When Gena was very young — ages 3, 4 and 5, she would line up her teddy bears like they were in pews and preach to them. “I would do the whole church service,” she laughs. “I would go back and forth between the ‘pews’ and the ‘front’ to do responsive reading.”
As Gena grew, she joined Pathfinders and attended Adventist Youth (AY). At first, she felt pressured to participate. But, as she made friends, she began to enjoy the activities and chose to become more and more involved, eventually accepting leadership positions in both programs.
Once in high school, Gena planned to study Business in college. During her final year of high school, she suddenly decided to study Theology in college as well. As Gena began to review school options, she received an Andrews University pamphlet in the mail with photos that advertised study abroad opportunities. This greatly appealed to her, as it had been something she was looking for in a university.
She also had hoped her college years would allow her to meet people her age who were serious about their Christian walks. “In high school, a lot of my friends were Christian but from different denominations. This meant lots of different opinions, and I was confused. I still wanted to surround myself with Christians and further be able to flesh out spiritual topics and issues.”
Eventually, Gena’s college choices narrowed down to Cornell University and Andrews University. Gena’s parents favored the Ivy League Cornell, while Gena felt that Andrews was right for her. And then the decision was made. “Cornell sent me a rejection letter, and I was the happiest person ever,” she says. “I ended up at Andrews because every other school rejected me or messed up my application. Corrections would mean I would have had to wait another year. I took it as a sign that God really wanted me to go to Andrews.”
Margaux Tan grew up in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with her mother, father and older brother. Like Gena, Margaux was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist home so was very familiar with the beliefs of the Adventist church. However, she was never strongly encouraged to be involved in church programs. On her own, she chose to join Pathfinders, but eventually she stopped enjoying the experience.
In fifth grade, Margaux told several adults that she did not believe in God. However, no one took her seriously because she was only 10 years old. “For a while there, I didn’t even feel like I was connecting with the God I was raised with,” she says, “so I didn’t care. I didn’t see a need.”
Then, at age 15, Margaux lost her best friend who took his own life. “That shook me. I didn’t see how it correlated, because he loved God.”
As Margaux began her process of deciding which college to attend, she felt limited in her choices. The tragedy she had faced in high school resulted in difficult junior and senior years, and she did not feel academically or mentally prepared to attend most schools. Andrews University was close to home and, because her mother worked at the University, Margaux would receive financial assistance.
She chose to attend Andrews, not because it was even close to her first preference but because it could serve as a steppingstone. Margaux planned to major in Global Studies, get her grades up and transfer out.
When Gena started at Andrews (her first experience in a Christian school system), she signed up for a Business major and a Theology minor. During the second semester of her freshman year, she switched to a Theology major with a Business minor. Finally, she stopped fighting God’s prodding and dropped Business altogether so she could graduate in four years with a degree in Theology. “I thoroughly enjoyed the experiences I had in my church helping with youth ministry,” she says. “I was able to make a difference and thought I could do so much greater if I really knew about the Bible.”
Gena was at a high point in her spiritual walk and became very involved in the spiritual life on campus, even starting her own small group. Eventually, she took some time away from Andrews and, when she returned, she took on fewer responsibilities. Because she was less active, she found herself wondering how God planned to use her until one of her friends told her she should be the Andrews University Student Association (AUSA) religious vice president (RVP). A few nights later, Gena woke up and felt God telling her to pray for the campus. “I thought to myself, ‘Only RVPs do this.’” Gena ran for RVP, and the other two candidates dropped out on the day of the speeches. Gena was affirmed that God wanted her in this role, and she began to pray for even one person to come to Christ over the next year.
Andrews was also Margaux’s first experience in a Christian school system and, by her sophomore year, she decided not to return. She made plans to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to major in Advertising and Marketing Communications. She even filled out an application. But then plans began to fall through.
Because she was still signed up for a European study tour at Andrews, she was convinced to return and take Global Studies classes. The only class she enjoyed was her Intro to Film course. “It was hard work, but after every single project I had a feeling of accomplishment and pride in what had been created. That consistency had never been felt before,” she says. “A couple of the film people told me I should think about switching majors. It was the only thing I really wanted to do, and that was the first time something felt right about my major.”
Margaux began to feel a tweak of a change in her spiritual life, as well. For the first two-and-a-half years she had been at Andrews, spirituality and Christianity were not on her radar, but then she began to notice just a bit of God’s presence. After many conversations with a close friend about spirituality and different churches and religions, Margaux’s interest to join a church resurfaced. So she made a deal with God. She would make an effort to bond with Him for an entire week; if He did not respond, she was going to leave the church and never come back.
Margaux spent the week talking to God daily about anything and everything happening in her life, and He did draw near to her. “God gave me what I didn’t know I needed most — peace,” she says. “That week completely changed my life.”
In January 2018, Margaux started attending church and vespers services. A couple months later, Margaux heard Gena preach at one of the vespers services. Afterwards, Margaux approached Gena and told her how meaningful the message had been. Gena says, “I always hope at least one person is blessed, so I was really glad to see that happen.”
Gena and Margaux officially met during the 2018‒2019 school year when they both became involved in AUSA — Gena as the religious vice president and Margaux as the student services director.
On AUSA, their work allowed them to form a real relationship. Whenever they were setting up for events, they seemed to always end up in close proximity to each other and would begin to make small talk. Over time, the dialogue easily deepened and they learned about each other’s spiritual journeys.
Margaux made a comment to Gena about becoming a youth pastor. Margaux said, “I mentioned to her that ever since I was little, somebody was like, ‘You should be a youth pastor.’ Even when I was an atheist. And I was like, ‘how is that possible? What? A youth pastor of what?’”
Gena adds, “I told her, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna be a youth pastor.’”
They also began to discuss the Adventist church. Margaux had completed an internship with the Western Australia Conference and, during that time, worked in a Baptist church. She became friends with the people there, who told her that Adventists really seem to keep to themselves. She wished that the Adventist church could connect with other Christian churches overall. When she shared her experience with Gena, the two began to consider how different methods of evangelism and discipleship might appeal to more people.
Eventually Gena asked Margaux to teach Sabbath school. Margaux became increasingly involved in spiritual programming, continuing to volunteer for Sabbath school and other events. When she studied to lead a Sabbath school about the story of Saul in Acts, she had a major change in perspective.
Margaux had always thought you had to be meek and complacent to lead someone else spiritually, but that’s not her personality. “With the story of Saul, God didn’t ask him to change anything about himself. God just asked Saul to change the team he was fighting for. God can still use people. He made you the way you are for a reason. Realizing I can be the way I am and still be a servant for God has really helped my spirituality and how I carry myself.”
Gena had still been praying that one person would connect to Christ during her time as RVP. It turned out Margaux was that person. But Margaux’ connection to Christ did not happen through what many consider to be typical evangelism.
“Usually it’s like this seminar, this presentation and then people come into the church but then they don’t really stay because they don’t make friends,” says Gena. “I think that’s why I didn’t like church when I was younger. I had no friends at first. With Margaux, I never approached this thinking, ‘I’m going to bring her to God.’ I’ve learned that with evangelism, we should never skip the friendship stage.”
“The time spent with Gena really cemented my beliefs in God,” says Margaux. “I feel that’s the intended nature of evangelism and discipleship. It’s not supposed to feel forced or anything. Just be friends — be patient and pray — and then God will do the rest. Never underestimate what God is doing behind the scenes.”
Gena, now a graduate student studying Theology, and Margaux, a senior Documentary Film major, both want to continue reaching out to people who are not Adventists and who may not even be Christians.
Margaux specifically wants to focus on youth development in the church. “I want to be the person I didn’t have when I was first questioning spiritual things. A lot of people told me to just pray about it, but that wasn’t enough for me. I want to experiment with different ways to disciple and try to see God in ways I haven’t typically seen. For me, going forward, it’s more about showing the characteristics of God in all situations and not just where the label of ‘God’ might not be welcomed. You shouldn’t have to say that God lives within you for other people to know.”
Gena advises others to try something new and allow God to show you a different side of Himself. She realizes that in the past, had she known Margaux’s journey from the start, she might not have chosen to be friends with her. But now she has seen how God can use anyone and work in anyone. “Connect with others,” she says. “When you get to hear other people’s thoughts and their convictions and experiences, it helps you on your own journey. Be a friend, be kind, and God will work.”
Gillian Panigot, Media Communications manager and FOCUS editor, University Communication