R.J. Solomon

A dialogue with a leading Adventist educator-researcher in India

When R.J. Solomon was an infant, he experienced the first of three miracles that were to shape his life and ministry. God, as Solomon’s father would later relate, opened the highway of truth to his parents, and for the first time they learnt of the marvelous message of the three angels, God’s Edenic plan of Sabbath, and history’s ultimate culmination in the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, Solomon had his early beginnings in a staunch Adventist home. The second miracle Solomon experienced was when he had to choose a collegiate education. Instead of selecting a well-reputed and accredited institution closer to home, Solomon followed his parental counsel and set off for Spicer Memorial College, in Pune, which had no governmental accreditation. But the God of miracles was not through with Solomon: He led him to graduate from Spicer, and then obtain a master’s degree in psychology from Pune University, followed by a doctoral degree in population sciences from the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai (2007).

In 2002, Solomon received a U.S. government exchange visitor award for research at East West Center, University of Hawaii, Honolulu. In 2009, he was awarded the prestigious Major Research Project Fellowship from the University Grants Commission of India to implement the Indian arm of the International Youth Development Study (IYDS). The study monitors the healthy development of children and adolescents and contributes to advancing educational progress, mental health promotion, chronic disease prevention, and encouragement of positive behaviors such as volunteering, civic engagement, and behaviors.

Dr. Solomon’s research has connected him with many international universities, including the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Melbourne, and Deakin University in Melbourne. Having presented research findings at international conferences in Australia, the USA, South Korea, and Thailand, Dr. Solomon is perhaps the leading Adventist educator-researcher in the Southern Asia Division.

Scholarship and research have not taken Dr. Solomon to the skies. He is a down-to-earth Adventist, teaching Sabbath school in his local church, planning the development of a modern church-owned high school in the city where he teaches, serving as a local elder, and being a responsible father and loving husband. His wife, Shreeletha, is also a research professional, and his daughter is a college freshman.

Dr. Solomon, can we begin with how you became a Seventh-day Adventist? What is your family background?

My parents were members of the Anglican Church. A year after my birth, they received the Adventist message and were baptized. Right from my childhood, my parents were very particular that all their children would be brought up in the Adventist faith. Consequently, my siblings and I were more enriched in the knowledge of Scripture than my cousins and kids from other denominations. At times the child in me perceived my dad’s insistence of strictly following Adventist faith as an irritation, but today I realize it was the best thing a father could do for his son. The verse “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Psalms 22:6) proved very true in my life.

How did Adventist education help in the shaping of your character, career, and family commitment?

I had the opportunity of receiving a formal Adventist education only after completion of grade 10. At the age of 16, I joined Spicer Memorial College, in Pune, India. Having received freedom for the first time from the strict and authoritarian parenting of my dad, I began exploring life independently. My dad wanted me to study theology and become a pastor, but a year after joining Spicer I chose psychology as a major. The Adventist home that I grew up in and the Adventist education I received in college complemented each other, firmed my relationship with Jesus, and led me to be spiritually mature and socially responsible and involved.

Tell our readers something about your academic journey: what made you decide to be a research specialist, and what hurdles did you have to overcome?

I chose to study psychology partly to understand myself and partly to develop a better understanding of others. As a psychology teacher for college students, I was also deeply involved in counseling students with behavioral and adjustment problems. Very soon, I realized that as a counselor I could only help students with behavior problems. But as a researcher, I would be able to develop appropriate prevention strategies that could effectively check young people from getting into problem behaviors. Hence, I started my journey into research.

Doing research is a daunting and time-consuming task in a country like India, where your caste, class, religion, and linguistic background matter more than your merit. But the lessons in patience and endurance learned in those days strengthened my faith. Perhaps God wanted me to learn in that way, and He knew that it was the best thing to happen to me. Looking back at life, I can see how God helped me compensate for all the loss of time in life.

What challenges did you have to overcome as you prepared for your professional life? And in those difficult times, did you find in your faith-life a place of refuge or assistance?

Like most other underprivileged boys who aspire to make it big in life, I too had my own dreams and fantasies. After completing master’s degree in Pune, I moved to Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, because I thought that would mean progress in life. While pursuing research, the first four years of my career were spent as a clinical psychologist at Mumbai’s J.J. Hospital. Later, I shifted to college teaching.

The Adventist lifestyle and beliefs are watched with curiosity in the secular world. Most Indians are religious and accept that one should worship God, but they can’t accept the view that it has to involve a designated day as Sabbath. Many feel that Adventists are very rigid about their beliefs and that our uncompromising stand on the Sabbath is irrational. However, this gives us an opportunity to present them with a deeper understanding of our beliefs.

I believe that Adventists working in secular institutions have some real opportunities to witness for their faith. It is more challenging to work outside than to work in Adventist institutions. As with Joseph in Egypt, Obadiah in the days of Ahab, or Esther and Mordecai, God can also use those working outside the church in significant ways.

Apart from my spiritual life, my lifestyle and concern for health have also attracted much attention outside. Most people wonder why a Christian chooses to be vegetarian, and why I don’t drink tea or coffee, which are commonly taken by all. These issues always gave me an opportunity to share our health and lifestyle message, and the importance of trusting the Creator.

As a psychologist, I provide counseling services, and this gives me an opportunity to share my personal testimony. Counseling is not used for proselytizing, but I cannot lie or remain silent about my personal experiences.

In today’s world, every organization – professional, educational, business, or government – must have a mission statement and a philosophy that drives that mission. How would you describe yours in your professional life?

I find my mission statement in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (NKJV). Every good thing that took place in my life is only because of my Lord Jesus Christ, without whom I am nothing. He has blessed me abundantly. Even though I don’t deserve much of what He blessed me with, I am ever thankful to my Lord.

In addition to being a professor, you have been a well-known educational researcher. Tell us about some of the research projects you have undertaken, and what or how they contributed to the advancement of knowledge and the good of the community.

I consider myself to be a youth researcher, and my area of research is adolescent health. This includes the study of both problem behaviors of youth and positive youth development.

The breakthrough in my research career came when I was selected in 2002 as one of 14 researchers from Asia Pacific nations to be trained at the East West Center of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, in a summer seminar on adolescent health. The main instructor was Prof. John Toumbourou, who is currently chair of health psychology at Deakin University, Australia. Every Saturday, the center took its international participants for sightseeing and entertainment programs. On one such Saturday morning, John noticed me standing alone at a bus stop opposite the center and inquired about my plans for the day. I told him about Sabbath and that all my day’s activities would revolve around my faith commitments. Himself a God-fearing man, John took notice of my beliefs and appreciated my faith. Later, I believe God impressed John to choose me to mentor and to assist in building my career. This became a turning point in my life.

John assisted me in completing my Ph.D. degree and later visited India and designed a plan to build my career in research with a goal to establish the Institute for Child and Adolescent Health Research (ICHAR) in India. The collaboration led me to receive two major awards from Indian competitive research schemes: a major research project award from the University Grants Commission of India, and more recently a Senior Research Fellowship award from the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR). In addition, in the last four years, I also secured two Australian government fellowship grants, both internationally competitive and merit-based: an Endeavour Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship and an Endeavour Executive Fellowship. These scholarly involvements advanced the cause of the international adolescent health movement.

Working with Professor Toumbourou and his research team, I was able to develop the Mumbai arm of the longitudinal cross-national comparative study called the International Youth Development Study. This study of a representative sample of nearly 5,000 Mumbai youth has been designed to be compared with identical samples from Seattle in the U.S. and Melbourne in Australia. This study has enabled for the first time accurate comparisons of rates of adolescent health and social problems such as tobacco use and depression. By cross-nationally comparing longitudinal influences on adolescent development, this study contributes to planning and developing prevention programs in Indian, American, and Australian contexts. It also helps build a scientific basis for advancing research and practice addressing the Indian government’s health priority targets.

Have you done any research that may be of some help to the church’s understanding of our youth? After all, the future of the church is in the hands of the youth.

Recently, we have developed a survey instrument named Adventist Youth Development Study (AYDS) for the Department of Youth Ministry of the Southern Asia Division (SUD). AYDS is designed to study youth within the context and socio-cultural background of Southern Asia. The AYDS is a balanced and yet comprehensive survey instrument. It consists of a 13-page questionnaire and is divided into 13 sections. It looks into the health, family, spiritual development, and well-being of young people in the age group of 15 to 35 years.

AYDS was administered to 310 Adventist youth in 2014. The sex composition of the sample was 52% male and 48% female. The marital status of the sample was 82% single, 13% married, 3.5% engaged and the rest unknown. The academic level of the sample showed 35% with graduate degrees or above, 42% who had completed grade 12, and 23% who had completed some certificate course. The fact that only about one third of Adventist youth possessed a degree speaks about the urgent need for encouraging Adventist youth to pursue higher education. The SUD should make provision to have our youth secure higher degrees and build careers with greater aspirations.

The survey also brought out the obvious fact of the low social economic status that most Adventists come from. About 51% of all youth did not possess their own house. Half also reported going hungry at least once during the past one month because there was not enough food at home. On health issues, even though 88% considered they had good health, most of their health practices could lead to adverse health conditions in later life: 75% youth often skipped breakfast, 79% didn’t receive eight hours of sleep, and 70% usually snacked instead of taking regular meals. The diet habits of Adventist youth showed that 46% were vegetarians resorting to a lacto-ovarian diet, while 54% claimed to be meat/fish eaters. This happened even though 88% reported having been taught about the benefits of healthy eating, including a balanced diet and vegetarian diet.

The health risk behavior indicated that 81% never smoked, while 15% tried it sometimes, and 4% smoked regularly. Similarly, while 93% reported abstaining from chewing tobacco, 7% reported chewing tobacco regularly. About 17% reported that their parents smoked too, suggesting risky parental models at home. Alcohol consumption appeared to be more acceptable, with 60% of youth reporting trying it sometime in life. However, only 9% reported consuming alcohol, and 5% reported taking drugs regularly. Over 40% reported tension and conflicts in their families.

The mental health indicators of Adventist youth are a cause of great concern. About one third of all youth reported feeling hopeless in life, and 79% reported experiencing depression in their lives. About 28% of youth reported suicidal thoughts, and 13% reported self-harm behavior.

The survey showed an urgent need to tackle the adverse health risk behaviors noticed in the study. There, you have a job cut out for the family, pastoral, youth, and educational ministries of the church.

How would you counsel Adventist youth who want to climb the professional and academic ladder in an extremely competitive world, where Adventist values may not be held or allowed to be held as dear?

Based on my personal experience, I strongly feel that if Adventist parents have laid a strong spiritual foundation in their children’s early life, as Scriptures say, the chances of them departing from the Lord are small. The life of youth is strongly influenced by the contexts in which they grow. These contexts include family, school, peers, neighborhood/community, and church.

My counsel to youth is to remain connected to Jesus and develop a personal relation with the Savior. Youth may not have enough strength to deal with and overcome the challenges and competitions they face in life, but with Jesus on their side there is no obstacle they cannot overcome. Youth should know that they are not alone in their battles, but Jesus is always with them. They should claim the promise in Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”

What is your feeling – professionally and spiritually – about Adventist education?

The Adventist philosophy of education is rather unique. It stresses a wholistic and balanced development and is more relevant today than ever before. Often education, even the best of it, prepares a young person to excel in life – in a job, in relationships, in society in general. But what is unique about Adventist education is its commitment to wholistic education – mind, body, and spirit – that prepares one not only for the joy and fulfillment of life here and now, but also for the life to come. Now, that may not sound very appropriate in the age of science and technology, but just the same, when our vision is fixed on something greater than us and now, that eternal dimension has its own challenge and rewards.

How do you portray faith as an important part of your life?

I have not built my faith overnight. Building faith is a lifelong journey – indeed, a daily walk with God. I have seen God’s hand leading me, overcoming many adversities and safeguarding me from many dangers. Such an experience is not only mine, but it is available to all who wish to place their trust and confidence in God.

Further, in retrospect, I am able to recognize something important: when God did not respond to my prayers as I would have liked, it was because He had a much better plan than what I asked for.

Tell us something about your family.

I met my wife, Shreeletha, while studying for my Ph.D. at Mumbai University. We soon became friends. We were from different states, spoke different languages, and held different faiths. So in every way we were different from each other, and Indian parents do not usually accept such marriages.

I prayed for months, asking God to give me a wife who was even more committed to Him than I was. I believe God answered my prayer and built a bridge between the two of us. He did give me a God-fearing wife, strong and wise. For two years, Shree accompanied me to church and attended Bible studies. At the end of the studies, she accepted Jesus and was baptized. Marriage followed. Shree and I are blessed with a daughter, Sharon, who is 19 now and is pursuing her undergraduate study in psychology, like her dad.

What counsel would you give to Adventist youth who want to plan and study toward a professional career?

Fix your eyes upon the Lord and begin your professional journey, abiding in Him with all your heart, mind, and soul. He will give you your heart’s desire and more.

John M. Fowler (Ed.D., Andrews University) is a former associate director of education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and editor of Dialogue. E-mail: fowlerj@gc.adventist.org.

R.J. Solomon’s e-mail: rj_solomon@yahoo.co.in