By Stefani Leeper, July 7, 2015: With an urgent article on my hands and feeling the pressure of the ticking clock, the bustle of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center was no place to start delving into Adventist politics, statistics, and foreign relations.
A quick examination of the Marriott lobby located across the street was of no consolation to my mounting anxiety, and I pivoted back toward the Convention Center. I found myself moving down East Market Street toward the San Antonio River Walk. Along this path was a man who had set up residence under the shade of a tree with a bright yellow sign in his hands. The sign read in bold, angry letters “Ellen White is a Liar.”
Intrigued, I stopped and inconspicuously studied his sign, conscious of my press badge and my Myers-Briggs confirmed Introvert-Intuitive-Feeling-Judging (INFJ) personality. My internal conflict was short-lived as a foreign Adventist pastor, dressed completely in what appeared to be snowy white cotton and silk, ornamented in golden trim, hurriedly shuffled toward the protestor. I followed close behind and found myself about three feet from the two men, our bodies settled in a triangular conversational style.
“Excuse me, my brother,” the pastor said calmly, drawing the attention of the man with five picket signs, one of which proclaimed that Ted Wilson and Ellen White are the blind leading the blind. “Those words are very offensive to these people, and I respect these people.”
“I’m just preaching the truth,” the man replied, shaking his head as he continued displaying his signs to passersby.
“No,” replied the pastor with a little more fire in his tone, “you are defaming their characters. That is not preaching the truth. I suggest that if you want to preach the truth, then you tell what you find wrong, not destroy their names in this way.”
They continued bantering in this style for a while, both men reiterating their messages in escalating tones, fingers starting to threateningly shake in the directions of the opposing party. This argument resulted in the pastor accusing the preacher of heresy with the accused replying, “That’s what they told Jesus.”
The pastor was dumbfounded at the implied meaning of the statement, and when he questioned it, he, along with the aforementioned “blind” leaders, was compared to a Pharisee.
After a few more minutes of irate dispute and the preacher offering to point out parts of Ellen White’s writing that contradicted the King James Bible, the pastor said, “My brother, you are making me want to say things that I don’t wish to say. I don’t want to call you a son of the devil, but if you continue acting in this way then you are the son of the devil. What you are doing, it is evil.”
Something caused this 22-year-old spectator to push aside her inner INFJ and to raise her voice in response to what she knew might become a full-out war. “May I interject?” I timidly requested, raising my hand, with my purse hanging by the crook of my arm.
Two pairs of eyes swung to me, and they both allowed me to speak, but as they nodded their consent, their eyes widened when they noticed my press badge. I swiftly removed it, burying it in my swinging purse, hoping this action would ensure their confidence.
“Paul explains that the weak and the strong in faith need to support each other and that judging and condemning each other for certain beliefs and actions is only destructive. The weak and strong are to support each other in love. But I sense a lot of hatred here between both sides, and that is only causing destruction. We need to understand each other.”
Surprisingly, both men listened without interruption and nodded, understanding my point.
“But I hear the Adventist Church in San Antonio calling the Sunday worshipers marks of the Beast and condemning them to hell.”
The pastor and I shared a puzzled glance and I replied, “The official mission of the Seventh-day Adventist movement isn’t to convert people to the Adventist faith; it’s to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world as demonstrated in the Bible. And we aren’t supposed to judge another faith but to be firm in our own convictions and help others find the truth in Christ. Unfortunately, there is a spectrum of Adventists, just as there is in any other religion, and some are very conservative and others are liberal.”
“As the girl says, there is a wide range of Adventists,” confirmed the pastor before he proceeded to explain that not all Adventists hold such hatred toward Christian brothers and sisters. He then revealed that it is a commonly held belief of Adventists that not all Adventists will be saved and that many Adventists also are convinced that people of all religious affiliations who truly love God, and confess and accept Jesus as Lord, will enjoy salvation. I conceded.
The street preacher’s expression softened and his volume lowered a few notches. “You believe that?”
Two heads nodded in response and his arms fell, his posture opened to us. “Wow. I’ve never heard that before.”
In light of this progress, the pastor then requested to be shown the messages on each picket sign and the preacher displayed them, explaining why he was demonstrating a verse on adultery and other biblical verses. The pastor approved of those signs, stating that they support an individual perspective from biblical readings, and he replied, “If you just show those, I am fine with you.”
But then he requested to be given the two signs that were directed at Adventist leaders, kicking off Round 2 of the debate, this one centered on the ability of women to lead in Christian denominations.
In a nutshell, the street preacher flipped through his Bible and began reading passages in Paul’s epistles and Revelation (Jesus’ words declaring Jezebel a false prophetess) that support the perspective that women should not lead in a church setting.
“But you follow Ellen White,” the preacher concluded, to which I again swiftly replied, “We follow the Bible, and she is an advisor in understanding the Biblical texts and a healthy lifestyle. Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said as I eyed the Adventist pastor. I continued, “But I believe Ellen White denied that she was a prophetess.” The protester arched a quizzical brow while voicing “Oh, really?”
Of course, this was quickly corrected by the pastor who clarified that deny was a misleading term and in actuality she didn’t declare herself a prophetess. He then explained why the Adventist faith recognizes her writings as divinely inspired.
The street preacher again offered to show us where Ellen White was contradictory in her writing as compared to the Bible, and I changed the topic by asking him what Adventists had done to elicit an animated and vehement response to those of the Adventist faith.
The street preacher had been raised near a Seventh-day Adventist community in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and—not a Sabbath observer—was thereby disrespected by some of the community because he was a “son of the Beast.”
With that confession, everything began to make sense. I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger that, as children of Christ, we had so cruelly turned away our brother.
I listened. Apologized. We discussed our differing views of retaining salvation (the possibility of losing it by rejecting the Spirit). Shook his hand. “I will pray for you,” I said.
“Thank you,” he responded.
“Please pray for us, too.”
“I will,” he concluded.
I hoisted my purse and retraced my steps toward the Convention Center, my eyes watering and the inner INFJ in me suddenly rearing its ugly head to interfere with my emotional well-being. Inhaling deeply, I squinted at the flashing red hand prohibiting me from crossing the street.
I turned and saw the street preacher passing by, his signs stuffed under his arm.
“Are you married?”
“Don’t marry a divorced man with a living wife.”
Inwardly I smiled at his effort of reconciliation. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
We parted ways, and I felt the presence of the Lord filling the cavity of my chest. There was warmth, and there was peace.
At the end of the day, no one could sum up my thoughts better than Adventist pastor David Asscherick who, that very Sabbath evening, asked his 2015 General Conference audience: “Why is it us against everyone else? If I could I would un-invent the word non-Adventist because it creates a barrier…. The Bible boils down to the word access; it’s all about contextualization and accessibility.”
“We,” the wise Asscherick proclaimed, “do not have a copyright on the truth.”