by Rob York
It was seven years ago that I left my small-town church in Paris, Tennessee and departed for South Korea. Since it was my first trip abroad my bar was low; I was mainly hoping that I wouldn’t have to explain to Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute headquarters in Seoul that I wouldn’t be making it because I’d gotten hopelessly lost in the Nashville airport. This scenario did not come to pass.
Now, almost seven years later I’ve left Korea, making a stop in my West Tennessee hometown before moving on to the next place I’ll call home. Since it was my first extended stay back I had to set goals for how I’d interact with my former church; as many places as I’ve been and experiences as I’ve encountered, a certain snobbery is bound to set in. I only hoped that I would not look at them while they talked as though it were amazing that they don’t get lost in the church parking lot. I hope I succeeded.
In my time in Korea, most of the churches I attended were hosted within the SDA language institutes that we taught in. The other foreign members had, like me, generally come all the way to Asia to share God’s love, to experience life on the other side of the world, and to maybe lose a few pounds on a daily diet of rice and vegetables. In those churches, we attracted a steady stream of students drawn in through the saving power of … English.
They flocked to us because English was something we had in abundance, even if we used it to talk about things like an afterlife, when the students were much more keen to discuss how English could get them promoted at work, thus helping them afford an apartment so they could move out of their parents’ houses, get married, have children and pay for their children’s English lessons. Our job was to show them that there was more to life than getting promoted and standardized test scores; there’s also peace of mind, the promise of eternal life and weekly potluck lunches.
Even if they didn’t become members, it was a pleasure to spend church services with them, asking them questions about their lives (such as “Do you actually like studying English, or is it something you feel like you have to do?” and “When exactly do you sleep?”) and giving them the opportunity to ask us questions about our believes (including “Is it possible to live without pork?” and “Is it worth living without pork?”).
And with so many people joining us on a regular basis, it was inevitable that many of them would become members. We, the teachers, would frequently be moved to different institutions and churches, but that was okay, because the church was a growing and ever-changing-organism, like a butterfly, or Mitt Romney’s health care plan.
I wasn’t sure how I’d act around my hometown church because I remember how it used to be. The people there knew the benefits of avoiding not just pork, but all meat. In fact, the relationship between animal protein and the spread of cancerous tissue is one of their favorite subjects, beating out grace and coming up just behind the Time of Trouble.
Furthermore, there’s no problem with the new church attendees discovering strange things about SDAs after they show up; our church is a minority there, but has enough of a reputation that by the time they arrive they’re well-aware of our relative ignorance regarding Saturday morning television programming.
The problem rests in the church not having the same rate of new visitors to older-members whose views are so calcified they would justify the use of ur-so-deoxy-cholic acid. Growing up, I remember far too may discussions centering around who could describe the End Times in grimmest detail or who had most reliable replication of the King James Bible, and more than a few debates over whether a) everyone in government is trying to destroy us, the remnant church, or b) just the liberals.
The SDA institute churches in Korea occasionally saw differences in opinion over how to conduct outreach, largely centering around how to reach people who don’t know a lot of 1) the Bible 2) the language the teachers’ Bibles are written in. Most of us could, however, agree that there needed to be a middle ground between “This is a Bible. It is good,” and “This is the 2300 days. It is inexorable.” It was usually enough for us to know that we were there to conduct missions for us to be able to work together. There was no way to sit in the pew and simply criticize the efforts others made.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while I was home, the Paris SDA Church had set up a booth at the annual Henry County Fair, giving people a chance to learn about how to eat better, stop smoking and live healthier lives. There were even posters advising people about the dangers of soft drinks; doing this in Tennessee is equivalent of telling Koreans that owning your own apartment will give you Mad Cow disease.
And it seemed to work: In addition to the many visitors the booth drew, it also won the fair’s people’s choice award.
Within days I’ll be moving to Hawaii to start the next phase of my journey. When I’ve arrived and found a new church family, I’ll try to remember not to misjudge the efforts that others are capable of. Nor will I assume that I know what manner of outreach the public will or won’t respond to.
But first I have to make sure I don’t get lost in the Honolulu airport.