The walkway between the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the Alamodome is an almost constant stream of people speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Korean, Swahili, and Tagalog. Some wear business suits while others wear attire native to their homeland. But all are united in their belief in God and in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The world church's 60th Quinquennial General Conference Session officially started Thursday morning and continues until July 11. It's the largest and longest conference San Antonio has hosted, according to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). At its peak, the conference will have more than 65,000 attendees, church officials, and delegates from around the world. Their impact will be felt on the city in different ways, local business officials said.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is the largest of numerous Adventist groups that came out of the 1840s Millerite movement in New York State. Most notably, Seventh-day Adventists have come to adhere strictly to the notion of keeping the Sabbath holy, a day of pure rest, restoration and worship. Saturday has become that day for Seventh-day Adventists.
Among other cultural aspects and practices, Seventh-day Adventists focus on wholeness of the body and a healthy lifestyle. As such, the church emphasizes a vegetarian or vegan diet and foods falling under kosher law. Members are encouraged to abstain from illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
Aside from the gatherings where church leaders and delegates discuss church business on a global, as well as local scale, there are plenty of opportunities for members to pray in private. Spiritual musical performances are slated for the two Saturdays during the conference, a program is wholly dedicated to Seventh-day Adventist youths, and an expo features various Adventist-oriented businesses and organizations.
Different attendees have different reasons for coming to the world general conference, which only happens once every five years as prescribed by the church constitution.
Manny and Tina Avita are pastors from California. The conference provided Manny the opportunity to return to San Antonio; he trained for the U.S. Air Force while at Randolph Air Force Base in the '70s. They arrived in town Wednesday night, which allowed them time to drive around the downtown area that night.
Following a busy morning, they sat together quietly in a mostly empty Alamodome during a lengthy lunch break, awaiting the next round of activities. They plan to stay through Sunday.
"We were admiring the beautiful buildings. They're really nice," Manny said. "We were in Austin prior to this, and it's like a different world from California."
Whether or not women should be ordained in the church is a hot topic of discussion at this world general conference, he said. "Hopefully, it won't be a divisive subject. Everybody is wanting to see what's going to happen."
Jemimah Deonarine and her daughter Joanna, both from New York, were also sitting by themselves in the Alamodome at the same time. It's their first time in San Antonio. They arrived Wednesday morning and plan to stay the duration of the conference. Jemimah said meeting fellow Seventh-day Adventists from around the globe is enough to keep her attention.
"What intrigues me about being here is being amongst brethren and sisters, seeing people around the world, interacting and tuning into the program," she said. "It reminds me we're part of a larger family. That feeling of togetherness almost feels like heaven."
Joanna Deonarine said she is impressed to see different cultures represented at the conference.
"It really shows that this is a really big church family," she said.
Lonnie Tutupoly works at Spectrum, a California-based publication company that covers Seventh-day Adventist issues and events, with what she calls a liberal angle. She helps represent Spectrum in the expo while editorial staffers cover the conference. Tutupoly plans to stay for the duration of the conference.
"We provide a place for people to express their beliefs," she said, adding that her publication will be covering the decisions made by the delegates during the conference.
"Most of our readers believe in ordination of women. Our staffers do. It's truly a unity and equality issue," she added.
Tutupoly, like the Avitas, Deonarines, and other attendees, has already visited local restaurants and businesses. Tutupoly said she visited the Alamo Quarry Market. While in San Antonio, and away from home, they continue to manage their diet and adhere to their beliefs.
Tina Avita explained Seventh-day Adventists are vegans or vegetarians, and others may occasionally eat fish or chicken. But the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) has been working for months, and in some cases years, with local restaurants to ensure menu adjustments to accommodate the diet of the attendees. Because of the menu adjustments and a modern world in tune with more dining options, Tina said it's easy to go to most any restaurant and find something a Seventh-day Adventist can eat.
"It's really nice that the city goes out of its way to make accommodations for us," she said.
In fact, some restaurants and businesses are offering vouchers for attendees who, by belief, cannot exchange money or goods for a meal on Saturdays. Bill Lyons, of venerable downtown restaurants Casa Rio and Schilos, confirmed each eatery has designed a separate menu for the visitors, including non-alcoholic beverages and a watermelon aguas frescas. Schilos has made available the option of a split pea soup stripped of flour, bacon, and bacon drippings.
"I think it's better than the original. Our employees love it and we've gotten no complaints from diners," Lyons said of the new soup. "Now we've created a gluten-free, healthier soup they can enjoy. We'll see if they like it."
For now, he said it's a wait-and-see attitude whether dining Seventh-day Adventists will like the new menu items. If they do, Lyons said those successful items could wind up being permanent at Casa Rio or Schilos.
"You could say we're testing stuff out," he added.
It's all part of what the CVB projects to be a $40.5 million economic impact on the city from the 11-day conference. Ever since 2006, when the world church chose San Antonio as the host city for this year's conference, the CVB has been working with city agencies, relevant organizations and businesses to plan for this event.
The San Antonio Police Department has had a major hand in traffic control, and the San Antonio International Airport issued a public release warning airport visitors about the influx of attendees arriving for the conference during the Fourth of July weekend.
"It's a unique opportunity to showcase our city to a global audience," said Casandra Mattej, CVB executive director. "It's a good way to show our ability to host international events like this."
She said the main economic impact is from the hotel occupancy and sales tax, which results in a jump for affected business and tax revenue to help support local infrastructure.
Pat Humphrey, communications director for the Southwestern Union Adventists headquarters, said she is impressed by San Antonio's show of strength so far. She said San Antonio was chosen because of the capacity of the Alamodome, the convention center and the number of hotels to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors.
"The city has been absolutely accommodating to us and the world church overall. Everyone has been very friendly to us," she said.