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Speaking in the Presence of the Other

This is part 2 of 2 reporting on this interfaith pilgrimage. For part 1, click here.

One of the many hats I wear is Treasurer of the Interreligious Council of Southern California (IRC). I am one representative of the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to the IRC. This past week I had the privilege to take a pilgrimage to Maryland and Washington, D.C. with a group from the IRC to tour the General Conference and learn about Adventism with a very diverse group of people. We had one Catholic priest, three Mormons, one Sikh, one Buddhist monk, 4 Hindu monastics from the Vedanta Society, and two Seventh-day Adventists.

We heard one repeated chorus from the Adventist leaders we spoke to, whether in the General Conference or the Review and Herald Publishing house. Wherever we went people said, we have never had a group like this visit our headquarters. My first thought was that this is simply polite hyperbole, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how unique this was. One prominent person who made this statement in a public forum was General Conference Vice-President Lowell Cooper. I had the chance to ask him if this was literally true. He said, “Yes, this group is different than any I remember visiting the General Conference. We get delegations from various countries and religions around the world, but the diversity of this group, all visiting together, is very unique.”

Another thing I noticed is that every officer or departmental leader that spoke to our group, from the General Conference President on down, cast Adventism in the most hospitable and generous light. They talked about how much we have in common with other groups. They also highlighted the things that made us unique. Most of the moments that caused me to cringe were times when it felt the like the departmental leader needed to impress on our delegation how our denomination had the “biggest,” “largest,” or “longest running” whatever. I thought to myself, “We don’t need to do that.” Sometimes it’s simply true. Vibrant Life magazine, for example, is the oldest continually published health magazine in the United States. That’s impressive and worth mentioning. But sometimes the speaker had to narrow the criteria quite a bit to show how our efforts are the “best.” Better, I thought, to be doing good work because it needs to be done than try to make it sound like our work is better than everyone else’s.

Overall, I was immensely proud of my church. I learned many things myself and was reminded of the global reach and genuine diversity of our church leadership. Every person who spoke to us had a different accent, from a different country.

One thing, however, stood out for me, as the primary “take away” from this trip. Toward the end of the week I had the privilege to speak briefly with one of the top executives in the church. He is a remarkable gentleman and sought me out to say goodbye to me. In the 2-3 minutes we had I remarked that I thought it was instructive to notice how our language about ourselves changes when we are in the presence of people who are not the same as us. He agreed and said he thought this was important. I suggested that it would be a good discipline, whenever we are talking about “saving the lost” or “evangelizing” a group of people, to have a so-called “lost person” in the room with us. If we are talking about ways to reach Buddhists with the gospel, we should invite one or two Buddhists to sit in our group to listen to what we are saying and reflect back to us what they hear. This church leader said he thought that was a great idea. “We should do that more often!” he remarked.

So, what God taught me on this interfaith pilgrimage to the seat of Seventh-day Adventist Church life is that we can learn a great deal about our real motives and intentions by speaking in the presence of “the other.” Having an honest conversation happens best when we are in the company of the people we are talking about. This goes for times when we’re talking about our spouse or our kids, those frustrating church members, or those lost people we want to give the gospel to.

So, the next time your church or Conference is discussing evangelism strategies and plans, ask your pastor/Ministerial Director/Conference President if it would be okay to invite a non-Christian to sit in and give us some feedback. At the right time and place, I think this would give us some priceless food for thought. What do you think?

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