by Winona Winkler Wendth
On a sunny afternoon about thirty-five years ago, my family and I visited one of the most interesting women in Adventist publishing history: Ruth Wheeler, “The Dinosaur Lady.” We were living in Angwin, California, only a mile or two from Pacific Union College, and had been invited over to Mrs. Wheeler’s home so she could autograph her book on dinosaurs, which was a favorite of my daughters. A bright, lively, clever woman in her eighties, Wheeler delighted in telling the story of her book. Having tired of the historical Adventist argument about the origins of dinosaurs, and convinced that she could quiet the deniers—the people in the pew who doubted whether dinosaurs had existed at all—she decided to hit the controversies head on and took off to Colorado to look at the bones herself.
That is, she and Mr. Wheeler did.
This is not the place to consider the theology that developed around the discovery of those bones. But this is the place to consider that Mrs. Wheeler did not travel to Colorado by herself, not only because, well, she was a woman, and Adventist women rarely traveled by themselves after the 1930s, but also because she would have been obliged to engage in conversation with non-Adventist men without some kind of chaperone—there is no other word for that.
Our visit was lively, too: she was a delightful, animated woman, educated and articulate. However, when we lingered by the Wheeler’s driveway gate, she nudged me aside and asked a question. Her neighbor, a retired physics professor from Yale, a friend of ours, had stopped by the gate a day or so before and had greeted her. “I didn’t know what to say to a non-Adventist gentleman,” she said. “Do you have any advice?” A friendly smile and wave would be just fine, I said, and would not be misunderstood; he was not being forward, only friendly.
I remembered that my grandmother, a passing acquaintance of Mrs. Wheeler’s, had often talked about having to go into town with my grandfather, lest she have to do business with an outsider. The college market? They were Adventists, so that was OK. The campus bakery shop? Adventist, too. But out in the rest of the world? No.
Both women had been born before the turn of the century (the one before this one), and both had been privileged with rarely having to leave an Adventist campus or community. They could move through the world of commerce without speaking to an outsider. Up in Angwin, it may still be possible, as it was when I lived there, to be born, educated through a graduate degree, buy and furnish a house and raise the next generation without leaving an Adventist community. (Though death required a trip to St. Helena for burial).
This seems extreme today, but we still carry the germ of this attitude with us. I belong to a transition generation, but even I have not lived in a secular, civilian community since I was married, save time in student housing in graduate school. And we were the exceptions. In the 1970s, some Adventist graduate students would live in Angwin and drive nearly two hours to Berkeley to attend classes, or live in Loma Linda and drive to Claremont. We were the only Adventists living in a large block of apartments a handy five minute walk to classes and the library.
I value—as my children do—the education that simply living with other people gave us. Not just tolerance, but engagement with others who were pursuing the same goals, who, unlike what many Adventists used to be told, really didn’t care when we went to church or what we ate or drank (or didn’t), any more than they thought it necessary to weigh in on the LDS family down the sidewalk who had 700 pounds of wheat stored in their second bedroom. We studied together. We worried about exams together. We lent typewriters (yes, we’re that old), books, and pots of coffee to each other (don’t pretend that graduate students don’t drink coffee). We supervised each other’s children. We played softball and let off steam together. We shared a concrete block building with people from dozens of nationalities, and Americans from almost every region of the country and from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Many of these men and women are still our closest friends. We would never have known them had we stayed inside what many of us still call Adventist ghettos. And one can often tell which Adventist academics denied themselves those experiences because of their hesitance to know let alone socially bond with “outsiders.”
Were we able to be what theologian Jack Provonsha called a “winsome presence”? A witness to what a genuinely helpful, caring person can be? That depends on whether or not one believes that Sabbath keeping or habits of health are causative of being a nice, socially engaged, caring, civically responsible person. We made good friends, our friends counted on us to care for their children in their absence, to keep an eye out for them and run errands when one of them was sick, to pick up [you name it] at the grocery on their behalf. We didn’t think that being an Adventist made anyone an essentially better person, and what we thought about the books of Hebrews or Revelation more or less stayed in our heads. We don’t condone killing animals because they taste good, but lots of people outside the church don’t, either. And if we don’t drink alcohol, no one is going to ask why, just in case we’re in AA. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone say, “You need to know that I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, so I won’t be drinking alcohol at your wedding”—not that anyone would notice.
Most non-Adventists don’t know that we live in a parallel universe, whose successful operation depends on the belief that if we mix with outsiders, something bad will happen, the least of which will be that we will be made fun of. Some Adventists are still a bit like Mrs. Wheeler: They don’t know what to say to “outsiders,” as though they speak a different language, or would force us to drink a martini. But they also won’t ask for a testimony about why you wouldn’t do unwelcome things to them. They make assumptions about good neighbors, and they will hold educated people to reasonable standards.
Our understanding of social systems and psychology have long since passed the 19th century notions of “influences,” one that ran much deeper than what we mean by that today and which assumed that we—especially, women, children, and the poor—had little control of our minds and actions. It wasn’t long until that philosophy transitioned to tradition, and tradition to politics. We are also influenced by a nagging sense of class—many Adventists enjoy looking down on and alternatively are afraid of being looked down on by people outside the family—although Adventist society recognizes class distinctions and older “aristocratic” families as well as anyone on the outside.
“Be in the world, but not of the world,” is not relevant to this challenge we have today. The “of the world,” has less to do with what we believe and more to do with what we do: how well we practice basic human kindness and engage in the greater good in the face of back-biting politics and national fear and hatred; how well we open our doors and are hospitable to our literal neighbors, understanding that they need and expect warmth and sharing as much as we do but are accustomed to accepting it expansively. Their terms are the same as ours.
A couple of weeks ago, the Sabbath School lesson brought this challenge to the church: How many of you have friends outside the church? Some hands went up, but not enough. How many of you have asked a neighbor or co-worker home to dinner to a social evening? Fewer hands raised. This is a project we need to work on.
Surely, Ruth Wheeler would have enjoyed a lively conversation about atoms and radio waves with her physicist neighbor, perhaps over a cup of herbal tea, but she didn’t feel comfortable because—because what? She didn’t know what to say. She went to see the dinosaur skeletons a thousand miles away, but she was anxious about visiting next door.
Winona Winkler Wendth is an alumna of Atlantic Union College, and a writer and editor who lives in Massachusetts. She also teaches humanities classes at Quinsigamond Community College and is a founder and director of the Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative. She and her spouse have lived and worked at five Adventist college campuses, survived raising two daughters, and are responsible for two dependent cats.