Feb 21 2010
Over the Christmas holidays while visiting in-laws in San Francisco, I was invited to a party at a wine marker's cave in the mountaintop town of Angwin, California. As we wound up the steep road my friend said, "This is a Seventh Day Adventist town and university." We flashed past a big church, the campus of the Pacific Union College, and then on into the back roads to our destination.
Intrigued, I did some research on the religion. Here are the basics: an American denomination formed in the middle of the 19th century from the s0-called "Millerite" movement, and was formally organized in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan (remember Battle Creek), largely around the writings and vision of its prophet, Ellen G. White, a native of Gorham, Maine who wrote prolifically of her visions which began after she was hit in the face by a thrown rock while fleeing a 13 year old girl in Portland, Maine.
The Millerites were a group formed around 1850 in upstate New York who, based on a close reading of the Bible, predicted the Second Coming would occur in 1844. It didn't. Again, I will spare you my borrowed pedantic knowledge and point you at the Wikipedia entry, which, as I assume with all Wiki entries, shares the input of the church, its members and officials and is as balanced a definition and history as you can find anywhere. The church is unique in several respects, notably the observance of a Saturday sabbath, a high proportion of vegetarians and abstemious practices, and a strong tradition of extroverted charity and public works from hospitals to higher education. Tithing is encouraged -- more on that later -- and church members do not join unions or other organizations aside from the church.
I believe there is only one Seventh Day Adventist congregation on Cape Cod. I live about five miles from the church on Route 28 in Osterville. It is a modest, contemporary structure set slightly back from the road in a stand of pine trees.
The parking lot was full -- most churches seem to be enjoying strong attendance these days -- and I entered the narthex along with a herd of young people dressed in their Sunday best. I was warmly greeted at the door, handed a program, and made my way into the main church hall where I took the customary back-pew-right-hand-side seat. As I settled in I put on my glasses to read the program but the temple piece fell off, victim of a lost screw. As I flustered around trying to fix the specs, a jovial man introduced himself, a local attorney who it turned out was also the church pianist. We talked for a few minutes, me explaining the purpose of my visit, he telling me about his beginnings as a Catholic. Before I could ask him about his conversion the pastor, Rev. Mark Gagnon introduced himself. The welcome was warm and effusive and I was made to feel right at home.
I noticed the dreaded PowerPoint set up of a big enormous screen behind the pulpit and behind the pews a glass-walled "multimedia booth." On the right of the church, near where I sat, was a small area filled with microphones and chairs and electric pianos. A pair of traditional grand pianos flanked the apse, one had a rack festooned with cordless microphones. The room had a high vaulted ceiling, large wooden beams, and skylights, one set was covered with a sheet of black plastic, perhaps due to repairs. The pews were large, upholstered, and the backs had racks with Bibles (King James version) and collection envelopes.
I put a $5 bill in one of the envelopes and noted that it had details on noting if one's gift was part of one's tithe commitment, which, according to the envelope, was a suggested 10% of one's annual income. "Gross or net?" I thought to myself, doing the math and realizing that 10% was a stack of cash. The envelope also had a suggestion about how to leave the church in one's will.
More deacons came to me and shook my hand, asked my name, and where I lived. Everyone around me was nice and wished me a happy Sabbath. I will never get over my self-consciousness while lurking in churches, but I'm used to it now and expect it. The first few churches were very difficult in terms of feelings of embarrassment and intrusion. When it comes down to it -- as long as you're well dressed, respectful and smile, you can pretty much go anywhere in this world.
The service started with a rousing Song of Praise sung by the "Praise Team" which consisted of several women, the pastor, the cordless microphones, and the pianist, a bass player, and a guitarist. The words were flashed onto the screen over inspiration images of sunlight through trees, flickering candles, and waterfalls. I think the skylights were blacked out to let the projector do its work. On each side of the screen were two traditional hymnal guides -- the racks where the old hymn numbers were inserted. I think hymnals are doomed like newspapers and magazines, and have been replaced by the cursed PowerPoint. Sigh.
A call to worship was read -- Psalm 37:4 ,5 another hymn was sung from the screen, then the offering was made. I put my envelope in the basket, but sure enough, there was a second collection on behalf of the Sunday School replete with children carrying little straw baskets. Me, who does not want to lug my wallet into the church, had no extra cash, and hence came off Scroogish when the basket was passed. Reminder to self: always carry a back up bill for the occasional double-collect.
Announcements were made -- an international supper was happening that evening at 6. Cuisines under preparation included German, Jamaican, Brazilian, Dominican, Greek and Thai. I began to look at my fellow worshippers. Average age 40. Even mixture of genders. High percentage of people of color, perhaps 33%. Large collection of children under the guidance of a Sunday School teacher, and a block of teenagers dressed semi-hip/hop in front of me. A deacon showed some clips of some DVDs available for borrowing. One was an animated interpretation of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments which put me in the foul memory of the despised Davey and Goliath cartoons my brother and I would watch in lieu of the Tasmanian Devil on Sunday mornings when there were no decent cartoons on the tube. A clip was then shown of a movie about a farmer in Africa who gave his life to Christ: Faith Like Potatoes.
The Sunday School teacher led her charges to the altar where they read their Valentine's Day prayers to God. After all the poems were read the children dispersed into the pews and gave their Valentines to random people. I was one of the random and received the following:
"God's love for man compares to nothing on this sinful
earth. He defines love with words like compassionate and cheerful.
The true meaning of love burns from the root of the soul, till it's
singing out the words of joy. So, pure and perfect love from
Mary's baby boy. The words He speaks are soft and humble, like
when He speaks, you can't hear him mumble.
Everything that's done, I want it done His way,
so now I must say ......
Happy Valentine's Day!"
The children gathered in the first two rows of the center bank of pews for a Children's Story by Reverend Gagnon. The subject was tresures. Rev. Gagnon has a charismatic, warm personality and was very entertaining, pulling from a shopping bag the things that he considers treasures: his wife's kindergarten report card, a hospital identification bracelet worn by his infant son, a framed collection of faded pressed flowers. He ended the lesson by saying Christ's love was the greatest treasure of all, one that did not fade like the flowers.
A prayer followed. People were invited to come forward and kneel at the dais to have their personal prayers heard. A gentleman took a microphone and gave an adhoc prayer. Amens were said, the congregation sat back, and the sermon followed.
Rev. Gagnon's sermon was fairly long -- I didn't time it but it ran over 30 minutes by my guess -- and was on a series of topics keyed to a bible passage which was based on Christ's last words, Acts Chapter 1. He tied his lesson to his own personal experiences and delivered an exhortation to led God help us realize our full potential and not wallow in the lukewarm world of mediocrity.
There were some affirmative amens from the congregation. I confess my mind wandered a little in reverie, but I imagine that is the point of a sermon -- to make one reflect.
A closing hymn was sung, the benediction delivered, and I was out the door in an instant, shaking the pastor's hand as I departed.
- The Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assembly of God ..... none deliver a communion like the Catholics, Episcopalians or Orthodox.
- All seem to favor Powerpoint.
- The Battle Creek connection to the origins of the church is significant as a Mister Kellogg -- was an early adherent of the faith and the promotion of grains and cereals as a healthy breakfast has its connections to the church's reputation for clean living.
- For more on this, I recommend T. Corraghessen Boyle's The Road to Wellville, a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Broderick was made from the novel. Adventists were found to have a higher life expectancy in a recent California census.
- The service was remarkably cheerful, not very gospel or scripture focused as I expected, and in all one of the brighter services experienced thus far.
- The greatest controversy surrounding the church seems to be around the reputation of Ellen G. White, the founding prophet. Her story is fascinating and I found this discussion of the role her head injury played on her spiritual awakening on a site called http://www.ellenwhiteexposed.com.
- All in all I would declared this to be a very uniquely American religion in terms of its origins.