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Why does the Seventh-day Adventist Church have a presence in the public sector?

Understanding Interfaith Relations: An Interview with the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director

Silver Spring, USA. | Bettina Krause, PARL Communications Director.

Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the Seventh-day Adventist world church, recently returned from two major international gatherings: a meeting of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions held in Rome, Italy; and, the African Council of Religious Leaders, Religions for Peace which took place in Abuja, Nigeria.

He sat down with PARL Communication director, Bettina Krause, to talk about why he accepts invitations to represent the Adventist Church at these and many other similar events.

Bettina Krause: Your travel schedule is filled with a wide range of different meetings, including religious gatherings, events sponsored by international organizations such as the United Nations, and visits with secular and political leaders. Why does PARL engage with groups and individuals such as these?

Ganoune Diop: The first two words in the name of our department—“Public Affairs”—succinctly describes a core part of our mission. In all our activities, we seek to position the church to a standing of visibility, credibility, trust, and relevance in the public sphere. That means being prepared to share the mission and values of the Adventist Church with anyone, whether a public official or representative of another faith group. Our department here at the General Conference, and each PARL director in every world church division, has this responsibility of working to shape public perceptions of our church, and forming helpful relationships with people of influence in society.
This has become increasingly important with the rapid growth of the Adventist Church over the past two decades—more than 20 million members at last count—and as the church continues to expand the reach of its mission. With a growing presence in the world, we need to tell people who we are, rather than to rely on someone else’s interpretation. We want to introduce ourselves on our own terms.

BK: Many people equate the PARL department with defending religious liberty, which is, indeed, a large part of what we do. Is this emphasis on the “Public Affairs” work of the department a recent development?  

GD: No, not at all! This responsibility is part of the voted mandate of our department. It’s part of PARL’s explicit mission, which is spelled out in the General Conference Working Policy. This policy entrusts PARL with the work of inter-faith relations and with forming relationships with various people of influence. It’s important to note that this is not ecumenism, in its negative sense. This is not about diluting the church’s identity or prophetic voice—absolutely not. In fact, it is actually about being faithful to the mission Christ has given His church. It is impossible for the Adventist Church to fulfill its mission without mingling with other people. I believe this is key. We must be prepared to meet political leaders, Christian leaders, other religious leaders, atheists, and to be able to give an account of the faith that is within us. There is no way we can complete our biblical mandate if we exclude groups or individuals from the reach of our witness.
So, as a department, we seek platforms and forums where we can testify about who Adventists are, and what we do in the world.

BK: You’ve been engaged in this work since 2011, first as liaison to the United Nations and other international organizations, and since 2015 as director of the department. Have you seen these efforts of mingling and relationship building produce any tangible benefits for the church or its mission?

GD: Yes, I have! At the most basic level, of course, we benefit simply because we’re being faithful to the mission God has given us to be light and salt in the world. To be obedient to this command, we have to mingle; this is part of witnessing and part of following the example of Christ, who in the words of Ellen White, “mingled with men as one who desired their good.”
Of course, as we seek to be salt in the world, we must guard against the danger of losing our “flavor.” But the fear of losing our message or identity doesn’t invalidate the mission itself! From a logical standpoint, alone, that doesn’t make sense. The risk alerts us to be careful, but it doesn’t revoke our responsibility.
Another tangible benefit I’ve witnessed, many times, is that people hear about us and learn about us from our own words, rather than secondhand or through the interpretation of someone who may be hostile to the Adventist Church. By spending time with religious or secular leaders we can dispel prejudices and build trust. They begin to see that the Adventist Church is not some isolated group that’s focused only on itself. They begin to understand that the church has a whole portfolio of services—humanitarian, health, education, and more—that we offer to society. They see that we support and assist our brothers and sisters in humanity and that we love people, genuinely and authentically, as Jesus did.

BK: I suppose someone could ask, “Is having a good public reputation really that important?” Have you seen an instance where this has made a difference for the Adventist Church?

GD: In February this year, I was in Moscow, Russia, attending a meeting of the Global Christian Forum. This is a gathering where Christian leaders meet to better understand one another and to talk about common concerns, such as the persecution of Christians around the world.  While we were sitting around the table, the previous secretary of the group, Hubert van Beek, spoke about a recent visit he’d made to the Middle East. While there, he’d met with regional Christian leaders and they were discussing a proposal to remove Seventh-day Adventists from the list of official Christian churches. You may ask, “Why would this matter?” Well, if the Adventist Church had no government recognition, its activities would suddenly become extremely restricted. It would lose its legal status. It wouldn’t even be able to own property—such as a church—for the purpose of worship.
Well, Hubert spoke up. He told these Christian leaders that he had regular contact with Adventists every year at the Global Christian Forum. He said that Adventists were indeed Christians—not a fringe sect. And the result was that the Adventist Church retained its legal status and its ability to function within that country.
I’ve heard many other such examples. It makes a practical difference if the Adventist Church is perceived as a credible, trustworthy, and internationally recognized organization. Our ability to function, to undertake mission, and to establish Adventist institutions can be largely dependent on how we’re seen by the government and other dominant religious groups. I’ve just come back from Nigeria. There, our church is known as a reliable and service-orientated church that is a blessing to society through our hospitals and schools.
Also, just as we want other people to know us on our own terms, it’s important also for us to understand others—including other religious groups—on their own terms. It does not serve us well to view others from a position of ignorance or prejudice. Listening to people, even if we disagree with them, as they share their hopes and fears and aspirations, help us to better understand them. It allows us to know what we can offer them that may resonate with their needs.
We must have a mature understanding of why we mingle and engage with people—whether they’re believers or atheists, pre-modern, modern or post-modern, secular or post-secular. No one is excluded from the ambit of our mission.

BK: You receive many different invitations from various groups, as well as requests to speak at events. How do you decide whether to accept an invitation? What criteria do you use to determine what does or doesn’t fit with the mission you’ve just been describing?

GD: Well, people invite us because they think Adventists have something to bring to the table. In Nigeria at the African Council for Religious Leaders, the discussion was on building a more peaceful, tolerant society. And so I was invited to speak because they believed Adventists have a theological, a biblical, perspective that could bring something significant to the discussion of peaceful coexistence.
So, my first criteria is, Can we bring something to benefit these people? And at the same time I have to ask, Is there a benefit for our church, as well? Will it give visibility? Build credibility and trust? Break down barriers of prejudice and misinformation? Will it provide an opportunity to share Adventist values? Help position us as people who don’t want to be isolated from society, but to be a blessing in the communities where we live and share the prophetic biblical message entrusted to us from heaven?
When God called Israel it was for the purpose of being a blessing to the world. I believe the calling of the Adventist Church, also, is connected to God’s desire to bless the world through us. He didn’t call us because we’re exceptional human beings, or because we deserve special treatment. No, He has called us to be a light to the world; to be a tangible expression of Christ’s love for the world. All this is part of what our department—PARL—seeks to express and to embody.
It’s for this reason that I’m committed to meeting with leaders of other Christian denominations, leaders of faith groups, as well as secular and political leaders—no exceptions.
Since 2014, I’ve been entrusted with the role of Secretary of a group called the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions. This is a group of leaders from a broad range of Christian denominations. Yes, there are doctrinal differences that are impossible to reconcile. It cannot happen. But we can still talk together and co-exist peacefully. When I meet with this group I simply share who we are, what we’re doing, and how we help society. Unlike organizations such as the World Council of Churches, there are no shared objectives or membership conditions or fees—we don’t even take minutes. This is purely inter-faith relations—an effort to better understand others, and to make Adventism better understood, also.
In my role with PARL, I meet with many leaders, from both Christian and non-Christian faith traditions. In Nigeria earlier this month, I spent time with the Sultan of Sokoto, who is considered the spiritual leader of the country’s seventy million Muslims. Also this month, in Rome, I met with many Christian leaders, including those from the Anglican Communion, Baptist World Alliance, Lutheran World Federation, Mennonite World Conference, The Salvation Army, the Roman Catholics, and many others. In the next few weeks, I’ll visit with secular political leaders in Central Asia and in West Africa.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has something unique to share with the world about life. We promote education, health, and justice because we believe God, at creation, imbued human beings with innate dignity and infinite worth. But we also have something to share about life that transcends the here and now—the hope of eternal life to come.
This is what drives and motivates me to meet all these people. And this responsibility to be salt and light to everyone, everywhere, is what drives the work of PARL. The fear of losing our flavor—the fear of syncretistic alliance—should never stifle the vitality of the message and the faithfulness to the Lord of the mission we share with the world before His promised Second Coming.

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