I am not Seventh-day Adventist. I had no previous knowledge of Adventism until one year ago, when I was accepted as a graduate student and college writing instructor at La Sierra University, an SDA institution located in Riverside, California.
Over the past year, I have often heard my colleagues debate church politics and I was surprised to notice a wide variety of viewpoints. Therefore, in order to gain further insight on the diversity within the community, I sat down with three Adventist women and asked them about their experiences with the church.
I first spoke with Ysabela (Bella) Ramirez. She attended Walla Walla University for her undergraduate degree and is now studying English literature as a graduate student at La Sierra University. She was raised Adventist and is dedicated to her family church.
The first question I asked Bella was how she defines “faith” and if she believes it is necessary to be committed to a church in order to uphold this faith. Her immediate response was to smile and then admit that while it was a great question, it was also a difficult one.
After a moment of thought, she states, “Your individual faith is about you and your relationship to God” and as a Christian she believes it is important to live in obedience to the words of Christ on a day-to-day basis.
Yet, she also notes how “navigating a life committed to faith is not an easy thing to do” and so it can be helpful to be part of a “community of likeminded people where you can act out your faith together.”
When I asked her what she thought of the current political climate within the church, she admits, “For me personally, there are things with the Adventist church that I agree with and things that I disagree with.” And yet, while she is aware of the political rift within the church, she believes that this conflict is “a sad distraction from the true message of Christ.”
Overall, Bella remains committed to her church and she believes it is a place where she can further develop her relationship to God and dedicate her life to “imitating the character of Christ.”
After speaking with Bella, I spoke with Annemarie Gregory. Annemarie also studies as a graduate student at La Sierra University. Just like Bella, Annemarie was raised Adventist. But unlike Bella, Annemarie has left the church.
“For those of us who have left the church, we didn’t leave saying ‘screw you, we hate you.’ We still have a lot of respect and gratitude for what we have been given and what we grew up with,” Annemarie tells me.
She left because she felt that she could not “responsibly” be part of an organization whose attitude toward the LGBT community and women was so at odds with her values as a feminist and graduate student.
Annemarie is not unaware of her privilege. She readily admits that as a white woman she cannot fully understand the experiences of some of her friends, many of whom are minorities. Yet growing up, she found hypocrisy in the actions of the church and what she knew of God.
“I was raised being told that God was a loving God. He was not vindictive and He was not cruel. So when we got lessons in Sabbath school where the message of guilt and shame was so internalized, I began to disconnect. Either my image of God was wrong or their rules weren’t following His message,” Annemarie states.
For Annemarie, it took her some time to make the decision to leave the church and since leaving she believes that her “perspective on God has remained the same; it just suddenly makes more sense.”
Lastly, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kendra Haloviak Valentine. She holds a Ph.D. in New Testament and Ethics from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley (2002) and is currently a New Testament Studies professor in the Divinity School at La Sierra University.
Though she teaches at an SDA institution, La Sierra is known for its diversity among students. Any student under Dr. Haloviak’s guidance is respected, no matter their faith or lack thereof. However, she doesn’t hide the fact that she is an Adventist. And she is not just any Adventist, but one who is, as she says, “critically committed.”
“There is the potential of me not connecting with students. Not because I am an Adventist, but because I’m that kind of Adventist,” Dr. Haloviak says and then laughs. She continues, stating, “I want the church to be a better church than it is right now. And I’m willing to talk about the poor choices and I’m willing to talk candidly about how the church breaks my heart too, in its treatment of women and the LGBT community.”
Hearing about Dr. Haloviak’s concerns over the actions of the church, yet knowing her unwavering commitment to Adventism, I couldn’t help but wonder how she reconciled these differences. When I admitted this thought to her, she told me why she stays.
“My definition of the church is not what is happening this coming week at Annual Council (2018) in Battle Creek, Michigan. My definition of the church is your local congregation. So in the case of our campus, it is this community. Therefore, for me, in this community I see inclusivity, and openness, and conversation and diversity, absolutely, but I don’t see exclusion. I am not excluded from teaching here as a woman, so if this is my community then I can give this my all and be deeply committed to it. La Sierra is not the buildings or even this beautiful campus, but the people. So how could I not love this institution?”
If I was to trust in Dr. Haloviak’s definition of the community, one which is not solely defined by the church hierarchy but also by its local people, then am I not part of this community? I may have not been raised Adventist or currently part of the church congregation, yet I have a deep appreciation for the Adventist men and women I work with and whom I teach. I care about the decisions the church makes and how these decisions will affect my friends’ lives.
Reflecting back on the interviews I shared with Bella, Annemarie, and Dr. Haloviak, I realize that they had never really been interviews, but critical conversations between women who all have stakes in the Adventist community. While each woman’s perspective on the church varies, there is no doubt that they love and appreciate this community, our community.
So if we want to make changes in this community, one which we are deeply committed to, what do we need to do?
The first step Dr. Haloviak suggests is simple. Try.
Monica Shaar is pursuing a Master’s degree in English literature at La Sierra University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and creative writing from UC Irvine.
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