A Discussion with Ganoune Diop, Director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, Seventh-day Adventist Church
August 28, 2020
Background: Ganoune Diop is a leading intellectual within interfaith circles and has been part of the G20 Interfaith Forum since its inception in 2014, focusing on issues of religious freedom. He is currently leading the Association’s working group on religious dimensions of racism. He and Katherine Marshall spoke (by zoom) on July 27, to explore various dimensions of his path from Rufisque, Senegal to the Seventh Day Adventist headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. This has involved a constant focus on freedom and a remarkable intellectual journey crossing multiple disciplines and topics.
“I realized a core in my calling in this world, which is human solidarity, a deep respect for other people's choices that leaves aside our differences. That is freedom of conscience: conscience to believe or not to believe. If I genuinely believe in that, then that means I must genuinely embrace others…I confident that, through my journey, God has placed me to be a person of reconciliation, a person bringing people together, a person genuinely respecting and embracing the humanity of others.”- Ganoune Diop
What was the heart of the work you are doing in several quite distinct roles at the Seventh Day Adventist Church?
Several doors have opened to me and, walking through them, I have realized a core in my calling in this world, which is human solidarity, a deep respect for other people's choices that leaves aside our differences. That is freedom of conscience: conscience to believe or not to believe. If I genuinely believe in that, then that means I must genuinely embrace others This, I think, is one of the reasons why, providentially, I'm positioned to be there as the secretary of one the largest Christian organizations, the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, entrusted with the privilege to meet the top leaders of all denominations, developing friendships, with genuine interest in all. I was also asked to be part of the board for the Global Christian Forum, that, again, brings together different Christian streams: Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and many other Christians. I believe that, through my journey, God has placed me to be a person of reconciliation, a person bringing people together, a person genuinely respecting and embracing the humanity of others.
The prerogative to choose what to believe and what not to believe, without being boxed into any allegiances, that can be more tribal or ethnic or this or that, has connected freedom of conscience and my own journey. My primary commitment is to God. I have also a deeper commitment to the whole human family. Commitment to God also materializes in the embrace of human beings to whom God shows solidarity. When I became the director of public affairs and religious liberty, I was also asked to be the secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association. Cole Durham, for example, and many others of different faith traditions come to our meetings.
The core of who I am is connected to the belief in this sacredness of humans, human beings, whoever they are, whatever their journey or their life experiences. I deeply feel that is where I belong. I would betray my own being by not showing solidarity with the whole human family, and when I say with the human family, I mean without exception, anywhere. That is connected to the first theme of freedom, which is where, interestingly, my spiritual journey of conscience began. Therefore, the idea of freedom is constitutive to my spiritual journey. Now, as secretary general of the International Religious Freedom Association, my work is connected to the heart of my life trajectory.
I am interested to learn more about the Adventist church. There seem to be quite distinct silos: the church itself, ADRA, and the whole medical side. How do these relate, within the Adventist and the outside worlds?
Officially, from a theological or from an ecclesiological perspective, Adventists position ourselves as part of the continuation of the Reformation. That doesn't mean that this is the only church: absolutely not, but we are a continuation of the reformation. Most Christian denominations claim to champion some aspects of the Christian faith they consider core to their faith. The term “Seventh Day” or Sabbath, connects creation, human dignity, human rights, and equality and other principles. Adventists insist on God's sovereignty, to say that creation means that we are not just the result of chance. Nobody is an accident. The other part of the name, Adventist, reflects a focus on a Christian belief that most Christians share: the second coming of Jesus. This aspect is more about hope: things as they are right now in the world may look bad, but God promised that he will come back to restore God's sovereignty, his kingdom.
Among some Adventists, for example, you find people who insist on the signs of the times: that some terrible thing will happen. Some Adventists at the fringe of the mainstream faith may develop a rather sectarian understanding, that “we are the best”. To me, that is totally misconstrued, a misunderstanding. To a large degree, without diminishing the dignity of these people, I might say it's misinformation about God's purposes for the world. The gospel is the good news about God's first coming and good news about the second coming, meaning the coming of the savior to deliver people from the human predicament: suffering, disease and death.
Without question, the Seventh Day Adventist church has a wide portfolio of various services. You find the medical world: hospitals, and clinics all over the world. Education is also widespread, with universities and colleges. A third section would be humanitarian, like ADRA, a strong component of the church engagement to be an asset to society. Human rights is a fourth important area, and this is where I have worked most as a leader. The International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) was chartered in 1889. The Seventh Day Adventist Church was officially organized in 1863, during what they call the second great awakening. Because the Adventists celebrate the Sabbath, like the Jews, for example, the question of the Sabbath soon brought issues of how to negotiate that within society. This was probably the initial step towards a large consciousness about the importance of religious freedom, including the freedom to choose which day to worship and so on. Human rights and religious freedom came into focus in that sense. There are also other services, like women ministries, youth ministries, children ministries, and even more recently special needs or what is now called “possibility ministries”. In many ways you see an engagement in society, which is something admirable about Adventists. It's making a difference around the world, all of which is good.
No church is monolithic, and every church is basically a mosaic. We find that also among Adventists. Some tend to create silos of sorts, but that’s hopefully a minority among Adventists. What I am trying to promote personally is a more universal, more accepting approach. I meet everyone, including Adventists who are less welcoming, again a minority. Some can be even anti-Catholic (as some Catholics can be anti-many things). I position myself as a part of the human family, wanting to make a difference in this world, respecting people's consciences, because to me, that's like an inner sanctum where basically people ought to be. People are sacred, like temples, and therefore, ought to be respected.
With the current polarization around religious freedom issues, what are your thoughts about how that came about and how it might be addressed in a practical way?
The fundamental problem, in my view, is the understanding of religious freedom itself. Right from the start, the first amendment in the US had the important language on religious freedom as the first freedom, but at the time when this was articulated and adopted and voted, freedom was not really understood as a universal value that would include, for example, slaves and many others. Understandings and misunderstandings developed because of the polarization in America, and issues around populism should be tagged into this also. Polarization in America has been exacerbated since the LGBTIQ rights surfaced, with so many different aspects. Even the US Commission on Religious Freedom has come to the point of dividing religious freedom on the one hand and civil freedom on the other. But the deeper problem is the understanding of what freedom is or freedom of religion or belief or religious freedom and the politicization and instrumentalization of religious freedom. A fair question is whether the State Department is really the best vehicle to promote religious freedom around the world. What does that mean? Is that really a way to discredit religious freedom? How should the Chinese react? The Russians? There is much to discuss.
How do you see the challenges for Religions for Peace, especially under its bold new leadership?
The setting for interreligious work is a paradox. The human, religious instinct (and this is connected to the issue of proselytism) is to feel secure and comfortable only when it can duplicate or reproduce or expand itself and enroll others. It takes something deeper to start seeing things in a different way. Yes, religious freedom includes the freedom to share one's belief, or non-belief. But always, I think, the path of peaceful persuasion is the best one: peaceful persuasion that gives the other the freedom to choose. But that's not the real story of human history. Taking Senegal as an example, Muslims came to Senegal at a time when Senegalese were fighting against colonial powers. The history of Senegal is woven into the history of Islam because Senegalese people, when they could not defeat Europeans, found refuge in Islam. So Islam, to a large extent, shaped the psyche of the Senegalese. It takes some analysis and distancing to start seeing such pieces, and they may be deconstructed in different ways, not necessarily to debunk or judge people’s religious choices. After all, religious freedom entitles anyone to choose one’s religious allegiance. But still, it is interesting to observe how our narratives are shaped. That is part of the dynamics of interreligious dialogues. Religions for Peace’s mandate is explicit in the name chosen to express their mandate. All religions claim peace, Judaism’s shalom was even part of the priestly blessing. Christians claim Jesus as the prince of peace who gives peace. Islam’s very name is inseparable from the multifaceted concept of peace. The bold leadership of the current general secretary is refreshing and promising, to bring people of different faiths to build peace together, without compromising their respective identities.
Two things complicate matters in the development field: money and imbalances in power, which can include knowledge, but also influence and access to resources. The issues are usually wrapped in much broader issues of concern about the sanctity of one's culture, with debates, sometimes rather twisted, within human rights fields between the individual's freedom to choose and the community's.
Very true. It's complicated. But first, humans are sacred. Cultures are social arrangements elevated to the status of religion. Promotion of one’s culture with the aim of integrating others into it, in terms of assimilation, has always been problematic. The evils of colonialism, whether socio-cultural or religious, are based on this same logic. Proselytism is a topic that is worth looking at closely as it is tied to the issues of power and culture, but also language. Understanding these as to how they evolve over time and how they are woven into traditions is an essential field of study. There was a time. in the Middle Ages, when prayers were in Latin, for example, but that shifted as people said that Pentecost existed, so people can understand God's wonders in their own languages. In the seventh century, the concept of holy language was reinstated. That happened in Islam, with Arabic as the holy language, so that the Quran is preferably read in Arabic. Jesus decentralized many matters of culture. In the story of the Samaritan, there is no longer a holy place: you don't have to go to Jerusalem or to Samaria, or anywhere, because where two or three are gathered in his name, he said, God is in their midst. But then when Islam came, you have a re-centralization. Mecca becomes the central place. Even when you pray, you have your direction and so on. That's the place. This being said, there are traditions within Islam that state that the whole world is a mosque. One can pray anywhere. Similar issues can be found with objects and practices. Sacrifices are an example, in a sense of killing animals. Christians ended a longtime practice, that was reinstated by Islam. I have a list of about 20 such topics where thinking and practice have shifted.
Can we pursue this journey with your own path: where were you born and how did you get to Silver Spring and the Adventist Church?
What a journey! I was born in the Dakar region, in Senegal, and specifically, in Rufisque. It's about 27 kilometers from Dakar and is a very multicultural setting. I highlight this because I was exposed very early to multiculturalism and even to a multi-religious setting.
As you know, Senegal is predominately Muslim. Estimates of percentages vary, with some as high as 95% of Muslims. But I would call Senegal in general and the Rufisque region in particular quite multicultural and multi-religious. Our neighbors then, on the left, for example, were from Lebanon, Muslims, and on the right of our house they were Catholic and French. You have mosques, but also churches in Rufisque, and even a cathedral. In my own family, Muslims predominate, but you also have Christians, something that is quite common in Senegal. I grew up in that context. And of course, in Senegal you have quite different kinds of Islam (Sunni and Shia), and diversity within each Islamic community. Islam is a mosaic in Senegal.
All that represented a plethora of ideas that was very appealing in terms of coexistence. One grew up in a tolerant atmosphere. As you know, Senegal’s first president, Leopold Senghor, was from a Serere tribal community and was a Catholic. It was important to see that the highest official in the country could be of a different religion than the majority. This environment, very early in my childhood, impressed on me the idea of tolerance.
I must say, to be quite frank, that I was rather disenchanted by religion as a child. The reason was connected to the idea, the question, “how is it possible that those who claim to be religious conquer, subjugate, colonize?” There was something dissonant there, even though the majority opinion would have maintained at that time that colonialism was very much of the western world, of Europeans and their greed. I knew better, that it was far more complicated, because my family was very well read and we were exposed to many ideas, with very cultured people like Cheikh Anta Diop and many others. Those who were building empires took advantage of Africa, whether Europeans or Arabs. Growing up, I heard about horror stories of conquests, brutality, casteism, not only white supremacist ideas but also Arab supremacism. This is why I was disenchanted with religion. Of course, there are good examples of genuine humanity in all religions, but the record is mixed. Africa as a continent of hospitality has been abused in many ways.
From my family background, I inherited wonderful examples of benevolence and care for others. My grandfather, for example, was wealthy and he used to feed hundreds of people every day. This background helped to develop in me ideas about humanitarian obligations and philanthropy. Still, I was disenchanted by religion because of slavery, colonialism, and other aspects. I asked myself, as a child, whether, if Islam or Christianity truly reflected essential human values, they could have engaged in this kind of conquest, slavery, and subjugation.
At an artistic level, I grew up also with the gift of music. As long as I can remember, I had a passion for music. Anything I heard I would play or sing easily. That passion was inhibited, restrained, within my family and community. Although many do not recognize this fact, Senegalese society is very hierarchical, with a clear caste system. Although people don't talk about it, it is very much there, part of the lifestyle, something everyone knows. It comes out, for example, when someone wants to marry someone who may be a fine person, wealthy, qualified, and even with a strong social position, but if the family’s background is in certain areas (for example the jewelry making tradition), there would be opposition. The term for that community in Senegal is tegg. Something similar applies to music and I was thus not allowed to play or learn music. I thus grew up playing music clandestinely. I would go to the fields, and experiment or simply enjoy music. That is how I learned to play several instruments. That this was hidden was a fascinating part of my growing up.
How did you find a way to pursue your love of music?
I was able to pursue this passion seriously only when I got to France. I went there to study sociology, because I was really interested in better understanding people. I wanted to become a social scientist. However, I arrived in March, when it was too late to start classes at university: I had to wait until the fall. In the interim I was able to follow a dream that I had had since childhood, which was to play the flute with virtuosity. I went to the Conservatory of Music of La Rochelle, a lovely little city in the western part of France. I wanted not just to play, to develop my gift, but to understand what I was doing as I played music and develop my knowledge further. I bought a transverse flute and registered at the conservatory and started, at last, to learn the flute officially. I had played the traditional Fulani flute, which is a traditional transverse flute, a fascinating instrument one sings with. I was quite fluent with it but at the conservatory I resolved to start from the beginning.
My flute teacher during about our third lesson, told me, just in those terms, “Ganoune, the day you will know Christ, you will really be free.” I immediately answered that of course I knew about Christ, as a great prophet. He said nothing further, leaving it at that, but the exchange started a journey for me. It had much to do with the theme of freedom, which is something deep within me, that for many years was what I was striving and yearning for, though at the time I did not really know why.
How did your search for freedom relate to your pursuit of religious studies?
I had come from Senegal, where Islam is not just Islam; there is a mixture between Islam and the traditional religious beliefs, in spirits, for example. People go to the shrine to make sacrifices and there are other such traditions. This is not a criticism, but infused in me as I was growing up was a tendency, not divorced from the belief in spirits and superstitions, to be fearful about one’s environment, what is out there. As I recall it neither parents nor education countered this tendency. For example, the whole of life was filled with fears and superstitions. For example, when I wanted to go out or asked my parents about visiting friends, they would tell me, "Yes, but you must absolutely come back at seven”. When I asked why, the answer was that after the sun sets, the spirits are unleashed. In many subtle ways, you grew up developing a fear of the invisible, basically a fear of the unknown.
Fast forward, when I was at the Conservatory, the flute teacher who was a Seventh Day Adventist, touched on my hunger for freedom and resistance to this sense of fear. It was my first contact with the Seventh Day Adventists and he absolutely did not wish to push or force me in any way. He did tell me, though, that, if I really wanted to be free, maybe I should consider knowing better who Jesus Christ is. And this started me on another journey. At that moment, I dismissed what he said, but somehow it started really working within me. I knew I wanted to be free: free from so many things, including free from not knowing who God is. What I mean by that is that I had asked myself, "Is having to surrender our being what this is about, as if we were simply objects, obliged to follow blindly whatever a supreme king would say? Simply to grovel and agree?"
As I look back, I realize that I resisted that idea from a very early age. In Senegal, the notion of jebalu means literally to surrender one's soul to a spiritual leader, whatever brotherhood one belongs to. There is a venerated guide to surrender to. From the time I was very young I used to ask myself, "Is this really what life is about?" With all due respect to people who choose their path, to me, it was really, in a sense, slavery, as if I did not have a personality because another human being would determine what I should do, how I should do it, etc. I really had trouble with that. The idea that God cares and loves every person, the whole world set me on another trajectory, while continuing to respect every person regardless of their religious affiliation.
You're an independent soul!
Definitely. Even though freedom is not an idol either. The goal of freedom is love. Freedom creates the condition for love to flourish. Love cannot be forced so freedom is its prerequisite.
Where did you go to school? In Rufisque?
Partly in Rufisque, but then in Dakar. I went to a lycée called, at that time, Lycée van Vollenhoven (the name has changed now). It was a good school, offering many things, but at that time, I had really begun my quest for meaning in life. In my last year of lycée, I moved to an English school in Dakar, because I wanted to travel. What you call an independent soul was closely tied to a dream that I needed to travel the world by boat. I had a friend, then, who was gifted artistically as I was musically, and we dreamed together that we might one day buy a boat and travel and so on. I was very independent, and when I was 16 years old, I decided to visit other African countries. I traveled first to the southern part of Senegal, Casamance, and there, using my gift of music, I played the harmonica and sang and thus I could go from village to village. There was an element of the teacher there, as I wanted to help people be closer to nature and so on. But I was just searching for my soul, who I was. As I traveled, I made my way by entertaining in clubs and such places. I could play each night, earn some money, and move on. I traveled to Mali, to Ivory Coast, to Ghana, just to discover. I was very young!
A beautiful part my life then, that I want to emphasize, was my mother. I had a wonderful relationship with her, of trust. Even when she did not agree with what I was trying to do, she simply trusted me. She started me out with some money to travel, believing that somehow my life was going to be meaningful, in whatever way.
Were your parents Muslims? Which confrérie?
Yes, they were. They were Tijane, but the family then moved closer to the Mourides. It was a very relaxed, open type of family. We also have some Christians in the family, but my immediate parents were followers of one the forms of Islam in Senegal.
How do you understand the remarkable openness and flexibility of Senegalese Islam to different traditions?
That is part of the African soul. The idea of hospitality is like a sacred idea. But when people are socialized in the empire mentality of competition and conflict, then hostility, sectarian mentality wins. In Senegal the traditional teranga (benevolent hospitality) has remained in the ethos of social relations. Religious freedom is not only part of the constitution of the country, it is also mostly adopted in people’s lifestyle. It is also a humble way to let God be God. Another important aspect to this truth is the early Muslim religious leaders who have resolutely adopted the way of nonviolence. Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is a prominent one of those who chose to be persecuted than to persecute, to renounce violence rather than to take the arms and to encourage his followers to fight.
Obviously, since no religion is monolithic you also find some intolerance but mostly inconsequential.
Some Muslims who read religion politically do not allow their “imaginative vision” of life to include freedom of choice. This intolerance is reminiscent of empire mindset and violence.
What happened after your flute lesson and your teacher’s comment?
Prompted by our discussion on freedom, I decided to study the bible, so that I would understand it better. I already had some knowledge, as even in my family we had open conversations about what people believe and so forth. I decided the best way would be to study theology, where I could do an in-depth exploration to find out by myself. I was in France at the time and decided to put aside the study of sociology and go to Collonges, near Geneva, where there was a theological university, basically a seminary, where I could study theology. This was a Seventh Day Adventist school, because my flute teacher was an Adventist. I was, however, very open minded at that time in my approach to different denominations. I studied theology for four years.
When did you go to France? Was this after the baccalaureate?
I went to France when I was in my 20s. After my degree in theology, I went on to get a master’s degree. But while I was doing this, I was continuing with my music. I went to the Conservatory of Annecy, in that beautiful city, where I was living at the time. I did very well, musically speaking, so much so that I became a professor, teaching at conservatories around Annecy. This was a nice phase in my life, as I taught music and was involved in concerts as a soloist. Meanwhile I was very diligently studying theology. I focused particularly on studying ancient languages, starting of course with Hebrew. I had to study Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as part of the theology program.
While I was in Annecy, something else happened that once again broadened my perspectives. I wanted to devour everything around knowledge. Reading was a passion: going to the library to sit and read for hours. I went to the library at the top of the mountain in Annecy, a Catholic convent that had a library that was a center. I drove there one day and was sitting, reading, when a nun approached me. She asked if I was interested in theology and I replied that I was indeed. As we began talking, I recall well, on a Wednesday, she told me that Jean Delorme, a specialist in the gospels, in particular, the book of Mark, was leading a study group at the library that evening. He was among the avant garde in France, promoting semiotics in literature, but also religious literature, including the bible. The nun who had approached me, knowing nothing at all about me, simply invited me to join the study group that very evening. I accepted of course, and immediately clicked with Jean Delorme, who was a Dominican priest. We had a remarkable relationship and his generosity touched and moved me profoundly. Here was an expert, well known, who had written extensively, recognized not only in the Catholic world, but beyond. He told me that I could join the group, if I wanted to, permanently, with no strings attached whatsoever. He gave me the full access to his own library. He introduced me to the lady who was basically managing the convent, telling her that whenever I wanted to come, I could have the key to the library.
This and other experiences are why I will never judge any person because of their religious affiliation. I have seen people with remarkable qualities from many traditions. I find it difficult to see anyone criticizing Catholics or others. I see it as unfair and inhumane. There are good people everywhere. There are also people who instrumentalize their religion for evil purposes. With Delorme I found someone who showed a generous disposition with no strings attached except in the quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
A Center for the Analysis of Religious Discourse had opened around that time for the study of semiotics. Again, I was welcomed into that group, with Jean Delorme, John Callou, and many others actually from many faiths traditions. We all kept our respective religious identity. Interfaith relations does not mean loss of one’s religion affiliation or identity. I cherish these people, to this day, although several of them have passed.
I studied semiotics, because I was eager to be able to analyze text, in a scientific manner, not just at the surface level or anecdotally. Even when, later, I was living in Lille, in northern France, I would take the train to go to Lyon every week, in order to be part of the research group. I did it just to have knowledge and better understanding, following my deep passion. I was paying my own way, with no sponsorship of any kind.
What did you do after you finished with your master’s degree?
I was offered an internship to become a pastor, in Paris, where I lived for many years. During the latter two years I was working as an associate pastor. I was then called to be the senior pastor in another city, Lille, a city with a well-known university with students from all over the world. I engaged many people. I focused then a great deal on philosophy, an area where my interest had never diminished, even as I was doing theology. From Lille, I was called to head the Department of Biblical Studies for the Adventist Church in France, which I did for three years.
The next large shift came when I was asked if I wanted to pursue an academic career as a teacher. That would entail going to the US, to Michigan, and doing a PhD in Old Testament. At the time, I was doing a PhD in New Testament in France at the Catholic University of Paris, linked to semiotics, the analysis of religious discourse. I was also studying at La Sorbonne. I found that fascinating. I stayed in the US for about five years, finishing a PhD in Old Testament. I then returned to France, this time as a teacher.
I had studied ancient languages, Hebrew especially, while I was in college, then for my masters. While I was working in Paris, I decided that I really needed to have a degree in philology, the science of languages. I did not just want to be a good student in Hebrew or a good student in Greek. If I was to teach these languages, I wanted to have the necessary credentials. I went to the Catholic University of Paris again, while I was teaching in France, pursuing a master's degree in philology at the School of Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations and Languages.
Backing up, did you go to a Quranic school in Senegal? Did you speak Arabic?
I know Arabic and understood the Quran. I have the blessing of being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic Greek, and also Classical Quranic Arabic. I also studied Latin.
Did you learn Arabic as a child or later?
I began as a child. In Senegal, people recite but they don't necessarily understand. When I studied philology, classical Arabic was part of the program. Then I started to develop a deeper understanding of Arabic and other Ancient near eastern languages. I taught Greek, and therefore I'm very comfortable with the language. The overarching goal that motivated me was to read writing of monotheistic religions in the original languages not the secondary languages.
Do you still play the flute?
I have about 45 different flutes from all over the world. I play the modern flute, but also ancient Baroque flutes and other traditional flutes.
So now you are back in France teaching, but also doing a philology degree. When did you return to the US?
In the year 2000, after teaching five years at our seminary in France, I was invited to come to the United States. It happened I believe in a providential manner. I was invited to make a presentation in the Philippines, speaking to church leaders, on the book of Revelation, one that is much discussed, with speculation on the signs of the time, catastrophes, and so forth. I was presenting how Jesus is revealed in the book, rather than speculating on apocalyptic symbolism based on guessed work. Rigor is necessary in exegeting texts. Taking the context and the books’ inner logic is essential. The people there appreciated very much the approach. At the same time, in Tennessee, the Southern Adventist University was looking for a professor of New Testament. After hearing me speak, someone immediately sent a message to the dean there suggesting that they might want to contact Dr. Ganoune, who might be the fit they were looking for. In France, I was teaching Old Testament, but I had studied New Testament and have a degree in apocalyptic literature. Subsequent to that trip, I was invited in 2000 to teach at Southern Adventist University.
After I had spent four years there, Oakwood College, one of the historic black colleges, asked me to join them. They wanted to become a university, which meant that they needed to offer a master’s degree. They had to find people capable of designing master's programs to help build their case to become a university. I moved there for three years. I completed with a team the design of the master's program which was approved by the board on a Sunday, in 2007. The next Wednesday, I received a call to come to the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, to be the director of the Study Centers.
So you moved to the SDA Headquarters in Silver Spring in 2007? What was your mandate and work there in the initial years?
I left France for Southern Adventist in 2000, then moved to Oakwood in 2004, and was called to Silver Spring in 2007, where I have been ever since, though in rather different roles.
The SDA Study Centers basically were mandated to study world religions, in order to better understand them and to know how to relate to other religions in terms of interfaith relations. Another goal was to advance the relevance of Adventist work. To contribute in meaningful ways, you need to know people and speak people’s language, to say something that will be truly meaningful to them. That means more than just language but also understanding their way of approaching issues, their world-views, what they value, their taboos, what they celebrate etc….
I led the centers for three years. Then, during the fourth year, the church asked me to join the steering committee to plan and organize the commemoration of 1910 missionary conference, that was to meet in Edinburgh, Scotland. I went there to represent the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and we met every three months. At first, I took a low profile, simply participating with occasional comments. But one day, they asked me to share a biblical thought, a meditation. It was well received. Subsequent to that encounter, The committee started asking me to do more. To cut a long story short, during the week of the commemoration of the 1910 mission conference, in 2010, I was asked to chair the plenary session on mission to world religions, exploring what this really means in a Christian context. I chaired the session and also gave another presentation. Then, during the main session, the climax on Sunday morning, though I was from a minority group, I was asked to welcome all the delegates. So, somewhat providentially, I welcomed them all and personally introduced the members of the organizing committee, that included Catholics, Anglicans, etc. When the church saw how prominently I was positioned in this ecumenical setting, they asked me to represent the SDA Church officially at the United Nations.
This is how my interfaith journey really expanded. I was the representative of the church to the UN and there too, doors opened. I organized various meetings. We even started what we call a symposium, that was integrated within the UN agenda. That is when I began to work closely with Dr. Azza Karam, for example. Today I am part of the Advisory Council for Religions for Peace.
After I had represented the church at the UN for about three years, I was asked to lead the department of public affairs. This was a shift, now focusing on relationships with governments and also with religious leaders. This catapulted me into new worlds and opened wide another door, through relationships with religious leaders. I was nominated to serve as the secretary of the Conference of the General Secretaries of Christian World Communions. I participate in the organization of each annual meeting for senior leaders of all denominations. This is not a typical ecumenical gathering. Many leaders come: secretary generals, top level archbishops and bishops of different denominations, coming together to dispel prejudices and to get to know one another. We have no resolutions to sign or to implement. Rather, it is about human relations built on deep respect in the dignity of difference.
That's a stunning story and I'm delighted to know it. A specific, side question: is the Seventh Day Adventist Church part of the World Council of Churches?
The Seventh Day Adventist Church is not part of the World Council of Churches. We have what we call observer status. I'm invited to events and I work with them personally. I was even part of the writing committee at the Busan General Assembly few years ago. We collaborate and we partner, but the Seventh Day Adventist Church has chosen, for freedom of conscience purposes, not to belong to an ecumenical entity with a central organization, because belonging to such a central organization is like surrendering one's constitutional conscience. This may be why the Catholic Church, for example, while having very close and cordial relationships, cannot be under the umbrella of another organization. We position ourselves in a similar way. We will join any table where people come with an equal footing. For reasons of freedom of conscience and preservation of our distinct identity, SDAs are involved in interchurch relations but not fusion of churches. We belong to the family of Christians who confess the Trinitarian God, the divinity of Jesus who is lord and savior. However, just to be clear, in some countries, the Seventh Day Adventist Church is part of, for example, the Protestant World Federation or similar organizations. France and Spain are such cases, because the government deals directly with these entities that include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc. But we are not part of the World Council of Churches, nor of the Council of European Churches (CEC), even though we work so closely with them I personally teach every year at their European summer school on human rights, and I'm invited at their general assembly
In your academic journeys, have you dealt with Vedic, Eastern religions or has it been mainly within the Abrahamic family?
I have had extensive contacts, mainly on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, a little less, but significantly or sufficiently, to be able to have an intelligent conversation with even some shamanic or other Asian traditions. I have studied many schools of Hinduism and Buddhism.
With such a rich background of scholarship, are you teaching and writing or are you focusing more on dialogue and engagement at this point?
Both, for now, though less teaching. I am invited quite often to lecture. Because of my passage at the UN, I find many intersections and universal values in world religions. I have worked, for example, with the previous special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. I have written academic papers for the University of Aachen, for example a piece on human dignity as the foundation for human rights. Even though my journey seems eclectic, the foundational piece is really academic. But I have developed the gift of engaging others in respectful dialogue. I study religions deeply enough to try to articulate what they believe in ways that they will recognize and be comfortable with, that is not derogatory, judgmental, or trampling on their dignity. Absolutely not. What is Islam really about? I have taught that in several settings, and Muslims will stand up or come and thank me, saying that I help them better understand their own religion. When other people say that, and this is not just anecdotal, I am grateful. But I am very careful to manage that so that it is not politicized. I'm close to people who are Muslims, Jewish, or people of other faiths.
Again, I have embraced the whole human family. What other way there is for me if even of God it is said that God loves the whole world?