Frisson Spotlight (1.2) The church is not some sunshine-and-lollipops organization


(system) #1

This is part two of the conversation with Timothy Puko. See below for the first post. ______________________________________________

Yo Alexander,

Thank you for suggesting this. As a writer, there are few things I love more than talking about my own work, so this is really a great way for me to start my vacation.

Just so everyone knows, I don't work for Spectrum full time. I never went to an Adventist school and got started at Spectrum because Bonnie Dwyer let me write a column about how disconnected I felt once I lived in an Adventist community for the first time. That was last summer when I was finishing up as a volunteer at Newbold College.

This winter, I think it was late January, she asked me to take on the Costa Rica project. She said there were a lot of accusations floating around and that she needed someone to sort through them. The first thing I said was that this project would be difficult unless we had actual documents to work with; that otherwise it would just be one group of people versus another group of people. Sadly, that's what the story became.

I never gathered all the evidence. I still get e-mails from people. There was just too much of it, which I alluded to in the story. Without being able to go to Costa Rica, without knowing Spanish or being able to work constantly with a translator, I was really limited in what I could do.

tremendous crisis in Central America. Even if everything that theInter-American Division president says is true, that means you havelarge community of dissidents who are very confused, whose spiritualhealth is endangered because of a misunderstanding. They feel totallyabandoned by the church. Dr. Rasi\'s suggestion that the GC needs tostep in, just as a mediator, is very astute. There are earnest peoplequestioning the church, and they need some earnest response from theGC just to understand that the church does care about them.I don\'t know what the GC is doing. I can tell you that the protestersI talked to feel like it\'s not much. And I can tell you that the GCdidn\'t share any solutions with me, other than continued reliance onthe "democratic," constituent-based system. (Read: This is the IAD\'sproblem.) Maybe Jan Paulsen calls Israel Leito about Costa Rica everyday, but I wasn\'t told about it. The only person I was really allowedto speak with at the GC, the communications director, usually said hedidn\'t know the answer when I asked him questions specifically relatedto Costa Rica. While challenging him on various statements, I did notthink to ask who actually did know. I e-mailed him that questionlater, but he did not respond.Israel Leito, the IAD president, was much more forthcoming. Heanswered every question I asked. He took every phone call I made andeven gave me his mobile phone number. I give him a lot of credit forhis accessibility and for his grace. He was patient with me and gaveme all the time I needed.It wasn\'t difficult to get him to speak on the record. It was a littleawkward at first: he asked not to be recorded and to see my questionsfirst. I said I didn\'t even have the equipment to record him if Iwanted to and that my personal policy is not to show my questions",1] );

//-->That doesn't mean that I think the piece turned out poorly, or that I regret taking on the project. It was a story that absolutely needed to be told and I think we did the best we could with what we had. It's these facts that pushed the focus of the story toward the GC. These are serious allegations. People are really upset. There is atremendous crisis in Central America. Even if everything that the Inter-American Division president says is true, that means you have a large community of dissidents who are very confused, whose spiritual health is endangered because of a misunderstanding. They feel totally abandoned by the church. Dr. Rasi's suggestion that the GC needs to step in, just as a mediator, is very astute. There are earnest people questioning the church, and they need some earnest response from the GC just to understand that the church does care about them.

I don't know what the GC is doing. I can tell you that the protesters I talked to feel like it's not much. And I can tell you that the GC didn't share any solutions with me, other than continued reliance on the "democratic," constituent-based system. (Read: This is the IAD's problem.) Maybe Jan Paulsen calls Israel Leito about Costa Rica every day, but I wasn't told about it. The only person I was really allowed to speak with at the GC, the communications director, usually said he didn't know the answer when I asked him questions specifically relatedto Costa Rica. While challenging him on various statements, I did not think to ask who actually did know. I e-mailed him that question later, but he did not respond.

Israel Leito, the IAD president, was much more forthcoming. He answered every question I asked. He took every phone call I made and even gave me his mobile phone number. I give him a lot of credit for his accessibility and for his grace. He was patient with me and gave me all the time I needed.

if I wanted to give someone time to find old documents). I generalizedabout what the interview would cover and he accepted that and gave meas much time as I needed.One thing I will say, however, is that he was almost too nice. Maybeit makes me a bad Christian, but when people are immediately reallynice to me, I distrust them. I refuse to be a sucker. Sometimes Iwould show or tell sources about Leito\'s various answers and theywould call them spin. I couldn\'t discount that explanation. One time Iexplained something back to Leito, just to make sure I understood it,and he replied, "Ooooo, Tim, you are just so perceptive." My thoughtwas, "OK, Leito, you\'re laying it on pretty thick now. Watchyourself." In the interest of professionalism, I didn\'t say that, butI was always careful to mind the amount of influence Leito\'s goodnature had on my impressions of the situation.The ex-pats were also very easy to talk to. Of course, they have amessage they\'re desperate for people to hear, so I wouldn\'t expectanything else from them. I was just grateful, as I was with Leito,that they took so much time out of their lives to meet with me andexplain, from their perspective, what was happening.As cordial as both sides were with me, they do not like each other,especially Leito and Scarone. This was not the first time Leito hasquestioned Scarone\'s ethics. He did so a few months before ourconversation in a widely-seen letter he sent to the MichiganConference president, Scarone\'s boss. Scarone made a trip to CostaRica, I think it was last year, and it was pretty controversial. Myunderstanding is that it was after that when some of the country\'schurches tried to switch their conference/division affiliation. Ithink a lot of Leito\'s animosity toward Scarone is connected to that",1] );

//-->It wasn't difficult to get him to speak on the record. It was a little awkward at first: he asked not to be recorded and to see my questions first. I said I didn't even have the equipment to record him if I wanted to and that my personal policy is not to show my questions ahead of time, unless I have a specific reason to do so (for instance, if I wanted to give someone time to find old documents). I generalized about what the interview would cover and he accepted that and gave me as much time as I needed.

One thing I will say, however, is that he was almost too nice. Maybe it makes me a bad Christian, but when people are immediately really nice to me, I distrust them. I refuse to be a sucker. Sometimes I would show or tell sources about Leito's various answers and they would call them spin. I couldn't discount that explanation. One time I explained something back to Leito, just to make sure I understood it, and he replied, "Ooooo, Tim, you are just so perceptive." My thought was, "OK, Leito, you're laying it on pretty thick now. Watch yourself." In the interest of professionalism, I didn't say that, but I was always careful to mind the amount of influence Leito's good nature had on my impressions of the situation.

The ex-pats were also very easy to talk to. Of course, they have a message they're desperate for people to hear, so I wouldn't expect anything else from them. I was just grateful, as I was with Leito, that they took so much time out of their lives to meet with me and explain, from their perspective, what was happening.

As cordial as both sides were with me, they do not like each other, especially Leito and Scarone. This was not the first time Leito has questioned Scarone's ethics. He did so a few months before our conversation in a widely-seen letter he sent to the Michigan Conference president, Scarone's boss. Scarone made a trip to CostaAs for mentioning Rasi\'s comments to Leito, well, Rasi was the lastperson I talked to for the story. It was just a matter of time--and,well, we were out of space, too.Yesterday I read an article in GQ about the soldier who first reportedthe Abu Ghraib abuses. In a chain of command one first goes to one\'sdirect superiors with any complaints. But in this instance, one of thesoldier\'s superiors was in some of the photographs abusing prisoners.Obviously, in a situation like that, one has to go beyond one\'s directsuperiors.This is what the Costa Ricans are claiming. Many say Leito isinvolved, at least by benign neglect--though some will say by fullcomplicity. So how can the GC expect the protesters to go to Leito forhelp? The GC\'s Rajmund Dabrowski did not like this question (but hedidn\'t like a lot of my questions).The company line was, the Adventist church is, democratic, " amember/constituent-based organization." OK, fine. If you keep callingthe church a democracy, then answer my questions. If you don\'t know,find out and get back to me. If we are a democracy, and if thefounders of American democracy are right, than investigativejournalism from sources outside of church employment is absolutelyvital to our organization. If you want a constituent-basedorganization, then respect the fact that your constituents need to bewell informed.That\'s what always pushes me forward in my work. I believe that peopleneed to know. There are few exceptions to that rule, and nothing inthis case proved exceptional. Would I like to have shown moredocument-based facts to my readers? Absolutely, but I could only showwhat I had. People need to understand that the church is not somesunshine-and-lollipops organization where everyone is happy all thetime. People make mistakes. People screw up. We need to find theseflaws and fess up to them, if only so we can repair them and grow as a",1] );

//-->Rica, I think it was last year, and it was pretty controversial. My understanding is that it was after that when some of the country's churches tried to switch their conference/division affiliation. I think a lot of Leito's animosity toward Scarone is connected to that trip.

As for mentioning Rasi's comments to Leito, well, Rasi was the last person I talked to for the story. It was just a matter of time--and, well, we were out of space, too.

Yesterday I read an article in GQ about the soldier who first reported the Abu Ghraib abuses. In a chain of command one first goes to one's direct superiors with any complaints. But in this instance, one of the soldier's superiors was in some of the photographs abusing prisoners. Obviously, in a situation like that, one has to go beyond one's direct superiors.

This is what the Costa Ricans are claiming. Many say Leito is involved, at least by benign neglect--though some will say by full complicity. So how can the GC expect the protesters to go to Leito for help? The GC's Rajmund Dabrowski did not like this question (but he didn't like a lot of my questions).

The company line was, the Adventist church is, democratic, " a member/constituent-based organization." OK, fine. If you keep calling the church a democracy, then answer my questions. If you don't know, find out and get back to me. If we are a democracy, and if the founders of American democracy are right, than investigative journalism from sources outside of church employment is absolutely vital to our organization. If you want a constituent-based organization, then respect the fact that your constituents need to be well informed.

That's what always pushes me forward in my work. I believe that people need to know. There are few exceptions to that rule, and nothing in this case proved exceptional. Would I like to have shown more document-based facts to my readers? Absolutely, but I could only show what I had. People need to understand that the church is not some sunshine-and-lollipops organization where everyone is happy all the time. People make mistakes. People screw up. We need to find these flaws and fess up to them, if only so we can repair them and grow as agive you a free pass from accountability. (This is something Adventistgroups must really grow to understand.) My hope for this story is thatit brings us closer to understanding who or what should be heldaccountable. Even in the unlikely case that it\'s all just ahistorically big misunderstanding, let\'s just figure that out so wecan move on. Social justice is really important to people and itshould be important to the church.What\'s next?Puko",1] );

//-->community. Being a professed Christian in a Christian group doesn't give you a free pass from accountability. (This is something Adventist groups must really grow to understand.) My hope for this story is that it brings us closer to understanding who or what should be held accountable. Even in the unlikely case that it's all just a historically big misunderstanding, let's just figure that out so we can move on. Social justice is really important to people and it should be important to the church.

What's next?Puko


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4497