Contemplating Trash and Religious Liberty

How I found an advocacy and witnessing opportunity where I least expected it.

Jonathan Fetrick, Lake Union Herald, and Adventist Review
Contemplating Trash and Religious Liberty
[Photo: joebelanger]

About four years ago, my wife and I purchased a home close to Wisconsin Academy in Columbus, Wisconsin, United States, where I am a pastor. The house is in the country, with just under eight acres (about three hectares) around it. My wife grew up on a family farm in Michigan, so this move got us closer to her ideal.

I grew up as a pastor’s kid in the Seattle area, where we spent roughly half of the first 13 years of my life sitting in traffic while going to school or church, so this moved us closer to my ideal.

Country living in Wisconsin is wonderful. Some of the things making it wonderful include gardening, walking to the back of our property to ice skate on our neighbors’ ponds, and often seeing millions of stars at night, while taking care of our animals. However, there are some pitfalls, including having to mow a larger yard, dealing with the issues inherent in old farmhouses and old barns and, at least where I live, not getting trash pick-up service. This last fact shocked me when I moved to the country. 

In rural Wisconsin, you can’t get trash pick-up service because there’s a service, paid for by our taxes, in which you bring your garbage once a week to a central lot and dump it in a large dumpster provided by the local township. Unfortunately, upon moving to the township of Fountain Prairie, I learned the central trash location was only open from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. This presented an interesting dilemma for me as a Seventh-day Adventist.  

At first, I decided to let the dilemma go. I worked out a deal with Wisconsin Academy and Petersen Elementary School to bring my trash and put it in their dumpsters. Two years later, I was loading my trash into my trailer to take to the school and the thought hit me, “This is a religious liberty issue, and I have been avoiding it.” The thought got worse. “You are the religious liberty director for Wisconsin. What kind of religious liberty director are you if you won’t even raise this religious liberty issue with the people you live with?” I thought about this idea, prayed about this idea, and the thought grew into a conviction. 

The next step was to plot a course of action. I decided to raise my issue politely the next time I went to vote, which seemed appropriate as voting is an equalizing act that demonstrates my willingness to participate in public life. Besides, I had met the woman who runs the voting location and knew that she also happens to be the township clerk. I thought that might be a good place to start.  

After voting, I explained to her that I am a Seventh-day Adventist minister, which she already knew based on our previous conversations. I noted that as a Seventh-day Adventist, I had an issue taking my trash to the central trash locations on Saturday (Sabbath). I argued that I personally know at least 15 families attending my church and living in the township. Opening the trash location on a different day for a few hours, even a few times a month, might be very helpful to all of us. Then I mentioned I would personally be willing to show up to open the trash location for others to deliver their trash. She said that she knew several of my church members as friends and they did not have an issue taking their trash on Sabbath. I laughed awkwardly. Despite this, she assured me that she would raise the issue at the next township board meeting. I thanked her and left.  

Not wanting to push the issue, I did not follow up with the clerk. About three months later, I stopped by the township office to pay my property taxes. The clerk and I talked politely, and then she asked if I had read the recent township newsletter. I had not. She said, “Thanks to you, we are opening the trash service on the first and third Wednesday of every month. There are a significant number of people other than Seventh-day Adventists that can’t bring their trash on Saturdays because of their work schedule and their desire to take off for weekends particularly in the summer, and we didn’t know this. Thanks for raising the issue.” It took a little while, but about a year after having a simple conversation based on a conviction, a long-standing issue for some Seventh-day Adventists in my area was solved.  

I would encourage you to think about life and not pass over the annoyances of compensating for things because you have personal convictions as a Seventh-day Adventist. God calls us to stand for our biblical convictions despite the consequences. Often living distinctly as a Seventh-day Adventist means that we will not be able to work in some locations, eat or drink certain things, participate in certain activities, or act in certain ways. I want to make the case to you that the way Seventh-day Adventists believe in religious liberty demands that we do not disappear because of our convictions, but rather that we stand up and have the conversation. 

The original version of this story was posted by the Lake Union Herald. Jonathan Fetrick is the Wisconsin Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director.

Jonathan Fetrick, Lake Union Herald, and Adventist Review