I had a dream last night, a dream of General Conference Sessions past and future. I stood in the center of a stadium, packed with people, all captivated by the music and stagecraft in front of them. I looked around and felt a sadness that kept growing inside of me until it was overwhelming.
Desperate to leave, I looked around and found a staircase, which thanks to the baffling geography of dreams, sat directly in the middle of the arena. Hoping that I could find some kind of exit, I began climbing. As I walked upwards, I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone on the staircase. The higher I climbed, the more crowded it became with other people. As I struggled to move higher, I began to realize that these were the people the church had shoved to its margins. Banned from entering the space below, they packed this staircase, which spiraled up as far as I could see.
When I couldn’t go any further, I sat down, far above the lights and sound of a meticulously stage-crafted show. I looked around and realized that I had joined those who had been thrown out into “outer darkness.” I also realized that those who were weeping and gnashing their teeth weren’t weeping for themselves, but for the thousands below who sat still, fixated by the tiny men on a now tiny stage.
I loved growing up Adventist. The church taught me the beauty of sacred space as week after week, we created holy moments on Sabbath. Through that single day I was taught the value of resistance, of community, of rejecting systemic inequity.
Moments of communion and foot-washing taught me the value of ritual that not only looked back towards past sacrifice, but also sat firmly in the present, offering a radical challenge to live a life of mercy, justice-seeking, and embracing all.
Through our history, one to which my family is so intimately connected, a history that gave the gift of literacy to my formerly-enslaved ancestors, I learned the value of facing my mistakes. Our foremothers and forefathers did not let their missteps stop them from emerging out of the heartbreak of the Great Disappointment and forging a path forward. But, as a wise friend once said to me, “If we were truly honest, we would call it the Great Failure and not the Great Disappointment.”
Someplace along the way, we turned away from facing our mistakes. We faced our disappointment but forgot to truly face our failure, a failure any solid biblical scholar could have seen coming miles away. Somewhere along the journey, we stopped being the church that proudly counted radicals like Sojourner Truth and Angelina Grimke Weld among its friends and members.
Growing up Adventist broke my heart. The church taught me about isolationism, about arrogance, and about fear of the other through the walls we built around Sabbath. I grew up watching those around me guard their beliefs with an intense paranoia and obsession.
The often-hollow rituals of communion and foot washing taught me hypocrisy and the casual cruelty of those in power who believe that they are right and smile through an act meant to remind us of service, while they wage war on those they see as dangerous.
Our history, given to me as present and vibrant truth, was stripped of its Victorian and Edwardian contexts, and offered as the guide to a holy path. Instead of bringing me life, it left me wrestling with shame and fear far longer than I would like to admit.
So I find myself on this staircase, desperate to escape the celebration of systemic violence below. You told us to come out of her and we have. And in leaving, we have come to the painful realization that you were our Babylon. We are escaping your embrace of systemic violence, of patriarchy, of homophobia, of isolationist fear. We are escaping into the unknown, the margins, and mystery.
As a filmmaker, I now work with friends to create rituals deeply rooted in sacred space, resistance, and listening to the voices of those never heard. These concepts are gifts from the Adventist church and gifts for which I will always be grateful. I look around and see others also taking the beauty they gained from their Adventist roots and crafting them into new, beautiful things.
Many of us will not return. The church has become anathema to our deepest values, values that you gave us, inadvertently or not. We are the foremothers and high priestesses of something that we have no yet fully begun to grasp. Join us. Leave your safe spaces, your shiny stadiums and pageantry. Leave the comfort of the stage and climb your way into the outer darkness, because it is here, in this darkness, that God waits for you.
H. Leslie Foster II is an award-winning, LA-based filmmaker and a co-founder of Traveling Muse Pictures, a nonprofit film collective and a founding member of the Nomad Solstice art collective. He serves as the current Artist-in-Residence at the Level Ground film festival and is the social media guru/resident “Mr.” for Ms. In the Biz, a company that creates community and wisdom-sharing among women in the film industry.
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