In the month since George Floyd was killed by police on May 25, Americans have been protesting injustice and demanding change. Around the country, pastors and leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist church have also been engaging in protests and a myriad of other initiatives to advocate for social justice—both personally and from their platforms in leadership.
The work is often nothing new. There is a longstanding recognition by many that the success and wellbeing of American Adventists—especially people of color—is not inseparable from the social issues affecting the country as a whole. Despite the Adventist Church as an institution often being averse to advocacy and political action outside the realm of religious liberty, many rights and advances for American Adventists have only come on the heels of wider societal change.
As historian Samuel G. London Jr. documents in his book Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t a closer study of the Bible or a more thorough reading of Ellen White that caused the General Conference to enforce desegregation in all its institutions in 1965. Rather, it was a lawsuit against Adventist schools that wouldn’t admit Black students and a call from the United States Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach:
Katzenbach phoned the General Conference and expressed his dismay that eleven years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling a supposedly Christian denomination, like the Seventh-day Adventist Church, still practiced racial segregation in its educational facilities. Then he bluntly asked the General Conference leaders if they planned on integrating their facilities. Following a lengthy silence on the other end, Katzenbach told them that they did not have to desegregate, but if that was their decision they would no longer enjoy certain forms of federal assistance like tax exemptions.
Soon after, the General Conference announced a resolution demanding desegregation in its entities.
As London and other historians of the Adventist Church have documented, even throughout history when the church as an institution was silent, Adventist church members and pastors were not—especially those of color. From students protesting mistreatment at Oakwood College in the 1930s to pastors organizing during the Civil Rights Movement, many Adventists have been unafraid to stand up and use their voices.
One can now point to high levels of church leadership showing more effort to address inequity than in the past. The North American Division had a recent conversation about racism and a “Virtual Freedom Ride.” Ella Smith Simmons, general vice-president of the General Conference, published a statement in the Adventist Review titled “Deeds, Not Only Words.”
Yet there is often still a gap between the efforts of those working on the ground and the church as a large institution. During the protests of 2020, interviews with some of those leaders in different parts of the United States show the breadth of work being done by Adventists to advance social justice.
On Saturday, June 6, Cryston Josiah picked up a megaphone to speak for 10 minutes to the crowd gathered at the National WWI Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Josiah has worked in the Central States Conference—one of the nine regional conferences—since 2000, first as a pastor and now as vice president for administration. A men’s ministry leader from one of the conference churches, Dr. Thurston Smith, had organized the peaceful protest and interfaith prayer rally that day. Later, Josiah said that he spoke to not only share his perspective as a faith leader, but also just as a person.
Cryston Josiah speaks at the June 6 protest.
“As an African-American male myself, I’ve had police officers follow me to my house,” he said. “I’ve had them pull me over for no reason.”
Josiah used Luke 15—the parable of the lost sheep—to explain the biblical perspective on speaking out about racial injustice.
“That’s what Black Lives Matter means, is leaving the privileged and the safe and going out to serve the underprivileged and the one that is in danger, and ministering to that one,” he said.
The president of the conference, Roger Bernard, and the president of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference, Ron Carlson, both attended. The Mid-America Union President, Gary Thurber, drove over three hours to also take part. Thurber had earlier released a video statement about taking a stand against racism.
Josiah thought the support of other leadership was meaningful to see, and he hopes there will continue to be increased dialogue and collaboration.
“For any Union that’s out there, I would say reach out to your regional, [to] your Black conference administrators, and have a conversation,” he said. Beyond that, Josiah is calling for those administrators to help educate pastors on how to help seek justice through their ministry, because those pastors in turn can help educate their congregations.
Protesters gather at the event organized by Adventists in Kansas City.
The Central States Conference covers a broad geographical area, and includes Minnesota. (This state, like many in the United States, is covered by overlapping conferences due to the racial segregation of church structure.) Within three days of George Floyd’s killing, Central States spoke out publicly.
“By Wednesday, we made a statement supporting all of our pastors, our leadership, [to] let them know that right out of the gate we support any non-violent protests or anything that our people wanted to do to let their voice be heard on this matter,” Josiah said. The conference also sent their letter to the police department to “let them know that we are 100% behind justice being done on behalf of George Floyd.”
Central States Conference pastors were part of local protests on the ground in Minneapolis, as well as other efforts.
“They’ve been working together, not just in protest, but they’ve been giving away food and supplies,” Josiah said.
On May 30, Josiah marched in a local Kansas City protest with one of his three daughters. He wanted her to be a part of what was happening and witness the historic moment firsthand. He also wishes to lead by example.
“I’m not the kind of leader that sends people out and doesn’t do it myself,” he said. Beyond that, there is also the personal aspect that drives Josiah to speak out.
“Were it not for the grace of God, George Floyd is me.”
Daniel Xisto has been Pastor of Church Operations and Community Engagement for two years at Takoma Park Church in Historic Downtown Takoma Park, Maryland. The church itself used to be the church for the General Conference headquarters, before the headquarters was moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in the late 80s, and is right on the border where Maryland meets Washington D.C.
They are a large church with approximately 1,000 members and a regular attendance of 500-700. Their location has given the Takoma Park Church a front row seat to the recent protests at the nation’s capital, and they have joined the movement.
Daniel Xisto at protests in Washington, D.C.
“We are a predominately black church,” Xisto explained. “We have it in our heart to be social justice oriented.”
Xisto said that while some more conservative members don’t exactly like the political aspect, the church itself does have a “critical mass” that is interested in and passionate about speaking up. In light of news about the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and later George Floyd, Xisto has been preaching a series on race, “Who Is My Neighbor?”
The timely messages have inspired many in his congregation to take action. Two teens in the Takoma Park Church youth group organized a march in their Olney neighborhood. They are 17 and 15-years-old. Xisto spoke of how proud he was of them and how excited he is to see more follow in their footsteps.
The church organized a larger peaceful protest on Saturday, June 27, called “I am Blackness: Together We Stand.” The march went from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
“We want the nation to know that Seventh-day Adventists will not stand silent,” Xisto stated.
Xisto has been involved in social justice causes long before his time in Takoma Park. He was pastoring in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Heather Heyer was killed during a peaceful protest in 2017 after a car was deliberately driven into the crowd by a white supremacist. Xisto spoke adamantly against racism and was part of a multi-faith coalition that led prayer vigils and counter-protests.
His passion for social justice has since led him to start a social justice ministry at Takoma Park Church. The ministry is dedicated to projects in the community that reach well beyond the Adventist circle. Right now, one of their main focuses in speaking up for South Lake Elementary, a public school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that is not receiving proportionally fair funding. These students are learning in as many as 14 portable trailers every school year while other schools in the area receive grants to be remodeled entirely. Those on the social justice ministry team regularly attend city council meetings to join the conversations aimed at helping the disadvantaged in their Maryland community.
Takoma Park Church is led by and attended by people who are willing to speak up on matters concerning both their neighborhoods and their nation. Xisto believes this movement in 2020 can make a lasting impact, saying he “hopes something is different” this time.
“As a Christian, I am compelled to follow the example of Jesus and to stand up to injustice,” he said. “As a white Seventh-day Adventist pastor, I feel that need even more urgently. We need to lead with this, we need to encourage our congregations, which are typically more timid about standing for justice. We need to inspire them to take that stand! We need to let them know that it is necessary to say, without reservation, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Xisto himself has ventured over to the gates outside the White House in recent weeks to take a stand. He took with him his four-year-old son, Max. Together, they raised signs and talked with those around them.
Xisto and his son Max at the protests.
Xisto at the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.
He explains, “I also feel a great sense of responsibility to my son. When he grows up and reads about this time in our country’s history, when he asks what I did, I want to tell him that I did not remain silent. I did what I believe Jesus would do. I stood up. I marched. And you were on my shoulders.”
Dr. Jaime Kowlessar has led the Seventh-day Adventist Dallas City Temple church both as an associate pastor since 2013 and then as lead pastor since 2015. The congregation is made up of between 350-500 members each Sabbath, and the church itself serves as the flagship church of the Southwest Region Conference.
Kowlessar has written two books, Don’t Leave the Neighbor Out of the Hood: Reversing the Mis-Education of the Seventh-day Adventist and Justice or Just Us: Sermons and Reflections on the Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. He also founded Raise Your Voice, a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities to speak up and out about social justice and inequality many in society face today.
So it’s no surprise then that in his church he focuses on combining faith with social justice activism. In fact, he says the work of Raise Your Voice is synonymous with the work of City Temple. He has established an emphasis on social justice ministry within his church.
“We’ve made that part of our mission statement,” he explains and says they are dedicated to many “causes for humanity.”
This social justice ministry team meets regularly, partners with nonprofits in the area, and attends city council meetings focused on affecting change in their communities. They have been especially involved in policy decisions concerning affordable housing.
In light of the recent protests going on around the world calling for police reform and racial justice, City Temple members have also organized rallies to join the movement. City Temple members, and anyone else interested, have been invited to join the rallies at Dallas City Hall. The June 6 “Church in the Wild” rally attracted over 300 people. The church then organized another on June 20.
Jaime Kowlessar preaches at "Church in the Wild"
Kowlessar says that their church members are proud to be adding their voices to the masses. They feel heard and supported. As a church, they are consistently talking about social justice and this is just another way they have been able to put their passion into actionWhen asked if these protests and rallies feel different from social and racial justice activism in the past, Kowlessar said that it does seem different from the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement over six years ago. To him, this feels more like what happened in the 60s when the civil rights movement reached disruptive and unprecedented heights. He says it seems the local churches are more involved now than they have been in the past and believes “more people are fed up, not just Black.”
He attributes this to a general build up over the years of frustration and new awareness in communities. What concerns him is not the current involvement, as it is higher than ever. Instead, he wonders how long people will stay consistently involved. It is his personal and professional mission to provide continual opportunities for the church to become increasingly aware of social justice matters and be exponentially dedicated to activism.
Edward Woods III has long thrown his energy into issues of social justice and Adventist community engagement. He is the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) Director for the Lake Region Conference and the Chairman of the Conscience and Justice Council, a collective that includes all of the regional conference PARL directors, along with other church leaders. Outside denominational work, he is the Executive Director of a local non-profit.
Woods advocates the need for Adventist churches to be involved in work outside their own walls.
“Ellen White says in The Signs of the Times [that] the relevancy of the church is directly reflected to its manifest interest in those outside of the church,” he said. “And we’ve got to get back to that.”
After the death of George Floyd, Woods participated in a march that took place in his hometown of Lansing, but the majority of his time and energy has been devoted to organizing events. He hopes these educational opportunities will encourage future leadership and impact policy.
On June 6, Woods hosted an online meeting titled “Black Lives Matter Too.” The “too” is a key point that he emphasizes, a rebuttal to those who miscast Black Lives Matter as somehow derogatory to non-Black lives. Speakers included a pastor from Minneapolis, a college student activist, and a former chief of police.
“I think we as Adventists need to affirm Black Lives Matter, and stop trying to co-opt it and make it a peace walk or make it a prayer walk,” Woods said. He has been dismayed with how some within the church, particularly white Adventists, have such a fear of supporting the movement—and how some proof text Ellen White quotes to justify their resistance. Early Adventist leaders actually were bold in taking a stand on issues—such as abolition—he points out, even when doing so went against the views of many.
“They were not timid voices,” he said. “They were very clear about oppression and racism.”
Woods sees a pastoral imperative to be engaged with the community, and through his PARL department is working to dialogue with pastors in his conference—and beyond—to help provide tools for community work. Doing so is a codified part of pastor’s duties, he points out. And in fact, the Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook, published by the General Conference to describe how pastors should do their jobs, dictates as much.
“Pastors should be actively involved in the community, seeking membership and involvement in the local ministerial association and community service organizations,” the handbook reads.
“How are you going to know what’s going on in your community if you’re not engaged in their organizations?” Woods said. “How can you make a difference on police commission boards if you’re not willing to volunteer for them?”
The course of developments during the month of June have left Woods feeling somewhat hopeful for the potential of lasting change, but he has also been involved in social justice work long enough to temper his expectations.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said, cautious because “we have been down this road before.”
“People are saying this might be the watershed moment [but] in social justice, I have personally found more support from white non-Adventists than I’ve had with white Adventists.”
His response highlights how the Adventist church in America is still a divided body; past injustices, once institutionalized, are hard to right. In the case of Adventist regional conferences, there is the disturbing legacy of segregation from which they were born, but there is also the often-ignored accumulation of work that Black Adventists have put in to succeed—often in the face of odds stacked against them. Woods points out that since the regional conferences were created, they have grown faster in membership and contributions than state conferences.
“Basically, we’ve done more with less,” he said. “And nobody wants to talk about it.”
On Saturday, July 18, the Conscience and Justice Council will sponsor “Rallying for Disciples: Black Lives Matter Too,” an event that will be hosted by individuals from different regions. Signups to host are open through July 13. The event will seek to enhance relationships between pastors and lay members, and increase Adventist engagement.
“This systematic racism in the church has been going on for years, and there needs to be some intestinal fortitude by the leadership to address it, instead of issuing a statement and moving on, and issuing another statement after the next crisis,” Woods said.
“I love my church. I believe in our message. But I think we need to focus.”
Alex Aamodt is the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum.
Hallie Anderson is a writer, reader, and freelance marketing and communications specialist based in the foothills of Northern California.
Title Photo: Participants at the "Church in the Wild" in Dallas, Texas
Images courtesy of Karen Josiah, Jaime Kowlessar, Daniel Xisto, and Edward Woods III.
Correction: This article was updated to clarify that the Takoma Park Church used to be the main congregation for the General Conference headquarters, not that it was the headquarters itself. We apologize for any confusion.
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