This year, I've had the unique opportunity to be a secret churchgoer in several regions of the US. My latest travels led me to the heart of the Pacific Northwest—specifically Pleasant Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland, Oregon. The church felt like a welcoming home, a place where I either already belonged or where they wanted to know me.
Pleasant Valley Church (PVC), with its smaller congregation, holds two services each Saturday. The second service had a little over 100 attendees. Divine worship was a simple yet impactful gathering, including an acoustic musical set and a sermon. PVC is a family-oriented church, offering programs for children and adults alike. Prior to the service, I attended a Sabbath School class, where we engaged in thoughtful discussions based on the book Live No Lies by John Mark Comer. Despite the fact that I was more of a listener than a participant, the pastor leading the Sabbath School immediately recognized that I was a new face and approached me afterward to inquire about my name.
Statistically, Portland is considered America's "whitest large city," with 66.4 percent of the population being Caucasian. Nonetheless, Portland has a recent history of prolific activism and served as a hub of the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt this sentiment of cultural appreciation at PVC. Despite the numerical dominance of one ethnicity, it felt like a safe and familiar environment. On the day of my visit, the congregation celebrated their pastoral team, which represented a range of ethnicities and ages.
Following the service, there was a decadent potluck—perhaps one of the best I've encountered at a non-ethnic church. Given Portland's reputation for excellent dining experiences, this wasn't surprising. Portland boasts diverse culinary offerings, and Pleasant Valley's potluck reflected this with a variety of delicacies.
When I asked Fiorella Pinango—one of the young adults who led music for the second service—why she and her husband made Pleasant Valley their home church, she said, "PVC was the first church we visited when we moved to Oregon. Our plan was to explore different churches in the area before committing to one, but when we went to PVC, everyone, from the greeters to the pastors, was so warm and welcoming that we felt right at home. They learned our names and immediately treated us like we were part of them already. So we couldn't help but keep going back!" Her sentiments echoed my own. If I lived in Portland, I could easily see myself making Pleasant Valley my home church.
However, reflecting on my time visiting Pleasant Valley and other churches across the US, I've come to the realization that Seventh-day Adventist churches are essentially the same. Even without prior attendance at PVC, I was able to predict their program outline because it mirrors every other contemporary church I've visited. While some may view this as a sign of denominational strength and consistency, to me, it feels more like a religious country club. My experiences at various churches have led me to believe that Sabbath services are vastly indistinguishable, with culture being the only differentiating factor. The order and elements of service for a Black church may differ from that of a predominantly white church, but overall, the program outlines for conservative, contemporary, and cultural churches are all the same.
As I think about my time at Pleasant Valley and how seamlessly I blended in, I can't help but wonder how inviting this same space would feel to someone wholly unfamiliar with the culture. I know the Adventist jargon, and I can sing the lyrics from the hymns or contemporary Christian songs. I resonate with both gospel and traditional music. I am somewhat of an Adventist chameleon. But do these churches feel like home to people who aren't already on the inside? Is comfort a disadvantage to service and growth? Should church feel like a home where I stake claims and plant roots, or should there also be an element of evolution and change?
As I’ve traveled the US, I’ve realized Adventist culture, and therefore Adventist churches, are excellent at keeping the committed. But there is little to no space for the challengers and questioners, and as such, the post-pandemic church exodus is at an all-time high, especially for young adults.
Pleasant Valley felt like a place I could call home, but that is partially true because, by many standards, I am a conventional Adventist. I am able to walk the walk and talk the talk. Churches can feel like home to me and can provide me with positive experiences. But in some cases, home is not a safe place; it can be a reminder of isolation, rejection, and loneliness. Home is sometimes the place you want to leave and never return to.
The word “pleasant” exudes a comforting atmosphere akin to the tranquility of being in the Oregon mountains. Stepping into Pleasant Valley on a rainy winter day felt like encountering a ray of sunshine—a stark contrast to the season's gloomy weather. However, I am left wondering: did I receive true hospitality, the kind that authentically says, "Come, you are welcomed without condition," or was I a recipient of the privilege that comes with fitting in?
Editor's note—Thank you for reading this installment of the 12 Churches Project, a special 2023 series from Spectrum.
Thanks to readers like you who donated to our Grow the Vision campaign for the Bonnie Dwyer Journalism Fund, we’re commissioning reporters to visit 12 different Adventist churches in the North American Division and write about the experience. We’re aiming for diversity—at least one in each of the nine NAD unions—with a focus on key examples of various church bodies and worship styles.
Post-pandemic, what’s church like? Who’s showing up and who’s not? What’s changed? What’s working? What needs to change? The goal is not deeply investigatory but merely to witness worship and share. Hopefully, we can all learn something from these first-person experiences.
Previously in this series:
“What It's Like to Worship at Crosswalk Redlands” by Ezrica Bennett
“Visiting the District Community Church Plant in Washington, DC” by Jacklyn Frias
“A Visit to SuCasa, a Spanish-American Church in Tennessee” by Josué Vega
“A Visit to the Cedar Lake Seventh-Day Adventist Church” by Samuel Girven
“Visiting a Mid-West Camp Meeting” by Ezrica Bennett
“Returning to La Iglesia Adventista Hispana del Septimo Dia de Lynwood” by Raquel Mentor
Ezrica Bennett is a writer, public speaker, and coach passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith. She is also committed to helping churches, and church leaders, find innovative ways to integrate young adults into church leadership and empower them to honor God's calling on their lives.
Photos by Ezrica Bennett (title image, service images)and the Pleasant Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church Facebook (exterior church image).
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