Faith and Family

October 28, 2014
Cardinal Seán O’Malley with Cary Dabney
Cardinal Seán O’Malley with HDS student Cary Dabney / Photo: George Martell

In the spring of 2013, Cary Dabney found an envelope from Harvard Divinity School in his mailbox. The first member of his family to attend college, Dabney prepared himself for disappointment. He turned to his son—one of his six children—and joked that he would frame his rejection letter, just to show that the people at Harvard knew his name.

He was in for a surprise.

"I opened the envelope and the first word I saw was 'Congratulations,' " Dabney says. "In that moment, I saw a legacy switch. My son looked into my eyes and heard me say that I got into Harvard. Afterwards, the language of all my children changed, from the oldest to the youngest. They're no longer talking about if they're going to go to school, but where." 

Family—often deeply intertwined with religion—has always been at the center of life for Dabney. His journey from the community of Jehovah's Witnesses where he grew up, to fatherhood, higher education, and to Catholicism has inspired both his passion for ministry and his desire to show his children the path to a better life.

Either in or out

That Dabney's journey brought him to HDS is something of a miracle in itself, given his tumultuous childhood. His mother and father, both Jehovah's Witnesses, separated only months before he was born.

Dabney's father had a crisis of faith, left the organization, and was ostracized from both his community and his family as a result. Five years later, he lost his stepfather, who died only 14 months after Dabney's mother remarried. His second stepfather, another Jehovah's Witness, embraced his responsibilities as a parent, but reinforced the boundaries that kept his stepson closed off from those outside the faith.

"In my community, you were either in or out" he says. "You only associated with other Jehovah's Witnesses. I could play sports with the other kids in the organization, but I couldn't join any teams or do any extracurricular activities after school. When I was 16, I had to forge my parents' signature on a permission slip and sneak out to play football for my high school."

Dabney wanted to continue his education, but his family and community considered college impractical. Besides, they told him, a liberal arts education would only undermine his faith. Bristling at the constraints on his activities, his thinking, and his future, he decided at 16 to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Conscious of his birth father's experience, however, Dabney planned his resignation carefully. He said nothing to his parents and continued to attend prayer meetings until he graduated from high school, got a job, and left home. When settled, he wrote to the faith's main offices to say that he wanted to be formally disassociated. Shortly thereafter, he told his mother and stepfather—who cast him out, as he feared they would.

"The moment I told them I was leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, I was cut off," he says. "They went from 'Oh son, we're so proud of you. We love you,' to not speaking to me. That experience, as bad as it was, is what makes my family so important to me today. I could never imagine doing something like that to my children, whether or not they held the same convictions I did."

A huge step

Dabney, who knew nothing about the college application and financial aid process, assumed that there would be no way to pay for school, even if he was admitted. Tired of working in retail, he decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps and use his veteran's benefits to help pay for college. Dabney served two tours of duty during the late 1990s and the early 2000s, traveled to Greece and Croatia, and learned valuable technical skills. Most of all, he says that he "came away with a feeling of patriotism and pride in my country."

While in the military, Dabney met and married his wife, a mother of two, who then gave birth to their son. With a family to help support, he felt that he could hardly go back to school, even with veteran's benefits. After four years, though, it was clear that Dabney did not feel called to a career at Home Depot.

"One day after work," he remembers, "my wife said to me, 'You're not happy, are you? You're working, but it's not a career.' It was true, but what could we do about it? We had kids. She told me that I needed to go back to school, and that we would figure out a way to make it work financially."

Ever since he left the Jehovah's Witnesses, Dabney had searched for a new theology and a deeper understanding of Christianity. He found himself drawn to the writings of Dr. Bruce Waller of the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

With his family's support, he enrolled there and threw himself into the study of religion and philosophy, winning the praise of the faculty. Professor Linda Tessier called him "one of the best students I have ever taught," and said that his exegesis changed the way that she read the Gospel of John. Still, Dabney had trouble taking the prospect of graduate school seriously.

 "A master's degree wasn't even on my mind," he says. "I was excited just to graduate from college. It was a huge step, but Dr. Tessier urged me to apply to master's programs and to look at the best schools in the country. When she offered to write me a letter of recommendation, I decided I'd try and continue my education."

In the fall of 2012, Dabney participated in the HDS Diversity and Explorations (DivEx) program for prospective students. HDS flew him to campus, provided room and board for three days, and enabled him to sit in on classes at the School, all for free.

He was surprised "to see people in my demographic saying that not only could I succeed at Harvard, but also that HDS wanted me here." It wasn't until he sat in on Professor Laura S. Nasrallah's New Testament class, however, that he thought he might belong.

"Professor Nasrallah passed out a text with Greek on one side and a translation on the other. I realized while she was talking that I was reading the Greek. I hadn't even looked at the English. That's when I thought to myself, 'O.K. I can do this.' "

By the time Dabney got the envelope from HDS in the spring of 2013, he'd already been accepted to Yale, Duke, and Claremont University. Because of his DivEx experience, however, Harvard was his top choice—provided he could finance the degree.

Fortunately, he received fellowship aid that covered full tuition and fees and provided a stipend for living expenses. Dabney says that it would have been impossible for him to come to campus without the support of the B. Cobbey & Janet V. Crisler Scholarship.

"As soon as I saw that I got in to HDS, I asked myself how we could possibly afford it," he says. "Then I saw the award letter for the Dean's Fellowship and said, 'O.K.! We can work this!' There's no way I could have come without financial aid."

At HDS, Dabney studies moral theology and Catholic social doctrine, and says that his classes have already changed the way he reads sacred texts. He tells the story of an "Aha!" moment that took place during a class on diversity and New Testament interpretation with HDS professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

"She said the scripture is not only descriptive, it's prescriptive," he says. "We look at first century Christians as if they were all saints given these documents on how to continue to live their lives. But if they were given a document saying 'Thou shalt not do X,' it's because they were doing X. There's a whole world behind the scripture, and you have to keep in mind the environment in which it was written. That's something that I can use with any text for the rest of my life."

A new chapter

The new phase of Dabney's intellectual life intersects with a new chapter in his spiritual journey. His undergraduate curiosity about the establishment of the canonical gospels in Christianity's early years led him to explore Roman Catholicism.

His wife, a "cradle Catholic," had been inactive in the church since her youth. When he asked her if she'd consider going to mass with him, though, she was enthusiastic. The couple explored their local parish in Youngstown.

"We went to mass in the same parish where my wife was baptized as a child," Dabney says. "If there was a Pauline moment for me, that was it. I'd been in a lot of churches growing up, but this was the first time in my life that I'd ever felt spiritually at home. One year later, I was baptized in the same font as my wife. All of my children were as well. It brought me to tears."

In the years ahead, Dabney, who is pursing a master of divinity degree, says that he wants to use his HDS experience to bring faith and family together with vocation. The School's membership in the Boston Theological Institute enables him to take courses at St. John's Seminary in Boston that are otherwise open only to priests.

He hopes to take this knowledge—and what he learns at HDS—to work in religious education for the Roman Catholic diocese near his home in Youngstown, where his family remains while he attends HDS.

"My calling is to help with the religious formation of families—whether it's children or adults," he says. "In our tradition, just like in my life, family is so important. People at HDS ask me how much I miss my wife and children in Ohio. It's like asking an amputee how much they miss their arm. What can you say?"

—by Paul Massari