Adventists, led by Ellen White, early turned their attention to education, and began to found primary schools, academies, and “colleges”. Their main purposes were to indoctrinate and evangelize the students, to protect the children of church members from threatening ideas and information, to provide spiritual and practical education as well as academic skills, and to prepare workers to serve the church in various capacities. To the extent that accreditation was available at that time, Adventists were wary of it and of outside control of their institutions.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: 50 Years of the Metro New York Adventist Forum
Meanwhile, when John Harvey Kellogg took control of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, he also gradually added cognate educational programs and institutions: first a nurses’ training program, and then a medical school to train doctors. When conflict between Kellogg and Ellen White, A.G. Daniells, and other church leaders culminated in Kellogg being disfellowshipped by his home congregation, the Battle Creek Tabernacle, in 1904, Kellogg cut his ties to Adventism but retained control and ownership of the Battle Creek San and the medical school. Since Adventists had already founded many sanitariums both in the USA and abroad, and expected to continue expanding their number, the loss of the medical school was especially serious. Ellen White therefore played a lead role in finding a site for a new medical school, which was named the College of Medical Evangelists and situated East of Los Angeles at Loma Linda.
However, at this time the American Medical Association was organizing strongly to take full control of the practice of medicine in the USA, including medical education. Very soon it became necessary for institutions providing medical education to obtain accreditation in order to continue. Being a new school, the CME naturally pursued accreditation, and in doing so it discovered that henceforth it would be able to accept only graduates of accredited undergraduate colleges. This became a severe issue among Adventists, for while Ellen White had lived she had warned against both accreditation and allowing worldly authorities to control Adventist institutions. Nevertheless, all of the Adventist colleges in America ultimately chose to pursue accreditation, for too many of their potential students wished to become medical practitioners.
In order for the Adventist colleges to procure accreditation, it was necessary for their faculty members in academic programs to gain doctorates. This obliged them to attend non-Adventist universities where they were exposed to non-Adventist teachers and classmates as well as class content that might threaten their belief in Adventist teachings. Administrators initially attempted to limit the danger by sending only trusted senior faculty, limiting their exposure by enrolling them as part-time students who attended the university campus mostly in the Summer, and restricting the courses they studied to those considered less dangerous. While faculty from departments of religion were not required to earn a Ph.D., once some members of other departments started to work on doctorates, so also did they—it was considered inadvisable for the teachers of religion to have less status than others because of a lower level of education.
In spite of the endeavors to limit the exposure of Adventist religion faculty attending graduate schools, these later formed an organization where they could discuss issues together away from control by church leaders: originally named the Eschatology Society, it later changed its name to the Bible Research Fellowship. Church leaders became so suspicious of this group that they contrived to take control of it within a few years. However, not to be daunted, the biblical scholars later created a new similar organization, which was originally known as the Andrews Society for Religious Studies but now as the Adventist Society for Religious Studies. When some of their fellow faculty members eventually saw this as dangerous, these fostered a competing, more conservative group, the Adventist Theological Society, whose membership is not limited to biblical scholars.
During the period when Reuben Figuhr was president of the General Conference (1954-1966), there were several more indications that the graduate education received by some of the biblical scholars and theologians had had considerable impact on them. In the mid-1950s, when two leading Evangelicals approached the General Conference in an effort to ascertain whether Adventists were a cult or actually Evangelicals, a group of Adventist scholars who met at length with the questioning Evangelical leaders persuaded them that they were true Evangelicals by altering the traditional understanding of such peculiarly Adventist doctrines as the Investigative Judgment and the Remnant, which made some traditionalists cry Foul! Those who authored the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary for the first time provided Adventist readers with alternative explanations and in effect abandoned a long Adventist history of using proof-texts to interpret the Bible, replacing it with the historical-critical method.
Meanwhile, accreditation began to have an important impact on Adventists, their colleges, and their church. Students entering the colleges were no longer limited to those who desired a career as a church “worker”, for other professional careers now became accessible. The church itself, whose members had been drawn mostly from the ranks of the fairly poor, and which had previously had few members with university degrees, now found that its next generation included more professionals, especially MDs. Adventists had a special advantage if they wished to study medicine because their own medical school, in selecting students, awarded extra points to applicants who were active in an Adventist congregation. Increasing numbers of Adventists, especially in the USA, thus began to put down roots in society.
The Adventist colleges in North America also revealed a wish for status in society as, in two steps, they changed their names. The first step was to abandon names that suggested sectarian origins. The College of Medical Evangelists became Loma Linda University, Washington Missionary College became Columbia Union College, Southern Missionary College became Southern College, and Emmanuel Missionary College became Andrews University. Later, in the second step, their small undergraduate colleges, which had only a few undergraduate departments, and typically at best only one or two masters programs, chose to replace the word “college” in their name with “university”: Columbia Union College emerged as Washington Adventist University, Southern College became Southern Adventist University, Walla Walla College became Walla Walla University, and Southwestern Adventist College became Southwestern Adventist University.
In a few years following the end of World War II in 1945, many returning American soldiers married and began families. The result was a considerable bulge in the birth rate which was dubbed “the baby-boom generation.” Adventists were not an exception to this pattern. Consequently, starting in the mid-1960s, the classes at the Adventist colleges swelled so rapidly that many additional faculty members became necessary. This need could not be met by sending a few senior faculty part-time to university. Instead, a large number of talented new graduates were sponsored to attend the best graduate schools full-time, in order to encourage them to complete Ph.D.s rapidly. Since these were granted the freedom to take whatever courses they wanted towards their degrees, many chose courses that had previously been avoided for fear that they might cause Adventist students to question their faith. These students completed PhDs in many disciplines, from English to history, languages, sciences, the social sciences, and biblical studies, ethics, theology, archeology, etc.
These students often congregated at the same churches, such as the Boston Temple and the New York Center, where they formed adventurous Sabbath School classes, socialized together over lunch, and inevitably began to discuss issues raised for them in their classes and also the situation in the Church, where a much more conservative president, Robert Pierson, had succeeded Figuhr in 1966. Over time, especially initially in Boston, they began to schedule meetings where they could explore such issues in greater depth. These morphed into organizations in several centers, which called themselves forums. In 1968, with some help from Neal Wilson, who was then the GC Vice-President for North America, a post which would soon evolve into President of the North American Division, the Association of Adventist Forums, a national level presence, was formed to foster what now became the local forum chapters; it also launched a new academically-oriented journal, SPECTRUM, which became significant as an independent source of Adventist news and a voice that published the research of the new scholars, often raising perplexing new issues. (SPECTRUM and the AAF are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year with a conference at La Sierra University next weekend.)
I was a member of what has been called for most of its life the Metro New York Adventist Forum for 44 years, from 1971-2015, and its president from 1975-2015 – and this sociologist inevitably practised the research method of participant observation throughout that period. I was not present at its outset, though I was so excited when I found it and became a member, that I asked many questions in order to understand its history. For example, I remember making the most of the opportunity to ask questions of Rick and Gail Meyer while driving with them from Manhattan to Camp Berkshire for a forum retreat in October 1971. In preparing to write this paper I have also had a considerable interchange with John Kelley, who became one of the key players soon after the chapter’s formation, in order to check on the events of the early years.
The Origins of the Organization
If Boston was the first Forum chapter to organize, New York was not far behind, so that this year also marks our 50th anniversary. Initially, the key movers were Rick Meyer and Gail Kendall. During the 1967-68 academic year, when Rick was in his senior year at Dartmouth and Gail in her first year at Harvard Law School, the two were dating one another. Rick was a fairly recent convert to Adventism – a freckled red-head full of energy and enthusiasm; Gail was a very able Southern Belle. Apparently the two became friends with several of the other Adventist students in Boston at that time who were meeting together and laying the foundation of what became the forum chapter in Boston. As their romance developed, and Rick also applied to law schools for the next academic year, the two hoped to be in the same city. When Rick was admitted to Columbia Law School in New York, but not to Harvard, Gail decided to switch from Harvard to Columbia. They brought the new concept of forum chapters with them to New York City.
When Rick and Gail arrived in New York City they started to attend a congregation that met in the New York Center on W. 46th St in Manhattan, a former theater that had been purchased by the church as an evangelistic center. There they met some other students, although these differed from those in Boston because the Adventist colleges had not chosen Columbia University as one of the campuses where their future professors went for doctoral studies, so that there were fewer Adventist graduate students there. More significant were the friendships that blossomed there with two older professionals, Grace Fields, a social worker who had earlier been a member of the staff of Faith for Today when it was initially launched in New York City, and Jo Lockwood, an MD on the staff of Metropolitan Hospital. When what was available at their congregation proved inadequate when compared what had been developing while they had been in Boston, Rick and Gail, encouraged by their new friends, drew on that experience and their ties to Columbia University to launch what they initially called the New York Forum in the Fall of 1968. This met on some Sabbath afternoons in Earl Hall, the Religious Center at Columbia University. Attendance of these meetings gradually expanded over succeeding months. A key pair of newcomers in the Spring of 1969 were John and Elaine Kelley. John had grown up in Mexico as the son of an Adventist missionary couple in Montemorelos, had studied theology at the Seminary, and had then been appointed associate pastor at the Spanish-speaking church on W. 93rd St, Manhattan. However, he had become so frustrated by the legalism he had encountered in that position that he had applied to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Columbia for the following Fall. Elaine had been a student missionary from AUC to Peru, and she was teaching English at Greater New York Academy.
Towards the end of the forum chapter’s first academic year Rick was asked by an Earl Hall official why their group was the only Christian group on campus not using St Paul’s Chapel, a magnificent Romanesque structure with a famous five-manual Aeolian-Skinner organ. This suggestion came at a pertinent time, for Adventist authorities had recently put the New York Center on the market, having decided that it was a failure as an evangelistic center, so that Rick feared that the congregations worshiping there might soon find themselves homeless. Rick responded by forming what was originally named the Adventist Community at Columbia, which, beginning in September 1969, sponsored weekly Sabbath morning worship services in the Chapel. The Community was associated with the Forum chapter, which continued its quarterly meetings on Sabbath afternoons. The Sabbath morning meetings were designed in typical Adventist style with two segments: the first was a Sabbath School-styled study of a biblical book that the group had agreed on, held in the crypt of the chapel; after that, for the second segment, attendees went upstairs to the sanctuary for their worship service. In this way the NY Forum became unique, the only chapter whose primary focus was weekly worship, indeed at 11 on Sabbath mornings, and to use a university chapel.
John Kelley described both the Forum meetings and the Community worship services as “an oasis from the vast desert of legalism” that he faced at the Spanish-speaking congregation. His first baptismal candidate there was a Dominican woman who was terrified of how her husband might respond when the pastor insisted that she remove her wedding ring before being baptized. Even though John tried to dissuade the pastor, he insisted that the convert could only be baptized if she removed the ring. She eventually bowed to the pastor’s demand, only to appear at the church the next day with a black eye – her husband had interpreted her action as betrayal. In another display of legalism, when four teachers at the Greater New York Academy chose to attend a movie one Saturday night, three of them were fired after a student, out ingathering, spied them lining up to enter the theater and reported them to her father, the elder of the Jackson Heights Church, who in turn informed the conference. These four teachers – Elaine Nyirady Kelley, Mary-Anne Ford, Janet Schultz, and Linda Banks – were already part of the core group at the Adventist Community at Columbia.
The Chapel helped draw Adventist graduate students from the Juilliard School also. These included Lonietta Thompson Cornwall, whose playing of the Aeolian-Skinner organ in the chapel created the tradition where everyone sat in worshipful silence to enjoy both the organ prelude and postlude each week, Awilda Verdejo Grayson, a voice student there who later had a successful operatic career, and Reba Auerbach, a conducting student and the wife of the producer of one of the most watched TV soap operas of the time, whose beautiful home in Mamaroneck was often the venue of Forum pot-luck meals and afternoon social gatherings. The beauty of the chapel, its fine acoustics, its organ, its location, and the serious discussions also attracted educated former students who felt a great need for more stimulating and gospel-oriented services than were otherwise available for Adventists in the New York area. In addition to Grace Fields, Jo Lockwood, and Hanna Eichwald, Jo’s inseparable companion, who were founding members, some of these were Dr. Courtney Wood, an admired black physician, and his wife Claire, Professor Charles Stokes, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of Bridgeport, Duane Butherus, a researcher at Bell Labs, and his wife Connie, Jorgen Henricksen, an artist, and Ron Cornwall, Lonieta’s husband. The numbers swelled during succeeding months. Some of the new regular attenders included Alex Belisle, a teacher, and his wife Betty, George and Camille Howard, Bob and Marlene Doswell, Fred and Shirley Faehner, Robin and Nancy Laird, Timu and Jean Magi, George Mercurius, Becky Muir, Barbara Zweig, another artist, Suzanne Withrow, a psychologist whose field was family and addictions, Jon and Florence Robertson, and some eager undergraduate students, such as Cheryl Porter, Bob Bouchard, Ken Nyirady and Nereida Morales (who would later marry Ken Nyirady), most of whom later attended graduate programs.
The administrators of St. Paul’s Chapel took an interest in the group as one of the most faithful and well-attended student groups. Each semester they would provide a list of new Columbia students who had put their religion down as ‘SDA’. Thus, a younger generation of students started joining the group. These included Doug Porter, a brilliant social psychologist.
Since the Community was meeting weekly, and John Kelley, a former pastor, was a regular attender, Rick Meyer initially assumed that it would become an official church. He wrote to the Greater New York Conference suggesting the Community be recognized as a church and that John be appointed its pastor, but this prospect attracted no interest. Since Rick was not one to give up, he next suggested that the Community be recognized as a Branch Sabbath School. As a result, the director of the Sabbath School department at the conference was sent to meet with the Community. However, when he discovered that the Community did not use the Sabbath School Quarterly, but instead chose to read and discuss a biblical book directly, his response was that such a group could not qualify to become a branch Sabbath School.
These attempts to gain official recognition from what was then the white conference, had raised concern among some members, for not only was the Community multi-racial, but these attempts occurred not long after the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Members of both races asked which conference the Community should be aligned with, and there were a variety of responses and opinions. For example, some of the white members suggested affiliating with the black North-eastern Conference; however some black members replied “Never! It is far too conservative for us.” Flailing around for a solution, the group turned to Neal Wilson, then the Vice-President of the General Conference for North America, a position which would soon after be transformed into the position of President of the North American Division. Their letter to him asked if it was possible for their congregation to be affiliated with the Atlantic Union instead of a conference, in order to save it from needing to choose between race-identified alternatives. Wilson responded by visiting the Community for a Sabbath, and engaged in a long discussion with the members. He eventually declared that the Adventist Church lacked the organizational flexibility to allow a congregation to affiliate with a union, and instead urged the Community to remain independent as a group but friendly toward the church, representing it unofficially on campus. In retrospect, this was the best possible result, for it gave the Community complete freedom to do what it felt it needed to do: it did not have to submit tithe to a conference, be controlled by a pastor who probably would have had two other large churches to occupy his attention, to ingather, or to use the Sabbath School Quarterly. But the acknowledged friendly relationship with the church opened the way for it to invite Adventist scholars and other speakers of interest to speak at its services.
Some Personal History
I need at this point to mention a little of my background in Australia before addressing my experience with the Forum here from 1971 to 2016. I was born in the Sydney San, and raised in a rather well known and active Adventist family in Australia. I was a Freshman at the University of Queensland in Brisbane at the beginning of 1959, but only because I had won a newly available Commonwealth Scholarship, which paid for tuition and also provided a living allowance to students like me who were obliged to live away from home in order to attend a university. 1959 was, I believe, only the second year that such scholarships were available. Before that time few Adventists in Australia obtained higher education—at best they attended Avondale, whose entry standards were then low, and which lacked accreditation, so that it could prepare students only for church employment. The Adventists who attended Australian universities prior to that time mostly studied medicine, but there were few of them. The year before I entered UQ there were only 4 Adventist students there: one taking medicine, another dentistry, and two part-time in the Arts faculty. In 1959 four new freshmen were added, 3 in medicine, while I enrolled in an honours in history program. However, by 1962, my fourth year at UQ, there were over 100 Adventist students enrolled there. We congregated at the large Central Church, where there were only two university graduates, a doctor and his dietician wife, among the 500 members. We were finally permitted to form a Youth Sabbath School, but the Church Board was very suspicious of our open discussions, assigning an elder to sit in on each class in turn. The elders became so uncomfortable with the discussions that in the Youth Sabbath School’s 3rd year it was suddenly closed down without warning, and the youth were spread two-by-two among the senior classes. This experience embittered me, for the students disappeared from the congregation en mass—however, the church leaders were no doubt relieved.
In 1962 the students had formed the Queensland University Seventh-day Adventist Society (QUSDAS), at a time when Adventist students at Australian and New Zealand universities were rapidly forming such organizations. We met every other Friday evening, and had very open, spirited discussions. We were very much like a forum chapter, before the latter developed in the US. I was the president of QUSDAS for two years, and played that role for the first year also when the person elected president at the initial meeting because of his seniority—a 5th year dentistry student—failed to attend another meeting. Looking back, we were a highly interested and intellectual group, especially given the fact that most of us were undergrads. The various Adventist university organizations held a national convention each year, when the speakers we most wanted were Desmond Ford, a theologian and gifted preacher, and Eric Magnussen, a scientist with two Ph.D.s who was then president of Avondale College and moving its science program towards accreditation. In 1963 I started on an unusual Ph.D program, having persuaded the university and the relevant departments to allow me to enroll in both the sociology and history departments. I was to discover that being a historical sociologist provided excellent insights.
I completed my Ph.D. in 1970, and won a Fullbright Travel Grant to take post-doctoral studies at Columbia University. However, I delayed the grant for a year in order to take what was then known in Australia as “the hippy route to Europe”, through Southeast Asia, Southern Asia, and then Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Greece, then up through what was then Communist Eastern Europe to Scandinavia, where I ran out of time, and was obliged to move rapidly to New York. I arrived there on September 1, 1971—a city where I did not then know a soul.
My Years at the Forum
Since I still recalled negative memories of the two Adventist churches I had attended as a teen and then while in university, I wondered whether I would risk continuing to attend Adventist churches. But I discovered that when I knew no one, I then wanted to go to church, and so I made my way to the New York Center for Sabbath School and Worship on my second Sabbath in the city. The service proved to be disappointing; however, over a pot-luck lunch, when the pastor discovered I was at Columbia U, he told me about the student group worshiping in St Paul’s Chapel there, and gave me Grace Field’s number. A call to her provided me with the necessary details, and the next Sabbath found me there, where I immediately felt at home.
The Community had worked out a special relationship with John Grayson, a black pastor who had started on a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary the previous year; under this he preached fairly regularly and had some kind of pastoral role in return for a stipend. John Kelley recalls that most of the regular attenders contributed willingly to the stipend. John was a political and social radical who had been shaped by the inequities American blacks had experienced and the Civil Rights Movement. On my second or third week at the community, after a tense week in New York State during which Governor Nelson Rockefeller had refused to negotiate an end to an inmate riot and takeover at an isolated maximum-security prison at Attica in the far north of the state, but had sent in helicopters and troops to quell it, resulting in a large number of casualties, John focused his sermon on these events. I had never heard such a radical sermon from an Adventist—it was fascinating and, to this newcomer to America, moving. A few weeks later I joined other Community members at a weekend retreat at Camp Berkshire, which brought together both the New York and Boston Forum chapters; I met more really interesting people there. I felt as if I had found a sample of paradise on earth.
By this time the Community had settled on some of the key elements of what became its form of worship: these included a period of discussion following the speaker’s “presentation” (or sermon); a time near the end of the service where the congregation gathered in a circle for what was called “the concerns and prayers of the community”, where visitors were introduced and members reported what was on their minds in advance of communal prayers; the habit of listening quietly during organ prelude and postlude. Meanwhile, the time of study together as an equivalent of Sabbath School had been moved from before to after the worship service: I remember series focusing on the book of Isaiah, Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s book on the Sabbath, and the Apocrypha. In addition to John Grayson the group included several other talented speakers, such as John Kelley, Robin Laird, Jo Lockwood, and Tom Dybdahl. Tom, a journalism student, found the group the same week that I did.
Early in the history of the Community Rick Meyer had taken the initiative to develop a constitution for the group. This appointed a “consistory”, which was akin to a church board where the members where mostly the key founders, to govern the group. However, as the Community expanded, this had the impact of creating a small elite group, and Duane Butherus took the lead in re-writing the constitution and revising the form of government. Under this, a general meeting each September elected the “Triumvirate”, a committee of three, who were responsible for arranging the worship services, and it could call a general meeting when necessary to decide other issues.
The Community members not only worshiped and studied together, but they also socialized together often on Sabbath afternoons or Saturday nights. We spent many nights at the brownstone owned by Rick and Gail Meyer in Brooklyn, playing “Risk” and Charades. Gatherings at the apartment of Mary Ann Ford featured the game “Bluff”.
Sabbaths at St Paul’s Chapel were a spiritual blessing, highly enjoyable, and memorable. For example, one week in the early Fall of 1972 provided a delightful surprise when four new members appeared unexpectedly at the same service. I was playing the organ for that service, and noticed that the hymn singing was especially good. After the service ended, and the regulars were chatting together, I did not notice the new-comers approach the organ until they suddenly burst into magnificent song. The singers included Faith Esham, Betti McDonald (the daughter of the first indigenous president of the Inter-American Division), her sister, Ruth Sherman, and Ruth’s husband, Enoch. It turned out that all of them had moved to New York either to study at the Juilliard School or in an endeavor to pursue a vocal career. This was the beginning of another exciting musical flowering in our worship services. Betti, Ruth and Enoch remained in New York for only two or three years, but Faith has been a key member ever since.
It was about this time that two unexpected personal issues emerged that troubled the community. The first concerned John Grayson, whose focus on the social gospel and political issues, some of which were race-related, was considered by some key members to be “too radical” and “inappropriate”. I was not part of the decision-making consistory, but in retrospect it is my sense that John’s stipend was not extended and that this was the reason he and his family ceased attending regularly. Since I had idealized the Community, I was shaken and disappointed to discover that differences of opinion would be treated as so significant and result in such tensions.
Two years later I was surprised to find myself at the center of another issue. I had been struggling since my Freshman year at university against my sexual attraction to other males, and this continued after my arrival in New York—I had experienced 15 lonely, frustrating years of unanswered prayers, for neither prayers nor programs such as aversion therapy brought the change of orientation that society and, more subtly at that time, church, had taught me was necessary. The fact that my prayers did not result in change troubled me considerably. Finally, towards the end of 1973 I concluded that the reason God had not answered my prayers must be because I was asking for something that was against His will: since He must surely, as God, have the power to change me, the fact that he had not done so must indicate that He was happy with the way I had been made. This new insight opened to me the possibility of a romantic relationship with another guy, and I became available for the first time to date such a person. Doug Porter, another member of the Community, unintentionally helped pave the way for this to occur: when he received word that an old friend from their undergraduate years at Stanford University was soon to visit New York, he asked me if I could accommodate him since he was not able to do so because he lived in student housing on campus. This led to my first gay relationship, which proved to be a very positive experience. A few months later, in about April 1974, when it was my turn to speak again at the Community’s worship service, I felt so comfortable with the Community that I took the opportunity to share my long experience and its recent joyful turn with my friends there. To my surprise this proved to be another test for what I had idealized as a very open group where all appreciated and supported one another. Oddly, there were already three lesbian members of the group, and one of the early male members was later to be the long-term president of SDA Kinship, a support group for LGBTQ Adventists. One of the lesbians attended alone, and never mentioned, at that time, that she had lived with a Catholic same-sex partner for many years; the other two, an MD and a nurse, were, to me, obviously a couple, who always attended together, though it was never mentioned that they were a couple. However, the MD felt very threatened to have the general topic raised and by the presence of a now-open homosexual in the ranks. I was surprised when I realized that this was so and that others were offended by my coming out to the group as I had. But that was only after several weeks of debate within the Community that I was not aware of, including a meeting of the rest of the regular members, called apparently by John Kelley without my knowing about it, where, according to John’s written account of it, very differing opinions were expressed and the key issue may have been whether the openness of the group extended to embracing an openly gay member.
The membership had always been rather fluid as some students completed their degrees and moved on, as others moved to new jobs elsewhere, and as new students and others found us. But after some weeks of debate my unexpected presentation seemed to be at least one reason for the exit of some of the regular members, including the founding couple. Their last appearance was at the annual business meeting in September 1974, where they refused to take any of the three Triumvirate positions, and it seemed as if they hoped that others would follow suit, resulting in the collapse of the group. But no. Others proved equally determined to support the Community, which was very precious to us. Much to my surprise, I was elected president of what at that time was known as “The Triumvirate” or “The Governing Body.”
With new blood leading, we gradually altered the constitution to make decisions by the whole group central, and also experimented with changes to our Worship. For example, we chose to make the reading of the Scriptures a much more significant presence in our worship that in most Adventist churches, following the Protestant Lexicon, with readings each week of a Psalm and of a substantial portion from the Old Testament, an Epistle, and one of the Gospels. The Community had earlier experimented with liturgies, but now we began to develop several different liturgies, one of which was used each week. We dropped the after-church study period, replacing it with a monthly afternoon meeting following a pot-luck meal; we decided to invite a special speaker for each of those occasions, and thus reinvigorated what had originally been the New York Forum. We dropped the distinction between Community and Forum meetings and, because a majority of our members was no longer made up of Columbia University personnel, we changed our official name to The Metro New York Adventist Forum. We began to arrange meetings over the Summer months at the homes of various members, which became refreshing occasions because they were both more relaxed than usual and the food served was always excellent. We also created a tradition of having special music and scripture services to celebrate both Christmas and Holy Week/Easter each year.
Realizing that it was important to find new Adventist students at Columbia and to invite them to join us if we were to continue to worship in St Paul’s Chapel, I was recognized as the Adventist chaplain on campus so that for years we were provided with the names of those students who had filled out a form stating that they were Adventists when they entered the University. However, after some years the university administrators decided that a student’s religion was not its business so that it ceased using that form, and thus made it much more difficult for us to find the Adventist students. This became an increasing problem as our members aged over time.
Nevertheless, the membership and attendance rebounded in the years that followed, with many of the newcomers remaining active for many years. Some, such as Jim Widener, who took the train from Philadelphia, Major and Pat Coleman, who drove from Syracuse, Ed and Stella Samuel from New Haven, Terry and Jan Anderson from Bernardsville, NJ, traveled long distances to attend. Other very active members included Obed Vasquez, Peggy George, Yvonne Lue, Gladys Jarrett, Bruce Tichenor, Darell Litvin, Hernando and Lisie Orjuela, Doris and Jon Benson, Tim Amulkele, Emmanuel Erin, Florita Stewart, Ouida Smikle, Steve Vance, Gina Rae Foster, and Lester and Christie Wright. We also attracted some students from Yale University at different times, most notably Linn Tonstad, who is now back there as a professor in the School of Religion, and Tom Eby: both have provided us with several memorable presentations based on their research.
After the two periods of tension in 1971-72 and 1974, the atmosphere of the Forum seemed to change considerably. Members could disagree with one another during discussions, but this was seen as providing opportunities for them to learn from one another. The membership became more diverse, racially, in national background, and in terms of sexual orientation, and everyone seemed eager to learn from those differences, and to support one another in our differences.
We worshipped at St Paul’s Chapel for over 30 years, most of the time without cost because of our status as a student group, and then, after the University changed our status to “mixed,” for $100 per week. However, near the end of the millennium the university told the campus Religion Center in Earl Hall that in future it had to support itself financially. Since a major source of its income was the fees charged for weddings at the Chapel, it raised those fees substantially, and in the process noticed that we were occupying the Chapel for key hours that could be used for weddings. We were suddenly told that in future our rent would be $500 per week, a sum that was clearly beyond our ability to pay. After fruitless appeals to the administrator, we resigned ourselves to finding an alternative meeting place. The active members spent several Sabbath afternoons searching for a suitable church near the Columbia University campus. Ed Samuel, our architect member, persuaded us that St Mary’s Episcopal Church on W. 126 St was the right choice, and it became our meeting place about 1999. We greatly missed the organ at St Paul’s Chapel, especially as the small organ at St Mary’s Church seemed to be always out of tune; we donated the church a piano so we could continue to have good music. However, we found we no longer attracted the same strong flow of curious Adventist visitors that we had previously had at St Paul’s Chapel, some of whom had become regular attenders. It thus became more difficult to grow in the new location. We struggled to publicize our meetings. In a city which drew many young educated Adventists because of the career opportunities available, we were aware that many of these, on discovering that most Adventist churches there were highly conservative because they were dominated by recent immigrants, were falling away from church attendance, we found it especially sad that they were not aware that we existed.
The pattern of people moving away from New York also continued, while the aging of our congregation, together with the general loss of Adventist youth everywhere, brought us a low numbers problem as the years passed and our average membership age climbed. Nevertheless, we have had many wonderful members, who became pillars. Those who have been active especially in the years since 1999 have included Christoff and Julie Weigel, Charlene Whitney, Tom Eby, Yvonne Valeris, Ronaldo Appleton, Steve and Elena Siciliano, and Christie Chow and her husband Joseph Lee. Looking back over the years, the first prize for long-term service goes to Janet Schultz and Faith Esham.
The Forum’s musicians have been especially important to the quality of our worship. I have mentioned our first organist and several wonderful singers. At the organ we were blessed for the longest period by the brilliance of Scott Wager. Bob Wilson created many special occasions for us, with special choral concerts and chamber music. Evan Closser was our pianist for a period at St Mary’s Church. I played both organ and piano when no one else was available. Instrumentalists who played often for us included Lynelle Smith, violinist, Bethany Eby, violist, and, earlier, a piano trio whose members were three talented Romanian siblings, Roberto, Laurencius, and Claudia Colon. Our Christmas and Holy Week services were always extra special.
For much of our time we had no children attending. However, there were some periods when we rejoiced to have them—unfortunately usually one family at a time. When they were of an age when a special class for them was appropriate, this was usually provided—often by Janet Schultz and/or Faith Esham. Over the years I remember Shane Kelly, our first baby; later Ellen Taylor and Bonnie; Lynnette Sargent and Jeanette; Terry and Jan Anderson and Catherine; Paul and Sharyn Cameron, who came to New York City from Australia for two years of medical research on HIV-AIDS at Rockefeller University, and their four children, Levi, Daniel, Anna and Elise; Jon and Doris Benson with Jake and Cami; Hernando and Lisie Orjuela and their two musically talented children, Alejandro and Carina; and most recently Christoff and Julie Weigel and their three girls, Celine, Katya, and Emma.
The Impact of the Forum on its Members
Why should we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Forum chapter? Let me share with you some interesting data.
The ties between Forum members often became very strong: we explored our faith together, shared our thoughts, joys, and personal crises with one another, and supported and cared for one another. For example, after I was diagnosed as celiac, and had to live with a very limited diet, I was amazed that those who prepared the dishes for our communal pot-luck meals somehow learned to make delicious gluten-free dishes, which those who did not have my disease also ate without complaint.
Many of the Forum members over the years said that finding us had not only been a great blessing to them, but it had allowed them to remain connected to Adventism: they had found an Adventist-related half-way house, where they could practice the gospel in the manner of the early church. However, a problem often arose when these members moved too far away to continue attending the Forum, for then they found that they had moved from the half-way house to inhospitable territories, where it became much more difficult to find a congregation where they fitted: an open congregation with freedom for discussion, an absence of legalism, and the music they had enjoyed at the Forum. Many consequently ceased attending an Adventist congregation at that point. This was especially true of the members who had attended the Forum full-time, less so for those who had retained ties to a regular Adventist church in addition to attending the Forum.
When I counted the number of divorces among those who had been Forum members over the years, I was surprised to find that I was aware of ten. All but one of these occurred after the couple had moved away from New York and the Forum, which suggests again that it is difficult to be without the support of such a congregation once members have experienced it. The one exception was a Nigerian couple where the man persuaded himself after receiving his graduate degree that he deserved to take a second, polygamous, wife as a reward. However, his wife, who had come to appreciate the greater personal liberty experienced in the USA since arriving here, would have none of it, and refused to return with him to Nigeria.
These data lead me to make a suggestion. Since it is so difficult to move away from this special forum chapter, perhaps this suggests that the Forum should take steps to stay more closely in contact with former members, to treat them as in some way still current members, and make recordings of Forum meetings available to them. The latter suggestion would involve a limited change in the long-held rule that meetings cannot be recorded. This was our response to what happened to Desmond Ford as a result of his 1979 presentation at a meeting of the PUC Forum: his presentation was taped, apparently without his permission, and then sent far and wide, especially to church leaders. The latter became upset, as expected, by its critique of the doctrine of the investigative judgment. The ultimate result was Ford’s dismissal from his teaching position and his loss of his ordination. I was embarrassed by the fact that it was my uncle, Pastor Ron Taylor, who, as the Secretary at that time of the South Pacific Division, wrote the letter informing Ford that his ordination had been nullified. Our dismay about those events led us to ban the recording of our meetings in order to protect our speakers and to help make them comfortable with speaking openly to us. But perhaps the chapter should reconsider this policy because members who have moved away would be blessed by being able to continue to hear the kind of presentations that have blessed them while here, and by being able to continue to participate to the greatest extent possible in your meetings.
We inevitably sorrowed over a number of member deaths over the years. Some of these members were elderly, such as Charles Stokes, Courtney Wood, Lynn Richert, and Grace Fields. (Grace had ceased attending for a period after the tensions of 1974, but returned later, this time with her partner. Their home became one that we were invited to use for Summer meetings.) Two other elderly members mourned were Jim and Esther Wideman from Philadelphia. Jim, a retired science professor, left the Forum a large annuity in his will—he had really loved us and our meetings, and we had loved this gentle, thoughtful and intellectual man in return. Three other Forum members died as a result of being infected during the HIV-AIDS epidemic: Simon Plunkett, Victor Pond, and Eugene de Jonge. Finally, three others died unexpectedly at a relatively young age. Rick Cook was completing his Ph.D. dissertation at MIT when he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. He struggled to complete the dissertation before dying, and was barely successful in achieving that goal—indeed, his department staged a special graduation ceremony just for him because there was no chance he would live until the regular one. Joe Messar was a lawyer who had been active in the Boston Forum during its initial phase, but joined the MNYAF when his work led him to move to New Jersey. His presence was a real blessing while he was with us. However, we lost him also to cancer. Scott Wager, my partner for 24 years and a fine organist and composer, was diagnosed as being bi-polar and later committed suicide. He loved the Forum and the Forum loved him. Since we did not have a pastor, and the Forum was Scott’s only church, I conducted his funeral, which was held at our house. Most of those who were present to grieve, honor his life, and support me were Forum members.
During its 50 years of existence Forum meetings have explored most of the issues that have rocked Adventism during this period. These included Ellen White and her literary sources and methods, an issue that was first raised by the AAF in SPECTRUM; the age of the earth and the existence of life in advance of the presence of human beings as understood by Adventist scientists; Desmond Ford and the certainty of salvation compared with the fear often caused by the prospect of our names coming up at any time in the Investigative Judgment; the position of women in the church and whether they should be eligible for ordination and to hold positions of leadership; the delay in the Adventist expectation that the return of Jesus was imminent—how soon is “soon”?; can homosexuals be Christians, and will they be saved?; and the high incidence of physical and sexual abuse in the Adventist church—of spouses, of children by parents, and of children and youth by members in authority. On the other hand, we have paid little attention to the Heavenly Sanctuary, to the enforcement of rules or “standards”, and we have never followed the studies laid out for Adventists in the Sabbath School Quarterly.
We have brought in a speaker once per month these many years, asking them to speak at both the morning worship service, where the time allotted to the speaker’s presentation is an hour, and again in the afternoon, when they have a similar length of time. Each presentation is followed by time allotted to questions and discussion. Our largest audience was drawn by Desmond Ford, who filled St Paul’s Chapel almost to capacity in 1981. Most of our speakers have been Adventist academics, from whom we learned a great deal and whose presentations brought us blessings and new understanding. We invited many of them to return, sometimes several times. We also had several Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews speak, and also an array of non-Adventist Christians.
During about ten years towards the end of my teaching career at Queens College, CUNY, I offered two of my courses, “Religion and Politics” and “A Comparison of American-born Religious Movements” at the New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan, under a joint program which drew students from both institutions. While at the Seminary one day, its President took the opportunity to introduce me to a doctoral student, Yvonne Valeris, because he knew we were both Adventists. As a result of this meeting, Yvonne began to attend the Forum. Although her M.Div. project had focused on the effectiveness of the efforts of a Pentecostal congregation to retain its immigrant youth as active members, a topic which should have been pertinent to the black and Hispanic Adventist churches in New York, she was rejected by both conferences headquartered in the New York metropolitan area when she sought employment from them as a pastor because at that time neither conference was willing to employ a woman in a pastoral role. As a result of this experience, Yvonne decided to seek a position as a hospital chaplain. But here again she found her sense of call to ministry frustrated, because the association that registers eligible chaplains insists that they be ordained by their denomination, but the Adventist Office of Chaplaincy Ministries is prevented by the votes taken at General Conference Sessions from ordaining women. I chose to consult with my friend, Pastor Monte Sahlin, about this problem. Initially he despaired, but some hours later he called me back to suggest that since the Forum was an independent congregation, that we consider ordaining her ourselves as a means of reversing the discrimination she was receiving at the hands of the Adventist authorities. After the Forum members discussed the issue in detail at a meeting of the congregation, we voted to ordain Yvonne. After this was done, we then presented her with a certificate of ordination we had prepared for her. She has subsequently served as a hospital chaplain in Arizona for many years.
While I lived in New York for 44 years, 40 of them as Forum President, my community was the Forum and my closest friends were there. I often mused in wonder about the quality of the people who were members over the years. The Forum community proved a huge blessing to me personally, and I thank all the members who helped provide that blessing over many years. I know from what many have told me that this has been the experience of most of our members. When I finally moved to a warmer climate in Asheville, NC, and inevitably found the churches there disappointing after my NY Forum experience, my solution was to form a new Forum chapter there. Thank you, Metro New York Adventist Forum, for being such an important blessing to me personally.