Sunday, June 15, 2014

Days 219 and 220 - June 7th and 8th

Purvis, Mississippi
Before lighting out, I made pond water coffee and refilled my water bottles. Coffee tastes like coffee no matter what but my water was flat and metal and smacked of muck. The Steripen purifies water but it doesn’t improve flavor. Luckily I came across a church and changed out my water at the hose. The church was located by a colony of mobile homes that count as a town. Places like Talorah dot the backwoods of Mississippi. Pine trees populate the forests and it’s good to be walking in the cool morning air. It doesn’t last long. By 8:30 a.m. the sun is up and hot. The humidity is miserable. During my first break, I have to take off my shirt if I want to cool down in the shade.

I crested a large hill and at the top I spotted a very large turtle booking it across the lawn of an expensive-looking church and paused to study it awhile. I videoed it, then moved on a few minutes later, not knowing I would soon return. I was walking down the hill when a white van clanked to a halt beside me. The driver was an older woman, maybe late 50’s, and in a thick Hispanic accent asked, “Do you want to come to church? There’s a potluck lunch!” Without hesitation, I threw my pack into the side and hopped in alongside Mrs. Romero. Lunch is a good incentive!

Sweaty and smelly, I entered the 7th Day Adventist church and made my way to the bathroom. In the middle of washing up to be presentable, a sleepy-eyed man came in to use the urinal and we started talking without awkwardness. His name is Jason. My trip came up and we talked about it as we walked together to the doors of the inner sanctum where the service had already begun. I met his wife Janella there as well. Jason is a doctor and Janella tells me she is a scientist and she teaches at the Academy, a 7th Day Adventist highschool. Before opening the doors, I asked them if I needed to know anything before participating and Janella assured me nothing odd like snake handling was going to happen. I wasn’t even aware of such a thing. Apparently some churches believe God protects them from snake bites and so bring in snakes which they place their hands in front of to test their faith.

The 7th Day Adventist service, by and large, was no different than most I’ve attended. The church was very beautiful and well populated with young professionals and their families as well as older folk. But I noticed one rhetorical difference. As I was seating myself in the middle of the pews, a Korean man was giving testimony and what he was saying caught my attention. “And when I became a doctor I prayed to God ‘Please, Lord, let me have a few years of practice.’ And when I met my wife, I prayed that we might have a couple years together. And when I had my children, I prayed that we might have a little more time before He returns.” It was clear to me he was referring to the end of the world. I sensed this was going to be interesting.
Another divergence from my previous experiences was the involvement of children in the service. After the donation basket was passed around once, the kids collected a second offering wherein all the children walked among the congregation and grabbed the proffered money. Then they sat in the front row together and received their own lesson before the whole church. Jason delivered the mini-sermon and because he hadn’t slept the previous night he was a tad delirious and highly amusing. Looking around, I could see also that the diversity of peoples was much higher than the almost completely white congregations I normally find in churches. Hispanics, blacks, whites, Asians, you name it.

When the service ended, several people approached me to welcome me to the church. One of these people was Michael DoNascimento and when everyone shuffled into the lunch room, I sat down with him. It was there that we had the first of many long, intense conversations. The lunch was delightful but my focus was on Michael because he was telling me of things I have never seriously encountered before. He spoke of prophecies written in the Book of Revelations and cosmic signs portending that the end of the world will occur within our lifetime: an increase in the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes, great strife and war among humanity, the falling of stars in Alabama, the reappearance of a particular star. These signs herald the Second Coming of Christ and the impending Great Tribulation which will be a time of strife, anarchy and apocalypse here on Earth. Knowing that Jesus is returning soon, Satan will marshal all his powers to orchestrate global persecution of Christians using humanity’s very own organizations and governments. This cleansing by fire could last 3 ½ years. Suffering will be great. Many will die. However, those who are truly faithful and entrust themselves to God will be protected. God will not allow Satan to harm them.

I asked Michael and Janella, who had joined us at the table along with Michael’s wife, Tammy, if they’ve experienced doubt and how they overcame it. Michael told me of his older brother. They were both raised in the 7th Day faith in Brazil where they were born and raised and his older brother became a minister. Enroute to a school to teach, his brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. For a long time Michael couldn’t understand why God would allow such a tragedy. His disillusionment ended as he came to believe that Satan had hated his brother so much that he had struck him down and God had allowed it (God never allows anything to happen that he doesn’t want to have happen) because—in the faith—death is only a tragedy on Earth. God had decided to bring Michael’s brother rest in heaven.

Pause. Michael invited me to stay with him and his family and I gladly accepted. A shower sounded very good. I rode with Michael, Tammy and their two daughters Kelly (12) and Riley (11). They love to read for its ability to transport them into different worlds. The DoNascimentos live in the country and it beautiful and deeply peaceful. I set down my gear in the guest room and scrubbed myself thoroughly. Few things match the glory of cleanliness after living in your own sweat for a week.

Shaved and showered, I rejoined Michael at the kitchen table. It was the Sabbath, the holiest day for the 7th Day Adventists (as opposed to Sunday), and on the Sabbath you generally rest, hang out with friends and family, devote your time to God and study the Bible. Our conversation picked up where it had left off and for a while I said little, only listened and asked a question to clarify occasionally. I listened because I was again hearing about unfamiliar things.

Conspiracy theories were something Michael and I talked about a lot. I want to state that I was initially uncomfortable with these parts of the discussion. Later, I would gain a better understanding of how they incorporate into Michael’s beliefs but at this point—barely a few hours into knowing Michael—I was clinging tenaciously to my listening mode, reminding myself that I was there to observe first and foremost and that first impressions are incomplete impressions. So I listened to Michael speak of The New World Order, the Illuminati, the Black Pope, the murals at the Denver airport, the church of Satan, HAARP, and other insidious happenings, all of which indicate Satan’s presence behind-the-scenes. These groups, under Satan’s influence, intend to inflict as much suffering upon humanity as possible during The Great Tribulation so as to hurt God via the destruction of his human children. I want to record this part of our talks here because it’s what was said. As I write this now, several days after the fact, I have reached a deeper, nuanced friendship with Michael that would not have been possible had I dismissed him at the outset. I am proud that this portion of our talks did not prevent me from hearing the parts of Michael’s theistic testimony that I found more thought provoking.

The windows behind Michael shone with light as he spoke and because I had said so little, I felt flooded with his point of view and it forced me out in the open where I had to speak my misgivings and my objections. This was always where the conversation became more interesting. Feeling pushed, I could no longer simply listen. I leaned forward and we began sparring. Everything Michael viewed through the theistic lens, I raised humanist interpretations. When I encounter people on the walk, am I being brought into contact with people I’m supposed to meet according to God’s will or am I a molecule vibrating through space and colliding at random with people until, by chance, I meet someone with whom I can have a rapport? Is the Bible a holy and infallible text or is it instead an ancient, complicated one worth reading because of its role in history and religion? Does God grant us meaning and a reason for existing or do we make our own meaning and create our own purpose and story? Engaging my uncertainty with Michael’s sharp intelligence and his certainty about God’s existence was clarifying to a degree. Our intellectual conflict caused me to verbalize why I cannot right now accept one version of reality over the other; both humanism and theism can hold as the truth and I can’t so easily dismiss one for the other. I don’t have enough information. Which storyline best fits reality: humanism or theism? 
Michael and I embroiled in another of our epic conversations.
When the dust settled, there was catharsis and even-footing. It was a relief to know that I could muster an actual opposition to Michael’s zeal even if I was still left with the same old troubling duality. My conversations with Michael evolve and deepen but this second dialogue ended with the arrival of dinner. Several family friends were over to share the meal. Rochelle and Sheila are essentially family to the DoNascimentos; I would see them almost every day I stayed in Purvis. They are literally the sweetest ladies you will ever find anywhere (although Sheila claims she’s mean, I don’t buy it). The two of them are a package deal, practically inseparable, and they are affectionately known as RoSheila sometimes. Rochelle has bright blue eyes and pale blond hair pulled back in a wavy mullet, sunglasses usually resting on the crown of her head. She’s a down-to-earth, dig-up-her-own-potatoes kind of gal (actually though), often wears sleeveless shirts and loves to study the Bible. Sheila is a hoot. She’s older than Rochelle and has long black hair that fades to grey about her bangs. She’ll whisper observations or comments that may not be the most polite but they are almost always true and funny and everyone was thinking the same thing anyway. TJ, a young Honduran man, was also there. I’ve noticed a phenomenon where whenever a person or family establishes an open, inviting and supportive atmosphere like the DoNascimento’s have, there are usually young people like TJ who hang around because they are, in an unspoken way, looking for guidance and encouragement from them. Tammy cooked up turkey, navy beans, rice, and a salad topped with homemade salad dressing. Tammy is more introverted and has a peaceful way in which she carries herself and moves about the house. It was a delicious dinner and Riley, the youngest, made yummy brownies for dessert.

After dinner I worshipped with them. This is a twice-daily ritual in the household and it begins with a prayer. Reading from the Bible and singing hymns follow. We close with a longer prayer. Everyone gets on their knees and holds hands to form a circle. Upon rising to our feet, everyone hugs each other. Yay for hugs!

From left: Sheila, Michael, Tammy, myself and Rochelle, my Mississippi friends!

Kelly and Riley had zipped off to summer camp by the time I awoke the next morning, so I had coffee with Tammy and Michael in the living room. Michael launched into another energetic talk, this time about the hope that God offers us. If Christianity is true, then heaven is real and so is palingenesis “the renewal of all things.” There would be a place for everyone I love to exist eternally. There would be an answer to the senseless suffering of countless persons, justification and resolution to everything that doesn’t make sense. Humanism doesn’t offer anything so miraculous. It is a plainer view and is without comfort. But to me, it is still beautiful and it places great hope in our ability to live purposefully and build a better world in a universe that may not require one.  I wanted to say all these things, to offer balance to Michael, but I didn’t have the heart for it. I felt beleaguered.  Maybe it was too early and not enough coffee that did me in.

We watched a lot of movies. It was that sort of day. We churned through Premium Rush, Knowing, and John Carter of Mars (an excellent, excellent sci-fi movie) one after the other, with episodes of various TV shows sprinkled in. I know Michael missed his girls a lot and the activity they bring to the house so the movies were probably on to distract him from their absence. Personally, I was into the slow day. My body didn’t want to move at all. Rochelle and Sheila came over for dinner again and they joined us in watching movies before Tammy called us in. We prayed thanks for the food before us and I settled into demolishing the hotdogs on the table.

But my favorite part of the day arrived late in the evening, after all the television was through and everyone else had gone to bed except me and had the conversation with Michael that clicked our friendship. In an hour of great honesty that is rare and requires effort to reach, I told him I was upset with the way he’d expressed himself about certain topics. Michael and I worked over each disagreement and ironed out misunderstanding, one by one, until at last we came to understand where we both stood. Understanding another point of view, regardless of agreement, is the basis of friendship.  It is a real friendship when two people can discuss such sensitive topics, step on one another’s toes, then still carry on dialogue past the uncomfortable in-between stages to knowledge.  Most crucial of all, I managed to explain how uncertainty operates in me, how I not only question other people, but how I doubt my own perception and ability to grasp what I see and hear just as much.


  1. Thanks so much for that most interesting journey, Sam...and Michael. And, Sam, you are so smart to question and investigate. My gosh, you're only 22 years old. You surely shouldn't jump on the first boat that floats by. We sure are missing you, here in Texas. Later, gator.

    1. Hey Nat! Thanks for the message. The questioning continues!