Y. Suzanne Ócsai, a 2014 art and journalism graduate of Southern Adventist University and graphic designer for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, has torn the curtain, from top to bottom, on the story of the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) movement. In her 202-page book, "Something’s Happening: The Behind the Scenes Story of GYC," Ócsai uncovers the untold story of a handful of young Adventists who started a youth convention that now draws thousands annually.
The book was published as a Kindle e-Book in December, 2014.
The Adventist Today Foundation published "Something's Happening" after GYC leaders pulled their support for the book and denominational publishers, who had signalled interest early on, backed out of the project.
From page one, the book is rife with controversy. In the book's introduction, Adventist Today Foundation Executive Director Monte Sahlin reveals that Ócsai had partnered with GYC leadership until they became uneasy with some of the passages she pushed to have included in the final manuscript.
“She began writing this book with the cooperation of the GYC leadership with the intention that it would be published by one of the denomination’s publishing houses. When she found and felt that she must honestly report certain aspects of the story, the GYC leaders withdrew their support and the publishing houses were no longer willing to be involved with the project” (Kindle location 22-25).
Despite its precarious beginnings, AT board members believed the book contained a story that needed to be told.
“The Adventist faith has little if any future in North America unless it carefully nurtures the next generation. That requires listening to key voices in that generation,” Sahlin wrote.
That Ócsai had the support of GYC leaders until after she had concluded her research allowed her unparalleled access to quotes from founders’ personal emails, intimate familial conversations, and private GYC board meetings dating back to GYC’s organization in 2001.
Ócsai was given access to a December 2001 email exchange between co-founder Justin Kim and Andrea Oliver, the young woman who became the first president of the group, originally called "General Youth Conference."
…A friend and I have recently been talking about things, especially the spiritual condition of American collegiate, high schoolers, grads, young people, etc,” Kim wrote. “We believe God has given us a vision; not a literal Daniel-like vision, but a burden or plan […] I don’t want to say much. But if you are interested or if God has given you a similar ‘vision,’ tell me what’s up. Good Luck on the rest of your finals" (Kindle location 274-287).
"Something's Happening" describes the extensive planning that went into organizing the first GYC meeting held in 2002 at Pine Springs Ranch in Southern California. GYC leaders, made up of a small group of college-aged Adventists, scrambled to find enough funding for the project, using their parents’ credit cards to help cover the initial costs. They feared nobody would show up.
Judy Namm, another key player in GYC’s early days, had her own fears before the first conference:
Judy felt like a lot of the donors were just giving because they were either friends or related to someone in the group and were being nice because they loved them not because believed in what these kids were trying to accomplish. And besides that, who was going to come? They didn’t know" (Kindle location 467-469).
Ócsai also addresses Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, a one-man issue facing GYC founders. Today, Pipim is known for his “moral fall,” his own euphemistic description of several instances of forcing young women to have sex with him against their will. His June, 2014 re-baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist Church drew sharply polarized reactions. Ron Halverson, the president of the Ohio Conference where the re-baptism took place, distanced himself from the re-baptism and said that the conference would not recognize or endorse any attempt by Pipim to be reinstituted as a pastor. Although Pipim's “moral shortcomings” did not come to light until many years later, Pipim still attracted controversy in GYC's ealry days because of his militant, conservative viewpoints on a wide range of topics.
The book reveals how deeply connected Pipim was to GYC’s founders. It was through his work as the director of C.A.M.P.U.S. (Center for Adventist Ministry to Public University Students) that Justin Kim, along with co-founder Israel Ramos, became inspired to create the association of youth groups that would evolve into the GYC.
“He [Ramos] envisioned all these different young adults who were starting various ministries and campus outreach projects and Sabbath school groups coming together and experiencing a deeper sense of revival" (Kindle Locations 204-205).
The young GYC leaders were drawn to Pipim’s conservative beliefs, and as such, often looked to him as a leader or mentor. Likewise, Pipim claimed the GYC as an outreach from his work at C.A.M.P.U.S..
According to Ócsai, James Black, the North American Division Youth Director at the time, drew a straight line from Pipim to the GYC: “[I]t always seemed like GYC was a ‘Sam Pipim organization’ and that it was an initiative of the Michigan Conference” (Kindle location 1501-1505).
Pipim’s involvement was not the only obstacle the GYC movement faced. People, including the many officials in the GC and NAD Youth Department, had a hard time understanding exactly what GYC was and why GYC leaders were holding youth conferences separate from NAD sponsored events. Young adults were attending these conferences and then returning to their home churches inspired to start similar ministries. This seemed like an affront to their home conferences, as these young adults often chose to operate outside their home conferences guidance or means. NAD Youth Conference Leaders wondered if the GYC encouraged this separation intentionally.
Ócsai suggests that these early questions led to a large, and well-known, gap between the GYC and the General Conference:
“The youth leaders didn’t mind whether GYC members sang solely hymns or not. What bothered them was that GYC seemed to possess an aura that they were holier than the rest of the Church— above supporting those who would plan or attend Church sponsored youth events. It didn’t leave a good impression” (Kindle location 1337-1339).
"Something’s Happening" references Spectrum to describe the dissonance between those who resonated with the conservative GYC worship style and those who did not: “The GYC crowd couldn’t work with the Spectrum crowd and vice a versa” (Kindle location 1352-1353).
Ócsai describes a back-and-forth struggle between the GYC and GC that lasted for years as they tried to learn to work together. When GYC leaders would do something that worried church officials, communication between the two groups was strained. While in some ways GYC felt honored that they GC cared what they did, it was also frustrating. “The [Church leaders] didn’t seem to be coming out to correct GYC as their child, but instead it seemed they were coming to silence GYC as the bully who was beating up on their kids” (Kindle Locations 1627-1628).
While the relationship between the General Conference, the Generation of Youth for Christ, and Samuel Pipim monopolizes a large part of the book, Ócsai also dedicates many chapters of the book to describing the transitional periods for GYC when founding leaders began to step down and step away from the organization and new young adult leaders emerged, including Justin McNeilus. She tracks GYC’s development from a small tribe of young adults to the large, well-oiled machine that it is today.
Coming to this book as someone without prior knowledge of the GYC, I found it overwhelming at times to keep track of all the early board members and the collective youth groups they came from. I found myself flipping back to remember the background of the person I was reading about. However, after my initial confusion, I was drawn deeply into the story and didn’t come up for air until finishing the book. When I was done, I could not help looking up some of the founders to see what they are doing now, and even asking my peers about their experiences with GYC.
The book is heavy on Adventist jargon, and for that reason I might not recommend it to someone who does not have a basic understand of Adventist culture and structure.
Ultimately, the way "Something’s Happening" gets inside the Generation of Youth for Christ and its impact on the General Conference is a rarity that likely will not occur again. The access author Suzanne Ócsai was granted to GYC’s private archives before GYC stepped away from the project is key to truly understanding how the GYC evolved into what it is today. I cannot envision GYC being so quick to let someone into their confidential files again any time soon.
This e-Book is available from Amazon.com for $9.99.
Rachel Logan is a writing intern for Spectrum Magazine.