Interview with Todd Leonard, Pastor and Peace Church Advocate
Viewpoints Interview Series #18
Todd Leonard Interview by Jeff Boyd
Submitted January 30, 2015
Welcome to Viewpoints: Adventist Perspectives on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. Todd Leonard lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three daughters. He is senior pastor at the Glendale City Church in Glendale, California. He is interested in helping people discover spirituality in individuals, cultures, religions and lifestyles that differ from their own and building a radically-inclusive congregation devoted to community transformation.
AToday: Your congregation recently completed the process of becoming a “peace church” in the Adventist Peace Fellowship network. You were actually the first to be certified. Why do you want your congregation to embrace the values of a peace church? Why are peace and justice important to you in your congregational ministry?
Leonard: I really feel that bringing peace into communities, bringing peace into our world seems to be at the heart of the gospel. From what I read in the prophets, from looking at what Jesus did during his ministry and then carried on in the early church, there appears to be this work to include more people in the goodness of God, in the blessings of God. And our job is to make sure that every chance we get we bring good news in very tangible ways into the lives of people so they are not excluded from all that God wants for them to have and to experience.
I feel like our call is to live out the Lord’s Prayer, where it says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The idea is that Christ came to bring God’s kingdom into the world here and now. And however God intervenes eschatalogically in the world to bring His purposes to fulfillment, our call is to work toward that end in the here-and-now through His Spirit to bring the reality of peace, justice, love and grace into the world today as much as we can. That means reaching out to people who have typically been excluded from the blessings of their nation, from the blessings of being part of a faith community. And it also means working to undermine systems that keep barriers up, that keep people excluded, that keep people divided from one another. So where systemic structures in the church and in our society keep people apart and keep people on unequal footing, we have a responsibility to try to undermine that by bringing equality and grace and justice and welcome to those people. That’s the working out of our salvation, the salvation that we felt when we realized we were not excluded from God or from our faith community, that we were welcomed and included—that welcome, that inclusion, that love and justice that we in turn extend to others as a working out of the salvation that we have already received.
AToday: You can do or be this without joining Adventist Peace Fellowship, so why did you want to join the APF peace church network?
Leonard: It’s two-fold. One, we would love to have the collaboration and collegiality of networking with other churches who have the same mission and vision for their congregation. We can share ideas, share what’s working in our local context, find resources that would be beneficial for one another. There’s that connection where the sharing and the interaction can happen more effectively and much easier.
The other thing, I would really hope that this would be something that would catch fire and would be something that more and more Adventist churches would want to be a part of, that they would kind of reconnect with some of our heritage of not only preaching about the kingdom to come but actively working in society to make life better for the world we’re in and to work towards God’s purposes without violence. I’m hoping that since we’ve joined and we’re seeing some others get on board that it will become a movement of more and more churches embracing this and wanting to bring the peace focus to the work of their congregations.
AToday: How did you bring up the peace church topic with your congregation? Were there any objections to joining the network?
Leonard: We took it to our church board and shared the mission of Adventist Peace Fellowship. We said, “We would like to officially be in the process of being certified as one.” One of the comments on the board was, “This already seems to be the values of our congregation. This doesn’t seem to be a stretch or different from who we are.” So it was probably one of the easiest decisions we’ve ever made as a church.
In our congregation there are people all along the political spectrum about how we should address issues in American politics, but we’re united about this. In the context of what our church is doing, this is who we’ve been as a church—about healing brokenness, being inclusive where others exclude.
AToday: How has your congregation been living out these themes?
Leonard: Glendale City Church was established when the city of Glendale was kind of an Adventist Mecca, with a nursing school, Voice of Prophecy, conference and union offices, an academy, and two hospitals within eight miles of each other. It had a large Adventist presence, so there were a lot of Adventist churches established in the area to serve all the Adventists living in the area. And while not always being incredibly proactive outside of the Adventist bubble, Glendale City was always the church Adventists knew they could go to if they weren’t accepted in another congregation.
There’s one story from the late 1980s that is telling. There was a gentleman who was coming to church who had found a home in a group Bible study that was happening at our church, and he felt welcomed and loved and accepted. While he was attending, he received the diagnosis that he had contracted AIDS. He felt like he needed to share that with his Bible study group. In the 80s to share that you had AIDS was basically the same thing as a leper coming out about their condition in biblical times. They would be immediately distanced from everybody because people were afraid of contracting the disease. And it also meant that you must have been engaged in acts of immorality at some point—whether it was drug use, sexual promiscuity or homosexual behavior. So not just within the church but in society in general, to contract AIDS meant you basically lost connection with most of the people you were in relationship with.
When he shared his diagnosis, the Bible study group hugged and embraced him one-by-one and told him that they loved him, that they would be with him no matter what. As his condition deteriorated and he had to go into the hospital more regularly and then even into hospice care, many of our members regularly visited him and kept in touch with him. The medical professionals at the facilities would ask him, “Who are all these people visiting you because no other patient in this AIDS ward is getting visits anywhere like this?” He told them, “That’s the Glendale City Adventist Church. It’s their members who are coming and visiting me.” So we even had people from those medical institutions come visit our church because they wanted to know what kind of church actually loved and cared for an AIDS patient.
That not only shows you the type of church we already were in a lot of ways, but that also became a catalyst for our church to move forward in being welcoming and inclusive of people, no matter where they were from.
Also, our church has moved on women’s equality. We had women elders and women deacons back in the 1970s. Our associate pastor, Cherise Gardner, who left back in August to become the senior pastor at Long Beach Church, was ordained in our church in 2013. She was one of the first women ordained in the Pacific Union after the vote on ordination.
AToday: What social action or community service are you currently involved in?
Leonard: In the past year we’ve started two nonprofit organizations to collaborate with a number groups—business and government entities in the city—to help at-risk families and at-risk children in our community.
The first that we started is called Caesura Youth Orchestra. This organization has begun providing music lessons to children in an elementary school in our city that has an over 80 percent rate of kids on the school lunch program. These kids are coming from families that don’t often have the resources to do musical education on their own. And like a lot of school systems around the country, school music programs have been cut, so there’s very little music education happening in the Glendale public schools, especially in the elementary and middle schools.
So this organization is coming in and teaching music classes four days a week after school to children who don’t have access to music otherwise. The organization provides instruments, brings in the instructors, brings in volunteers from major orchestras and musical organizations in the city of Los Angeles, who are looking for ways to give back to the community.
In addition to giving music lessons, in time they will also form a youth orchestra that will provide opportunity for the kids who are getting the instruction at school. They can then be part of this orchestra that will have rehearsals, providing an outlet for kids to be engaged in something constructive after school rather than being on their own and being more likely to get involved in gang-related activity.
The other organization is called Glendale Communitas Initiative, which is a nonprofit we’ve begun with the support of our sister Adventist church, Vallejo Drive, to intentionally collaborate with the religious congregations of our city no matter what their affiliation or denominational background. So far we have fifteen member congregations who are part of this network from twelve different denominations. We’re still working to reach out to Jewish and Muslim congregations that are in town as well.
Along with those churches, we are networking with the other nonprofits in our city and working with local businesses and government officials to create a collaborative program where we come along side families who are at or below the poverty line who are on the verge of homelessness. These would be individuals and families who aren’t homeless yet but who if something doesn’t change for them soon, they may become homeless. The Glendale Communitas Initiative would work with these families and provide a case worker, who would help the families connect with resources in the government sector and the nonprofit sector that can assist them in getting on their feet.
Secondly, we would provide some financial assistance in the form of helping with rent, helping with utilities, maybe getting a car repaired, getting an appliance repaired, so they can continue to function and not get further behind because of these important repairs. Maybe we would help out with some medical expenses on a limited level as well. If they would benefit from going back to school, we could provide assistance for up to two years to pay for their tuition at Glendale Community College.
The third component of this is to bring supportive mentors to work with the family over the next year in an encouraging, supportive role. These mentors would come from the congregations or from other civic groups like Rotary or Glendale Young Professionals. Those people would come together and each mentor would meet with a family member an hour per week for an entire year.
The purpose of this is to reduce poverty in city by 10 percent over the next five years. But the second thing is to bring congregations and organizations together who have all been really working on their own and not having much interaction of significance together. We can come together around our commonality of wanting to do the work of compassion, of justice in our area, to break down barriers that have divided us religiously and that really have kept us from knowing the good things that each other have already been doing. We want to build a network of communication where we can be more effective in serving the needs of families in our city and making our city a more just and compassionate place.
AToday: Is Communitas currently operating?
Leonard: Our executive director and finance director have been putting the infrastructure in place over the last five months to bring the congregations together, bringing together an advisory board of the different nonprofits, businesses and government entities. So we’ve been building the infrastructure. We just hired our case worker who will be the professional contact with the families, so we’re beginning the process of bringing in families to be mentored. We’ll be starting that process in February. So we’re just on the verge of officially launching.
AToday: Can you clarify the relationship between the Glendale Adventist Church and these two new nonprofits? How will your congregation interact with these nonprofits moving forward?
Leonard: We have a church leader and a church member who sit on the Caesura Youth Orchestra board. Our church will continue to be involved when music professionals who are members of our church would like to assist in the training and instruction. Church members have been contributing their used instruments. As the program expands, our church facility will be utilized for individual instrument lessons, orchestra rehearsals and citywide concerts.
With Communitas, I’m the president and board chairperson. Our church members will volunteer to be part of the mentorship program. And the families in our congregation who can currently benefit from the stability program will enroll. Church members can nominate eligible people they know in Glendale to be considered as well. And all of the congregations who are part of the network will be doing the same thing. But those will be the two significant contributions.
Our church has invested significant financial resources in both of these organizations to get them on their feet. We expect long term funding to come from grants and other donors, but our church put in a significant amount of seed capital to get these things off the ground.
AToday: What are your plans for the future?
Leonard: The City of Glendale has a significant Armenian population. In fact in the next five years, over fifty percent of our residents will be people of Armenian descent. This actually goes back to another way our church has been welcoming and inclusive. Back in the early 1980s, our congregation welcomed two other language groups onto our campus to have church services. One was an Armenian group. They’re part of our congregation with an Armenian-language service. We also have a Romanian language worship service.
One thing we’re working on, our English and Armenian-speaking groups will have a special memorial Sabbath on April 18, the Sabbath before the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. That will be a Sabbath to remember the atrocity and to pray for on-going reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. We’ll try to invite in officials within our city who are of Armenian heritage to be a part of that service. And we’ll also participate in the city-wide gathering on April 19.
Even though we welcomed this Armenian congregation as part of our church, we have a lot of work to do to try to build relationships with the Armenian community. Our church has not been shifting to reflect the demographic of our city, so we have work to do to become more welcoming and inclusive and connected with the Armenian community.
AToday: What advice do you have for pastors who are interested in learning more about being a peace church or actually becoming one?
Leonard: I would say there’s a lot of good information on the APF website that gives an introduction. Then I think any of the churches who are either certified or are in the process of getting certified would be thrilled to talk about what they’re doing in their local contexts to give ideas. For our congregation it would be a privilege to have a phone conversation or have a sit-down with somebody else who wants to find out what this could look like.
I can even share from my experience starting a church in Atlanta—the Canton Adventist Church—and how we built the DNA in that congregation to be a community church. I really sought to build bridges with different groups of people and serve those in need in our community. Zane Yi is a professor at Loma Linda now, but he followed me at Canton, and he continued that approach, adding an after-school tutoring program. Attendance on Sabbath is around fifty—it’s a small church—but it has the DNA of networking with the community. So it’s something that is close to my heart and close to a number of people in our congregation that would feel privileged to share.
I would also say that if you’re thinking about how hard this is to get going, don’t think you have to have the perfect plan in order to get going. Just start. Just start reaching out in some way. Start by setting up appointments with other congregations in your community to say, “Hey, I wanted to get acquainted. I’d like to know the other leaders in our community.” Or take the time to start attending city hall meetings. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic and dramatic, just pick a way that you’re going to move outside of the walls of your church and start building relationships. Just start there and see where it goes.
 Coming soon: http://www.glendalecommunitasinitiative.org/