Stories & Commentaries

Love in Any Language

An interview with Tony Anobile, vice president for Multilingual Ministries for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

Tony Anobile

Tony Anobile, vice president of Multilingual Ministries for the North American Division; photo by Pieter Damsteegt/NAD Office of Communication

Tony Anobile works with 15 different language groups — and counting. But he wasn’t always in multilingual ministry. In fact, the majority of his time serving the church, almost 34 years, has been in youth ministry.This interview is the fourth of a six-part series that will introduce the officers and directors of the North American Division who have begun settling in to their newly elected positions.

Kimberly Maran: Let’s start with your early years in ministry.

Tony Anobile: I started as a Pathfinder director for the Southern California Conference. From there, I was the associate youth director and then associate pastor. In between, I was the first young adult director in the division for the Southern California Conference for three years back in 1994. From there, I was a senior pastor and then assistant to the president. When we moved to Arizona, I was the youth director — youth and family life. Two months later, I became the first secretary of the Arizona Conference; and I was also the first Hispanic. Later, I served as president.

We left Arizona, and after a short time serving as a church pastor in Tennessee, we moved back to California, where I was Pacific Union Conference vice president (that included all the union’s volunteer ministries), until I took the NAD position. I’ve been here almost two years.

What led you and your family to take the call to vice president of multilingual ministries at the NAD?

My wife, Lisa, and I have three children. Both of our boys are at Andrews Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary getting their M.Div. degrees. Our daughter is a speech pathologist. 

Lisa usually bails me out by saying, “I don't want to move. We're not going anywhere.” When this call came along, she responded by letting me know that she thought God was telling me to consider it. And all three kids were under conviction that this is where I needed to be, at the NAD.

This was in October 2017. I met with the Dan Jackson, NAD president, the day of the election. We had a very open and honest discussion about my family and caring for our parents back on the West Coast. I remember I called Lisa two or three hours before it was going to be brought to the nominating committee and then the executive committee. I said, “The Lord answered.”

She said, “OK, We're in.”

It's an assuring moment when you know your family is not just “OK, whatever, Dad.” They were convinced this is where I needed to be. This is where the Lord wanted us to be. There was conviction. I use that word on purpose. So I accepted and I haven't looked back.

You took a leap of faith, so to speak. What keeps you going? 

My favorite Bible text is Jeremiah 29:11. God knows the plans He has for me, to prosper me, not to hurt me, to give me hope in the future. That's true for everyone. God has a plan and it's not to harm us. It's to love us. We can't ever change that.

I’ve cherished that text throughout my life. I don't see how I could ever get to the point where I'd deny God, or not trust Him. He's just been way too good to me. That verse reminds me of that no matter what — even though it may not be until the end when we're together — He will complete His plan. I passed that on to my kids and when I sign Bibles. It's a great verse, a reminder that God loves you. He wants to help you, not hurt you.

You earned your Master of Arts at La Sierra University in California, attended Montemorelos University in Mexico, and grew up in the church. What’s that been like for you?

Being bilingual is a big help. Going to Montemorelos was helpful in that I was more able to understand the culture. Then, of course, working in the Pacific Union, one of the most diverse unions in the division, and Southern California, one of the most diverse conferences, was a tremendous blessing. I grew up in Southern California — I grew up with everybody. I love everybody. 

My mom has said that, at 2 years old, I was preaching and wanted to be a pastor. I didn't have a Damascus experience. I never really waivered from that. 

And I’ve always loved youth ministry. I was in Pathfinders, summer camps, and all the rest. Grew up attending followed by coordinating. I loved it. I really thought I'd be a career youth person, but the Lord had other plans. I love my journey; I've enjoyed every aspect of it.

My dad is the first Adventist on his side of the family and, really, the only one. I'm a fifth generation Seventh-day Adventist on my mom's side. My great-great-grandfather was the first Adventist in Argentina.

What was his name? 

Julio Dupertuis and his wife, Ida Arn, were devout Baptists in Felicia, Santa Fe Province in Argentina. We're in volume 10 of the SDA Bible Commentary. It’s an exciting story. 

J. N. Andrews went to Switzerland and translated Signs of the Timesinto French, Adventist Les Signes des Temps. My great-great-grandfather got a copy and read it and became convicted of the Sabbath. Further study led them to adopt Adventism in 1885. The Dupertuises were the core of the French-speaking, Sabbath-keeping group in their community.

You bring a unique perspective to ministry with your rich Adventist heritage, your passion for people, and your awareness of culture.

I am certified as a cultural intelligence trainer. Going through both tracks has been a blessing. All that helped me to be a lot more sensitive and in tune with cultural diversity. 

I’ve given seminars on cultural intelligence, which is not only ethnic, but generational and everything else. A lot of us don't realize the biases that we bring. We don't think we are, but the test [that is part of the course work] tells you exactly where you are personality wise, etc. 

Working with 15 different language groups is amazing and so rewarding. I just attended the Zimbabwean camp meeting and loved it. I've been to Yugoslavian, Romanian, and Samoan camp meetings this past summer. I went to the Myanmar and Karen camp meetings. If nothing else, I have an appreciation for the culture. I've dealt with people. 

Some have gone to [camp meetings] and conventions where the music style is a little different than what they're used to. They’re shocked.

But I recognize that we're visitors and guests in their worship. I'm comfortable with that. I can stand still behind the pulpit or I can wave my arms and move all around the place. I'm used to all of that diversity.

For sure, the person in this role has to be open to appreciating God's goodness through all His kids. If you're not, you shouldn't be in this position.

With so many groups but limited funds, how do you operate?

Everyone that I work with, all these directors, are passionate about growing their ministry. The reality is the minority groups are going to keep growing in this division. That's never going to stop. We're actually in a growth mode and looking at policies to implement what qualifies you now to be an officially recognized group. We're growing so fast. We need to structure a policy similar to being a group accompanying a church for what qualifies you to be a recognized minority group in North America. We're getting more and more requests.

At the end of the day, that's really where you want to be. And you want to be sensitive to everyone, and respectful, and still be able to say no legitimately.

You’re looking to the future. What do you see for the division in terms multilingual ministry — how it may shift, grow, change?

Minority groups are always going to be a part in growing. The immigrant populations continue to grow. The majority is going to be the minority. We need to find a way to continue to help them.

The interesting thing is we always have first generation because they're always coming, but then they have second, third, and now soon fourth generations that grew up and live here. There are a lot of issues we need to address with people understanding even within their own cultures.

At the Zimbabwean camp meeting, for example, they had a Q&A with the parents and the kids. It was very good. They were very honest. The kids were asking for understanding. A lot of it is generational. But some of it is because people are coming from other countries that are first generation. Even their view of evangelism is so different.

In some cases, it’s aggressive, go-getter evangelism, whereas, the second and third generations are in different places for a lot of reasons. Working to have us communicate with each other within this context is just one issue.

To me, the biggest issue is going to be funding. For example, I've only got so much pie but I'm having suddenly a lot more people that want to eat. I can only slice it so much.

Each advisory group that we bring in requires travel for the director and funding. Administration, in the meetings we've had, recognizes probably one of the largest areas of concern with growth and finding funding is immigrant and refugee ministries. This is the most diverse division of the Adventist Church.

The translation of materials is another huge thing. It takes time. It takes funding. As we continue to grow, because we're always going to have the first generation coming, we have to have material for them in their language, but then we also have to be relevant to the second and third generation. 

It includes Esperanza TV and other programming that we do. We need to have programs that are geared towards that demographic, not a program that tries to reach everyone but different programs throughout the day to reach different demographics. We're working on some pretty exciting things from kids, to early teens, and teens, and young adults, as well as adults. 

Just to give you an example: South America produces about 30 hours of new television a week. We haven't produced very much here in about four years. That's a challenge for us. It's expensive.

The beauty of this ministry — and this was already before I got here — is that the directors of the different ethnic groups are qualified people. Take Terri Saelee, for example. Refugee ministries is huge and probably shares the biggest workforce of volunteers and some stipend people. Terri is very good about who she recruits in preparing, and training, and all the rest. That's the only way it can get done. 

Each coordinator works within their group. We need to establish tighter guidelines, however. We need to provide structure and more training for our language groups. New directors are being vetted. But we need to shore that process up for everyone. Anyone that comes on, they represent the church. We have to be really careful. We have to do a good job of continuing to vet people because they're representing us.

What is the largest language group you work with?

Hispanic ministries is by far the largest with more than 230,000. The next is the Asian Pacific group with about 113,000.

We’ve set out to establish up to 15,000 Hispanic small groups in this quinquennium. This year alone, with the small groups; VIDAgps (GPS, in Spanish, stands for “Healthy Small Groups”) resource kit*; new website; Caravan of Training (37 days, 31 cities, 21 states, and six unions across the NAD); and major, recorded series with evangelist Alejandro Bullón viewed online, we're targeting 30,000 baptisms. That's a high goal, but we’ve got to aim high.

The VIDAgps website is one of the resources the NAD has developed for Hispanic ministries free of charge.

The VIDAgps website is one of the resources the NAD has developed for Hispanic ministries. The kit for small groups is free of charge.

Other than what we’ve already talked about, what would you want to tell church members about multilingual ministries? 

The first thing I would say is: be aware that there is a lot of cultural diversity. Number two: don't believe hearsay.

We are the most culturally diverse country. Even if we weren't, in Heaven, we will be.

We need to learn to work and live with each other instead of being afraid of each other. As much as that sounds ridiculous in 2019, it's very real. I learned a song when I was a little kid with lyrics that went like this: “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” It's true. I long for the day when we can all worship together.

How do you see God leading now? Where do you see God in what you're doing, in what you're trying to achieve?

What I have enjoyed and appreciated is who God has brought into my life to be a part of the vision. When a pastor leaves and the church falls apart, the pastor has failed. He hasn't prepared, equipped, trained, and delegated.

Where do I see it now? I got thrown in the deep end, like we all do sometimes. I think I'm finally above water, with people who are helping me to swim. That has been an exciting thing because there is so much talent in this division and a lot of passion from people who want to see mission accomplished.

Again, to see the level of engagement, even with the small groups ministry, we took a lot of risks, financial risks, and all the rest. I'm grateful to the division for their support. This could have tanked pretty quickly but it didn't. You use those markers that God is showing you that you're going in the right direction.

I’m working with some creative people. We're preparing some exciting initiatives. We're working together on church planting. I think the next five years are going to be incredible growth for the church in North America. 

We all come with myths and preconceptions. I’ve heard people say, In the division, nothing ever happens. Let me tell you, I have so much respect for everyone in this office. The Lord is at work in and through the North American Division. That’s exciting to see. It's fun to come into this office. People are in a good mood. They're excited about what they're doing.

It’s exciting to see how God is expanding the effectiveness of the division; it's exciting to be a part of it. It's an honor to be a part of the team. It really is.

Nothing lasts forever. So, this is my time for however long the Lord wants me here. I can say to my kids — and grandkids at some point — I had the privilege of working at the national level of the church and impacting the church. I don't take that lightly. It's a privilege every day to serve. No matter what level it is, it's a privilege to serve. We should never, ever take that for granted. 

* Wanting to convey the notion of living life abundantly through Jesus, the Multilingual Ministries created the VIDAgps resource kit for use with small groups. VIDAgps, in which VIDA as a word means “life” in Spanish, stands for vision, identity, development, and acceptance. The kit operates in tandem with the website. Said Anobile: “The minute you're registered, a light goes on and you're connected to everybody. You can see you're not alone. You're part of a family.”