“The Good Life”: ACFI 2023 Unlocks Life's Cheat Code – Adventist News Network

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Attendees of the annual institute embrace Jesus’ promise of the abundant life and the mission to share it with others at their public campuses
“I’ve found the cheat code—the thing that makes life worth living: I have Jesus. And I’m privileged to live this life in service to others,” said Akehil Johnson, the North American Division’s (NAD) Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) student association president, at the 2023 Adventist Christian Fellowship Institute (ACFI). “Living in this joy is living like heaven is today.”
The institute, held July 25–29, 2023, at the University of Ottawa, brought together 75 campus ministry leaders, pastors, youth and young adult ministry directors, and supporters. Themed “The Good Life; Heaven Now!” as described by Johnson, ACFI encouraged participants to embrace and share the abundant life promised in John 10:10.
Ron Pickell, Pacific Union Conference ACF coordinator and senior pastor of the Berkeley Seventh-day Adventist Church, introduced ACF’s “The Good Life” Bible study, based on the three epistles of John. Morning devotionals built on the study, daily outreach, seminars, and joyful evening worships inspired attendees to bring the good life to their public campuses.
A central question was, “How do we demonstrate love to one another and our communities in our ACFs?” A separate seminar track for campus chaplains, with speakers including Gilda Roddy, NAD associate director for Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, challenged them to better support student leaders in ministry.
Keynote speaker Kevin Wilson, digital and social media coordinator at Andrews University and “CEO of Chai” on TikTok and Instagram, discussed identity, faith, and empathy via personal stories and biblical references. A first for ACFI, Wilson and Pickell collaborated to align the morning devotionals with the evening messages.
Wilson drew from his experience in parlaying his tea-making skills as a Sri Lankan native into a social media platform addressing faith, identity, mental health, and social justice. For instance, he noted that just like a good foundation is required for good tea, one must be rooted in the True Vine to bear good fruit (see John 15).
Wilson closed with lessons in empathy, such as prioritizing compassion over condemnation and connection over conversion. These principles helped him build unexpected friendships as the CEO of Chai, including with podcasters who had turned to witchcraft after being disfellowshipped from their churches but still loved Jesus.
“The world needs anxiety reducers, bridge-builders, compassion experts, distance-reducers, empathy experts, and faithful followers of Christ,” Wilson asserted. “I pray that as you go back, you build … bridges, [not] bunkers.”
Sabbath morning, Tracy Wood, NAD Youth & Young Adult Ministries director, referenced John 10:10, saying the good life also entails receiving God’s peace and strength through trials. Wood concluded Sabbath evening with a testimony of surrendering his desire to be a rocker to God as a young man. His final words on the Sabbath were a charge. “You’re not called to sit in church beside us [older folks]. You’re called to lead the church. Be empowered. When you go home and launch your ACF chapter this fall, God wants to use you in ways He’s never used you before.”
Also that evening, Guilherme Brasil De Souza and Mpilo Norris, outgoing ACF NAD student association officers, received service awards. Arlette Feliciano and Greg Santos, absent, were also recognized. In a brief speech, Norris urged peers to focus on mission and “add [their] brick to the house of God that’s being built.”
Throughout the long weekend, seminars encompassing digital evangelism, mental wellness, chaplaincy, community building on campus, and other topics equipped attendees for ministry. Chris May, University of Tennessee Knoxville campus minister and director of Advent House—a residence and campus ministry resource center for Adventist students—spoke on “The Psychology of Community.”
May learned a fundamental tenet of community—common goals—during his first ACFI as a student in 2015; he has attended nearly every year since. For him, a bonus this year was the pre-ACFI retreat for conference and union campus ministry directors. “I appreciate seeing people going through the same struggles and accomplishing the same things as us. I look forward to [ACFI] more than I look forward to my vacation.”
Lindsay Syeh, Southeastern Conference’s Campus Ministry director, spoke on trauma rooted in religious or spiritual messages or experiences. She highlighted an oft-ignored element of the good life: mental health professionals. “There’s a place for prayer and therapy.” Syeh also offered suggestions, such as spiritual first aid training and spiritual and mental awareness days/weeks, to help ACFs “create safe places for all students.”
Syeh was one of many inspired to reach a broader audience via social media after attending Wilson’s breakout sessions. Wilson elaborated on his journey from youth and young adult pastor to social media influencer. Wanting to go online during the pandemic lockdown, he reluctantly accepted his youth’s suggestion of TikTok and discovered its capacity for retention.
Wilson shared social media basics, such as determining your target audience, platforms, and frequency of posts. He also emphasized presenting biblical truth in a relevant way for non-Adventists. “Answer questions people are already asking so [they trust you] to answer the questions they don’t even know they’re asking.” He gave his mission as an example: teaching people to make chai so he can help them live a more meaningful life—aka the John 10:10 life.
New this year was daily outreach, with activities including collecting items for a food drive, promoting uOttawa’s Lighthouse ACF, led by senior chemical engineering major Ogechi Ahunanya, via flyers and other initiatives, singing, and feeding unhoused people.
At the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter, young ACF leaders didn’t flinch at the syringes, piles of clothing and other items, and litter visible everywhere. Instead, as they handed out lunches, they also took the time to hear people’s stories and pray with them, connecting like Jesus did.
The outreach activities were eye-opening for students such as first-time attendee Brian Bonilla, a sophomore neuroscience major from the University of Texas at Austin. He said, “I’m a little introverted, so it was challenging at first to go out there and talk to people. But I prayed to God to give me the words—the confidence. And it was a beautiful experience.”
During “Shark Tank,” another community-focused activity, the University of Ottawa’s lunch buddy program, Texas Tech University’s Hub City Summit—an ACF worship, outreach, and networking event—and Florida International University’s initiatives to combat leadership burnout competed for funding. Impressed by all three, the judges requested $1,000 more from the NAD and gave each entry $2,000 rather than having a first, second, or third prize.
Angeline Brauer, NAD Health Ministries director, who also spoke at the event, excitedly made available the additional funds. “All three of the proposals have components of community health ministries, and we want to support our students in these amazing initiatives,” she stated.
There are 60 active, registered ACFs across North America (see ACFlink.org), yet anywhere from 150–200 unregistered groups. ACF is a grassroots organization, tracing its genesis within the NAD back to the 1970s. Pickell, who has been involved with ACF since the 1980s, likened its founding to stone soup, as “everyone [including students, church members, conference leaders, chaplains, pastors, and NAD Youth directors] put something in.”
Today, Wood and Pickell work with the ACF student association, comprising student leaders, to “empower and support [all] students and ACF chapters to reach their campus and change the world.” ACFI, which will occur within the unions in 2024 due to the International Pathfinder Camporee, is one of the significant supports for ACF leaders. Johnson noted, “It doesn’t matter if your university has 5,000 students or 50,000. We are here to support you.”
Their efforts aren’t unnoticed. Asked what he appreciated most about ACFI, Christopher Marra, senior microbiology: pre-med major and ACF president at Texas Tech, stated, “Everything. The lesson. The sermons. The people. Everything is just a vibe.”
Several students shared moving testimonies on Friday evening and Sabbath, underscoring why it is so vital to introduce students to the good life through ACF. One was Lani Phan, a Princeton University engineering senior. Raised Buddhist with a father suffering from mental health issues, she often heard that she was worthless. She experienced a mental breakdown in her sophomore year and didn’t eat, shower, or attend classes during finals week.
After crying for eight hours straight, Phan begged God not to wake her up the next day. However, she did wake up and was invited to a Seventh-day Adventist Church the following week, where she found a welcoming community. “At my absolute worst, God saw me,” she said.
That fall, Phan discovered the Princeton Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she met fellow students Amelia and Joella. “Every question I had, every doubt, there was an answer. And I kept on going.”
Eventually, Phan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from emotional abuse, major depression, and borderline personality disorder. Phan says learning about God and His Word changed her life completely, teaching her to love herself and others and forgive her dad.
That year, Phan was introduced to ACF via a Columbia ACF-organized weekend retreat at Camp Berkshire for all area ACFs. There, she received answers to all her questions about Christianity and Adventism from the speakers and experienced the love that had eluded her for 20 years.
The Ottawa event further strengthened Phan’s faith and helped her build a Christian community. Notably, she had suffered another mental breakdown before ACFI but was grateful to be recovering “in a room full of love and affection.” She now looks forward to leading a recently reestablished Princeton ACF with Amelia and Joella in the fall, helping others discover Jesus.
“I feel myself significantly changed,” Phan said passionately. “There are no words to describe how thankful I am for God, for ACF, and for each and every one of you. You all saved my life.”
The original version of this story was posted on the North American Division website.
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