I plan to spend 2022 thanking the people who have influenced my life. One of the biggest reasons some kids end up in jail, and others somehow avoid that path, is because of the mentors they had access to during their lifetime. Some people I want to acknowledge have died, but many are still alive - and I hope to recognize how profound their interaction in my life affected me.
When I started my pastoral ministry in 1995, there was only one other (employed) Seventh-day Adventist minister of South Asian descent in North America. I was a student chaplain at Columbia Union College, and Pastor Franklin David was launching a small fledging congregation called Southern Asian Adventist Church (SASDAC). Most people are unaware of the sacrifice and toll that was taken during those early days. Besides planting the congregation, he also worked a full-time job, sometimes the night shift to make ends meet. And yet, he persisted. (Immigrants, we get the job done.)
Occasionally, I would drive my 1978 baby-blue Cadillac to the rental church where Pastor Franklin’s church met atop of a hill, with a treacherous, steep driveway. I would visit hoping to find a possible nice Indian girl and partake in a home-cooked meal. Sadly, every time I dropped by, all the girls stayed their distance, and lunch wasn’t being served.
Being a minority of minorities can be especially challenging in the Adventist Church. This is due in part to the systemic racism that exists in the denomination. When I started out, it was (I am using past tense to be polite) almost impossible for a church administrator to notice anything except your race and accent. The denomination wasn’t eager to fund more ethnic churches, and they did not consider pastors of Asian and South Asian descent for mainstream, “American” churches.
Over the years, Pastor David ministered to this congregation of mostly first-generation immigrants. There are many issues that immigrant families face; such as language, finances, job placement, and more. SASDAC provided a safe place, a built-in support system for immigrants to find resources, and relief.
SASDAC has received public recognition from the State of Maryland and local County Officials for its involvement in the community. The Indian community, both Hindu and Muslim, has recognized the public outreach this church has made on issues of charity. As an example, during the early days of Covid, SASDAC provided rice, daal, and other cooking essentials for anybody who was in need.
While we were the only brown pastors working in the same city, our paths didn’t cross very often. I was young; he was older. They considered me liberal. He was conservative. He was a first-generation Indian immigrant; I was a Desi. But he still invited me to preach occasionally, knowing that I could communicate well with the younger people in his congregation.
On one particular Sabbath morning, I was sitting on the rostrum, next to Pastor David, excited to preach a new sermon I had been working on for weeks. Before it was my turn to preach, a gentleman stood up to give the offertory. He gave a long appeal, but then said this, “I cannot tell you even one sermon that Pastor David has preached over the years. But I can tell you, he was there when my wife was dying in the hospital. He never left my side. He helped us bury my wife and visited my children day after day. No sermon can replace that act of compassion.” At that very moment, my ministry changed. I remember sitting on the grand wooden chair that is reserved for the preacher, feeling a heaviness come over me. It didn’t matter how many outstanding expository sermons I gave, I needed to learn to be a better pastor.
Over the years, as I have grown older and seem to have more gray hair than Pastor David, we have shared more ministry duties together. I have stood by his side, as we have conducted weddings and far too many funerals. Last month, we spent many hours in the home of a dying loved one. Pastor David was already there by the time I showed up. He didn’t make a “pastoral appearance” like I have done countless times. He sat, prayed, cried, and remained with this grieving family.
How does one lead the same congregation for 34 years? Think about that! The same church. The church has grown from a small dozen to over 800 members. I know for a fact that it hasn’t been easy over the years to grow a church, deal with countless cultural, tribal differences between varying factions in the church, and still maintain the composure of grace.
There are three things I will be eternally grateful to Pastor David. First, he didn’t hold a grudge after I stole one of his church girls and married her. Second, he never asked me to serve as a minister at his church. He knew I would never fit in and would likely fail in the wrong context. Finally, he has been a living example of God’s grace to all people. I have known him on stage, as well as offstage, and he remains the same man, with integrity.
Last week, Pastor David retired from full-time ministry. The farewell was small because of the emergence of the Omicron variant. The congregation gave him a well-deserved send-off, but in many respects, his send-off was like the humble beginnings of his ministry.
When he finally stood to give his last sermon, he started his remarks by informing the congregation of someone who had passed overnight. He told the church, ‘this family is new to our community, so we must rally around them and show them support.’ Even in his last sermon, he continued to shepherd his people.