Profile of Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church
Profile of Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church
In my wanderings around Crown Heights, I had come to notice the Shiloh SDA Church on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Rogers Avenue. Once during the summer, a group of people outside the entrance were conducting a health fair. They offered to take my blood pressure, and, being between doctors, I agreed. 130/90 was not perfect but I was told no cause for alarm. They had literature about diabetes, eating healthy, and sensible ways to get exercise and deal with obesity. I was impressed. On another occasion during a Thursday morning, I saw people lined up at a side door to the church with carts. They were going into the church and emerging with their carts filled with food. I was even more impressed. Next I found that my neighbor Sandra Layne worked at the church in their kitchen. Sandra is an amazing cook. She can create wonderful meals, and she can do it for a hundred or more people. I found out that she helps with the Saturday lunch served at the church after the service. Then I found out the cashier Stephanie at Met Food has an aunt who is a member of the church. Stephanie got me in touch with Sister Danisa who is the one who organizes the food pantry. I went and talked to her and she advised me to talk to the Pastor, Dr. Marlving Charlet. So on January 12, a little before 11am I did just that.
When I arrived at the church asking for Dr. Charlet, everyone was welcoming and helpful. Within five minutes, I was talking to him in his office. He understood what I wanted immediately and told me I could address the congregation. He had someone take me to the front row of seats and shortly after the service began, I was invited to speak. I went to a podium at the front of the room. I thanked Dr. Charlet and everyone I had met in the church for their hospitality toward me and told them I wished to write a profile of the church for the Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association, and then I returned to my seat. A long service followed, about three hours. What struck me the most was how varied it was.
First, Shiloh has an amazing choir that sings beautifully. When they did “Praise Him! Praise Him!” they had the whole church rocking back and forth. And later in the service it turned out they have some great soloists as well. The choir plays an important part in creating an inspirational atmosphere. Second, there were many parts of the service directed at the family. At one point a new baby was taken to the front by his family and welcomed into the world. A group of children also came to the front and answered some questions posed by a young woman. The congregation prayed for certain families that had asked for this support. Third, Brother Jimmy spoke for a while about politics. He pointed out that an election to fill the empty post of Public Advocate is coming up and mentioned some of the candidates. He also offered criteria for thinking about who to support. And then finally Dr. Charlet spoke. His text was the Book of Joshua, particularly the taking of the stronghold of Jericho. He turned this incident into a metaphor, mentioning different strongholds that individuals maintain that need to come down – addiction, suspicion of others, violence in the family, cold relations between people who are otherwise friends. He spoke about how important it is that these strongholds be opened up. He had the full attention of the congregation; members called out responses as he spoke. After the service was over, everyone went downstairs for lunch, and it was then I met Sandra in the kitchen cooking a wonderful meal of salmon and rice. She had a serving packed up for me that became my dinner that night.
A week later, I got the opportunity to talk with Dr. Charlet on a cold Monday afternoon. He told me something about his background and how he came to Shiloh. He was born in Haiti and came to the U.S. as a baby. He had lived primarily in East New York with his mother, who was a Catholic and attended a Catholic Church there. When he was an adolescent, East New York with its gangs and high crime rate, did not seem the right setting for him. So he moved out to Huntington, Long Island to live with his father who was a Seventh Day Adventist. Dr. Charlet told me he was not a star academically, but he was popular and active in high school affairs and became president of his class. Eventually, in following his father's activities in the church, he became a member. However, theology was not his main interest. At Oakland University in Michigan he majored in biology. Dr. Charlet sees no conflict between religion and science; as he says, in science you are studying God's creation and coming to understand him better. However, his interest moved away from biology to religion, and he went on to get an MA and PhD in theology.
The SDA church is highly organized. It has different levels from local conferences to national and international ones. At every level the needs of the church are considered and members go and serve where they are needed. In Dr. Charlet's case this has meant numerous assignments at many different churches in Brooklyn. It seemed to me that he is regarded as someone who can build up a church that is struggling. He is a strong inspirational leader who can bring in new members and straighten out any problems that may exist between members of the congregation. He has also done work abroad – he told me about a stint in Kenya.
Dr. Charlet arrived at Shiloh only two years ago, but he has obviously found his footing. He divides his work between outreach and what he calls “in-reach.” Outreach has to do with the church's relations with the community. The medical program and the food pantry are part of that. The first involves a relationship with the doctors and nurses of a local hospital and the second depends on donations from the United Way and Urban Harvest. The church is not only interested in electoral politics but also issues in the community from real estate development to the police shooting of Shaheed Vassell. The church is often offered real estate deals to develop the property in exchange for large sums of money. However, Dr. Charlet turns these offers down as not being in the best interests of the community. In the case of Vassell, church members joined demonstrations protesting the police action that led to the death of a disturbed but harmless man.
The other side of what Dr. Charlet is doing is “in-reach.” In this area he is organizing a history of the church to create a list of all its pastors, telling what happened during the term of each one. Dr. Charlet believes that to know where you are going you have to know where you have been. He also confirmed what what I had suspected – that the church is “wholistic” – it addresses the concerns of its members at every level with programs for children, teens, young adults, families and seniors. As Dr. Charlet said, the church covers its members “from the womb to the tomb.” He also said that Shiloh at one point had 1,200 members; the number now is closer to 600. His goal in the next few years is to raise that number to something between 800 and a 1,000. He has also spent time getting the various parts of the church to work in harmony, straightening out misunderstandings and problems that arise between different personalities. Dr. Charlet is not sure how long he will remain at Shiloh; he thinks maybe five years total. However, one sees in him a dynamic personality, and one who has just started his own family. He recently had his first child. The day I talked with him, Dr. Charlet had been up late taking care of his son who had developed a fever and had become sick to his stomach. The pastor's wife seems to be as involved in the community as her husband; she is a lawyer who works in the District Attorney's office focused on immigrant affairs.
The last part of my investigation of Shiloh was to go to the Thursday morning food giveaway. This was just as impressive as everything else I had seen. I arrived at 8:30 in the morning of January 24. It was raining hard and very windy. I thought this might reduce the number of people lining up. However, when I arrived, there were 28 carts lined up by the door on Rogers Avenue. I spoke to an elderly woman sitting under the awning at the main entrance. She told me she has several medical problems including high blood pressure and pre-diabetes and these conditions made it impossible for her to get food stamps. She would not be able to spend the time needed waiting in offices and it would be very difficult to assemble all the paperwork they demand. She has the same problem with applying for disability. Shiloh just gives her the food, no questions asked, and it is an essential service for her and her daughter who live together. I also ran into a young man named Jimmy whom I had met before on Lincoln Place. Most of the people on line were elderly and there were more women than men. Jimmy is a vigorous young man who goes to the gym and has a job. However, he does not make enough to afford the basics, so the pantry helps him cover his food bill. He still has to pay for everything else – rent, transportation, clothes and more.
At 9:00 am the volunteers for the food bank started to arrive. Again I met Sister Danisa; she was taking care of all the problems – assigning volunteers as they arrived, putting out the food, even mopping up a spill on the floor. I also met Elder Fraser, who seemed to be providing spiritual leadership. And there was Sister Anne, one of the servers and a young woman from Medgar Evers College, a biology major who was doing community service. Elder Fraser works for UPS and had just finished the night shift. He was going to do the food bank and afterwards take food to a man who had become home bound. After that he said he would head for home to get some sleep. Sister Anne had come from East New York and is not a member of Shiloh. For her, this pantry is a good work and she said she sets aside things for people she knows who have to come late.
At 9:30 Elder Fraser spoke; he told the fifteen volunteers to be humble and fair with the recipients and treat each one as if they were Jesus himself. He said a prayer and then the people started coming in. They had a wide range of foods to chose from. At one table was chicken, ground beef and sausages; there were many fruits to choose from – lots of bananas, and there was water and bread and vegetables. There were perhaps a dozen large bags of potatoes which I was told would all soon be gone. Elder Fraser said anywhere from 150 to 200 people would come, many getting food for numerous others at home. Sister Danisa is an amazing organizer, putting together the food, the volunteers, and the recipients in a friendly and orderly atmosphere. The people coming in felt respected and cared for. It was a wonderful experience to see this; it capped off everything else I had seen and heard at Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church.
– John DeWind