Unity in Diversity
One Year in Mission
By Sandra Blackmer
Lance’s voice rose a few octaves as he exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding! You must have it somewhere!”
It was Lance’s birthday, and his friend Janina had taken him to a Korean restaurant in Manhattan, New York City, United States, to celebrate. They were in a subway station ready to head home, and their train had just pulled up to the gate when Janina suddenly shouted in dismay, “Oh, no! I can’t find my metro card!”
“Look through your pockets, your bag,” Lance said. “And hurry—the train is going to leave.”
A frantic search turned up nothing, and the train pulled away from the station without them. Just then Janina felt something in her pocket and triumphantly pulled out the elusive metro card.
“Here it is!” she said. “I found it!”
Lance and Janina jumped aboard the next train, and with a sigh of relief plopped into their seats. They then began an animated conversation on their favorite topics: theology and religion. Four people seated near them picked up on the discussion and eventually joined in. By the time their new friends reached their metro stop, Lance and Janina had given them some literature focusing on Bible teachings, and everyone had shared business cards and e-mail addresses so that they could keep in touch.
“After they got off, we ‘high-fived’ each other on the train and were laughing so loudly that people kept looking at us,” Lance later noted. “They were wondering what was going on—why we were so happy.
“It was providential that Janina lost her card,” he added. “The Lord wanted us to share our faith with those specific people.”
An Innovative Witnessing Initiative
Twenty-two-year-old Kang Dong Won, known as Lance, is one of 14 young adults from every Adventist Church division worldwide who are currently in New York City as part of a General Conference Youth Ministries Department initiative called “One Year in Mission,” or OYiM. This program constitutes the first phase of a vision to inject volunteerism into the DNA of Adventist Church youth. Lance’s home country is South Korea in the Northern Asia-Pacific Division. Other team members come from such places as South Africa, Russia, India, Tanzania, Germany, Syria, and Australia.
The OYiM goal in New York is to train these young adults, ranging in age from 20 to 39, to develop an integrated method of evangelism during their six-month stay, provide opportunities for them to directly engage in leadership and decision-making, and utilize their talents to help prepare the groundwork for the NY13 evangelistic campaigns scheduled to begin in June 2013.*
They are then to take the tools and skills they’ve acquired back to their home divisions, spend an additional six months instructing a freshly recruited team of volunteers there on what they’ve learned, and determine what methods can be successfully applied to their own unique cultures. The same process will subsequently follow in the unions and conferences.
“We are longing to have enormous mission involvement by young people,” says General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson. “One of the ways we’re doing that is through One Year in Mission, where young adults can give a year of their lives in mission service around the corner, in their own territory, or around the world.”
Various church leaders from the General Conference (GC) and North American Division (NAD) headquarters in Maryland conduct weekly workshops to empower and instruct the group on different forms of outreach and evangelism.
Seeing Past Ourselves
A large part of OYiM comprises service for others, which involves feeding the homeless, helping with continued cleanup for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, visiting people in nursing homes and abused women’s shelters, and conducting children’s programs. The team also talks and prays with people on the streets, including in New York City’s Times Square.
“Community service should be a lifestyle, something that we do every day,” NAD OYiM team member Janina Irving says. “We’re learning to be intentional about meeting people where they’re at, helping them with their needs, and then pointing them to the gospel.”
One project that team member Liz Motta of Brazil is involved with is tutoring kids two mornings each week at a local public middle school. Although difficult at first because the school prohibits the group from mentioning Jesus or the gospel, Liz nevertheless believes she and the others are making inroads with the children and staff.
“They see a difference in the way we deal with them and that we care about them,” she notes. “Even the teachers hug us and tell us, ‘We’ll miss you.’ ”
The need of community assistance in the form of disaster relief was intense in the region following the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and the brutal blizzard of February 2013, which Josh Wood of Australia describes as a “huge opportunity” for witness.
“We’ve been working with Adventist Community Services to help those affected by these storms, which has taken away from the time that could have been spent on evangelism,” Josh says, “but it still focuses on caring for people—just in different ways.”
The weekend of March 22 to 24, 2013, particularly focused on the service aspect of the program. The 14 young adults—under the direction of GC Youth Ministries Department director Gilbert R. Cangy, Greater New York Conference ACS director Ruben Merino, and Atlantic Union youth director José H. Cortes, Jr.—led hundreds of volunteers in conducting “Acts of Compassion” projects throughout New York City. The highlight was when thousands of young Adventists from seven U.S. states marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to encourage compassion and to protest violence in the city. The event resulted in some New Yorkers wondering whether it’s time to return to God.
Paul Ogaga of Nigeria was helping tell children’s stories and teach crafts at the Far Rockaway Public Library when a woman from an abuse shelter came in with her three children. After watching her children listen to Bible stories and receiving boxes they made with “I love you, Mommy” painted on them, she asked Paul what church he belonged to. “When I told her that I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, she asked, ‘Is this how lively your church is? I’m going to come to your church. . . . God must have brought me here. He must want me to go back to church.’ ”
“The large number of young people who participated in [the projects and the march] is indicative of the way our young people want to serve God,” NAD president Daniel R. Jackson says. “They don’t want to serve God by sitting in a church pew listening to another hymn. They want to be out doing things in His name. And that is what this is about—doing things in Jesus’ name to touch people and to give them hope.”
Jackson and his wife, Donna, together with other church leaders, visited several Acts of Compassion projects and participated in the march.
Microcosm of World Church
Fourteen young adults—nine guys and five girls—from 14 world regions living and ministering in close proximity is “unity in diversity” magnified. They must contend not only with age, language, and gender differences but also cultural and theological ones. Lance, for example, views New Yorkers as not offering appropriate respect to one another, particularly to those in positions of leadership—a vital element of Asian culture. Josh, who has spent time in India, recognizes possible variations in economics and living conditions. Having resided by himself in a 12-room house in his home territory of Australia, he also has seen three generations of a family share a two-room house in India.
Theological points of view stretch from strong traditional ones to those many would ascribe to the “liberal” segment of the church. Questions such as what activities are appropriate for Sabbath have resulted in intense debates, with some onlookers wondering whether unity in mission is possible within such a diverse group. The young adults themselves, however, describe these as “growing experiences” that are leading to a better understanding of others and their way of life.
Lukas Hermann, an Adventist for only two years, depicts his home country of Germany as a place where “people tend to distrust each other and push each other’s views aside,” but notes that being in this group has helped him to better relate to those with differing perspectives and beliefs. “It’s also helped me personally, because I keep going back to the Bible to investigate more and find out things for myself,” he says.
“It’s taken some adjusting so that we don’t offend each other, especially on Sabbath issues,” Anthony Stanyer from the Philippines adds. “One time Lance and I had a long talk and shared our views with each other without pointing fingers. I was enjoying his perspectives and views and learning things from him, and vice versa. We don’t have to accept each other’s beliefs; we agree to disagree. But we still hug each other and live and work with each other.”
Anna Gavelo of Russia describes the team as being “colorful in our different ethnicities—in the color of our skin, in our habits. And yet,” she says, “in so many ways we are the same. . . . We are truly brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Some from the group have been raised in the Adventist Church; others, such as Essam Habib of Syria, who was baptized just three years ago, was not. Essam is the only Adventist in his family and also in his region. In Syria he is alone on Sabbaths, and he says he must “create” his own activities. On Sabbath mornings he conducts his own personal worship and sometimes listens to the religion channel. Then he visits friends or others in the community who may need help in some way.
“I spend time doing good and showing people that I care about them,” he explains.
Pernille Rasmussen of Denmark cites the group’s common mission as the unifying factor. Even though each one is from a different culture, “we’ve all come together with one purpose and goal, and that is to have Jesus as the center [of the program] and to have devotionals and pray together,” she says.
“The differences do not matter,” Jeremia Maluila of Tanzania adds. “We’re not fighting; we’re not continually discussing our differences. We’re always thinking about how we can reach the many cultures using the different perspectives that we have.”
Views of New York
The fast-paced lifestyle of the city has left some OYiM team members blinking in its wake. Essam in particular struggles with understanding why “people are dying to come to New York.”
“They just run from place to place. They commute long distances to go to work across miles and miles, and then travel miles and miles to go back home. They don’t enjoy life. In my country we have more rest and less work. Here they work harder to spend more money.”
Josh agrees, and notes that this lifestyle also raises difficulties with evangelism because Adventist Church members there are working those same hours, and therefore lack time and energy to do mission within their communities.
“They may have the desire to become involved in mission, but the location limits them,” he says.
Daryl Joshua of India has a different perspective of the city. He applauds the many opportunities for work and personal growth found there, particularly for immigrants who were unable to financially support their families in their home countries.
“They earn money that they can send back home. If their families are here with them, they are better able to support them and educate their children,” he says.
Immigrant families comprise a large segment of the New York City population, many of which have grown up in New York and call it home.
Carlos Sanchez finds New Yorkers to be less friendly than the residents of the small Mexican town he grew up in and has learned that in order to reach people there you first must gain their trust through conversation.
“Before we leave our apartment each morning we always ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Carlos says, “and then we’re sure that God will put the people in front of us that He wants us to talk to.”
The cold temperatures of the region have been challenging Alveena Pillay of South Africa, but she is acclimating in others ways. She says she can now confirm the adage that New York City is a place that never sleeps.
“I posted a picture on Facebook of Pastor Ruben and me doing the grocery shopping at 1:30 a.m!”
Contrary to what she had been told before coming to the city—that New Yorkers never smile—Alveena has found that when she smiles at others, most do smile back. One exception, however, still tugs at her heart. One day she noticed a man who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and was wearing a jacket that was much too large for him. People were staring at him, but when he looked up and saw Alveena, she smiled.
“He didn’t know how to react,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to realize that he just wasn’t used to people smiling at him, that small kindness.”
Is It Worth It?
At the time of the interviews, the OYiM team had not yet completed their six-month term in New York City, but their mission endeavors were producing results, and they already felt convinced that God had personally led each one of them there.
“God has individually picked us,” Daryl says. “We may not fully understand why He selected us, but each of us must have something special to contribute, even though we have nothing in and of ourselves. But it was God who brought us here, and we just want to serve Him.”
*To learn about NY13, go to www.ny13.org.
To learn more about OYiM and to view videos of the program and team members produced by Adventist News Network, go to http://oneyearinmission.org.
Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor for Adventist World.