Maybe you’ve seen them—those Facebook posts beseeching viewers to read a story or look at a picture. Most of the time the photo or text evokes empathy, and for a moment we are moved to action—to donate by clicking here or to offer a quick prayer before scrolling further. Some causes even send donors gift boxes that include such items as T-shirts and bumper stickers. Awareness and activism, however, are not synonymous concepts.
In a time of information overload, most of us are aware of the suffering millions of people experience, both locally and globally. While there are some who have become comfortable with the idea that texting a $10 donation to a humanitarian organization will suffice, Adventist young adults today are taking the great commission of “Go ye therefore” to heart.
Steve Erich, a senior business administration major at Andrews University, felt a call to serve while in high school. “During my senior year, Rio Lindo Academy sent a group of students on a mission trip to India. At the end of the trip we spent a couple days in Kolkata. There I was first introduced to International Justice Mission—an organization that works alongside local lawmakers and police to enforce antihuman trafficking laws in countries all around the world that struggle with this issue,” Erich recalled.
While Erich believes social media is an ideal way to promote humanitarian causes, he understands that it can also hinder people from truly being active. “It can give people the false impression that they are helping. Recent terms such as slacktivist or clicktivist have popped up because of this. There’s been a rise in organizations offering petitions that can easily be signed online,” he observed. “Now a petition with 1,000 signatures is seen as quite small and weak, and it needs 50,000 or even 100,000 in order to be noticed.”
Erich, who currently serves as operations manager for the Stoplight Project,1 believes his opportunity to be an agent for change starts while he is young. “The past five years have shaped me and are now propelling me outward. Without my experiences volunteering and advocating for justice during this time, I would not have the opportunities I have now to do what I love,” he says. “The important thing is not to plan to do something in the future, but to begin doing it now.”
Javier Melendez, also an Andrews University student double-majoring in social work and young adult ministry, lives a similar hands-on philosophy. “I don’t think any type of social media can really convey the true reality people face when swallowed up by injustice. It’s something that we have to witness and experience ourselves, which means spending time with the people who are being oppressed,” he says. Melendez is currently involved in a project in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to help the impoverished Hispanic community connect with resources that will assist them with moving out of poverty—and he hopes to do much more.
“I plan to get certified to teach the Bridges Out of Poverty2 and the Getting Ahead3 framework so that I can help bridge the gap between different economic classes. As I learn more about the issues of poverty, I’m starting to find my passion and niche.”
Melendez also wants to share his desire for service. “I would like to see others find their passions and niches as well. I encourage people to find that thing that makes their stomach turn, to find whatever injustice they are unable to watch, so that they can take a stand and fight.”
Shanna Crumley, a recent graduate of Pacific Union College, labeled herself a “passive” giver, but recently discovered she could do more than simply give money. “I felt it wasn’t enough. It was helping from a distance, from inside a bubble of convenience. But I wanted to be more actively involved in the causes I supported.” After years of halfhearted service, Crumley decided it was time for her to commit more fully to making a difference.
“I decided to apply to the Peace Corps4 after I spent last summer with ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) Argentina.5 My time with ADRA was a turning point, both personally and professionally. I got hooked on a different kind of development, the kind that empowers and enables people to change their circumstances.” Crumley, who graduated with a degree in intercultural communication and Spanish, looks forward to her two-year service in the Peace Corps. “I get the feeling that I’m going to find a whole new host of causes and connections.”
For Crumley, activism isn’t just something to do—it comes from a basic human desire. “I think there’s an underlying spiritual need to connect and contribute to humanity. To see the point of activism, I have to believe in the fact that I can do something that matters. . . . You also have to believe that we have a responsibility to improve our world.”
Luther Whiting was a business administration major at Southern Adventist University when he began a nonprofit organization called Noshaq. “I started my nonprofit in Afghanistan because I couldn’t have imagined any other reaction to the horrific things I witnessed there while interning for ADRA in the country’s Central Highlands,” Whiting said of the organization he founded at the age of 19.
Whiting realized that social media could be an asset if used correctly. “I used social networking to raise awareness and financial support for our organization,” he says, adding that he employed pictures and multimedia presentations to spread the word about his organization, and also went on speaking tours. Whiting was featured in newspapers, local TV ads, and even held a fund-raising event.
Whiting believes that there’s no better time to serve than when a person is young. “Your years as a student place you in an ideal incubator for acting on your dreams. You’re surrounded by a large network of fellow young people to plan, scheme, and dream with,” he says. “To miss out on service involvement during school is to miss the stop to one of life’s most epic adventures.”
Though Noshaq is no longer active, Whiting—now a staff assistant for U.S. Senator Susan Collins (Maine)—hopes to continue being involved in the causes closest to his heart. “I don’t know what adventures await me, or if Afghanistan will reenter my life. But I sincerely hope that service will remain a prominent part of my life and career.”
Paddy McCoy, the campus chaplain of Walla Walla University, believes that the young people he encounters in his ministry are far more passionate than they’re given credit for. “I see a very active group of young adults who want to do something and get their hands dirty. Sure, there are those who feel that as long as they donate here or there they’ve given their service. But by and large, this generation is waiting to be let loose,” he said. “They are not a complacent generation.”
In his many years of youth ministry McCoy has witnessed a change that he describes as “incredible” in how students use social media. “Today’s social-media generation can accomplish grassroots movements that have a huge impact in a very short amount of time,” he says. “The opportunities that social media provide to get the word out, to fund-raise, and to promote causes . . . are quite astounding.”
McCoy believes that younger and older generations can work together to bring a message to those who need it. “If others can help them see how and where to help and meet the greatest needs, then they are willing to do it. They also need help knowing how best to take the good-news message to other places,” he said.
Sharon Pittman has found much of the same attitude in her work with young adults. She is director of the newly minted Master of Global Community Development program at Southern Adventist University,6 “Engaging students in mission-focused ministries is an ‘easy sell,’ Pittman says. “They see the often harsh and hurting world and are highly motivated and looking for opportunities to make a difference. As an Adventist professor, my job is to link their passion and skills to opportunities to engage in sustainable service learning ministries.”
Pittman’s own involvement in service began at an early age. “As a missionary kid growing up in Pakistan, where my parents work at our Seventh-day Adventist hospital, I often came to school to find that mothers had abandoned sick and dying babies during the night,” she recalls. “Early on, I was impacted by the idea that the life of each child of God is precious, whether young or old.” These early experiences led her to pursue a life of service to help instill that same passion in others. “I have always dreamed that one day I could start a graduate program where people who desired to do so could learn to build skills to help others.”
The Southern Adventist University masters program combines faith-based studies with development strategies to help students learn how they can make the biggest impact in their communities and around the world.
Pittman believes that activism is a way to fight off our natural propensity toward selfishness. “It is easy to be self-absorbed and internally focused,” she says. “Sharing a biblical model for abundant life requires that we set aside our selfishness to reach out and care for the long haul.”
McCoy shares a similar view when it comes to setting aside self for the good of others. “We make the time for all sorts of things we believe to be a priority. I’m just wondering what would happen if once a week we got involved in our community for an hour instead of watching TV, or if we supported an online ministry instead of online shopping. Christianity in North America, by and large, has a bad reputation. But when Christians get involved and love others, that bad rep begins to change. That’s what I’m living and working for.”
There’s a demand for change in the world, and it should be the burden of Christians to meet that need. These young adults have made it their aim to do more than donate funds or share a Facebook photo: they’re spreading a message of healing and restoration to a dying world.