Recently I had the opportunity to put into place an idea that’s been rolling around my head for over a year. Inspired by my all-time favorite photojournalist Brandon Stanton, known for his project “Humans of New York,” I spent several months researching the various spinoff “Humans of” pages that he had unwittingly set into motion. I even found a few from other Adventists. There was a “Humans of Southern” page and a “Humans of Andrews” page aside from the many others I probably never came across. But as far as I could tell, no one seemed to be addressing the heart of what ties us together. Who are the Seventh-Day Adventists, anyway? I tried to picture myself as a person who has never been in one of our churches, someone who doesn’t already know the countless nuances built up over generations in our Adventist cultures. From that perspective I was left feeling confused, like an outsider.
After spending over twelve years in the Adventist school system, I found myself almost entirely outside of the cultural bubble. I moved to South Carolina, stopped going to church, attended public university, but never shook the beliefs I took from my religious education. I never stopped being an Adventist. But getting to know my neighbors and community outside of the all-Adventist-all-the-time system that I had been raised in absolutely changed my perspective. The most surprising thing for me was how similar humanity was, religious or not. After finding my way back into my local church (and even taking on some leadership responsibilities) my mind never left the people outside. From pulpits and teachers I’d been taught to believe that those outside were the sinners. The “others.” I even remember mentors warning me not to have non-Adventist friends. How very backwards from the outward approach I now promote.
When I finally went public with Humans of Adventism I began reaching out wherever I could for stories. Backslidden Adventists, cultural Adventists, in-church-every-Sabbath Adventists, Adventists on fire and Adventists on the verge of leaving. I conducted dozens of interviews, but despite the differences separating us I noticed a few things everyone seemed to have in common:
1. What’s important to someone may not be evident.
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I was often surprised at the responses I received to my questions. Some people were preoccupied with abuse, others were dealing with depression or financial burden they weren’t comfortable talking about. Some were adamant that the LGBT community wanted to destroy the church, while others believed that excluding them would. Many feared talking publicly about the subject at all. Not everyone plastered those beliefs across their social media pages, and each was one aspect of countless other beliefs and biases.
2. Church involvement is not a direct reflection of spirituality.
I’ve heard hundreds of appeals for member involvement in my lifetime, usually framed to accuse anyone who didn’t participate as lazy or slack in their spiritual life. What I found interesting were the reasons I found. Did I encounter some apathy? Sure. In fact, I deal with it sometimes myself. But the issue went so much deeper. The compounded pain and resentment built up over years in church seemed to be the biggest obstacle in those I interviewed. The inability to talk about doubts and disagreements safely barred them from an enriching experience and left them to suffer alone. Many were able to separate their church experience from their relationship with God, however, choosing alternative ways to serve in their own lives.
3. Most people think they are the good guys.
Behind every belief system and opinion there seemed to be a certain logic. Everyone believed what they believed for a reason, often positioning themselves against other people groups to try to add some credibility, making reconciliation with people of an opposing view difficult.
Here I found the motivation for this project. Here is what I hope will drive Humans of Adventism forward. As our youth attendance continues to drop and our academies continue to close we are still entrenching ourselves in our long-held belief systems and covering our ears to other perspectives. That doesn’t mean throw out the old and replace it. It doesn’t mean stay where we are. It means actively seeking to understand each other. In James 1 we are told, “my brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. And so, in a humble attempt made by many before me, I join others in seeking to unite, to heal, and to strengthen our church. I pray that I, and maybe you, can use these simple things I learned to be a light where you are.