Adventist Forum will grow this weekend in the Southeastern United States. Ronald Lawson has worked to create a new Forum chapter based in Asheville, North Carolina. Professor emeritus at Queens College, CUNY, Lawson brings with him considerable academic prowess and forty years' experience as president of the Metro New York Adventist Forum. In this Spectrum Conversation, Lawson discusses his involvement in creating some of the earliest Adventist Forum chapters and his hopes for this youngest chapter.
How long did you participate in and serve as president of the Metro New York Forum chapter?
I participated from my third Sabbath in New York City (Sept. 1971), until I left for Asheville in Sept. 2015–44 years. Indeed, I still participate, via internet, once per month when the visiting speaker is there since those currently in charge (they have not elected a president to replace me) call me for suggestions for speakers, and I, of course, suggest speakers I want to hear. Fritz Guy was there this month, Lowell Cooper last month. I was president from 1975 until 2015, 40 years.
For you, what is the compelling thing about belonging to a local Adventist Forum chapter? Why should someone consider it?
At the Metro NY Adventist Forum, we, in fact, became an independent congregation with the blessing of Neal Wilson, then GC VP for North America. The group was founded in 1968 by Adventist graduate students at Columbia U. and the Juilliard School, seeking fellowship, the opportunity to discuss issues raised in their classes, and current puzzling church issues.
The initial idea was to become a church or a company attached to the conference, but the issue of which conference (at a time when they were very segregated) was inevitably raised for the membership was multi-racial. In 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, this was a serious problem for graduate students. So they wrote to Wilson asking to be affiliated at the Union level in order to avoid the racial choice.
He spent a day with them, announced that the church did not have the flexibility to allow what they had suggested; instead, he suggested that they be an independent congregation that set out to maintain positive ties to the church. We were thus able to develop a form of worship that fitted our needs with the best of classical music (we had a supply of fine organists among our members), choosing the best hymns in the hymnal, and developed an array of liturgies that highlighted the reading of the Scriptures for the day in the Protestant Lexicon (a Psalm, and readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Epistles, and one of the Gospels). We also always had an opportunity for questions and discussion after every sermon (we call those "presentations").
We found that we often had differing points of view, but this never led to unpleasantness but rather opportunities to learn from one another for we came to trust and love each other. We brought in an exciting Adventist speaker once per month and had plenty of talent among our own ranks for the other weeks. Frankly, I doubt if I would still be an Adventist if I had not found that Forum chapter—it fed me, provided a support group, and my closest friends. Members who moved away often reported not being able to find an Adventist church that worked for them.
When I moved to Asheville, I was nervous lest that be my fate also. I checked out all the churches that were within a reasonable driving distance and settled on a very welcoming congregation with decent music. I soon became involved in helping to provide that music. But I noticed in all the churches I attended that the content of sermons and Sabbath School classes avoided issues; therefore, I felt unfed spiritually—the same old stuff, very repetitious. The churches here are divided by music, involvement in helping to meet the needs of the community (e.g. feeding the homeless vs. more inward-looking), and location.
The tone of meetings is unadventurous because most of the members are rather to very orthodox, and those who are more liberal muzzle themselves for fear of making waves. Since I fall into the latter group, I felt a great need for an opportunity for open discussion that a Forum chapter would provide. Our early activities led me to others who had the same need.
How did this new chapter in North Carolina come about? Where and when does it meet?
The new chapter had a rather unusual beginning. My friend Daneen Akers, who with her husband, has made two amazing films, Seventh Gay Adventists and Enough Room at the Table, both of which speak to the isolation of LGBTQ Adventists, was going to spend some time at Southern Adventist U with her father. She wrote to Cathee Sweet (whom I did not know) and me, suggesting that she could come to Asheville to show her new film if we could find a location and an audience. This was planned as a one-time meeting which we advertised as being "a safe space" that all would feel comfortable attending. Those present were a real mix: a few LGBTQ folk, family members and friends of such folk, others who wanted to express support for such Adventists, as well as some curious to see the film.
We decided to meet at another time to get to know one another and there decided to show both films again, hoping to attract more people. By the time of the third showing of a film, we knew and cared for one another and realized that it was not only LGBTQ Adventists who needed a safe space where they could discuss issues and support one another.
We invited Herb Montgomery, who runs an independent ministry in West Virginia, to come speak, and to our surprise, discovered that he had a following here which brought more people to us. At that time, we decided that the best way of meeting our needs was to form a Forum chapter which I had told them about.
So far we have met in a variety of places—twice in a room rented from the downtown UCC church, which is known for being very liberal, twice at a private school. But the first was quite costly, and the second, which was donated to us because they support gay issues, would not be eager to sully its secular status by hosting religious meetings. So this week's meeting will be at my house—I am fortunate in having a large living room as well as a grand piano and an electronic organ. Another couple who are active on our committee also have a house of suitable size. So we do not yet have a permanent home.
What are some of your goals for this new Forum chapter?
We are determined to welcome those who need us and to provide all with a safe space. We are already a multi-racial group, and our goals are to support and love those Adventists who need support and to be fed spiritually through open, non-judgmental discussion. We do not yet have the funds to bring in speakers from afar, but we have several local speakers in mind, Adventists and non-Adventists, and are seeking to establish our status so that gifts to us are tax-deductible. So far most of our active members come from three of the 16 churches here. We know that other churches must contain Adventists who sorely feel the need of such a community. We would like very much to invite those who already know about the Forums through reading the Spectrum Website.
What is it about Adventist community and the fellowship of Adventist believers that you personally find appealing? What has kept you actively engaged for as many years as you have been?
I grew up in a home where both parents were active Adventists, and this shaped me—Adventism is my community even though it has often caused me pain. But I have made amazing friends there, of high quality, and it provided me with many opportunities. I was SS organist at 13, started a choir in my home church (Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia) when I was 15—we sang every week until I went away to University at 18. There I was asked to form a choir in the Brisbane Central Church which I led for seven years, and at university I was one of the key players in the formation of the Queensland University SDA Society (QUSDAS) in 1962.
Under my leadership, that really became a prototype of a Forum Chapter since we wrestled with the issues that were being raised by our studies, and the friends I made there are still a core group of my friends. At University, through my first Sociology of Religion course, I came to a new understanding of the dynamics of Adventism and wanted to explore that further and share it with my fellow-believers. I was prevented by my adviser from making that the subject of my dissertation ("Do you want to get a job when you are done?"), so I vowed to return to the topic when my career allowed it—and in 1984, by then a tenured, full professor of sociology and history, I felt the time had come. Being overly ambitious, my research took to, over some years as I waited for sabbatical leaves and some funding to allow this, I interviewed over 4,000 Adventists in 60 countries.
I discovered that wherever I went I found community among Adventists—I spoke the lingo, therefore I was welcome. This is a truly amazing facet of Adventism.
Having published many papers in both academic journals and Spectrum, I am now, in retirement, writing what is planned as a series of four books about global Adventism and its issues. The title of the first will be Apocalypse Postponed. But what has kept me involved is the congregational sense of community, and especially the open, caring friends I made among Adventists, especially first in QUSDAS, then in the Forum chapter in NYC, and now here in the nascent chapter in Asheville. It is the ties I have found, the support I have received, the truly remarkable, loving people I have been privileged to count among my friends, a serious approach to life and to helping others, and the shared lifestyle.
To finish with one example that amazes me weekly: I am very difficult to feed, for I am celiac so that my food must not be contaminated by gluten, and I have many other allergies such as lactose, onion and garlic, beans, including soy, and lentils. Yet those who provide the food for the weekly potluck at North Asheville Church somehow make sure that there is always sufficient food that I can eat. They have really made me feel loved and at home as a result.
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