“Do you know what that means?” Don, the head elder, asked as he washed his hands. Kyle glanced at him quizzically.

“What are you talking about?” He turned to the hand dryer. His friend Brent came out of the bathroom stall.

“Your ear.” Don turned off the faucet. “Do you know what that means?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Brent said vehemently.

Kyle had been glared at all morning. He had recently gotten his ear pierced—something that got negative attention at church. His faith was waning. Kyle’s friends could see that he wasn’t happy coming to church anymore. They tried to include him, but he just didn’t feel he belonged. And this condemnation from church members wasn’t helping.

“Oh, it means something, all right.” Don was referring to men who wear earrings to show they are gay.

“That’s a myth,” Kyle spat. “And it’s the other ear!” Kyle’s father had just been asked to leave the church because he had revealed himself a homosexual.

Searching for a Purpose

“God doesn’t appreciate your jeans,” a woman at church stated to Jenna.

Turning from the woman, Jenna looked at Molly, who had brought her to church. She had been there only eight minutes and wanted to cry. Jenna had been on the receiving end of funny looks and condescending comments since she walked through the door. She had been searching for answers, for truth, for a purpose. Molly had told her about God, this amazing Deity who made her feel complete, and Jenna desperately wanted that. Now, she regretted looking for answers here. She didn’t want to be surrounded by such negativity.

She had been in church eight minutes and wanted to cry.

Molly was furious. She knew Jenna was trying to make sense of her life; she knew Jenna was sensitive and that this wasn’t what Jenna had been looking for. This wasn’t what she had wanted to show Jenna, either. She wanted to show her the side of the church that loved everyone, that was excited to see another soul come to God. But instead, Jenna was an outcast because she wore jeans.

Getting Personal

I felt like turning and walking away. When Alexis said she wanted to introduce me to her friends Marcie and Colin, I wasn’t expecting crazy, club-loving clowns. Colin was in his early 20s and Marcie must have been 17 or 18. They both had crazy hair streaked with orange, blonde and violet. The girl’s four or five piercings were nothing compared to the man’s 13 or more. Tattoos encompassed his left arm, and his black-and-white checkered Vans, brown skinny jeans, and green-and-gray layered shirts reminded me of a skater turned hipster. They attempted to talk to me, but I didn’t want to befriend the wrong crowd.

An eternity later, Alexis said her goodbyes and we headed to the ice cream shop up the road. After a long minute, I asked, “Who were those two?”

“Oh, Colin is my youth pastor and Marcie is his little sister. High Voltage is our outreach station for the kids in town. You should come to one of our meetings sometime!”

My stomach churned. I was the biggest idiot, the lowest of the low. What is wrong with me? This man was “bad news” because of how he looked? I had avoided talking to him because he had a pierced eyebrow and a tattoo that extended to his pinky finger.

The Positive—First Impressions

Laughter animated the old brown gazebo. I nervously edged toward the crowd as my friend Leonel led me to his family. Greeting me were his grandparents, uncle, aunt, cousins, and family friends. Exchanges of “Hi!” “Nice to meet you, Michelle!” and “What’s your name?” welcomed me. I sat and finished my first plate of corn chips, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and sour cream piled high, chomped on a Linkette—my first vegetarian hotdog—and for dessert nibbled at a vegan brownie. It was my first Adventist potluck, and I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was smiling and laughing. These people were different; they gladly received me. One simple encounter ignited my curiosity.

What makes these people treat me so well? I feel like—family.

Surrounded with Acceptance

“Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!” I ran outside to greet Leonel and his mother. They were here to pick me up for vespers at their home. Leonel and his family continued to invite me to every vespers at their home, church, and any activities being held. They saw my love for Jesus and biblical truth and sincerely supported me. I had multiple ear piercings, tight clothes, and thick black eyeliner yet my outward appearance didn’t define who I was to Leonel, his family, or their church family.

I saw that the interactions I enjoyed with members of the Adventist church reflected Jesus’ love for me. The love I felt from Leonel and his family made me sure I wanted to be a part of a church that contained love I couldn’t find anywhere else.

People are the first representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We are all capable of looking down on others based on education level or social status, labeling a person based on hygiene or clothing, and “inconspicuously” talking about a person’s marital status or past sins. But we are also capable of deciding that, despite not knowing what a person has done or who they are, they can be treated with respect and compassion.

There was something different about these people.

As an Adventist, I know the way I treat others impacts how they view the One I represent: Jesus. On my first encounter with anyone, I want to be able to treat that person with kindness and respect. I don’t know what trials a person is facing: homosexuality, drugs, sex, pornography, eating disorders or a search for fulfillment and love found only in Jesus. I remember when I was skeptical of strangers who were from a different church. I had many unanswered questions, and I was searching for answers.

What is God really like? Do I have a purpose? What does God want for my life?

If my first encounter had been discouraging, I’m certain my impression of Adventists would have made me look elsewhere, and my journey to find truth would be ongoing. An encounter with sincere and happy strangers at a potluck changed my life. They surrounded me with acceptance. They didn’t know my background, religion, or what kind of person I was. Yet I didn’t feel judged—not even once.

Having learned from my experience, I always pray for opportunities to reach those like me, treating them with kindness and asking God to help me love and understand them. We ask why people leave the church yet we continue to reinforce division between “us” and “them.” Yes, we are God’s people—but so are they.

It’s as small as a condescending glance or a comment about clothing or piercings. As the “righteous,” we may feel the need to point out what we see in others with which we don’t agree. But we don’t realize our negative impact. How can we communicate a loving and compassionate God to others if His representatives are not also loving and compassionate? How can we say that God is our judge while exercising righteous condemnation? Will we not also be judged for judging?

As Jethro so eloquently stated in Disney’s movie Prince of Egypt, “How do you measure the worth of a man; in wealth or strength or size? In how much he gained or how much he gave? The answer will come to him who tries to look at his life through heaven’s eyes.”

We need to look at all people as God’s people and love them as He loves us. As a church, we need to rejoice, dancing in praise like the angels do in heaven when another soul comes to God. Make them feel welcome, at home, wanted— despite their appearance. Just as Jesus did.

Guest Co-authors Michelle Thao and Megan Boulton are students at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Michelle is a junior nursing major from Pontiac, Michigan and Megan is a sophomore English major from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.


There’s More

What Does God Say?

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:24-32, NIV).

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:20-21, NIV).