Faithfully Distant & Socially Engaged

Building community, being curious, and taking the long view.

May 21: Keisha talks with Alexander Carpenter on the Association of Adventist Forum’s Spectrum podcast Adventist Voices about ways to build community in this time, where she learned to be curious, and how taking the long view of social change keeps her grounded.

Listen to the audio (25:56) on the Spectrum website, iTunes, Stitcher, and Simplecast:



Intro: Slow, rhythmic electronic instrumental music.

(Deep voice) ”Yes, I knew Sister White.” (Mid-tone voice) “We will not fear...” (High-pitched voice) “The kingdom is alive! The kingdom’s on the move with the poor and the meek and the hungry and the lonely.” (Deep voice) “I’ll never forget it.” 

Music fades to silence.

Alexander Carpenter [AC]: Welcome to Adventist Voices. I’m Alexander Carpenter and I’m honored to have a guest today that I’ve known for a while, um, mostly through Twitter but by running into her at various meetings as well. 

And it is Dr. Keisha McKenzie. Welcome.

Keisha E. McKenzie [KM]: Hi Alex. It’s good to hear you. 

AC: I want to thank you so much for reaching out to me and being willing to talk about a really interesting idea called Faithful Distance. And I would appreciate if you would help us understand what this is in the context of a challenging, um, question that we have as folks of faith, and that is, we’re so used to defining community as gathering together. We count the numbers in the pews, we look at the amount of tithe or offering that coming in or people who show up for a musical event, and that’s how we really judge success. 

And the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine has really forced church leaders, people who care about their communities, to reevaluate what it means to successfully create community. So I think you are the perfect person to help us think about how we can be faithfully distant.

KM: Thanks, Alex, that’s really generous of you. I’ve been at Auburn Seminary for about two years now and we are a multi-faith leadership development center based in New York City but with friends and partners all across the US and in some cases in other continents as well.

Over the last eight weeks, just like many organizations who do public convenings, cohorts, gatherings, presentations, retreats, we’ve had to really deeply upend our schedule. 

Our staff were planning to be in three and four states over March, and as soon as we started to see how the coronavirus was affecting our communities—whether Jewish communities in upper Manhattan and out in the suburbs of New York, to other community members in Arizona and Texas, Louisiana—we realized we had to cancel our gatherings. 

And so we were going to be in Arizona for a retreat in mid-March, around my birthday. That had to go away. We were going to have a closing gathering for a team of people who’d been doing reproductive justice work for about 15 months ahead [of time]. And we turned that into two hours of conversation on the weekend. People—it’s a real time. 

People are leading congregations where they’re having to do funerals in a distant way, and they’re having to tap into different kinds of ministry than they were even trained for, or even imagined. And it’s a time when, I think, people who do frontline spiritual leadership and frontline service to people who are doing medical work, whether that’s the ethics officer at a hospital, an Adventist hospital, or a pastor who suddenly has to figure out how to do funerals and grieving rituals for people when there can’t be more than ten in a space at one time. 

People are facing extraordinary pressure and need spaces of nourishment. And yet we cannot be in the same room, and we cannot be more than 6 feet together. And so it’s an extraordinary time, and Auburn is one of those spaces who, with many of our movement partners is trying to figure out how we can still maintain the connections between people, to honor the fact that most of the extraordinary questions that we’re asking at this time—whether that’s about the economy, or it’s about healthcare, or it’s about racial justice, or it’s about immigration, and vulnerability—those are questions that require deep social solidarity. 

So we said, what would be one way that we could reinforce that systemic view, that we still need community to move ahead, and honor the public health requirement that we be physically distant? 

And so we launched this campaign called Faithful Distance, and it calls people to commit to physical distancing and social solidarity, both pillars of that; to cancel in-person gatherings until COVID is no longer a deep threat to the community or there are measures that help to mitigate its impact; and be inventive and creative about finding new ways for congregations and communities and movement or justice hubs to still gather, nurture one another, and provide services to the wider community.

AC: Thanks. It’s really helpful to get that overview, and I like that mix of helping communities of faith understand they can keep each other safe, practice physical distancing, but at the same time, continue to be socially engaged and part of the movement. 

KM: Yes. 

AC: Um, there’s been a bit of a debate out there in some communities about resisting social distancing guidelines or physical distancing guidelines and still assembling as an act of religious freedom. 

KM: Mmmhmm.

AC: And, if you wouldn’t mind—sometimes it’s annoying to have to go in and rebut these clearly dangerous choices that people make—but I’d like to get your perspective, if you’re willing, just to talk about how, as a leader within the religious movement that really emphasizes social engagement, how you view those, those choices by those congregations and, perhaps a positive model that you see out there where communities stay engaged, remain kind of faithful to, y’know, each other. 

KM: I think that the best—the best models that I’m seeing from clergy at this time are people who understand that we have a ethic of care, a duty of care, both to the people that we might be in leadership relation to as pastors or community leaders or so forth, but also to the people that we meet every day. 

And that’s not a duty that comes from your job but it’s a duty that comes from understanding that there’s a Creator who created both you and your neighbor and that puts you in a particular orientation to them. That means that you don’t—that you’re not cavalier about harming them and you’re not cavalier about increasing their risk of vulnerability. 

The thing that I’m hearing from congregants or ministers who are either antsy about having been required to close or are—have been declaring that this is a religious freedom issue is really trying to balance the authority of the state versus the authority of the church. And in some senses it’s been about having to let them play out their ideology in a way.

So in some of the early congregations in Virginia that were so resistant to initial calls to close and kept open beyond when it was advised to do so began to see their leaders getting sick and in some cases they saw people die.

And it’s a really unfortunate and tragic situation that sometimes, sometimes consequences have to help people get some clarity about whether they can score political points with their decisions to stay open or closed. But at the end of the day they’re risking people’s lives and they’re risking their own lives or the lives of their spouses or their daughters or their husbands or wives.

And I think there’s also a way in which religious people’s—hmm, how do I put this?—I think in the last couple of years we’ve seen religious people take an orientation of resistance to the state. 

AC: Yeah. 

KM: So, whether that’s church schools wanting to make sure they can hire and fire whom they will regardless of national or state discriminatory policy or it’s about managing the way that someone can appeal to the Americans [with] Disabilities Act. That was a particular case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. 

So we’ve had a couple of years where there’s been this sort of tug of war between what church, especially church institutions, can do and what the state or society at large says is a new norm. 

And I think this is one of those cases where as Adventists in particular we run such a large medical system—

AC: Yeah

KM: —and we spend so much effort designing institutions around how to care for people in education and in healthcare, in medicine, and research, Like, we should be at the forefront of fact and being able to rally people around what’s true.

And we know what’s true is there’s a disease out there that is highly contagious and that people will die if they flout physical distancing rules. 

AC: Yeah.

KM: That we should be, like, really on the frontline of not allowing political rhetoric to divert people from the core facts, or make people cavalier about taking on risks that are absolutely not necessary. 

And for sure we should be at the frontline of saying our churches and congregations should not be a site where people might come in for emotional or spiritual nourishment but leave having had some damage to their physical system. 

So we are a community that is really strong on this idea that we are a whole human being: So you are are a body and you are a mind and you are a spirit, and you are that in one indivisible unit— so there shouldn’t be a situation where we are putting people at risk for the sake of… an 11 o’clock service, or a prayer meeting, or a funeral, or a wedding. 

AC: Yeah.

KM: We should have a different orientation to that risk. 

AC: Well that’s, um, a really helpful way of framing it. Because I think that risk assessment has helped the church rethink a lot of the ways that they have put their congregations and children at risk by ignoring good practices, whether its abusive leaders or theologically lazy thinking, and, um, framing this as risk and really reminding pastors that they’re shepherds and caregivers and not just stars with a pulpit is important. You—

KM: Yeah. Agreed, agreed. And I would say it goes beyond what clergy are required to do. Because I’m very much a believer in the priesthood of all believers. 

And I think there are ways in which there are people who are not clergy but who still take leadership in their local communities because they understand that humans are social creatures and that we need to be in spaces where we can nourish each other, feed off each other, serve with each other. So social isolation is a real need that we have community to counter that, and we can make decisions as non-clergy community leaders to increase people’s risks or mitigate people’s risks. 

So people—I’ve seen a lot of inventiveness around converting what would have been book clubs and study groups that met in a church hall, or on a church campus, into Zoom conversations that might check in once a week. I’ve seen a lot of inventiveness about Sabbath School. 

Even the podcast that you’re doing, Alex, is one of those tools that I’m seeing as a way for people to feel like they’re still part of a conversation.

So many of the things that people are doing now, it’s not really new things that they’re doing, but we’re doing a lot more of them, in a more dense schedule that people have more opportunities to go to, both public art and listening to lectures from scholars across the country to these more personal points of contact and connection. I think that’s—I think that’s great.

AC: Let’s talk a little bit about you, if you don’t mind—

KM: Sure. 

AC: You’ve been on my radar for so long as an important voice, and you’ve shaped my thinking on a variety of issues, and I thank you for that.

You grew up in the U.K., you completed college in Jamaica, and then did graduate studies in technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

KM: Yes. 

AC: And I have followed your work around a lot of the same Adventist spaces; you sit on the Adventist Today board. And your Twitter feed, where I follow you the most, is often a wealth of perspective that cuts into and across sloppy thinking, and I’d just love you to talk about how you combined this background into what makes you, you. 

KM: Hmm. That’s a really great question. 

I think one of the things that I grew up around was people who were curious and liked to read a lot. My mother was an encyclopedia salesperson for a number of years when I was a small child, and so the idea of not knowing something was fine; it wasn’t a deficiency. But the drive to go investigate and learn a little thing and compare sources and be curious about the world at large—that was something I got from both my mother and my father. So I’m really grateful to them for setting me up in that way.

And then I think, coming up in three different countries provides a different level of perspective on things that are usually rendered in nationalistic terms. So, even people’s experience of the church: it is a global church, and I’ve seen that it is a global church, and that shifts the way I view what happens in a local conference. Because what happens in a local conference is not just what happens in that region or that congregation. It’s connected in intangible and tangible ways to what’s happening elsewhere on the planet.  

So I think I’ve—through my travel background, immigrant background, personal background—It just—it sets me up in a particular way that there’s a larger, there’s often a larger frame around what might be happening in a much narrower context. 

AC: That’s great. I’ve got a final direction to go, and that is, as we look at the shape that our religious systems are going, and our political systems seem to be going, there’s a lot of conspiracy mongering out there. There’s a move toward a kind of craving for authoritarian control. There’s kind of a bizarre return to fundamentalist interpretations of scripture or the Constitution. I should say pseudo-fundamentalist in a way. And I’d love you to tell me what keeps you going, what gives you hope in these times. 

KM: I think I—I think it’s a long view, taking a Long Time view. I mean I don’t even—I don’t really accept the framing that the fundamentalist turn, whether in our tradition or in the world at large, is bizarre. 

AC: Hmm. 

KM: I think there’s a—it’s possibly a cycle that we go through, of opening up and then contracting, as a species, in our social groups. 

If I view the Adventist church’s cycle, then like I do see a maybe 50-60-year pivot from one pole to the other, and I think we’re in the early, early-to-mid period of a contracting phase—it just makes sense to me. 

Both the time that the Adventist Today and Adventist Forums rose up: it was the 60s and 70s. There was a lot of expansion, expansive energy in the academy, among scholars, among preachers and non-clergy who were reading outside of the denomination, learning from archaeology and literary criticism, and able to pull from a variety of sources in helping them see the scriptures and denominational history in a different way. 

And around the mid-80s that shifted, as a different kind of energy took hold, both within American culture and globally.

I think people have a pull toward more certainty, particularly alongside this rise of what you said: a rise of suspicion of authority, appeal of conspiracism and fake news—

AC: Mmhmm.

KM: —a kind of ambivalence around information and how to viably judge it. All of that is happening in the wider field. 

So I follow on Twitter a bunch of information security people who are frankly very worried about human capacity to keep filtering a glut of information and much of it nonsense.

AC: Yeah.

KM: [laughs] So we have a situation where there’s so much information coming at us from very, very different angles. There’s not a clean set of people that we do, across camps, trust to filter that information. 

So people are retreating in many spaces to the favorite voices that they like, and the favorite talking heads that they prefer, and the favorite cable news channels that they want to listen to. 

And there isn’t—the church has not been a space of either—I don’t know if there’s such a thing as neutrality—but not a space where some of those perspectives can be viably put into contention and where people can learn and practice how to weigh them, how to evaluate them, how to understand them, and how to put them in right priority to each other.

So that’s an emerging opportunity for spaces like Adventist Forum and Adventist Today: to offer some of that common space, to re-expand a contracted Adventist civic sphere so that people learn to thresh these ideas together, and rebuild through practice that trust in one another and in our collective ability to get to something that is more true and more honest and more faithful and more nourishing. 

Because, like, retreating into the segments, and retreating into the ideological ghetto, has not helped us that much. I think it is part of a cycle that we just go through every half-century or so, so I do expect it. But I don’t find it individually that helpful; I don’t think that it’s collectively that helpful, but it is a thing that we do, repeatedly.

So I think that there are countering tactics that we’ve also learned do work. And these kind of spaces where we can open up and explore, whether it’s through a conference, or it’s through a journal, or it’s through a community Bible study: those things where you de-center access to the knowledge and people get to practice how to manage it—and learn and fail and learn again and try again—I think that’s part of the trajectory that’s going to be health—helpful for us going forward.

AC: Great, so I appreciate your long view perspective; you’ve given me hope already.

KM: [laughs]

AC: It’s not, um, but it’s not really deterministic, you suggest. It’s really—y’know, it requires us to do something. It’s not just going to become expansive, to use your term, open—y’know, the Enlightenment will not automatically flourish. It’s gonna require organizations and people kind of getting in there and creating those spaces. Is that what I’m hearing? 

KM: Yes, yes. I think there’s a lot to—Two images are coming to mind right away: There’s this cartoon that was probably in a magazine that I saw a long time ago on the internet, where there’s a formula on one panel, and an answer on the other, and then the middle screen is “Miracle occurs here.” 

AC: [laughs]

KM: And sometimes growing things in nature is kind of like that too: there is a miracle that occurs, but there’s also planting that occurs, there’s pollination that occurs; there’s effort involved in tending and making sure that pests don’t get in…

And all of that. There’s some management that’s involved in stewarding a garden. 

But there’s also a miracle that we’re not directly responsible for. 

Spirit still works. 

So I feel like there’s ways that we can proactively set up conversation spaces, and protect them, and nourish them. 

But it’s also about the effort of showing up and still being willing to share ideas and still being willing to stretch and test and experiment and create. 

That’s where I think our largest portion of work is. And Spirit can work in all of that. 

But Spirit times 0 is nothing, and Spirit times 1 is something. So we get to—we get to add something to the mix. 

AC: I like that. What a note to end on: Spirit still works! 

KM: (laughs) 

AC: Well it’s been really good talking with you, Keisha. Thank you so much. 

KM: Thank you Alex. 

Outro: Slow, rhythmic electronic instrumental music.

(Deep voice) ”Yes, I knew Sister White.” (Mid-tone voice) “We will not fear...” (High-pitched voice) “The kingdom is alive! The kingdom’s on the move with the poor and the meek and the hungry and the lonely.” (Deep voice) “I’ll never forget it.” 

Music fades to silence.


If you enjoyed the conversation or have questions after hearing Alex or me, share a comment below! 

Thanks for reading,