Can there be anything more exciting than standing right in the center of the world? Not according to a kindly Armenian Christian who discreetly shared some of the less accessible parts of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a group of six Adventist pastors.
He pointed to an open space beneath a great dome reaching up to heaven. At one end, he stated, is Golgotha – location of the crucifixion. Pointing behind him he noted the very tomb where he believes Jesus rested in the grave and then rose again in glorious resurrection. The space in between, he declared, “is the center of the world!”
Believe him or not, the thought of us, as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, standing not just between Christ’s death and resurrection, but between those world changing events and the promise of his soon return gave pause for thought and dialogue.
Those six pastors were among twenty leaders from across the Trans-European Division (TED) attending a Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) consultation led by TED President and PARL director, Raafat Kamal.
What better place to talk religious liberty and religion in the public workspace than in Israel - a country of such diverse cultures and religions? Lectures, question and answer periods, and two afternoons of exploring Jerusalem with an Adventist Biblical scholar and archaeologist made for a full and positive experience for the TED PARL directors.
“This was my first time in Jerusalem and attending this kind of meeting”, stated Claudio Gulyas, President of the Greek Mission. “The meetings impacted and inspired me with ways we can and should present our Adventist identity in the public space in a very simple and relevant, but at the same time, profound way as Christ’s ambassadors.”
The daily program mixed inspiring worship thoughts with lecture periods and extensive dialogue. Ganoune Diop, Adventist World Church PARL director and main presenter for the consultation, very openly shared the challenges and opportunities that come to church leaders who are willing to engage with those of other faith groups and people of influence; whether at local, national or international level. “We need to be involved in the public forum,” Diop insisted. “Many people do not know who we are. For many who do know us, the perception is not always favorable.”
Diop suggested that the way to break down those barriers is to network and make friends: this may also include revising the suspicious way we sometimes look at or treat others. He noted that the three angel’s messages of Revelation 14 are not messages of fear but are everlasting good news. The imperative is on sharing that message, “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.” [Revelation 14:6] That means mingling. “Our work is to change perceptions,” he stated, “The Gospel places an infinite value on everybody.”
“I found this angle very refreshing and right to the core of Adventist DNA,” expressed Thomas Müller from Denmark.
“We are not here to be Christ’s advocates but to witness about what He had done for us,” reflected Đorđija Trajkovski. As President of the South-East European Union, he noted that in the public arena we are all ambassadors of Christ and that our “unique mandate until the end of the time is therefore to present to the world around us the wonderful gift of freedom and truth by our identity, mission and message. We are to appropriately position Christ and His church by our readiness to be His witnesses and ambassadors and we have to find ways to achieve that at all church levels.”
PARL cannot be separated from communication. In two presentations, TED Communication director, Victor Hulbert, led participants through a very practical journey in Adventist journalism. He noted how our news reporting, or reaction to news, can build helpful bridges. He shared the importance of sensitivity and tolerance in reporting, both internally and externally, sharing many practical examples. He also dealt with the somewhat too prevalent ‘Adventist fake news’ that seems to plague some parts of social media, then gave tips on how to build bridges and resolve issues should a crisis happen.
The days went by quickly as participants discussed the legacy of the reformation, how to deal with aggressive fundamentalist secularism, the realities of the diverse religious world in a European culture, issues of cherished Adventist beliefs misunderstood or under attack in the educational or political system, and even how to react and understand the ‘fortress mentality’ of some church members who, by shutting out those of different backgrounds, also shut out opportunities to share Adventist vision and values, such as the three angels’ message and Great Commission.
These were all important topics for Bobby Sjölander from Sweden. “This consultation has deepened my sense of identity as well as my calling to be a witness for God in my association with other church leaders and public officials,” he said.
Another theme of importance for Diop was the Reformation. In the principles of the Reformation he saw an Adventist celebration of life. “The reformation will continue until the day Christ returns.”
With thousands of visitors crowding the streets of Jerusalem he quipped that “as continued reformers we do not come here for pilgrimage as we are new covenant.” Newbold Principal, John Baildam added, “while Islam and Judaism, to take just two examples, revere specific sacred sites, as Christians we have no wholly holy places. Christ dwells within us and gives us direct access to the Father. Visiting the ground on which Jesus walked is not an end in itself but serves to strengthen and enrich our personal faith.”
Nevertheless, that ‘holy’ ground was visited. Roger Robertsen, President of the Adventist Church in Israel is also an archaeologist and an avid Bible student. During two afternoons he led a tour from the Mount of Olives down into the Old City, then from the City of David, through a tunnel and up through the foundations of the temple mount into bright evening sunshine, expansively explaining history and the biblical narrative within the context of the surrounding archaeology.
The five-day meeting concluded with a list of practical suggestions in the areas of training, consulting, reporting and development. These will be focused further and then presented at the TED Spring meetings in May.
David Nommik from the Baltic Union summed up the feelings of all participants at the end of the consultation. “I am grateful to Raafat for organizing this event. The presentations helped me to see a bigger picture of the work of PARL and gave ideas about how we can build bridges between us and the community where we live. We are ambassadors of Christ, called for a ministry of reconciliation.”