I have been nervous about this gathering for a while. I knew it was going to be important but I think I was hoping to avoid it as long as possible. I’m talking about Thanksgiving with my family. As we often do, we gathered at my maternal grandmother’s house in the tiny town of Jamestown, California. It’s basically a ghost town now, but like most towns in that part of the state, they were once thriving mining communities. Mark Twain even spent a few months in the neighborhood back in the mid-1860s and wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” about one of his experiences there.
My family are all either devout Christians or at least sincere believers in God. The surprising thing—even to me—is that I haven’t really discussed my journey into atheism with my family. I wanted to, but I’ve been reluctant. The most obvious reason for reluctance is that I don’t want to get into a argument with my family. But the other reason—the main reason, I think—is that I have no desire to disparage their beliefs and religious practices. Yes, I’d like them to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible, but I definitely don’t have that sorted out and so I don’t necessarily see it as my duty to introduce my doubts and concerns. They are all intelligent, well-educated, well-read people. As when I was a pastor, I prefer to let my life speak.
It does make for an awkward Thanksgiving, however, when after 11 months there is this enormous elephant in the room. To make matters more awkward, the two filmmakers that are working on Year Without God: The Film, came with me and spent the holiday with us. Ryan Moore’s family actually lives about 15 minutes from my grandmother, and our families know each other. But still, it was added pressure to have cameras involved in what was already a high pressure situation.
I’m afraid I didn’t handle it very well. As the first born child and a survivor of some pretty serious abuse at the hands of a step-father (no longer in the picture) I’m a natural conflict-avoider and people-pleaser. In family situations I instantly default into peacekeeping mode—not always the best for authentic and difficult conversations. That being said, I did have some amazing conversations over the 4 days I was there.
My grandmother is a remarkable person. She was born in 1924, making her 90 years old this month. In July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, she went sky diving for the first time. She spent three years assisting her dentist husband in rural Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-70s and raised 4 amazing girls, including my mom. She’s seen tragedy and heartache and always managed to stay positive. When I was just 13 years old my grandmother and my late grandfather saved my brother and me from a very destructive situation. It is no exaggeration to say they have been surrogate parents to me and I cannot be more grateful. As my religious views have evolved, so have my grandma’s. She’s not nearly as conservative as she was when I was a child. Even then her conservatism was not of the strident, in-your-face, you’re-going-to-hell variety. She and my grandfather were just very serious about their faith. I learned my devotion from them and it was probably due to their influence that I became a pastor. So she understands how convictions change over time. Hers haven’t changed in the same way as mine, but we could identify with each other.Both my mom and my dad were present for Thanksgiving as well. They’ve been divorced now for nearly 40 years. Both are remarried. But my father has remained close to my mother’s family the entire time. Not a typical situation but one I’ve never regretted. They have both been ridiculously proud of me. I was a pastor and a good one at that. When I lost everything I naturally worried about their disapproval. There is definitely confusion and hurt, but above all, I experienced love. We all desire to be understood. And in being understood, accepted.
After all the conversations, the overwhelming message I received is love and support. My grandmother told me unequivocally, “You are my grandson and I love you. I’m not worried about you in the least. I know God will lead you to the right conclusion.” My mom, too, expressed her support and said she didn’t really care what I believed, as long as I was happy. No one tried to re-convert me, and most of the time various family members could relate very specifically to my disappointment with religion. Many more conversations need to happen and will no doubt happen in the coming weeks and months, but what I have received thus far is a gift. I felt out of place the whole time, but not because of anything anyone said or did to me. I brought my own worries to the conversations and none of them materialized.
I think of so many others who are not so fortunate. For them, leaving their faith almost meant being shunned from family and community. Others endure a barrage of “witnessing” whenever they’re with their Christian family members. I suppose I may be in for some of that as time goes by, depending on how my story unfolds, but on this Thanksgiving weekend I want to say how grateful I am to my family for being the loving, supportive people that they are. I have no doubt caused them a great deal of worry over the years, but they have always been in my corner. If my religious meanderings cannot shake that commitment I doubt anything can.