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Adventist Compassion Floods New York City


On Saturday afternoon, March 22, Brian Keener’s wife heard an unusual noise coming from across the Brooklyn, New York apartment where she and Brian live. She walked to the window and saw a large multitude gathered in Cadman Plaza. Wearing the same T-shirts over their jackets and escorted by the police, they were preparing to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Intrigued, she sent her husband to find out more about it.

I saw Keener approach the group with a couple of questions. He obtained a fair idea of the situation, and pleased, wishedthem good luck. As he was walking back home,I questioned him. A retired man who described himself as a Christian but not a regular churchgoer, Keener understood that the march, organized by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was for compassion. “I think this is a great idea; it may wake up some people. Compassion is something wonderful, and we need more for each other. It is nice to see so many young people out there,” he said.

Indeed, thousands of young Seventh-day Adventists from the U.S. and around the world marched for compassion and against violence. The event was a part of “Compassion Weekend,” which took place from Friday, March 22, to Sunday, March 24, and mobilized thousands of Adventist youth in New York City. Organized by the Atlantic Union Conference as part of the General Conference’s NY13 Revelation of Hope evangelistic effort to reach New Yorkers, Compassion Weekend offered the city of New York 20,000 to 30,000 hours of volunteer service in more than 60 charity projects, and invited New Yorkers to the NY13 series that Ted Wilson will hold later this year.

“New York City is known by many different names, (such as) the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps,” read Pastor José Cortés Jr., Atlantic Union Youth Ministries director and main organizer of the event, during a press conference held in Cadman Plaza prior to the march. James Black, NAD Youth Ministries director, and Donald G. King, president of the Atlantic Union, were present, among other Adventist youth leaders. Cortés continued, “Yet we are here … because we would like to see New York City become the City of Compassion, the Capital of Compassion in the world.”

Several elected and public officials, such as NYC Public Advocate and NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, had confirmed their presence to salute the marchers and talk to the media. In the end, only 9th Congressional District Congresswoman Yvette Clarke addressed them. “This march is about people understanding that violence is not the answer,” she said, without a script, “that through love, through compassion, all violence can be overcome. And that is at the core of the values of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

In the presence of ABC Television Network; Telemundo, a national Spanish-language network; a local TV channel; and reporters from several newspapers, Clarke explained why the march deserved special attention. “It sends a great signal to a city that has a poor record of speaking compassion to its citizenry,” the congresswoman said. “Today’s march marks a historic point in the life of this city, led by the Seventh-day Adventist church, that we hope will ripple across this city, and indeed across this nation, as we struggle with the issues of gun control in Washington, and the issues of a more humane federal budget that will give these young people the future and the opportunities they need to spread their compassion far and wide,” she said to the cheering crowd.

Reporters asked the congresswoman about the importance of such an event in light of the national gun-control debate. Clarke pointed out the fact that when it comes to gun violence, we rarely hear from young people, who, she said, are the most affected population. To her, the teenagers that were about to march were asking the adults to step up for a better society and future.

It was also while trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge that the Occupy Wall Street movement caught national media’s attention. I asked Keener what he would think about both the Occupy and the Compassion movement.

“This march for compassion can complement the Occupy Wall Street (movement),” he said. “Both are protesting real issues. Both are everyday people. Occupy Wall Street is more political and this compassion march is moral. Compassion is not really political, but compassion is important everywhere for everyone, and of course can help the political process.”

We tend to think of religion and politics as two distinct spheres, but for Marcus Borg, a professor of religion and culture, such distinctions can be misleading when looking at Jesus. In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper One, 1995), Borg writes that “[t]o put it boldly: compassion for Jesus was political.” By “politics” Borg refers to its broader sense to mean “concern with the shape and shaping of any human community” (63). According to this understanding, Jesus “challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm … and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion” (49).

In the same chapter, Borg invites us to reflect on the understanding of our Christian identities. “Studies of our culture disclose that it is characterized by a pervasive individualism. Within this framework, compassion has become an individual rather than a political virtue. It is to be enacted by ‘a thousand points of light’ rather than being a paradigm for public policy.”

With Borg’s reading of the gospels in mind, I asked Rep. Clarke about the prospects of compassion in the political system.

“Our national politicians can learn a lot from the SDA church. We have not seen a lot of compassion unfortunately over the past couple of years, particularly in the House of Representatives. If there were a tendency towards compassion I think you would see more of a willingness to collaborate with the executive branch, with the Senate, and to really come together with a moral document that speaks to the values of all people in this nation. Unfortunately we are not seeing that today, and so I think the Congress gets a D- in compassion,” she said.

Moved by compassion, thousands of Adventist youth made a difference in the lives of those New Yorkers in need. They prepared and delivered meals on the streets and in shelters. They prayed for people and sang in subway stations. They set up craft, snack and storytelling stations and provided water relief and diapers in areas hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. They spray-painted the compassion heart with the NYC skyline inside it for a compassion mural project. They gave out health tracts. They visited nursing homes. And they also joined different organizations like the Natural Areas Volunteers and Occupy Sandy in order to accomplish different projects.

In the world’s most famous square, the group performed a flash mob. According to Pastor Ricardo Bain, that same Sabbath at 12 p.m., 400 youth entered Times Square in incognito fashion. As they had rehearsed, group members spread out on the square, while the leader ascended the famous red steps under which people buy discounted tickets for Broadway shows. The leader, alone, began to shout the following jingle, “Hey! Holt! I am the hands of Jesus, I share the love of Jesus!” Immediately 20 others joined in. They shouted the jingle again. And then 50 more came in. And then 100 more. And on and on until, Bain explained, “Times Square literally came to a standstill watching this flash mob unfold.” Afterwards, the youth all formed prayer circles and asked God to bless NYC.

“It is our resolve to take this movement across the northeast of our country and have it replicated across the world by other Adventist youth and young adults,” said Cortés at the press conference prior the march. “Today, we would like to call on the leaders, some of which are present here, the families, the schools, and the churches of New York City to begin a movement of compassion.” According to Cortés, the coming confirmed Compassion Weekends will be held in Portland, Maine, in 2014; Hamilton, Bermuda, in 2015; Worcester, Mass., in 2016; and Syracuse, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y., in 2017. And impressed by the past weekend in NYC, other cities from around the country, such as Los Angeles, have already contacted Cortés to host a Compassion Weekend in their area.

“We are marching for change,” said Greater New York Conference Communication Director Rohan Wellington, to the media present. “This march reflects the need for more compassion in the way we live our lives.”

First lining up two by two to access the bridge, the Adventist youth then flooded it to the point where some were entering the bridge on the Brooklyn side, while others were simultaneously leaving it on the Manhattan side. As they marched, some participants played the drums, others sang, and the majority handed out compassion fliers. Regardless of their task, everyone did their best to stay warm—the temperature was 41 F.

Finally, they all gathered at Foley Square, where NAD President Dan Jackson joined them, and along with other Adventists leaders addressed thousands of Adventists who cheered and celebrated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As a conclusion, the youth offered several prayers for the city and the nation, then broke up glow sticks and sang “Make Me a Servant.”

Ruben Sanchez is a Fulbright scholar who holds a master’s degree in religious studies and journalism from New York University. He was raised in Spain and moved to New York in 2010. He is currently working as the university chaplain for Seventh-day Adventist students attending colleges and universities in the New York City area.


Compassion was the word heard loud in Times Square on Saturday.

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y., 9th District) praises the initiative against violence.

Flash mob in NYC’s Times Square.

In Times Square, thousands of young Adventists sang about compassion through Jesus.

Pathfinders marched with drums, banners and flags over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Seventh-day Adventists from 10 states came together in Cadman Plaza Park on Saturday to promote compassion.

Thousands march over Brooklyn Bridge to Foley Square.

Thousands of young Seventh-day Adventists rallied against gun violence in Cadman Plaza Park on Saturday.

Pictures by Gisele Oliveira, a Brazilian journalist who specialized in semiotic psychoanalytic at Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Sao Paulo, and in photography through the International Center of Photography in New York.

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