Principles: Empathy Continued (2)

I was sixteen when David and I became a couple. A flirtation that had lasted for over two years finally became “official” one Friday evening in June, and David invited me to join the family for a birthday party that Saturday. David’s family had always been nice to me, but from that weekend onward David’s parents and siblings folded me into their collective arms.

I grew up the youngest of three children. Part of a lonely, Northwest outpost of a large West Indian family I’ve only met on scattered occasions. I’ve pretended to not care in the past, but spending the last five years with a large, tightly knit family including grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins whetted my appetite for the kind of bonds that only exist between those who share blood, a bed, or a home. For four years, before I opened up about my disbelief, I spent nearly every Sabbath afternoon with David’s family. I made cards and ate birthday cake with them; I opened presents with the family on Christmas Eve and had a standing invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. The sense of oneness and acceptance I felt with David’s family was altered, however, when I came clean about my disbelief.

Cover of "Why Evolution Is True"

Cover of Why Evolution Is True

It started with a book.

I wanted to learn about evolution from people who supported it, preferably scientists with a facility for writing and a love of footnotes. This kind of education was not to be found within the Adventist education system, so I ended up borrowing (and ultimately keeping, sorry Nick!)  Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. I carried the book around for over a year until I finished it. One Friday or Saturday evening, I was at the home of David’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Jacob’s house is the hub of all family gatherings, and several family members were over this particular night when a person I’ll call ‘A’ asked, “What’s that book?”

“It’s a book about the theory of evolution as explained by scientific research,” I told her.

Somehow I ended up telling A that I was not only reading about evolution, but had been convinced of its empirical truth in less than fifty pages. ‘A’ came back with the expected response, “What about the Sabbath?”

Many Adventists, liberal and conservative, believe evolution’s time scale wreaks havoc on Seventh-day Adventism’s eponymous doctrine; if the world was not created in seven literal days, or even seven uniform time periods, the biblical foundation of the seventh-day Sabbath appears to fall apart. ‘A’ wanted to know how I could still be an Adventist if I didn’t believe in a seven day creation. I didn’t know how else to answer, so I told her the truth. “I’m not an Adventist.”

After that revelation everything seemed to crumble. ‘A’ sent me early morning texts inquiring how I planned on raising David’s and my future children. David’s parents started e-mailing him with their concerns. When David returned to the states ‘B’ started taking him aside for little chats about evolution and religion and told him he needed to consider breaking up with me. C and D were brought down to dispense married couple advice. All the while everyone spoke of “David’s decision,” and calmly told me that “David has to make a choice,” as though he hadn’t already made a choice, as though every promise he’d already made to me about marriage and our future was now up for grabs because they had acquired new information.

I felt frustrated by the assumption I had undergone some radical change, and that David was not already aware of what they were just learning. I was angered by the disrespect inherent in the implication that David was free to unilaterally renegotiate the terms of our relationship. I was annoyed by the presumption that David’s positions on spiritual matters were the same as theirs. And I was hurt by the rejection of the family I had come to think of as my own.

“It’s not that we dislike you as a person,” they said, “we just have concerns about your relationship. We want what’s best for both you.” I wanted to reply, “You may not dislike me, but when you pointedly encourage David to reconsider the viability of our relationship, not only are you showing contempt for the promises we’ve already made to each other, but you are pushing for the end of the very relationship that makes ours relevant. If I’m not with David, I no longer have a place at Thanksgiving dinner, a spot on the couch on Sabbath afternoons. If I am not with David, what am I to you?” Instead I just nodded and said, “I know.”

I understood their reaction. Adventism isn’t just an affiliation, it is a distinct culture and a way of life, and I had just announced that I no longer wanted to take part in it. David, regardless of the thoughts in his head, was still a team player. That we were four years into our relationship, that we had been talking marriage for two years, and that David had placed a pre-engagement ring on my finger before he left the country, were immaterial.

I was raised in the church. I understood the doctrinal, cultural, and ethical considerations that led A, B, C, D, and Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs to thoughtfully and sincerely bring their concerns to David. I understood. But that didn’t make it hurt less. Understanding didn’t make me feel any less rejected, any less like I was on the verge of being kicked out by the family.

This was nothing, however, compared to the reaction of my family. I’ve always been pretty close to my parents, and during this time I turned to them for support. But when I told them how I was feeling, my dad’s first words were, “You understand where they are coming from, don’t you?”


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