In part 1 of this series, I began by setting the stage for the path God would take me in life. I noted the importance of having a solid foundation in the scriptures coupled with the freedom to explore diversity and question beliefs for myself. While I did not know it at the time, the path of my education would start in institutional Adventism and then branch out into the wider world of the Campus.
Yet, how did I end up on a non-Adventist Campus? And how did my experiences within the institutional church system prepare me for what I was to face?
An Institutional Background: Boarding Academy
Those who know my story know that I grew up a generationalist with thoughts about being a missionary doctor and dedicating my life to the work of the church. And even as that may still be God’s plan, in the educational phase he divided my time between institutional church and non-Adventist campus.
This is the part that makes my story different than many students who have been on non-Adventist campuses. In my experience, many of those students already had some exposure to the non-Adventist educational system making the move to the world of the western campus a little less intimidating. From anecdotal observations, the vast majority of Adventist students either stay in their non-Adventist campus track or within institutional Adventism. It is the minority who jump between both.
When I first applied to a non-Adventist school, my resume read like an Adventist lifer. Junior Academy, Day Academy, Boarding Academy, Adventist University.
My boarding academy time was helpful as it gave me the practical experience of a work-study program. I got the chance to live and interact with many other Adventist young people who were committed to Christ and the mission of the church. It certainly wasn’t a perfect time but it prepared me well for challenges I would later face down the road. In fact, it was one of the staff at this school who saw my passion for faith and politics and helped guide me down the path that eventually led me to law school in Washington D.C.
Growing up I had always been interested in history, government, and yes even politics. As a good, conservative-minded Adventist however, I was influenced by a church culture that saw these activities as useful more for occasional missionary journeys than a career calling.
Yet when God puts a passion and fire into our hearts it flows out regardless of the surrounding environment. In my case, there were several teachers who saw the passion God had put within me to follow a path more in the direction of my interests. There were other well-meaning individuals who were pressuring me to follow more stereotypical tracks such as medicine. Thanks to these wise academy teachers, however, I was encouraged to look into the worlds of law, politics and religious liberty. Following this advice, I modified my college course plans and decided to put God to the test.
An Institutional Background: Adventist University
From Academy, I applied and got accepted at Andrews University, the Adventist flagship. Thanks to the help of the Godly staff at my academy I was better positioned to pursue my interests and the calling I believed God placed on my heart. From there He opened many doors—helping me down the path that would eventually lead to law school.
God blessed my time at Andrews. I made many good friends there (including meeting my future yet not-then-known fiancé) and received opportunities that expanded my experience in the field of government and politics
Yet, my life was largely focused around the Adventist system. Most of my resume still read like the Adventist lifer I mentioned: Served at the GC Session 2010 in Atlanta? Check. Tour Guide at Historic Adventist Village? Check. Summer canvassing door to door? Check. Officer in regional GYC and other local Adventist youth organizations? Check. Pathfinder leader? Check. Delegate from Columbia Union to Adventist World Religious Freedom Conference? Check. Meetings with GC Leaders? Check, check, check.
Towards the end of my time at Andrews, I had a semester internship on Capitol Hill which exposed me to the big bad world of unsanctified politics. This was my first real work experience OUTSIDE institutional Adventism. My early impressions of working in DC made me wonder if I was Abraham wandering into a Genesis 19-style Sodom. There was a LOT of wickedness for this good little conservative Michigan boy to be exposed to.
How did I manage to get through this semester unscathed with my Adventist badge still proudly worn on my sash? Rather easily. As soon as 5 PM hit, I would be out the door, on the Capitol Subway and on my way home to the Adventist family I was staying with.
Their home and my Sabbath weekends were a refuge away from the scary “other” people who did not believe, act, or think like me. At this time, I was still far more comfortable with my church people and only testing the waters with the strange new (in the mindset of many I had grown up with) “heathens of corrupt DC politics” who I interned with.
A New Experience: Non-Adventist Classmates
God, however, was calling me to do more than simply answer phone calls with these people. He was calling me to become one of them. Not necessarily all the habits, but the mundane activities of daily life. In order to be a witness, I had to engage in incarnational ministry. I could no longer flee out the door at 5 PM.
Instead, I would have to live, work, study, eat and do all the normal activities of life with people who had very different philosophies on life than me. People who I had the mindset of as wicked, heathen, sinful….unlike me. I write these things now, not because I am any better than others (I am not) but more out of a realization for how I thought back then.
Early on in my Andrews experienced I learned there was no such thing as an Adventist law school. If I wanted to be a lawyer I would have to venture outside institutional Adventism to get my degree. While I understood this logically, I never appreciated what it meant socially and philosophically until it came to apply to law schools. I ended up getting accepted to the vast majority of schools I applied to. Yes, there were a couple I didn’t get in (my “reach”/”hope” schools) but even ones that I thought were not likely, God got me in.
From there it was time to think and pray about where God was calling me. Which of these “heathen” schools would He send me to? After much prayer, guidance and discussion I finally settled on living my dream: An Adventist law student in Washington D.C. When God called me to DC he didn’t just lead me to any law school. God led me to “The Catholic University of America.”
Being an SDA with an understanding of end-time events I definitely felt this was a unique choice but it was clear where God was calling me and so after much prayer and counsel, I chose Catholic. I felt a little like Daniel when he first entered Babylon as a young man. No, I wasn’t a prisoner but I had been called by God to a place definitely outside my comfort zone.
When I came to Catholic, I had choices. This was my first time (other than that Summer Physics class) attending school OUTSIDE Institutional Adventism. I had already broken the work barrier with the Capitol Hill Internship. Now I was breaking the education barrier.
The Sabbath before I was to begin class, I went for a walk with some family and friends. One of the people was my mentor. He asked me how I would deal with the prevalence of alcohol in law school social settings. I told them that other than a few exceptions, I would mostly avoid social settings with alcohol. It was a bit surprising to him, but I made that commitment to stand firm.
Daniel 1:8 reminds us of another young man brought into a national capital far from my comfort zone. The verse says,
But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. (NKJV).
The important part of that verse, “purposes in his heart,” involves making a deliberate choice. For the first time in my life, I had opportunities to do all kind of things contrary to how I had been raised. And unlike in many past situations, the people doing and encouraging to do these things would be friends who had no idea that I was or would be morally opposed.
Very early on, I realized I needed to learn to explain just what an “Adventist” even is. I’d spent so much time inside the system I simply took it for granted. No one in boarding academy or Andrews came up to me and asked that question out of genuine curiosity.
Unless we were doing some homework assignment on theology, such a question was already presumed answered by our environment. Now I was surrounded by Catholics, Muslims, etc. who knew little to nothing of us.
This was a good opportunity for me to develop who I was and what I believed in. It also gave me a choice. I could try to downplay Adventist distinctives and try to blend in as much as possible. I could also go to the other extreme and enter class with a pack of GLOW tracts and Great Controversy books ready for each classmate and Professor.
Many Adventist young people when they get into situations like this often resort to a variation of one of these two polar methods of survival. While there is nothing wrong with openly sharing your faith on campus or prudently choosing to keep some things private, God has called us to be on the campus not simply for an education, but also as a witness.
For me, the most successful and honest way to handle situations like this was to be genuine. I would simply live my life the way I always had and if someone asked I would answer as much as I felt comfortable as the Holy Spirit lead. I decided wherever I was, I would worship God and wouldn’t be afraid to do so publicly, though also with tact.
Witness through Authenticity
I made many good friends at Catholic. Yet, one of my friends was transitioning from Catholic to atheist. He had been reading a lot of science materials and started really getting into Darwinian evolution and its importance in life. Yet he and I were good friends. He knew I was very religious and we often got into discussions about what we both believed. I would share with him my convictions and theological understanding formed by the Adventist worldview.
Particularly when we discussed matters like creation and the origin of life he would reply “You think the same way as my Grandmother.” I reminded him that just because he was educated didn’t mean he had all the answers. Plenty of us who “think the same way as his Grandmother,” have studied these issues for ourselves and have developed an intelligent faith.
There were even times we were supposed to be studying (including with others) that he would bring up issues of creation and science just to attack me for my beliefs. I would calmly respond with my convictions but it was clear something about it bothered him.
Not just on science but also how I saw life—believing in caring for others and trying to help people. He saw this as weakness which in some ways is the sociological conclusion of Darwinian evolution. Yet, along the way, I just continued to be his friend. We would help each other with classes and hang out socially.
Law school was also the first time I really had to deal with Sabbath challenges. Many of these experiences were not something I could plan for and so I had to learn how to authentically express my faith on the go. Thankfully, because I had the good grounding as I noted in part 1, I was able to put the values I had been trained for into practice.
In the first few weeks of my time in law school, one of our alumni, who has been appointed to the US Senate, came to speak on a Friday evening. Looking at the program it seemed I wouldn’t have to worry and could leave well before sundown.
However, as I have now learned can happen with dignitary events the program ran late. I was in the middle of the pack sitting with new friends as I watched the seconds tick down. The Senator got up to speak and I realized I only had a few minutes left to make a choice.
As I’ve previously noted, this is my experience and so each person must draw his or her own conclusions about how best to approach these situations. However, I knew how I had been trained and I knew what I was convicted to do. The time after sunset is dedicated to God’s Sabbath, and I was quite confident that this setting was not the best place for me to spend those hours.
Halfway through the speech, I arose abruptly and left the room. Not in a rude or prominent manner but in a way that made clear where I felt I needed to be. While that experience was a little startling to some of my classmates (who were becoming friends), it helped set the tenor for my time in law school. From then on, every Friday afternoon, my friends would all be reminding me Sabbath was coming and in a few hours I would need to stop work.
To me, this was evidence of what Daniel 2:47 says where pagan King Nebuchadnezzar testified:
Truly your God is the God of gods, the Lord of kings and a revealer of secrets, since you could reveal this secret. (NKJV).
Now unlike Daniel, my revelation wasn’t some amazing prophecy about the history of the world, but rather an understanding of how to live authentically as a Seventh-day Adventist on the world of the campus.
As I’ve noted, each of us has our own story of how God has helped us. Maybe you made the same choices I did, maybe you didn’t. Either way, God can still bless you. I do believe that God has used my story to show me and possibly others how to be leaders for Him. Using the institutions of the church and my friends from law school, He helped me practice my faith outside my comfort zone.
Be sure to follow along and read the next articles, where I will look at how this solid foundation and experience were strengthened through growing my own spiritual journey as I sought to be an active member on the world of the campus.