If we set out to find a common thread in the life of Ronny Nalin, two elements would instantly stand out: a deep-seated love for God’s creation and a longstanding desire to serve its Creator. For Nalin, a geologist who was elected director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) in July 2020, both elements go hand in hand. It has driven his experiences and training since the day he was born 42 years ago into a Seventh-day Adventist family in Padua, Italy. In Nalin’s life, those two elements have been enhanced by his firm conviction about a master design in his personal journey and in the world so wonderfully created. Adventist Review senior news correspondent Marcos Paseggi caught up with Nalin after he returned to his home near Loma Linda University from a research trip to Utah. It was his first trip since the beginning of the COVID-19-related restrictions. “I had forgotten how beautiful the sky at night is,” he says of his trip. In this conversation, Nalin discusses his family and church of origin, his professional background, and God’s step-by-step leading in his life.—Editors
Share with our readers the beginning of your journey. Which early elements influenced your personal and professional life choices?
One is certainly my family. The story starts with my father. As a teenager, he proved to be a very spiritual person. He had many enquiries about spiritual topics, things that unsettled him about his Christian denomination at the time. With the help of a relative, who was a Seventh-day Adventist, he set out to study the Bible more intensely. He accepted what he learned, and asked to be baptized. At the time, he was baptized in secret, as his parents would have not allowed it. Later they came to accept it.
As an Adventist young man, my father decided to go door to door selling Adventist literature. In one home he met a young woman who showed a keen interest in knowing more about the teaching of those books, and the young man who walked around selling them. They began dating, and eventually she was baptized. Some time later they got married. So yes, I had the privilege of being born into an Adventist family, which has always loved the Lord deeply.
The second element is certainly my home church. The Padua Seventh-day Adventist Church was always my extended family. It was a church with just a few dozen members at the time, but a very vibrant congregation. It was also a church that allowed me to get actively involved from an early age. I was baptized at 17, but by that time, I had served my local church for years. We were expected to actively participate in the life of the church.
Some people think that Adventist congregations in Europe are mostly reduced to tiny clusters of senior citizens. What was your experience?
I enjoyed a wonderful church environment. We had members from different backgrounds and all ages. My children and later youth group were small but very active. We were a very cohesive congregation. At the time, there was a nearby U.S. military base near Vicenza. Sometimes, on Sabbath, some Adventist military members would travel from the base to worship at our church. It was always a joyous occasion. Members would fight to be the first to invite them for lunch.
Did you enjoy the opportunity of attending a Seventh-day Adventist school?
No. There was no Adventist school around. I always attended public schools, knowing from the very first day that you would be perceived as different from the rest. In Italy at the time, students were supposed to attend classes on Saturdays. The government, however, had passed a law regulating religious rights and freedoms for certain denominations. A provision of the law allowed Seventh-day Adventists and others to worship on Saturdays. So as a family, we would go and talk to the teachers about the law protecting our right to be excused from attending classes on Saturdays.
One of the challenges was related to soccer. Most matches were played on Saturdays. As an Italian kid, it was tough. But we understood from an early age that it was all about life choices.
What kind of support compensated for those gaps in your social life?
I was blessed with a small but wonderful youth group at church. We supported each other and shared many bonding activities such as sleepovers, which provided us memorable experiences from an early age.
As a teenager, I got involved with our church summer camps. We all were into Pathfinders, both regionally and nationally. There I learned about medicinal plants and my first constellations. We used to spend a lot of time outdoors hiking, exploring, sleeping out, and climbing peaks. All those things led me to a deeper appreciation for the love of God through His created works.
Even though my family lived close to the mountains, we were poor and couldn’t afford expensive rock climbing gear or ski passes. But building a shelter in the woods and hiking were always free. Little did I know how important some of those limestone boulders that I climbed in my youth would become later.
So you had a connection with nature from a young age. Did you soon show a professional interest in it, or was it just a hobby?
I had no idea that I would become a geologist. I learned from a young age to love Scripture and enjoy its connections. I remember being amazed at how the Bible can talk to you personally and transform you. I also knew I wanted to serve the Lord in some capacity. For some time I thought I could serve as a Bible scholar or a pastor. I would say, “Lord, I am available. Where can I serve?”
As a teenager, I had taken part in discussions of theories about origins. I learned that it was possible to offer alternative, unconventional scientific explanations to some of the tenets commonly accepted by naturalistic science. I thought it was a great thing to see the work of God in the natural world, and a wonderful blessing to pass it to the next generation.
So you ended up studying geology.
Yes, and my passion grew as I studied. I eventually finished my undergraduate, then my graduate studies in geology. But that’s not all, because looking back, I can see that through every experience, God was preparing me for my future service to His church even when I didn’t know it. Besides what I already mentioned, in high school I was trained in classical studies, which helped me to think logically and philosophically, with attention to detail. Years later I took part in an exchange program in the United Kingdom, without knowing at the time how important communicating and writing in English would eventually become.
God also gave me visionary church leaders who believed I could serve the church in my capacity as a geologist, and connected me with the right persons at the right time. Above all, God gave me Elisa, a girl I had known from the Padua church since she was a baby. She eventually became my wife, and was always supportive of God’s plans for our lives.
In 2003, I was invited to a GRI expedition trip in Peru. The Adventist Church in Italy and the GRI supported me, covering part of my expenses. There I worked with Raul Esperante, and met Leonard Brand and Art Chadwick. I was elated. I felt I was not alone; I was part of a team of Adventist scientists. Then other invitations followed. When the GRI offered me a job a few years later, God’s plan became crystal clear. In 2007, newly married, Elisa and I moved to the United States.
So there are no random events in your life?
Not at all. Elisa and I have seen God’s hand in our life events. If we place ourselves in God’s hands, He will lead us to the right place where we can serve Him. Both in our lives and in creation, everything that happens is part of a master plan. The more I study, the more I learn how wonderful God’s world is.