Question 1: Can you share a little about yourself and your background? How long have you been an Adventist?
Well, I’m an African-American and I was born in Illinois so I’m from the Midwestern part of the United States. My dad is from the southside of Chicago, Illinois and my mom grew up on the westside of Chicago. My grandmother is from Detroit, MI. My family recalls our roots go back to Columbia and Savannah, GA. So, when I say “I’m African-American”, I mean African-American and all that it entails. In regards to my faith, I was born Adventist. My mother was also born into an Adventist home. My dad became Adventist around 24 or 25 years of age. My grandparents were previously Baptist but joined the Adventist church around the time when the Lake Region Conference was formed. I grew up in southwest Michigan and attended Adventist educational institutions from kindergarten through high school and also received my bachelors from Andrews University. I’ve lived in the DC Metro area since 2013.
Question 2: What do you like most about being an Adventist?
Usually people ask me, “Why are you still Adventist?” So, I really like this question. What I like most about Adventism is our theology. I love that Adventism and Adventist history is the history of a people very much engaged in searching the Bible and thinking Biblically. As Adventists, we don’t just hear a word, take it, and run with it. We are critical thinkers, and take pains to tease things out and come to biblically sound answers to the questions we have. Now, unfortunately, we have moved away from this tradition and culture, but that is how we started and that is one element of Adventist history that I really like and value.
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Something else I love about Adventist culture is that I can go almost anywhere and see someone I know. You can’t escape it! Even if I go somewhere in an Adventist context and don’t know anyone personally, it has never failed that someone in the room knows someone who knows me. Adventism is such a small world and Black Adventism is even smaller! So, I love the familial connections, college connections, etc. It’s really beautiful to walk into a random church and see someone you went to college with.
Question 3: Where are you currently studying and what is your research interest (dissertation topic)?
I’m currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Maryland, College Park and I’m studying English literature. My specific research interest is 20th-21st century African-American literature. My dissertation will cover how theology is depicted in Black literature from the 1920s to the present. I would really like to write about the correlation between theology and the social politics within the narrative and the time period that a particular narrative or poem was published.
Is there a particular African-American author that you’d like to focus on for your dissertation?
As scholars, we have to specialize, which means we typically focus on a particular century. My specialization begins with the 1920s Harlem Renaissance to present-day literature. In regards to specific author or body of work for my dissertation, I will have to choose a text within that time period, the 1920s till the present, and then analyze that text. My Master’s Thesis was on Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997) and my dissertation will include multiple works such as Countee Cullen’s book of poetry entitled, The Black Christ (1929). There is a lot of space for what texts I could choose to work with it. I’ve just finished my coursework, so I still need to take my qualifying examinations and then write my proposal. At that point, I’ll have my texts selected.
Question 4: How long have you been with Message Magazine, and what is your role there?
I actually started working for Message in March 2019 as the content manager. I’m in charge of helping them improve their online and digital presence. I spend a lot of time looking for new writers and staying on top of our social media platforms.
Question 5: You’re known as an advocate for social justice in Adventist circles. What aspects of social justice are you most passionate about and why?
I chuckle every time I hear that I’m well known in Adventist circles but I would say that I have a top-four, in regards to social issues.
Number one would definitely be anti-racism and racial reconciliation work.
For elementary school, I went to Ruth Murdoch in Berrien Springs, MI. One of the programs they had at the school was an annual choir concert featuring all of the students in their native costumes. So, every year from 2nd to 8th grade I would fight with the same choir teacher because they would ask me every single year “what are you going to wear?” And I would respond every year, as my mother instructed, “A nice Sabbath dress.” And every year the same teacher would ask where I was from, and I would answer “St. Joseph.” But then the teacher would ask, “but where are your parents from?” And I would answer “Chicago.” Then the teacher would ask, “but where are your grandparents from?” And I would answer “Georgia.” Finally, exasperated, the teacher would instruct me that I needed to dress up wearing clothes from whatever country in Africa my family is from.
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As a kid you don’t know how to respond to that. You don’t really know how to respond to white ignorance and white avoidance of the topic of Black oppression. Whites often assume that it is easy to figure out where you come from as an African-American. I found growing up that many whites didn’t understand the racial trauma that ripped my heritage and history from my family and my ancestors. Growing up in America means that you don’t read about Black people in school and you don’t read anything authored by Blacks either. Perhaps you may read something during Black History Month, but that typically only covers a few stories about Harriet [Tubman] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.]. Black History Month is celebrated in such a way that the information and the stories are told as if these occurrences were such a long time ago.
It isn’t until later that you realize and have this awakening that the march on Washington D.C. was only 50 years ago! People call me now and are shocked by how very close we are to these events in the recent past. Having this history and these types of interactions with whites personally, and even within Adventism, where people often try to ignore and avoid discussing African-American experiences with racism, really became a catalyst for me for getting involved in anti-racism and racial reconciliation. I’m painfully aware that racism is not just something we find “out there.” In reality, racism has been very much a part of our own Adventist institutions. Many white Adventists didn’t own slaves but neither did they sit next to Black people in our cafeterias.
My second area of interest is domestic violence and sexual abuse.
I have so many close friends and family members that have been victims of violence. In fact, my aunt was murdered by her ex-boyfriend when she was only in her 30s. This is something that we as Black people regardless of country of origin need to talk about. And really it’s something every community needs to talk about. Physical and sexual abuse are real but we don’t like to talk about it or deal with it. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are definitely something that I try to be faithful in fighting against. It should not be tolerated.
The third area I like to focus on is education reform, specifically promoting literacy.
I fell in love with Black literature in high school when I was 16. That was when I first heard about Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. When I read their works for the first time, I realized I wanted to teach this. Back then, the idea of studying literature as a profession wasn’t popular so people asked “how are you going to pay your bills?” But I pursued it anyway, and that is what I’m doing now.
My passion for promoting literacy came from wondering if there were other students of color like me that were simply tired of reading words on a page that they couldn’t relate to. I thought to myself, what if I could introduce literature that was created in and by the same types of communities that young people of color live in. What I’ve found is that all of a sudden, kids learn to really enjoy reading. So, my passion is to create that desire and hunger for reading in students, but particularly students of color.
In 2016 participated in an After-School program in Baltimore as a reading instructor working on comprehension and creative writing with African American students between grades 5-8. Right now, I teach at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Academic Writing Program as part of my fellowship.
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The fourth area of interest for me is criminal justice reform and police brutality which is a ridiculous problem in our society. Almost every other week someone is shot in their homes or on the street and the person turns out to be unarmed. It is angering, to say the least.
Questions 6: Why do you think there is a reticence among many Adventists to get involved in social justice, and how can we fix it?
I think that contemporary Adventism from the 1940s to the present is reluctant to get involved in social justice or politics because we have been fed a faulty theology. The expression of our theology is ultimately attached to what we understand about God and the nature of Christ. And it is also tied to how we understand the significance of the 2nd Coming. For many Adventists, the 2nd Coming is an escape or an out; it’s about going to heaven. But I love how minister Ronnie Vanderhorst describes it. He says,
Heaven is not our home, earth is. Heaven is just a 1000-year pitstop for God to remake this world and give us dominion over it again.
He then articulated that when God first created the world, he gave our first parents dominion and responsibility for the earth, and when the earth is renewed in the Eschaton we will once again receive dominion and responsibility for the earth. The odd thing is that many Adventists seem to have the idea that we need to wait until the 2nd Coming to take responsibility for our world. But I believe that true Adventist theology teaches that we shouldn’t just wait for God to fix injustice. God wants us to take responsibility for our world now. Doing this work develops us spiritually and shapes our characters whenever we get involved in wholistic restorative justice. But we can’t be effective in social justice issues or wholistic restorative justice if we think Christ only deals with spiritual needs. Putting the work of Christ into a box that only addresses spiritual needs, feeds the theology and notion of social avoidance and the avoidance of engagement. We aren’t the only ones with this problem but we are definitely one of the biggest proponents of this ideology. People don’t look for Seventh-day Adventists to hold police accountable or to address education inequities. We’re just not known for that.
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Pastor Michael Kelly spoke recently on his social media account about this point. Preaching at a non-Adventist church, the Senior Pastor came to Pastor Kelly after he finished and said: “I had no idea you were an Adventist!” He proceeded to comment on his engagement in worship and the fire with which he preached noting that these things were not typical of his understanding of Adventism. Adventists have a serious public relations problem when it comes to Biblical justice, restorative justice, and engagement with the community. Many of our churches are really commuter churches and we don’t know the families that live right next door to our houses of worship. And unfortunately, many churches only engage their communities once a year when they go out and knock on people’s doors to invite them to a Daniel and Revelation seminar. Ironically, we are surprised when people shut the door in our faces.
We have to care about people for more than just one day a year. We need to go beyond the good work we are doing with international charity. We do need to strengthen our domestic charity in this country. However, we also need to go beyond aid and meeting temporary needs. We need to begin to sit on boards and on committees that make decisions and start addressing systemic issues. For example, we need to ask, “Why are there so many hungry people in my community?” We need to ask, “Why does my community not have a grocery store within a 5-mile radius?” “Why do kids have no choice but to have Doritos and Coca-Cola for dinner?”
Personally, I don’t do social justice to warm people up so that I can then preach the word to them. I do social justice work to show people the love of God in a practical way. When Christ was turning tables, touching lepers, healing people, and turning water into wine, He was demonstrating that he cared about society as a whole. Christ didn’t just preach the beatitudes, he lived them. All of Jesus’ teachings are important but everything he did was important to his ministry as well.
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We as Adventists, though, don’t always see it, we miss many opportunities to be a blessing to the less fortunate. And don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think Adventists are intentionally selfish, mean, or self-seeking. It is not that we are a malicious people. Where we go wrong is that we are so focused on the return of Christ and being spiritually ready that we allow spiritual necessities to blind us to the very real social and physical necessities that people currently have. It shouldn’t be an “either/or” it should be “both/and.” This either/or mentality that overemphasizes personal piety over showing mercy to others and pursuing justice is why we are in a spiritually stagnant place. We exhibit a radical lack of empathy and compassion and attempt to compensate for this by leaning on the intellectual aspects of our faith and believing the right things.
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At times, we are so focused on believing the right things that we have hardened our hearts to the need to just love people the way Jesus loved them. So, unfortunately, we often look very much like the scribes and Pharisees in Scripture. They knew the prophecies and yet completely missed and misunderstood Christ when he came. In response, God bypassed the religious elite and revealed Christ’s coming to the Magi, people who studied and worshipped the stars or constellations. What we have to understand, is that if we don’t start loving people and taking responsibility for our world, people will come to God in-spite of us. God will reach people where they are because we are so wrapped up in knowing and fighting over theological minutia creating heavy burdens for humanity to carry but not lifting a finger to help them.
So Claudia what you’ve said really resonates with me, but how do we fix this in Adventism?
That is a huge question. I think it will take a mixture of several things so what I’m about to say is not exhaustive by any means. I may catch a lot of flak for this but we need people who are willing to preach the social gospel. Honestly, I don’t like calling it the social gospel because I personally believe that the gospel is inherently social and deals with injustice. So, what we need to preach is, in reality, the fullness of the gospel.
Now after we do that, we will reconvict the hearts of some of our people who have become stagnant and Laodicean in their walk. Ultimately it is the preaching of the fullness of the gospel that will move the hearts of our people to engage their communities and this will in turn convince hearts that have been hardened to us because of our past lack of compassion. We need more teaching and writing on holistic restorative justice even if we need to publish outside of our own publishing houses as well.
So do we need to be more strategic in our publishing?
Exactly. People need to stop giving excuses about spreading this message. If God has given you something and the institution won’t publish it then get it published somewhere else. We also need to be more thick-skinned and be ready to go to battle. But beyond writing, we need to get more of our people involved. We need more people from the pulpit and the pew to sit on this committee or that board and attend various community meetings. We must get involved in the community and if possible, position ourselves to have a systemic impact on policy.
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So many of us try to get out of jury duty instead of seeing it as an opportunity to get involved in social justice. If you’re chosen as a juror you can use your belief system and discernment to try and ensure that whoever is on trial gets a fair trial and is not taken advantage of by the system. We need to be more present and less insular. It so easy as an Adventist, especially in communities like Berrien Springs or Huntsville to wake up in your Adventist home, go to an Adventist job, pick up your Adventist kids from an Adventist school, and even buy your Adventist food from an Adventist grocery store. We have to break out of the bubble and learn to be a blessing to others outside of our Adventist community.
Many of us don’t realize how insular we really are. I remember when I first experienced my own culture shock when first got to Georgetown. It was there that I realized that even my jokes were churchy because I was so steeped in Adventism my whole life. We need to get our people and kids engaged. If we do this, we will have a deeper and much more beautiful understanding of God, his nature, his will, and his desires.
I really like your point about jury duty. I’ve never thought about how jury duty can be a way to engage in social justice.
People always say I don’t know how to get involved. I like to ask “Have you gotten a jury duty letter?” or “Have you written your congressperson?” There really are no excuses. There are so many different ways to get involved. At a bare minimum, you can vote in state and presidential elections. And truthfully, it is way more important for you to vote in your local elections than in the presidential elections. People should be doing a both/and.
Questions 7: Do you see a connection between Adventist Theology and social justice work? If so, what does it look like?
Absolutely. Adventist theology is biblical theology. It is not a social construction. It is not something we fabricated or a result of proof-texting. The baseline beliefs of Adventism are pure Bible. We believe in the 2nd Coming of Jesus, the 3rd Angel’s Message, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and baptism by immersion. These kinds of things are all bible-based.
But when I read Revelation it has a great deal to say about justice and oppressive systems of power that inflict injustice. Reading Revelation, it seems to be a fact that the only kind of kingdom that will last is a kingdom ruled by Christ. This does not mean we should try to legislate religion, however. Revelation points to the fact that Jesus is keenly aware that our current societal systems are sinful, unjust, and destructive to humanity. Jesus is not just coming to save souls he is also coming to destroy unjust systems and structures and to establish a new kingdom. There is something powerful and beautiful about that.
Often as Adventists, we tend to focus solely on whether our characters are ready for translation since we’ve been taught that our characters are the only thing we will be able to take to heaven with us. But we shouldn’t deduce that such a teaching implies that Christ doesn’t care about the trauma, or systemic oppression in this world. In fact, the reason we will be able to sing a song that angels can’t sing is because we will know and have an experience that which the angels didn’t have.
On the other side, no one is going to defect from God ever again. Why? Because we will remember what a world in rebellion produces. We will remember slavery, the holocaust, Japanese internment camps, gassings, lynchings, whippings, etc. We will remember the horrors that sin produced in this world and we will understand that we serve a God that saved us from that. That is what is so beautiful about Revelation. There’s social justice all throughout it. I even heard Dr. Dedrick Blue preach a powerful message on the 3 angels’ messages. In other words, there are so many different avenues to enter into this conversation.
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Our message is broad enough to incorporate social justice. Let’s say we believe in the health message. Well if we really do believe in the health message, we should care about people who live in food deserts. Some people say they joined the Advent movement simply because the church got them off drugs or smoking through its health message promotion. First, people experience restoration in the body which allows them to then receive the restoration of their spirits. Unfortunately, we have been unfaithful with the health message so it has been given to the world and we can’t use that wedge as effectively anymore.
But what the world is looking for now is justice and wondering if there is a religious tradition out there, and particularly, whether Christianity has anything to say about the structural oppression that people are experiencing in their countries, whether it be female genital mutilation (FGM), Communism in China, or social and structural injustice. People don’t want to serve a God that has nothing to say about women’s ordination, child brides, etc. I can’t tell you how many people have left Adventism because of sexism and racism. If we don’t speak to these issues and deal with them people will leave.
Questions 8: How would you assess the health of the Black Adventist work in America? What are we doing right? Where can we improve?
The Black work unfortunately is a reflection of the whole. Currently we are not distinct. Originally, the Black work was created to reach Black people. This was necessary because in this racially tense country, especially when Christianity was used as a weapon against Black people, the gospel needed to be delivered by Blacks to Blacks. To that end we are accomplishing that.
However, Adventism’s iteration of the Black work is in jeopardy. I say that because the Black church is not meeting any of the needs of the Black community in this country. The Black Adventist work is appealing to some Blacks but part of the problem is that many black Adventists refuse to engage with the specific political and social needs of African-Americans in this country.
Questions 9: If you could single-handedly set the agenda for Adventist leadership in regards to social justice, what issue would you prioritize and why?
Race. Nothing else will get dealt with structurally until we deal with race. That is the lynchpin. Currently, we are trying to address a myriad of issues like End It Now, poverty, abuse, violence, education, and sexism. We seem to be willing to tackle everything but race. But if we observe what is happening outside of Adventism, we see that no real structural change happens within institutions until the issue of race is dealt with. Some think we can answer the race question without the institution, but you can’t. From what I can tell, if the church were to address and knock down racism, it would be able to knock down every other form of injustice. That is my personal belief.
Question 11: How can people keep up with your social justice work and Message Magazine?
I would definitely encourage our readers to subscribe to Message Magazine and follow us on social media @message1898. Also you can keep up with my personal social justice work and speaking engagements by following me on Instagram at @camaal365.
Question 12: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I would like people to genuinely go into their prayer closet about social justice and really go to God and ask him if they’ve missed something. I would encourage people to not be so defensive and apprehensive when it comes to social justice and figure out how God may want to use you to get involved.
Ask the Lord to open your eyes and show you new insights from the Scriptures about how the church and individual Christians should deal with systems, structures, and powers. Ask God to show you personally how to “occupy until he comes” so that you’re not just doing nothing and waiting for the 2nd Coming to fix everything. Ask God how you can be engaged with your community to better reflect his character and nature. Journal about it. Pray about it. Let it become a serious part of your life. Let it produce a complete paradigm shift in you.
Social justice isn’t something that you can just read about or listen to a podcast or sermon. We all can be agitated for a while over an issue and then go right back to our day-to-day life routine. We have to bring the conversation to our quiet spiritual places and ask God if there is something that he wants to do that we’re not doing.
Also, if you’re not Black, don’t let that deter you. It is not exclusively the responsibility and burden of African-Americans to convince whites of the need for this type of work. Instead, seek the Holy Spirit and ask him to show you the nature and character of God in such a way that you will be moved to display that same nature and character to others, reconciling them back to God. Plead with God and refuse to stand by in silence or be a part of something that would cause others to stumble. Go pray and study to see what it is that God would have you do for his kingdom.