What am I? (culturally, I mean). I was born in Canada, and spent my childhood in upstate New York before moving to Memphis, Tennessee to spend my boyhood in the south. My family is ethnically Haitian but I didn’t grow up around other Haitians and thus lost my mother tongue as well as a potential identity.
Our identities are so integral to us. They show us that I am me and not you while you are you and not me. I search for this culture in my family, in the overall expanse that is Black America, in the national claim of being an American, in the small floating groups of people known as third culture kids or general second generation immigrants. What am I?
There is no culture that I feel warmer and safer in, no culture that I feel more at home in than among the Adventists — a people seemingly made up of solely doctors, nurses, preachers, and teachers. Born into their arms, I learned to love potlucks, keep the Sabbath holy, care for my body, keep a level eye, walk softly in the sanctuary, and go on God’s errands. And go on God’s errands I did — or at least I tried. In my Kindergarten Sabbath School class I was told to invite friends to church. I tried, I really did, but all of my friends were already Adventists. Besides, I was afraid that after Sabbath School and children’s story they would feel just like I felt every week: irredeemably bored. Sitting next to my mother, reading my Primary Treasure, drawing in the bulletin. . . So, I didn’t invite anyone to church.
My Adventist family did all they could to raise me in the fear of the Lord. We had family worship every morning and evening, opened the Sabbath on time and closed it promptly, as well. I’ll leave you to guess which one I enjoyed more, especially considering that my blank TV stared at me on Friday nights when the newest plot-twisting episode of Avatar was to air in 10 minutes. Imagine which I thought of more fondly when I twisted and turned in my seat as my parents told me to sit down when I didn’t want to sit down but I must because I was offending the angels in the room and what was the point of all of this because we would have to wake up tomorrow only to rush through breakfast and showers so that we could be crammed in shirts and ties that choked and pants that gave wedgies before running into the car and oh no I forgot my Bible oh how did you forget your Bible now buckle your seatbelt I SAID BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELT is everyone good stop crying, I tell you what. . . every SABBATH we go through this, okay go, GO to your class I better not hear anything bad about you from your teacher.
This was my life for years as I grew up in Adventist schools and Adventist churches with my father the Adventist doctor and my mother the Adventist nurse.
We travelled around a lot for a multitude of reasons but if we ever found ourselves in a hotel on a Friday night, my dad would pull out a phone book from a drawer and look for a local Adventist church. And we always found one. Sabbath school classes waxed and waned with interesting subjects but after a certain age they seemed little more than playpens for kids and teenagers. I would sit very still, quietly and to myself while exasperated adults tried to grab our attention with patronizing prizes and songs. It was either that or painful silence when a teacher would ask us questions that honestly, anyone could have answered if they had even glanced at their weekly lesson. After a while I stopped going to classes for my age group and would sneak into adult classes. At least their topics were more interesting.
This was my life for years as I grew up in angry families with divorcing, fighting parents that defied the songs that I had been taught (“With Jesus in the family, happy, happy home”). Songs can only carry us so far. After that comes the silence. The same painful silence and awkward from my childhood Sabbath School classes followed me into adult classes. So I spent time with my friends on Saturday mornings. Wouldn’t you? Sabbath School teachers would forget to show up, or if they did, we were filled with such ennui that I didn’t even notice them.
But thank God for summer camp. Camp was Adventist and free. Each summer we could swim, canoe, fire arrows, play with snakes, and worship with fun songs. Every night we worshiped, we “moved” (read danced) clapped, and shouted out praise. Our counselors asked us questions about our lives, they joked with us, and prayed with us every night. We stilled our hearts for prayer and opened our hands for friendships. That’s what it was: friendship. That’s what made camp different than home. Or maybe the genuine concern for how we were experiencing God, and what we would be taking away from these moments. It was in such a place that church was worth going to. It was in such a place that I wanted to be baptized. It was in such a place that the LORD God fell upon me for the first time and I felt his Spirit surround me, pick me up and hug me. If I had felt God any more strongly, I would have stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” It was in such a place that I realized: there’s something here. There’s something to this Adventism.
This is growing up Adventist: a search for progressive truth, looking to Jewish habits, Catholic ideas, and Protestant lives. Struggling, crying, rejoicing, and realizing God. This is me. I am Adventist.
C.E. Péan is a senior at Pacific Union College where he studies English and Journalism. He is the Op-Ed Editor of the campus newspaper, The Campus Chronicle.
Look for more more Growing Up Adventist stories in the run-up to this year’s Spectrum/Adventist Forum conference in San Diego, California, October 2-5. If you would like to share your story or know someone who has an interesting story, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org expressing your interest.