When I read Melody George’s recent Spectrum piece, I was challenged to dig into my memories and beliefs and if you don’t mind, I’d like to share my musings here. My experience at the Hollywood Church varied from Melody’s and I’d like to offer my counterpoint.
February 2 is a special date for me. It’s the day I moved to Los Angeles after a year spent in London working for the Trans European Division as a filmmaker. This February will mark my seventh year as an adopted Angeleno and seven years since I joined the Hollywood Adventist Church.
Like Melody, I was amazed by the beautiful community that the “Purple Peeps,” as we affectionally called ourselves, had created. Ryan Bell tapped into the passion for justice, the need for mercy, and the willingness to question that many of us felt, but what attracted me more than his leadership was seeing a community firing on all cylinders in a beautiful, collective way. Like Melody, I can absolutely say my years at Hollywood were the highlight of my Adventist experience. The community has been important in fleshing out my thoughts on righteousness and justice.
It strikes me that these qualities are often viewed as distinct puzzle pieces. In this construct, a full Christian life requires both pieces but one can be lost, leading to an incomplete image. I would like to suggest a different, more intersectional approach, one I would argue is described in Isaiah 58. To pursue justice is to be righteous, they are inseparable and interlocking, though we may not always get the balance right. Intersectionality asks that we center our communities on the most marginalized, the “least of these.” With that focus, we create spaces vibrant with justice and righteousness.
This approach requires that we challenge systemic injustice not as secondary, but as the only way to truly raise up those who are marginalized, to not just tackle their daily needs, which is vital, but to free them from the yoke of injustice, which so often goes unnoticed. It is in this place that we meet God. God who spends Her time in the darkness with those who are weeping and gnashing their teeth; God who calls on us to feed those without food while we break their chains and rebuild their walls.
I am also struck by the the use of “sexual purity,” as an example of our church’s journey with righteousness. Most churches, especially those with singles and young people who are exploring dating and relationships, will face discussions about this. I think it is an important topic and one with which the Christian world is collectively wrestling. I will only touch on our congregation’s response to this briefly, though it certainly deserves its own distinct conversation. With regards to the Hollywood Church, I would like to push back against the idea that there was a fear of challenging congregants with regards to sexual purity. Instead I would offer that a range of opinions about what constituted sexual purity existed within the leadership and congregation. I would like to point out that many of us were not privy to conversations about personal matters and that is appropriate. Moreover, I would go on to say that the personal matters of congregation members should not be any of our business. These choices are ours to make privately with our partners and with God. Many of the decisions made by the leadership were not motivated by a desire to be inoffensive but out of a thoughtful and valid difference of opinion.
I would argue, in fact, that we were willing to offend in the tradition of Christ and be outcasts not just within the current culture but within our own denomination as well—a very painful and dangerous place to be. In fact, those who were most offended by Christ were those who wielded religious and political power and who held tightly to their standards of righteousness. In Isaiah 58, the prophet explicitly states that it is acts of justice that cause righteousness to break forth like the dawn. In our journey towards intersectional righteousness, we certainly offended those in positions of power as well. Mastering the balance of the systemic and the individual can be a tricky line to walk.
In her piece, Melody states, “We began taking political action to address homelessness, but walked past the homeless man standing outside the church.” I have to strongly object, whether this is literal or metaphorical. We certainly were not perfect in how we tackled the issues around us, but we worked on those issues both at micro and macro levels and we did not ignore those in need around us.
We fought and continue to fight the very deep systemic injustice of our city with organizations like LA Voice while tackling the more personal face of homelessness through our partnerships with various non-profits in the area. Through ImagineLA, we have the honor of mentoring newly-housed families and because we are blessed with an amazing facility, we are able offer hundreds of showers a month to young people experiencing homelessness while opening the doors of our church for them to find a safe space during the day.
Although the shower program was created after Ryan was pressured to resign by the conference, I am convinced it couldn’t have existed without the environment we created under his leadership. When challenged by neighbors and city officials who saw the homeless as a threat to the neighborhood, we had a set of political tools that allowed us to fight on a systemic level for the most marginalized of our neighbors. We were able to insure they had a safe space within our community.
We don’t have this all right, we stumble and will continue to stumble. When one of our own, Ryan Bell, was marginalized by our denomination, we didn’t speak up boldly and when we did speak, we only whispered our dissent. Despite our stumbles, we are driven by a vision of a space in which the most marginalized in society are lifted up and heard.
My friend and fellow Hollywood church attendee Lisa Takahashi put it beautifully when she said to me, “We don’t serve lunch to the homeless, we eat lunch with them.” This is a vision we planted with Ryan. We continue the work it takes to see that seed grow into something more beautiful than we can now imagine.
H. Leslie Foster II is a working filmmaker and an elder at the Hollywood Adventist Church.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6580