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Pilgrim’s Progression: Community Organizer Moves from Church Work to Interfaith Leadership

Social Justice Leader and Community Organizer Danielle Pilgrim

Danielle Pilgrim, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, has served the Seventh-day Adventist church in many capacities since 2015: four of those years as associate chaplain and interim chief diversity officer at Andrews University until 2023, when she resigned in light of rapidly changing administrative policies. 

Pilgrim recently completed a PhD in community engagement with a concentration in public policy and is pursuing a career creating social justice. She was hired as an executive director and lead community organizer for an interfaith social justice nonprofit advocating for equitable policies and initiatives in Savannah, GA. 

“We do this by mobilizing faith communities to vocalize issues affecting their communities and proposing proven solutions to city officials to address the issue,” she says. Currently, the organization is advocating for affordable housing and has persuaded the local government to allocate $7 million toward the city’s affordable housing trust fund. 

“We are scheduled to meet with the city and county in the next four months to plan a strategy for including affordable housing in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax SPLOST referendum in 2025.”

You’ve done a lot of really interesting, impactful work both inside and outside of the church. Can you tell me about how you came to be involved in the Adventist church? 

My personal journey and my career are very intertwined. I immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the United States when I was 13. I was not Adventist back home, and I’m still the only Adventist in my immediate family. When I came to America, my mom was renting from an Adventist family. They had children my age; they would invite me to church outings and events, and I would go and have a good time. But my mom told me that if I got baptized, she would kick me out the house – that kind of stalled my journey. When I was about 17, turning 18, I decided, ‘I’m going to get baptized, and she can deal with it however she wants to.’ So I did. And that journey that changed my life. Getting to know God as a father was a very transformative experience; my dad lived in a different country, and he wasn’t really emotionally present. 

How did you make the decision to go into ministry? 

After I got baptized, God became really important in my life. The trajectory of my life changed drastically as a result of being a Christian and as a result of being a part of the Adventist Church; I got heavily involved in Bible work and Bible studies, and the church saw my giftings. They made me an elder and a youth leader. I started going to college. And for me, the things I was doing in church were just a part of who I was. 

One day, I was listening to a sermon by Henry Wright, who is a very significant figure within Black church work. His sermon was on spiritual gifts, and I found it was kind of highlighting my passions within ministry. I wouldn’t say the Lord spoke to me, I would just say I felt an impression that what I was doing naturally was maybe something I could do professionally. 

The difficulty with going to seminary was that when I came to America, I came on a visiting visa. And after the six month period, I became an undocumented immigrant. For 12 years, I was undocumented, which meant I couldn’t have an ID and I couldn’t have a legal job. Going to Andrews University for my undergraduate degree had been difficult because I didn’t have a social security number. I had a wonderful experience there, and I also worked like a Hebrew slave because I couldn’t get loans. I was like, ‘Lord, if You are calling me to the seminary, you’re going to have to create a way out of no way.’ And he did. In 2012, President Barack Obama announced his DACA executive action, which meant that if you came to the country under the age of 16, the government allowed you to get a workers’ permit, which allowed you to get an ID card, social security number, and all the other things that I did not have for like 12 years. At this point, I had graduated with my undergrad degree, but I couldn’t use the degree because I didn’t have papers. I applied for the DACA program, got it within three months, and was back at Andrews Seminary the next May. 

Life blossomed from there. I accepted a call to Atlanta and served at the Berean Seventh-day Adventist church for four years. Those were four beautiful years, some of the best years of my life. It was there that I really developed my passion for community engagement-type work and social justice. 

What was your time in Atlanta like, and were there any specific projects you focused on while there?

This is nationwide, but in Atlanta specifically, it’s documented that the quality and length of your life is determined by your zip code. The zip code that you’re in also determines the quality of education that you receive, right? And also the quality of food that is available to you. That’s what my PhD research was about, the creation of residential racial segregation and racial inequity through public policies and government decisions. Although a lot of the racist policies that were created have been eradicated, we still feel the effects of those policies today. There are still policies right now that are not helpful to closing the gaps in access and opportunities between communities; so when I was working at the church, that’s what we did. One of my favorite things we did when I was pastoring was a summer camp for kids in the community. We got free food from the city and had an all day camp from eight to five—we created a beautiful experience with the kids. We started with a motivational talk and hosted different local celebrities. We had city officials come and let these kids know what is possible for them. We had different seminars on careers, on sex, and other topics that related to where they were in life. And then we’d take them on a trip to help them to see what was available to them. Most of them didn’t go anywhere and had often never left Atlanta before. 

But then after the program was over for the day or for the summer, they would go back to their homes and still experience lack. What I realized was that programs are great, but what needs to happen further is policies to make summer programs like that available to them all the time. And that’s why I transitioned from doing church programs or things in the community to saying, ‘we need to create policies to make sure that there’s an equitable distribution of funding so that all students are given the opportunity.’ And then if they choose not to take it, that’s up to them, but at least it’s given to everyone. So that’s what sparked my desire to go into a field where I can actually affect change on a systemic level.

When and why did you become a chaplain at Andrews? 

I served in Atlanta for four years, and I had a lot of great experiences. And then I resigned. I had plans to stay in Atlanta and do some other things there. And then I got a call from Andrews and they were like, ‘Hey, would you consider applying for this chaplaincy position’? And I was like, ‘I don’t ever want to go back to Michigan. It’s cold six months out of the year.’ But I applied anyway. I ended up accepting the offer they gave me to be a chaplain, and those four years were very crucial and pivotal to my life. I love working with young adults. I think it’s one of the most rewarding types of jobs; you’re in a pivotal moment in their own lives where they are growing to get to know themselves – they’re questioning. And as a chaplain, you get to journey with them, ask them questions, answer their questions, and just be present. 

During that time, I was also working on my doctorate, which I finished last year. My study was in community engagement with a concentration in public policy, and I also taught a class on this at Andrews. Last year, Michael Nixon was resigning, and the president asked me if I would serve as interim chief diversity officer. It was very natural getting into the role, creating a strategic plan for the university, and working that strategic plan to create more inclusion and equity on our campus. I focused especially on equity for our students with disabilities. It was a beautiful experience, and its ending after the new administration came in was difficult. In life, you’re not always going to work with people who have the same mindset. But I put a lot of effort into building bridges with individuals who believed differently. In some ways, I was able to do that. And in many ways, I was not able to do that. And at a point, I realized that if things would not change and if things were going in a certain direction, then I could no longer serve in that space. So I saw my way out. I was going to do it quietly. And then I decided to write what I wrote, and hopefully it resonated with and enlightened some people. 

Where do you hope to go next with your career? 

If I could sum up my calling, it is to let people know that they matter. And that looks like creating opportunities so that people understand that they matter, that they’re important and they’re created by God. I think that this is also a biblical mandate. This understanding is not something that just happens in heaven – why should we have to wait till we get to heaven to experience abundant life? No, we’re here right now. And people should be able to experience that now. And the church has a responsibility. Christians have a responsibility to create that kind of reality for people. I just think that we need more people—more Christians—in office to facilitate those types of changes for our society, which is a role I want to help fill. 

If you had to pick the one thing in Advenism you think needs to change the most urgently, what would that be? 

What needs to change is where our attention lies. Currently, our attention heavily lies within the system. We’re very insular. And I think that we are called not just to one another, but we’re called to the world. And if we turn our attention to the world—I’m not saying to be like the world—our duty is to spread the Gospel of the love of Christ to uplift humanity. I think that if we carry out this duty, we can affect even more change within our societies. I have my gripes with the church, but I still love the church, and the church is a catalyst for why I am who I am today. The job of the church is to tell people that they matter to God. And I just don’t think we’re doing enough of that. I think that there’s just a lot more, and telling people that they matter to God is not only the three angels’ messages; it’s not only telling them that Jesus is coming; it’s not only by preaching, but it’s how we treat them and how we live and how we interact with society. We need to reach out our hands a bit more to the world.

About the author

Christina Cannon is a researcher and writer currently based in San Francisco. She is a recent graduate of Southern Adventist University’s history program. More from Christina Cannon.
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