Overcast is an appropriate word to describe not only the weather in Berrien Springs on Saturday, March 2, 2019, but also the afternoon Q&A with Elder Ted Wilson, General Conference President.
Overcast days are full of contradictions, liminal weather spaces that seem like out-of-body experiences. It is somehow bright, but grey at the same time. Dull but day. Likewise, Pioneer Memorial Church was overcast. A mix of emotions, expectations, and intentions filtered into the sanctuary as the crowd of Seventh-day Adventists from the community, PMC church members, and Andrews University faculty and staff gathered to hear from Elder Wilson.
For a college campus, there were surprisingly few students in attendance. If one were to scan the sanctuary, you would have found fewer than 100 individuals under the age of 24 present that afternoon. Despite the lack of generational diversity in the crowd, there was a great diversity of reasons why the crowd gathered. Some were excited to be visited by the GC President who was in town for the Andrews University Board Meeting, hoping to shake a hand and get a picture after the event. Others were indifferent, just there to see what would happen without any real desire or hope for change.
Then there were the Adventists who were frustrated. It is no surprise that over the past four years dedicated Seventh-day Adventists, young and old, have grown tired of the status quo, the theological gymnastics, and the political antics. The frustrated ones were the ones who came and watched hoping that by some miracle, there’d be a change. A few of the frustrated ones were weary of just being frustrated and decided to take seriously the idea that we cannot expect sustainable change to happen from the top-down, but the bottom-up. This group, largely made up of Andrews University students (graduate and undergraduate) decided to hold our leadership accountable, and call for transparency, authenticity, and integrity through a silent protest during the Q&A portion of the afternoon. Shortly after Dr. Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University, and Elder Wilson sat down on the platform and the two began discussing the first question, an organized group of concerned Seventh-day Adventists lined up in the center aisle of Pioneer Memorial Church behind a microphone on a stand that they brought with them. They formed a question queue. This group stood in a line, quietly watching the Q&A occur before them, clearly noticed but unacknowledged for over 35 minutes by both Dr. Luxton and Elder Wilson.
At the end of the Q&A, Dr. Luxton used a few of her concluding comments to acknowledge the group. She said, “When I was younger, I sometimes did some acting, you know, in plays. And one of the things they said to you is when something unexpected happens, ignore it and just carry on. And to some degree we did that today when some of our young people came down here. I had no clue that was going to happen, neither did you. And we just carried on. They aren’t here to speak. But I think what they are here to say is how important they want their voice to be in the church. They’re passionate about the church. They’re passionate about the things, they may not always agree with things that we who are a little bit older and grayer might do…But the reality is I just want you to know that’s why they’re here. It is not a disrespect to you. But it is a statement of the importance to them of the church, their role in the church, their part in the church and that’s why they’ve been standing here.”
Elder Wilson made a few remarks, none of them directly to the group, then closed with prayer. The meeting had ended, but the dichotomy between all the talk from church leadership about greater involvement of young people and the value of everyone’s voice was overshadowed by the failure of our leadership to actually take the opportunity to listen to the young people who are already involved and fighting to engage. As Dr. Luxton mentioned, yes, the group wants their voice to be heard and yes, the group was filled with young adults who are passionate about the church. But protests do not occur because of people who are indifferent. Protests occur because of people who are rightly concerned and engaged.
There is a lot of speculation about why the group lined up. But, as a participant in the planning stages of this protest, I can tell you the core group intentionally took a week to plan not just how the protest would occur but come to a consensus as to why.
The protest was initially sparked out of concern about the format of the Q&A. The campus was emailed weeks in advance of Elder Wilson’s visit about the event and asked to submit questions either via the Pioneer Memorial Church webform or directly to the email, firstname.lastname@example.org. No questions would be taken at the actual event. The group felt that pre-submitting questions was problematic and not conducive for authentic and transparent conversations. Not taking questions from the floor leads to questions not being asked in the way they were intended and rephrasing that leads to inadequate answers. For example, one of two questions submitted by the group who planned the protest was, “What are you doing to remedy the hurt that has been caused by the church through discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation?” But the question was phrased by Dr. Luxton as a question about “perceptions,” as in, the perception of discrimination. The nuance between the two is vital. The original question was not about the perception of discrimination, but about real discrimination as perpetuated by and within our very own denomination. So, while pre-submitted questions should streamline the conversation, many times these questions and answers lack the necessary nuance and care to adequately address the issues.
Thus, the protestors sought to hold our leadership accountable to its proposed dedication to transparency and conversation. But March 2 was evidence that the church says it wants young people to be more involved, but only the young people who agree with the current trajectory of the denomination are welcome. The church is looking for young people, but they are not looking for the young people who are present, engaged, and standing in lines. Why didn’t Elder Wilson meet with the young people who lined up after the meeting? What kind of narrative is being pushed to the wider church by his team posting a photo of him on his Facebook page surrounded by young people after the meeting, but none of those young people were the ones who were part of the protest? Looking at Elder Wilson’s Facebook page, there was no protest. It has still gone unacknowledged.
We are a church of two realities and two narratives. There is a story of listening, engagement, and transparency being talked of, but not being lived up to. For the protestors and others, it is still quite overcast. We are living in a constant state of contradictions within our denomination, and this protest just adds another layer to an already eternally cloudy season.
WATCH “Your Questions Answered. Mission. Unity. Church.” — the livestream of Ted Wilson’s March 2, 2019 Q&A Session at Andrews University (Q&A begins at approximately 1:05:26):
Danielle M. Barnard is currently completing her MS in Community and International Development on the campus of Andrews University and working towards peace and justice as Coordinator for Southwest Michigan Interfaith Action.
Photos by Jo Amaya, Josephine St. Hilaire and Stherline Larisma.
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