protest as symptomatic of the irritation people feel when America is asked to be who it claims to be on paper.

The Blackout NFL Now campaign urges men to boycott NFL football and spend that time mentoring young African American boys for the 17 weeks of NFL season. The idea has also caught on for women who have chosen to spend NFL football time working on mentorship with girls. Snell said he suspects the Trump administration was aware of the Blackout NFL Now effort when the President held a rally in Huntsville, in which he advocated firing NFL players who protest by kneeling. While unable to confirm exact numbers, Snell estimates that two-and-a-half years later there are still 50,000 who have boycotted the NFL and this has helped to decrease the viewership of NFL games for the last two years.

On a personal note, I was grateful that at #AGITATE2019 my concerns about the state of justice in the United States were validated repeatedly by spiritual leaders. The choice to hold #AGITATE2019 at Oakwood University on the weekend of November 8–10, was made, of course, long before there was talk of President Trump attending the Alabama/LSU football game in Tuscaloosa. The timing of both events unfolding concurrently added to my sense of surrealism.

I appreciate the theological grounding I heard at #AGITATE2019, and I will use the concepts I heard to help distinguish good from evil and add my voice to the marginalized.

 

Carmen Lau is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Image courtesy of Adventists for Social Justice.

 

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