Righteousness Revisited: More Than Melody Mentioned at the Hollywood Church


(Spectrumbot) #1

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

(jeremy) #2

from this description, i’m really puzzled why ryan would have been pressured to resign…i think the initiative the hollywood church was taking towards the homeless around them was what more of our inner-city churches should be doing…and from what i’ve seen first-hand, los angeles really does have a homeless problem…i generally stay at the downtown westin bonaventure on s. figueroa when in los angeles, and not too far away, on e. 6th st going southeast, is what appears to be a permanent street population…it’s stunning to see the contrast between this part of los angeles and other parts…i would think, given this demographic, that any church would have to specialize in social work to be taken seriously…


(Thomas J Zwemer) #3

what we are lacking is the wife’s side of the story as well as the conference. certainly Ryan’s behavior suggests horizontal humanism without any vertical component. Each story we read is a defensive lament of a Camalot disrupted. What troubles me is a broken family all in the name of justice. It just doesn’t compute. Tom Z


(Peter) #4

Ryan’s problem with the Southern California Conference was, at least in part, a personnel matter. NO ORGANIZATION is legally allowed (at least in the U.S.) to divulge all the reasons why an employee is let go. So I encourage you to accept that you do not have all the facts, and none of us will. Melody did not have them, either.

Hurray for Mr. Foster! His statement 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” is so important, I believe.

I say, Amen, Amen!

Thank you, Leslie, for your important counterpoint to Melody’s perceptions if not unproven accusations.


(Interested Friend) #5

Sounds rather specious to me as there are definite admonitions in Scripture about sexual purity. And the matter of morals of a congregant is indeed a matter of concern for a church. Why did Paul write so openly to certain churches about the promiscuity within certain churches if it weren’t a matter of concern?

In The Grip of Truth


(Kevin Paulson) #6

We often disagree, Tom, but here is one shining exception to the rule!


(jeremy) #7

this is a really good point, interested…paul’s example with the corinthians is to consign a sexual offender to satan and have the church shun him in order to bring him to a realization of the seriousness of his offense…for paul, the celibate apostle, sexual impurity is an extremely serious issue…in 1 thessalonians 4:3-4, sexual purity is virtually equated with sanctification, which, from the entire corpus of what is extant from paul, we know is a prerequisite to full justification…it is interesting that v.6 speaks of defrauding a brother in this sexual purity context…i sometimes wonder if paul is saying here that committing fornication with someone is defrauding them…it would certainly be a contextual interpretation…


(Melody George) #8

Leslie has painted a broader picture of the social justice work at Hollywood, and I’m thankful for the added perspective. Hollywood has made efforts to work compassionately and strategically for social justice in their community perhaps more than any church I’ve seen. They should be applauded for it. My complaint was rather that the social justice work overshadowed the pursuit of our personal relationships with Jesus and our character development. Many members felt this lack.

I will readily acknowledge this is an oversimplification. I meant the statement both literally and metaphorically, but my point could have been better articulated. My point was that we tended to put the emphasis on local political action over and above studying and learning to help/ heal those people as individuals. We gave up on the idea that one could actually help a crippled man out on the sidewalk “get up and walk,” and instead focused on achieving that figuratively in the city. It’s good to work toward it figuratively . . . but I think Jesus meant it literally as well.

As for political action - Jesus’ model was not to garner political power but to heal/ transform the individual. I’m not saying a church community should never engage in political action, just that it is cause for pause and careful searching . . . the answer all depends on how the Holy Spirit leads a specific community at a certain moment in time . . . but the point is to be in intimate contact with the Spirit. Which is something we weren’t nurturing as much as we should have been.

I absolutely agree with Leslie that righteousness and justice are interlocking - two sides of the same coin. But I would not go so far as to say that “To pursue justice is to be righteous.” This is both practically and theologically incorrect. Only Christ’s sacrifice makes us righteous, and 1 Corinthians 13 makes it clear that I could literally “bestow all my gifts to feed the poor and give my body to be burned,” but still not possess God’s love. No amount of action can make a person righteous, only God’s transforming power and the intentional pursuit of it. It might be more accurate to say that to pursue righteousness necessarily includes the pursuit of justice.

Perhaps we’re dealing with semantics here, but I in general I connote “social justice” with actions taken to help the poor and oppressed, and “righteousness” as a state of being right with God; being morally upright. We may not always get the balance right, but we should sure as heck try.

As for sexual purity. Indeed, I have said about as much as feel I can publicly say. It’s an important issue because being righteous, or right with God, affects our ability to hear God’s voice and to effectively minister. The leadership of the church has a responsibility to both model and communicate healthy standards.

People have the right to make their own decisions, you’re right. But we don’t live in a vacuum. People’s choices affect the people around them. It affects the kids who look up to them. It affects their peers and how they understand acceptable, moral behavior. Given the very public nature of the issues we were confronted with at Hollywood, I would say the congregation would have appreciated some guidance and counsel from the leadership, even within the context of that “range of opinions” you spoke of.

Ladies and Gentleman, this is what civilized discourse looks like. I’ve known Leslie for 10 years and he’s like a brother to me. Whether we disagree or not, I know he respects my opinion and I respect his. Thank you, Les!!!


(Att) #9

This is simply one of the most pleasantly surprising series I have seen on Spectrum. I have been thinking a lot about these things.

I personally have been dissatisfied with SDA isolationism as well as the tendency to downgrade social justice concerns.

I also wondered what was the relationship between this and being concerned with personal piety.


(Neville) #10

Great dialog and conversation, Leslie and Melody! Reminds me of the Listening Groups and Missional Action Team discussions, and wrestling with various readings of scripture we had (and still have) at the Hollywood Church—just in a more public online forum and not in a small group of 5 or 6 in the damp, moldy basement of the church.

“As for political action - Jesus’ model was not to garner political power…”

It is not so much about power as it is about directly impacting individual lives. In our faith-based, social justice work the illustration is often made of the story of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps many (if not most) of us have tried individual acts of charity (I believe that is the word used in I Cor. 13, KJV): helping in a soup kitchen, buying a sandwich for a person living on the streets—maybe even helping a mugging victim on the side of the freeway, and putting him up in a motel room (just like the Good Samaritan). But what if these muggings occur every evening for the next year? Do I have the personal (or even congregational) resources to help 365 victims? Does that mean we give up? Do we just tell the next 364 mugging victims to be patient, “Jesus is Coming Soon, so I have to go back to work on my personal perfection”?

Is there, perhaps, a role for corporate action-- band together as a congregation, and maybe even get a few other congregations in Hollywood /Los Angeles to advocate for more street lights, security cameras, more police foot patrols or drive-bys? Advocacy IS action—not just politics. Perhaps critics do not consider this righteousness; but I would respectfully propose that in rubbing shoulders with mugging victims, neighbors, police officers, politicians, street light installers, members of other churches, synagogues and mosques in addressing community needs, our listening and conversation skills are developed and refined, and some righteousness “miraculously” emerges.

Parenthetically, politics is simply the process by which we collectively, as a community and a society, determine what we (not “I” or “you” or “they”, but “we”) want. We can do this in a mean spirited, power-hungry way (just like any church endeavor) or in a civil, cooperative way (just like this discourse).

During our conversations at the Hollywood church about whether social justice work meant “getting involved in politics”, and would detract from the Gospel Commission, I recall we discussed that similar debates were going on among our denomination’s founders during the SDA church’s formation right in the middle of the U. S. Civil War. And yet this is precisely the time the church made very public (and controversial) stands on Abolition and non-combatancy. It doesn’t get more political than that! ; )

I do agree we should be discerning about when, how and why to get involved in “politics”; and that corporate, congregational growth in righteousness does not mean excusing the lack of individual moral and spiritual growth/standards.

As for individual perfection this side of the Parousia, that seems like such a difficult yoke and a heavy burden; I haven’t yet met anyone who came close, much less achieved, that level of personal piety; --on second thought, my 1st generation SDA mom came awfully close, like maybe 87%;—my 3rd generation SDA dad: nah!, he was too mischievous to even be considered.


(Steve Mga) #11

This is the Second Time Melody has brought up the Topic of Sexual Purity being down played at Hollywood SDA while she was there, and hasnt given us any information on how to think about the charge that the staff overlooked what ever it was that she thought was important in this area of Congregational Conduct someway.


(Melody George) #12

Thanks for sharing the church’s process of deciding whether and how to engage in political action, Bill.

And by the way, hi! So good to dialogue with you here!

Regarding perfection: Nowhere in my initial article or subsequent posts have I suggested that perfection can be achieved this side of heaven. I’ll reiterate my actual point that the leadership of a Christian church has a responsibility to model and communicate Christian standards - it’s their job. This does not imply placing a “heavy burden” of perfection, nor does it imply any kind of witch hunt or pointing of fingers. At Hollywood I believe the congregation as a whole would have valued some direct guidance on the very public moral issues that confronted us. This could have come in the form of study groups or sermons or some other “experiment,” all of which could have accommodated a wide range of views. My perception is that a fear of appearing judgmental or turning people away prevented any such communication or guidance from happening.

I’ve visited healthy church communities since where standards of morality were communicated consistently, firmly, lovingly and frequently from the pulpit, and my observation is that young people often want to be challenged and called to a higher standard of Christian living.


(George Tichy) #13

It seems that for some Adventists (especially if they have any kind of “power”) there is a limit for one’s involvement with the community and with those who are not. adventists.

Social work is often seen as a tool for converting people, and nothing more. If it does not produce some “fruit” within a certain period of time, people tend to abandon the program. For their interest is not actually a legit social activity but the conversion of people “to the faith.” It’s not an effort to mitigate people’s suffering and pain, but only to bring them to the church.

I think both are legit goals, but they can be also unrelated goals. Helping people who will eventually come to the church is great. But helping those in need who will eventually NOT come to the church may be still greater and much more altruistic.


(George Tichy) #14

Tom, I have not yet been able to connect all dots on this story. Because it seems to me that there are still a few, if not many, dots missing. In my view, the whole story has not yet been told…


(Thomas J Zwemer) #15

A very astute observation. but, Ryan has made it a cause celeb.He has taken a glib stance, while people all around are hurting. doesn’t he have more accountability that to merely deny the existence of God? He is the very picture of the Marlboro Man (What?? - website editor) is that enough? Tom Z .


(George Tichy) #16

Tom,
Apparently Ryan did many very good things while pastoring that Church. But it appears that at a certain point something went wrong (we don’t know exactly what) and the direction he was going was not acceptable to the establishment. I am not sure (at least didn’t hear bout it) that the local church fought for their pastor in any confrontation with the Conference.

Then after leaving that position he went on that strange journey (at least strange to me) that raises serious questions about his real commitment to God and His cause during the days of his ministry in that church. So one day he is God’s envoy to the sinful world to offer God’s salvation, and the next day he is living without God? This sounds a little odd to me.

To be fair and balanced, he should now take “one year WITH God,” before reaching any premature conclusions. As for now, his present “experiment” has absolutely no practical value to anyone but himself. I don’t think believers can benefit much from whatever “spectacular experiences” he might be having. Actually, what spiritual experiences can happen when the source of spirituality is put aside? It would do nothing to me, but maybe he is having some exciting moments without God, who knows?


(Steve Mga) #17

Does anyone know WHAT Immoral and Impurity activities were going on at Hollywood SDA?
It seems Melody knows but will not tell.
All she does is throw accusations about in an attempt to discredit the Staff leading the congregation.
She has now done this several times.
WHY???


(Melody George) #18

Steve, I’m not at liberty to share details. So I’m extrapolating the general principles instead, and sharing lessons learned. My purpose is not to accuse, as is clear from the tone of my article and the deep love I expressed for Ryan and the entire community at Hollywood.
You’re going to have to settle for not knowing all the details.


(Neville) #19

Hey, Melody, it is good to reconnect, even if only in cyberspace!

It’s reassuring to know you are not yet perfect. I feel much more comfortable dealing with an equal and knowing you won’t be translated or transfigured in the middle of our mundane, earthly dialog.

We agree on morals and standards, and I also agree there needs to be much more open dialog about this and other issues. In many areas of congregational life, there is a delicate balance one must maintain in the public-private, as well as in the justice-mercy continua. As Scott suggested, we have often failed to hit the right balance; but we will continue to try. I, too, apologize, where I have fallen short of the ideal in modeling and communicating Christ to the congregation and the community.

Perhaps part (but not all) of the perceived “lack of aggressiveness” on the part of leadership at the Purple Church in dealing with individual impurity and sins (of all kinds, not just sexual) is the preference for less triumphalistic, violent, militaristic terminology. I will admit, in public discourse, we downplay terms like “spiritual warfare”. Instead of “conquering sin” and “waging war with the devil”, we may focus on Christ’s victory at the cross and the open tomb. Instead of the church of the sword and the shield, we emphasize being the people of the towel and basin. Instead of “driving sin out of our lives”, we prefer to be washed and cleansed by the water and the blood. You do recall we have communion once a month, with foot-washing integrated every quarter. These are very meaningful and often-requested liturgical practices that hopefully are equally as effective, if not more, than preaching fire and brimstone messages in bringing repentance and reconciliation to God. We feel this is the appropriate approach to take as the body of Christ in Hollywood. If some harsher and more aggressive steps need to be taken, we prefer to do that in a more private setting.

Christians, including Adventists, from other traditions may perceive this as being “soft” and “not standing for anything”. We have had these discussions in leadership meetings and the church board, and we seem to always end up with the consensus that we need to do what we believe God wants us to do, then take the extra time and effort to explain our approach to new attendees and members.

Adding to the challenge is the diversity in the congregation and the inevitable clash in ideas, cultural/family backgrounds, scriptural interpretations and lived experiences of the Purple Peeps and the stream of visitors we have. It is a real and continuing challenge to keep a community of faith moving forward together–but we continue to ask what it means to be “a people among whom God dwells", as well as what it means to be a “sent-out, missionary people in the midst of our community” (the other “undocumented” MAT- the “unstained glass” group ; )

Speaking of experiments, pending (re)educating the congregation on missional concepts, and training new leaders and group participants, we’re trying to start two new MATs this year. One of them may (directly or tangentially) touch on the specific subject of your concern.

Pray for us as the Spirit continues to lead, and visit us when you can!


(efcee) #20

Another great article and conversation regarding the events at Hollywood SDA. Thanks LF for sharing your perspective.