Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) representatives from regional (historically black) conferences across the United States met September 26-29, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Conscience and Justice Council annual conference, which this year examined issues surrounding the theme, “Faith, Justice and Community.”
Speakers sought to inspire the audience of 200 to take the Adventist Church’s message of hope and wholeness and make a meaningful difference in their communities. Topics included religious accommodation; conscience and justice according to the Bible; housing segregation then and now; engaging millennials in social justice; and many others.
Religious Freedom and LGBT Rights
One of the sessions with a robust discussion asked the question, “Can religious freedom and LGBT rights coexist?”
Justin Giboney, executive team member of the AND campaign, explained that his organization tries to get Christians to engage in politics more faithfully.
“If we are Christians, we should be both about justice and moral order. Our political landscape today separates them,” Gibbons said. “Christians are supposed to be about both. We can’t choose between the two. We often talk about this in terms of compassion and conviction. When we look at an issue like LGBTQ, our conviction is what the Bible says, and we’re not going to change our conviction, but have we showed compassion?” he asked.
Adventist HealthCare vice president and chief compliance officer Dwayne Leslie shared why it is important for Adventists to get involved in the legislative process.
“As Seventh-day Adventists, religious liberty has been one of our core tenets, but we’ve also believed we shouldn’t use the legislative process to enforce or mandate our philosophy. We’re not trying to legislate morality,” Leslie said. “We want to protect ourselves according to our theology, as opposed to using our theology to deny or take away the rights of other people.”
Tim Schultz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, told the audience that if people care about religious freedom, they have to care about social justice. In that vein, Melissa Reid, executive director of the North American Division Religion Liberty Association (NARLA), mentioned that her department is working alongside other faith communities to pass legislation known as Fairness For All, which would protect both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom.
“We’re now making visits to members of Congress and think we will have bipartisan support. Because of the diversity of our coalition group, it adds to the likelihood of bipartisan support.” Even though it may take a while for the legislation to be enacted, Reid said, “We recognize that this is an opportunity to restore the idea of religious freedom.”
Stop Blaming the Victim
In his Sabbath morning message, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black used the Bible story of the good Samaritan to illustrate that we must have compassion for those in need.
“If you’re going to have social justice, stop blaming the victim. Help people, even when they’re responsible for the trouble they’re in. This traveler got himself in trouble. He knew about the dangerous Jericho Road, but he still took it.
“We got to go across the spectrum of diversity. We got to help people regardless of their sexual orientation. We got to help people regardless of their ethnicity. We got to help people regardless of their accent. We got to help people regardless of their socio-economic level, or lack of a level,” Black said.
On Saturday (Sabbath) afternoon, council attendees visited Tabitha’s House, a human trafficking ministry of the House of Hope Church near downtown Atlanta. Executive director Margie P. Gill explained that Atlanta is a major hub for sex trafficking, and the youngest client they’ve helped was a five-year-old.
“We want to give power back to the victims and restore lives, homes, and communities,” Gill said.
On Saturday evening, Yusef Salaam, who was wrongly convicted of the 1989 assault and rape of a female jogger in Central Park, spoke about serving years in prison for a crime he, along with four other youth, did not commit. The highly publicized case was the subject of a recent Netflix movie, “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay.
Salaam, now a father of ten living in Atlanta, spoke softly of how he has been able to move on with his life.
“Knowing you were born with a purpose, you were born brave, God gave you the means to survive and thrive. It’s not about what happens to you, but your response to what’s happening to you. God is in control. The sun shines on the sinner and the person who is filthy at the same time. But the blessing comes to one who is faithful.”
Carmela Monk Crawford, of Message magazine, moderated a Questions and Answers session, during which she asked Salaam if he had forgiven all the people responsible for his imprisonment.
“Forgiveness is a challenging concept. I’ve been able to forgive to a degree,” Salaam said. “I’m reminded, ’Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’”
Working Together to Reach Out
On Sunday, Oakwood University’s chair of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Public Health, Sherine Brown-Fraser, discussed “Health Disparities: The Impact of Food Deserts.” Brown-Fraser said that churches can engage with their community through a variety of avenues, including a simple yet effective project such as a community garden. She presented evidence to show that when we grow our fruits and vegetables, we are likely to eat more of these foods.
Ann Roda, Adventist Healthcare vice president for Mission Integration and Spiritual Care, said her organization was proud to sponsor the conference because, looking back in church history, it was Washington Adventist Hospital that denied treatment to a black patient in 1943.
“Our team was shocked to hear the story, and this was the catalyst for us asking, what are we going to do with this info?” she said. “We have to own our part, not shy away from it and commit to not letting this happen again.”
Going forward, Roda said, the local church and the Adventist Health System could play a huge role in addressing societal ills. “We need a clear partnership between the health system and the church. If we partner, we can change the paradigm of what it means to change our community.”
Edward Woods, Lake Region PARL leader and chairperson of the Conscience and Justice Council, said he hopes participants will take the information presented and put it into action.
“It’s important to ensure there’s liberty of conscience and justice for all people, through a biblical and contemporary context that reflects the consciousness of Christ,” Woods said.
The Conscience and Justice Council conference began in 2016 in Detroit, Michigan, and the next conference is scheduled for September 24-27, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.