Yesterday I had a strange encounter at Botany Pond. Two of us were giving the ducks their breakfast (we’re cutting down the food, preparing for the mallards’ departure), when a middle-aged woman and two young children came by, pulled out some crackers, and were about to feed the ducks and turtles.
I told her that crackers were bad for the animals, and, as I often do in these cases, offered her and the children—they turned out to be her grandchildren—a handful of duck food so they could feed them the good stuff.
She asked me if I worked at the University, and I said “yes” but that taking care of the ducks was an avocation, not a job. I then asked her if she was affiliated with the U of C, and she said no, that she had driven several hours to visit her husband in the hospital. I won’t reveal his ailment, but let me say that it wasn’t a good one, and when I asked her if he was okay, she shook her head “no” in an immensely saddening gesture. (I’ve met several people who come to the pond to seek respite when they have relatives in the nearby hospital.)
I then showed her and her grandchildren one duck that we were taking special care of, G. G. (“Gritty Gertie”), a hen that had a badly injured leg and couldn’t walk or swim well when she flew in about two weeks ago. (The good news is that extra feeding has gotten her and her leg in better shape, though she still limps when she walks.)
I’ll try to reconstruct the conversation from there:
Woman: What do you teach?
Me: I’m retired, but I taught biology—evolution.
Woman: Well, I don’t believe in evolution.
Me (stifling myself since there was no point in arguing) It’s not really a matter of believing in it, but accepting it. You know, I wrote a book about the evidence for evolution, which did pretty well. It’s called “Why Evolution is True.” If you read it and still reject evolution, well. . . .
Woman: No, I’m just a good old-fashioned creationist.
At that point I decided to let matters be, But she continued:
Woman: You know, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution. What’s important is that you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. That’s the only way you’ll get to Heaven.
Me: Well, I was brought up Jewish, so I’m doubly damned. No, actually, now I’m an atheist, so I guess I’m triply damned.
This was all conducted civilly, like a normal conversation. Then the woman came out with a line I’ll remember until I die:
Woman: Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.
At that point I went back to the ducks. The phrase “our Jews” made me feel like these evangelicals regard Jews as pets. And they love us, but they think we’ll bake for eternity if we don’t choose the right Savior.
I told her and her kids goodbye (her daughter was sitting nearby in a stroller), and they all left. All day I thought about this conversation, and wondered if her husband would find solace in his religion as he neared the end. I also wondered if the kids would grow up to be creationists, which would probably be the case.
But the one thing that lingers is that last sentence: “Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.”