Deanaland

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Truth and Light

“He only fondled the girls. It’s not like he raped them.”

“He was too young to know what he was doing. In his mind, it probably wasn’t much worse than stealing a cookie.”

“He only touched their breasts. It could have been worse.”

“He repented and was forgiven, so his slate has been wiped clean. I would have no problem asking him to babysit my own children.”

“They were just ‘playing doctor.’ A lot of kids do that.”

“Those girls aren’t really victims if they were asleep when it happened.”

These represent just a few of the more shocking comments I’ve seen in the wake of last week’s news about the Duggar family. The comments are bad enough by themselves, but what makes them worse is that they all came from Christians. And not just the ones who are members of those weird little sects. A couple of those comments came from a preacher in a mainstream denomination.

I have a couple of theories about why so many people of faith have been quick to defend the way the Duggar situation has been handled. First, Christians tend to be very supportive and defensive of their own people. Every time a movie like Fireproof or God’s Not Dead comes out, Christians flock to see it because we need to support Christians in the film industry, right? Christians tune into shows like Duck Dynasty (and buy up all that ridiculous merchandise) because they are Christians and we need to support them, right?

So when something pretty horrible comes to light about a Christian in the national spotlight—someone who has been held up as part of an example of how Christian families should be—some Christians will rush to his defense. “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and “we all sin/make mistakes” will get thrown around as though one Bible verse or not-completely-thought-out sentence will provide a quick resolution to an extremely complex situation.

I definitely think this unhealthy, unwavering loyalty is at play here. But my fear is that something much worse is going on. From many of the responses/reactions I’ve seen to the Duggar reports over the past few days, I think many people in religious communities are horribly ignorant and naïve about sexual abuse.

Students at Bob Jones University were told not to report rape/sexual abuse because it might “damage the body of Christ.” Sovereign Grace Ministries, a denomination with churches on five continents, allegedly failed to report sexual abuse allegations from decades ago. A pastor of a Maryland church knew the youth leader had molested three young boys, but never reported it. These are just a few examples of many, many horrific incidents of abuse that happened in religious settings. Google “sexual abuse in churches.” The stories are never-ending.

The Catholic church has been making headlines about sexual abuse cover-ups for years, but it’s everywhere. And it’s clear that many church leaders either don’t know how to handle these situations, or choose not to handle them correctly. It’s also clear that when it comes to sexual abuse, many people of faith just don’t get it. They don’t get that while “forgiveness” sounds nice, telling a victim they have to forgive can only worsen the damage. They don’t get the depth of the trauma. They don’t get that repentance will not guarantee the perpetrator will never do it again. They don’t get that the verses about judging and casting stones come across as thinly veiled attempts to guilt someone into silence. And that silence is exactly what an abuser needs to keep abusing and keep getting away with it.

Organizations such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) are already working to turn this tide of ignorance and irreversible harm, but more needs to be done:

- I believe all clergy members should be mandatory reporters. This would mean that if any clergy member knows or suspects any kind of abuse (not just sexual) is going on, they would be required by law to report it to authorities.

- I believe people who work with minors in all churches, temples, mosques and other religious entities should undergo abuse awareness training on a regular basis. My husband is a youth and family minister, so yes, this would mean both of us, as well as all of our Bible class teachers and parent volunteers.

- On a more personal level, we have got to stop passionately defending abusers and badly-handled situations whether the people involved share our own faith systems or not.

One comment I have read on the Duggar situation is that we should not speak out on these kinds of situations because “we should not enter a battle that is not ours.” But when 93 percent of sex offenders describe themselves as religious* (meaning they are likely involved in a faith community somewhere), and when studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims**, this is a battle that belongs to all of us. Sexual abuse is the kind of criminal activity that thrives in silence and darkness, and faith communities should be repositories of truth and light.

*The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study
** “Startling Statistics: Child sexual abuse and what the church can begin doing about it

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Old Friend Dave

My first memory of Dave Letterman is from the summer before 6th grade. Instead of going to bed right after Johnny Carson, I kept watching. This goofy-looking guy was telling jokes and just being silly. He was funny. Johnny Carson was funny, too, but this new guy was funny in a different way. He was funny in a way that I had not seen funny before. I kept watching.

At least in the summer and during holidays. Back when Dave’s show was Late Night on NBC, he didn’t come on until 11:30 p.m. And for a long time, his show aired only on Monday-Thursday. So I didn’t get to watch him on school nights. But when summer came, I tuned in almost every night.

The ’80s were Dave’s glory days. Not that he hasn’t been funny since then, but back then, his humor was wackier and edgier. Those were the days of the Velcro wall, guacamole-filled balloons being dropped off ten-story buildings, and Thursday night Viewer Mail. There were Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Larry “Bud” Melman, prank calls to the Russian Embassy (smack in the middle of the Cold War, for heaven’s sake) and the squeaky Sky-Cam. During his 5th anniversary special in 1987, Dave unveiled a dog farm during a “new products” segment. It was built like a giant ant farm and real, live dogs sat in it, panting and staring out at the audience. For his Tri-State Special, a quirky tribute to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Dave borrowed a hydraulic press and took requests of what he should crush in it. My favorite was the hot dog wieners and a huge can of Pork ‘n’ Beans. I taped that show and I still have it on a deteriorating VHS.

Much of my time as an adolescent was not fun. Nothing spectacularly tragic happened; my parents didn’t get divorced, and I was never a child abuse victim. But there were some dark, dark days that never seemed to end. If I could get to a TV at 11:30, though, Dave always, always made me laugh. Many of those nights, Dave’s antics weren’t just entertainment for me. They were a means of survival.

Although I did get to go to New York City in 9th grade, I didn’t get to go to Dave’s show. Late Night tickets were very hard to come by during Dave’s heyday, so my friends and I settled for Phil Donahue instead. But Dave taped in the same building, and I did pick up a “Late Night with David Letterman” sweatshirt in the gift shop. I still have it.

I was in college when Dave moved to the Late Show on CBS (which moved him up an hour to 10:30 p.m.), and I kept watching as he sent 15 people dressed as Superman into a small, Manhattan Starbucks, and a guy in a bear suit into the Russian Tea Room. When I was turning 30 and Chad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for a TV for our bedroom “…so I could go to bed with David Letterman.” I got my TV, and Chad and I spent several more years ending many of our days laughing at Dave.

There’s always something disconcerting about the funny famous people we have grown up with leaving the public eye. We come to rely on these people to keep us grounded so we don’t get so lost and overwhelmed by everything that is not funny about this world.

In recent years, I have prioritized sleep over late-night laughs. If I watch Dave now, it’s usually the next day online while I get ready for work. But I’ll stay up and watch his last show tonight. I’ve been a David Letterman fan most of my life, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve learned that it’s OK to be weird, and that it’s OK to find something hysterical that no one else gets. Most importantly, I’ve learned that sometimes the best—and most genuine—way to minister to someone is to crack a joke and make them smile. So I’ll stay up tonight and say goodbye. I at least owe him that.

Here's the hydraulic press clip. Also, enjoy John Mellencamp's performance after that.

And one last time, the Late Night Anthem.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

MTV and Me

Author's note: This piece was originally published in the 2014 edition of Quills and Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I burst through the front door, threw my books into the doorway of my bedroom, grabbed a snack in the kitchen, and ran down the hall to the den. Settling cross-legged on the blue-shag carpet in front of the television, I grabbed the silver knob and pulled. First a click, then a hum, then static electricity crackled across the screen. I had arrived at my house a few minutes earlier after an emotionally-grueling day of sixth grade. But now that the faint image on the screen was growing vibrant, I was truly home.

Music Television had debuted the summer before my fifth-grade year, but I hadn’t become aware of it until later. Living in tiny Lovington, New Mexico, limited—or at least, delayed—my knowledge of pop culture. Our little one-screen theater showed movies months after they were released. While the kids in Lubbock, a two-hour drive away, were getting tired of E.T. and moving on, we Lovington kids were just seeing it for the first time.

So I didn’t find out about MTV because kids were talking about it at school. They weren’t. I just stumbled across it one day. It took me a while to piece together what this thing was. All day and all night, MTV showed mini-movies set to popular music. One day, I made this life-altering observation: “Oh! It’s like radio, but you can see it!”

From then on, I was hooked. I filled my afternoons with INXS, Joan Jett, The Human League, The Cars, David Bowie, A Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and the Go-Go’s. I watched Michael Jackson invent pop music. Then I watched Madonna redefine it on her own terms. I watched The Police reinvent themselves with “Every Breath You Take” from their ground-breaking “Synchronicity” album. I watched for hours every day and never got enough.

I came to realize that not everyone shared my joy at this discovery. I had a friend over one day, and I turned on MTV to show her this daring new frontier. Def Leppard was crunching through “Rock of Ages,” and the lead guitarist, wearing tight white pants, was swaying his backside in front of the camera. My friend stared at it for a minute. Then she said, “My mom says rock music is from the devil,” and left the room. I kept watching as lead singer Joe Elliott swung a large, glowing Excalibur-like sword over his head as he launched into the second verse.

“If this is from the devil,” I thought, “he has pretty good taste.”

My friend’s mother wasn’t alone. As MTV’s popularity grew, so did conservative disapproval.

“MTV is destroying the very souls of our children!” I heard one pulpit-pounding preacher exclaim.

But MTV did not make me feel as though my soul were being destroyed. It actually put my soul back together. While my peers seemed to be sailing through puberty effortlessly, I remained physically and socially awkward. I was either picked on or ignored at school. I couldn’t decide which was worse. Sixth grade had not been kind to me so far.

But at home, I found solace in the flickering light that illuminated the den. Those music videos told stories that I understood. I knew the band members would never know who I was, but I knew them. Sting wasn’t just gazing into the camera in “Every Breath You Take;” he was staring straight into my soul. I might have felt powerless at school, but women like Madonna and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox and all five of the Go-Go’s—an all-female band, for heaven’s sake—oozed empowerment and influence. When Martha Davis of The Motels sauntered through a nightclub and purred the lyrics to “Only the Lonely,” I knew she understood the isolation I walked around in every day. In this refuge glowing out of my TV, these people became my friends. School was destroying my soul. But MTV, this gateway to a new world, was where I was accepted and understood. If MTV wanted my soul, MTV could have it.

I was intrigued by Boy George’s shocking androgyny. I was mesmerized by Talking Heads’ quirky profundity. I admired Pat Benatar’s tough femininity, and I loved the way each of Duran Duran’s videos seemed to have been designed to send adolescent female hormones into a frenzy. And I could not get enough. If I uttered “Just one more video” enough times, my MTV-watching sessions could go for hours.

My parents realized how much MTV I was watching and pulled the plug by cancelling our cable subscription. I tried to land sleepovers at the houses of friends who had cable, but I missed having MTV around all the time. After my parents bought our first VCR, I discovered VHS tapes of music videos at the video store. I gleefully checked out Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and took it home and, in an attempt to demonstrate what this medium meant to me, watched it with my dad. I didn’t realize the video shown on MTV was the “clean” version, and the one I brought home was not. This did not help my case.

But then a miracle happened. My brother was playing with the buttons on the VCR one day, and MTV suddenly illuminated the screen. We didn’t know how he had done it, but we were pretty sure we were getting MTV illegally. I didn’t care. MTV was back! And now I could fill VHS tapes with it!

For a lot of people, MTV provided entertainment. But it gave me a connection and a sense of significance. Popular music had become visual, and I felt I was more than a witness to this monumental transition in pop culture. I was a part of it. Eventually, I would go on to find meaning in things other than a music video network, and MTV would replace its 24-hour video programming with a parade of increasingly meaningless reality shows. But for 14-year-old me, curled up in front of the flickering TV set late into the night, MTV welcomed me into its world with unwavering acceptance—until I would finally turn it off and go to bed. But first, just one more video.

Left Behind

Author's note: This is an excerpt from my master's thesis, Honest to God: Confessions of a Pastor's Wife. It has also been published in the 2014 edition of Quills & Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I started losing my dad in September 2011. One Friday morning that month, my parents, my two girls, and I set out for Huntsville, Alabama, for my cousin’s wedding. We stopped for lunch in Memphis. Mom and Dad had never been there. We walked up Beale Street, where the bars were already livening up for that night. Music poured out of open doors. Beer trucks lined the street, and men pushed dollies loaded with cases of beer around us as we walked at a slower pace. Dad took Mom’s hand as we made our way up the street. He loved music. It spoke to his soul in a deep and profound way.

“We’ll come back here and spend a weekend—just the two of us,” he told Mom.

We ended up at Hard Rock Café, where Dad and I posed for pictures on the stage. In one shot, he’s kneeling on the floor and holding a guitar by the neck with both hands high over his head like he’s channeling Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great picture.

That night, we rolled into Huntsville for a weekend of sweet celebration with Dad’s sister and her children. Her son Sid was getting married to a wonderful woman named Evelyn. They are both professional musicians, and they had gathered an ensemble of bass violins and flutes—their respective instruments—to perform at the ceremony. Sid had asked Dad, who had been forced to abandon a much-desired music career decades earlier, to conduct the ensemble. Dad did his job proudly.

After the wedding, we talked and ate and laughed and drank with the family and friends who were gathered there. Ann, my dad’s sister, was in the process of moving far from us to Sid and Evelyn’s home in Indiana. Dad and Ann knew this could be one of their last times together. They sat and laughed and clung to each other. The Alabama humidity settled on the festivities, and by the end of the evening, our faces shone and our hair drooped with the heavy moisture in the air. Someone looked at a clock, and we were all surprised that it was 1:30 a.m. It had been a beautiful night.

Less than a week later, Dad was in the hospital with double pneumonia. This diagnosis led to the discovery of interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, an inflammatory lung disorder in which fibrous tissue forms between the alveoli in the lungs. This condition is irreversible. Dad never smoked, but he did grow up on the Texas Gulf Coast, where huge refineries belch filth into the atmosphere in the name of profit. We’ll never know exactly what caused Dad’s illness. And more bad news was to come.

Dad was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which had been brewing under the surface until the pneumonia seemed to throw it into full force. Worst of all, accompanying the Parkinson’s was dementia with Lewy bodies. This type of dementia, caused by abnormal protein deposits that form inside the brain’s nerve cells, is characterized by confusion, hallucinations, lack of facial expression—things that had become obvious in Dad’s behavior. When he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in early 2012, there were no medications approved by the FDA to treat it.
I never accepted that Dad’s changing personality was permanent. I thought it would somehow go away or he would learn to manage it, and then my old Dad would be back.

On Feb. 25, my seven-year-old daughter Jenna and I were gradually getting ready to go to my parents’ house. It was a Saturday morning, and we were planning to spend the day with Dad while Mom ran some errands. I had been on the phone with Mom, who said Dad had slept uncharacteristically late, and she was going to wake him up to give him his meds. Jenna and I were in no rush. I hung up the phone and plopped down on the couch for a few games of Words With Friends on my Kindle. Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was Mom again. Maybe she was calling to tell me to come later since he had slept so late. But I had a faint suspicion that something was wrong.
I picked up the phone, and she was sobbing. She couldn’t talk. I yelled into the phone above her sobs, “Mom! What is it?”
I could make out something about 911.

“Did you call 911, or are you telling me to call 911?” I asked her.

She had already called 911. So maybe he had fallen. Maybe his oxygen level was dangerously low.

Maybe he didn’t wake up.

I tried not to act too alarmed as I rushed Jenna into her clothes and to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor offered to go with me, but I wanted to go alone. Once I was back in the car, I realized I should have had him drive me. The people of Saline County, Arkansas, were out for their morning drives, creeping down the roads in their pickup trucks at maddeningly slow speeds. Or maybe it was just my panicked state that made everyone else seem to slow down. Tailgating them didn’t work. Neither did yelling obscenities and banging on the steering wheel. Where were the hazard lights on this car? I had never had to use them before.

I finally got to my parents’ street and saw an ambulance in front. A couple of EMTs were milling around the vehicle. They were in no hurry. I parked half a block away and ran the rest of the way. The front door was open, and there was Mom. Weeping, she reached for me.
After running down the hall to Dad’s room, I was confused to find his bed empty. Then I nearly tripped over the bulging sheet on the floor. The EMTs had moved him there to try to revive him. I collapsed on the floor next to him.

When I was four years old, my family was getting ready to leave for our summer vacation. Summer vacation consisted of driving 14 hours from southeast New Mexico to Houston and Beaumont, Texas. We would spend one week with each set of grandparents. The week in Houston meant driving the sprawling freeways, shopping at gargantuan malls, and going to the beach. In Beaumont, I would play in my grandmother’s garden and swim in the neighborhood pool. The car was loaded, and I had run back in for one more bathroom trip before we left. As I came out of the bathroom, I fell in behind Dad, who had made one last walk through the house to check everything. I followed him to the front door and he opened it, pushed the button on the doorknob to lock it, walked outside and shut the door firmly behind him.

As the sound of the closing door shuddered through the house, I realized he had not known I was behind him. He thought I was in the car. They were going to leave me. I was going to be in this house alone for two whole weeks. I slumped against the wall, absorbing this reality and giving in to the convulsing sobs that seemed to explode out of my little body.
Suddenly, Dad burst back through the door and scooped me into his arms.
“I would never leave you,” he said. “I would never leave you.”


I heard a sobbing voice saying, “Dad… Dad…” and realized it was mine. I reached a shaking hand to the part of the sheet covering his head and started to pull it back. I saw his ear and his hairline, but I did not want to see his face. I dropped the corner of the sheet and just sat there. He really was not breathing. The oxygen machine, which had filled the house with its humming for the past five months, sat eerily silent. The only sounds were EMTs talking in hushed voices and neighbors consoling my still-sobbing mother. No one was in a hurry.
In a few minutes, I would call my husband and tell him what happened. In a few hours, I would tell my children their beloved PaPa was gone. In a few days, I would slip a plastic razor cover into his casket. But for a little longer, and for the last time, I sat with my dad.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Write

I’ve been asked to be part of a blog tour. I’m not actually going anywhere; instead, I’m just blogging about a certain topic and featuring other bloggers who will write about the same topic next week. After traveling most of the summer, this is the kind of touring I like. Many thanks to my friend and editor Erin Casey for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. Please check out her blog at My Writers' Connection, and also check out Get Personal: The Importance of Sharing Your Faith Story, which is a book she just published. You will be blessed by both.

I’ve been writing since first grade, when I first tried my hand at creative writing. My teacher must have been impressed, because she told my parents I was going to grow up to be a writer. At the time, I was planning on becoming either an astronaut or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. (My dad was really hoping that of the two, the astronaut thing would work out.)

Since first grade, I’ve written for yearbooks, newspapers, magazines, blogs, journals, radio, and other media. I even teach college students how to write. But why do I do this? Why do I write?

Here are a few of my “whys”:

I write because I don’t like not writing. When I became a stay-at-home mom in 2000, I thought I was “just” going to be a stay-at-home mom. (I put “just” in quotes because I know there is nothing “just” about being a stay-at-home mom.) I thought I would take care of my daughter, take her to the library and the park, and maybe join a moms’ group in my community. And I did all of those things. But I missed writing. I missed it so much that it surprised me. One night, I could not sleep. My 30th birthday was coming up, and thoughts were racing through my head about reaching that milestone. I finally got up and, in just a few minutes, wrote a piece reflecting on coming of age in my hometown. I sent it to my hometown newspaper, where it was printed as a guest column. That experience told me that while being a stay-at-home mom was great, I also needed to keep writing. I contacted my local newspaper and began writing features and a weekly column. I ended up writing throughout my stay-at-home-mom years. It was nice to have a little extra money, but much more importantly, it kept that part of my brain working while the rest of my brain was absorbed with play dates, Caillou and Goldfish crackers.

I write because we live in a time in which writers can be more independent than ever.
Gone are the days of having to convince a publisher or editor to publish our work to get it out to the masses. We can write, publish and promote our work with just a few clicks of a button.

I write because I am a believer in the power of the written word. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a pastor in my town decided to take Texas barbecue up to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, where workers were going through the unimaginable task of sorting rubble from the Twin Towers. I wrote an article for the newspaper about what the pastor wanted to do, and the morning the article was printed, he was still several thousand dollars short. By noon that day, he had more than enough money to make the trip because people had read my article and flooded the pastor’s church with donations. My writing had moved people to action. This happens all the time. People read something and act, and the world can become a better place as a result. Words have power. Knowing this, how can we not write?

I write because it’s what people do. Think about it. People have been writing things down since the beginning of time. We have the Bible and other ancient texts because people have always been writers. When one of my students says, “I’m just not a writer,” I say, “Yes, you are. Because you are a person.” Writing is a central part of the human experience, and it’s something in which we ALL participate—whether we realize it or not.

I write because people have always encouraged me to. By college, my dreams of being an astronaut or Dallas Cowboys cheerleader had given way to something else (thankfully). I began writing for the campus newspaper, and it wasn’t long before I became a journalism major. One week, I had a few days off from class and drove to the town where I had gone to elementary school. My first-grade teacher—the one who predicted I would be a writer—was still teaching there. I walked into the school, showed her some of my newspaper articles and said, “You were right.” She was one of many along the way who have been supportive of my writing. If people in your life are telling you to write, listen to them.

Next week, watch for my friends Meagan McGovern and Mary Beth Picker to publish why they write. Here is a little about each of them:

Meagan McGovern is a writer, homeschooler, gluten-free chef and cat-herder extraordinaire.
She has lived all over the country but has finally found home, in a 1950s farmhouse in an idyllic town called Ferndale, Washington, complete with a barn, a silo, cows and a slew of barn cats.

She had a hideous childhood as the oldest of four girls and had a wild ride of it, marked by insane parents, horrible events, lots and lots of moving about the country, and long stretches where they all had a lot of fun. She writes a little about that, too.

Meagan used to be a writer for newspapers, and a copy editor, and she loved every minute of it. Now she blogs about farm life, having a happy childhood in your 40s, homeschooling and her son's recovery from autism.

She still loves every minute of it.

Well, OK. There are few moments involving chickens that aren't so hot. But most of it is wonderful.

She is passionate about clean food, dirty politics, thoughtful, kind parenting, growing and cooking the food you eat, homeschooling and travel.

She is not easy. She is not always on time. She channels Mrs. Weasley, Gloria Steinem and a dash of Scarlett O'Hara. She has red hair and an Irish temper and she is the messiest person you will ever meet.

She and her husband Mark have three children, a couple of cows, and goats and sheep and chickens and dogs and cats. None of them listen. Her family calls her husband "Saint Mark," and they're not far off.

She blogs about life on Stone Soup Farm at meagan-mcgovern.squarespace.com.

Mary Beth Picker graduated with a BA in English from Harding University in 2003 and then returned a year later for graduate school, completing her MSE in English in 2005. She's been a life-long scribbler of words, from notebook ramblings to blog posts, though these days her scribblings are most often in the form of grocery lists. When she finds a quiet moment, she loves to blog about the things God is teaching her, but she still hasn't given up her dream of someday being a "real" writer.

She and her husband, Casey, have three young kids and are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Follow her blog at www.scribblingbarefoot.com.

Monday, February 17, 2014

When the Right Thing Means Everything

Like everyone else, I am outraged and disgusted by what has been going on at Bob Jones University. Because of BJU’s history of extreme fundamentalism and blatant racism, I’ve had issues with this so-called school long before now. But this time, I had to write.

If you are wise and usually avoid all headlines referring to BJU, let me summarize the latest news so you will know what I’m talking about. Like many institutions of higher education, BJU has an on-campus counseling center. Last year, it came to light that some students who had sought counseling there for sexual abuse that had occurred earlier in their lives were told not to report the abuse. Doing so would, if the abuser had been from a fundamentalist Christian community, harm the body of Christ, the students were told. For instance, if a young woman reported being raped by a pastor at her home congregation, exposing him would damage the cause of Christ. So it would be best to keep quiet and let him get away with it protect the body of Christ.

Christ, who stood for truth and love. Christ, whose churches are supposed to be, among other things, refuges for the lost and hurting.

Anyway, BJU initially appeared to do the right thing. They brought in Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (or Grace), a Christian consulting group that empowers Christian communities, through education and training, to recognize and respond to the sin of child abuse. The investigation was to take about a year. But last week, BJU acknowledged that just before Grace was to have concluded its investigation, BJU fired the consulting group. Stephen Jones, current BJU president and great-grandson of the school’s founder and namesake, eventually explained that “…Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” He has not elaborated. Meanwhile, people are outraged, and rightly so.

In eighth grade, I was attending a conservative Christian school in the South. It was not a fundamentalist school like BJU, but there were rules that our public-school friends thought were ridiculous. We couldn’t have dances. Cheerleaders had to pay extra to have their skirts made longer than they way they came from the uniform company. All school employees had to be members of the denomination with which our school was associated. We had daily chapel that was mandatory. We could not worship with musical instruments during chapel. We had a strict dress code. Girls who became pregnant had to leave. (This particular rule had an unfortunate by-product. When any girl abruptly transferred to another school, rumors spread that she was pregnant—whether she was or not.)

During the spring of my eighth-grade year, a boy who was older than me began showing me extra attention. I liked it at first, because I was suffering from that typical middle-school awkwardness and was not used to attention like that from a guy. I was 13, and when he went out of his way to talk to me, it made me feel good. Attractive, even.

One night during a function away from school, he got me alone. He wanted to touch me in ways I knew he was not supposed to. He said everyone at school was saying that my best friend and I were lesbians. If I did what he wanted, I would prove the rumors were false, he said. He was older and more popular than I was. So I believed him. And it happened more than once. I knew it wasn’t right, but as is typical, I thought it was my fault.

Eventually, I told my two closest friends. We ended up writing a series of notes about it to each other. (That’s how teens communicated in school before texting.) Someone found one of the notes, read it, and had the wisdom to take it to my parents. The boy’s dad was in a position of leadership at our school. My parents met with him and told him what they had learned. He and his wife were mortified, assured my parents it would never happen again, and made the boy apologize to me. It was a forced apology, and he was seething as he spit the words out, but I took it. I had realized he had never found me attractive, and I was feeling more horrible about myself than ever. The whole thing had been hurtful and confusing, and I just wanted it to be over. A year or so later, the boy and his family moved away.

Should more have happened? Should he have been kicked off the sports teams he was on? Suspended from school? I don’t know. What he did to me would have been impossible to prove. But what did happen was that truth came to light. There was confrontation. There was acknowledgement that what the boy did was wrong. There was an apology.

And all of these things were right and should have happened.

You can have a conservative Christian school with uptight rules. And that conservative Christian school can respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. If an institution is truly seeking to follow Christ, doing the right thing will be the only option.

Bob Jones University is completely indefensible. The school’s leaders have no excuse. If BJU wants to show that Christ is truly its focus, its leaders will respond to this tragic situation in a Christ-like way, the way my own school did.

Responding in truth and humility is BJU’s only option. If the school’s leaders fail at this, BJU can remain open and function as a college. But they need to remove all references of Christ and Christianity from the school’s identity. Because the way they have gone and are going is not the way of Christ.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Honest to God: An Accidental Minister's Wife

Like me, my mother didn’t know she was marrying a future minister. When she married my dad, he had an accounting degree and worked in banking. There’s a photo of them at a charity event in the mid-’60s. My dad is in a tux and my mom is wearing an evening gown. Her hair is up in a fashionable '60s style and her smile reveals a row of perfect teeth. Both my parents look like movie stars. To me, this photo is a glimpse into a life that I never knew—before my dad went into the ministry and my parents’ social standing took a significant hit. I never knew if my mother resented trading in those society evenings for teaching the toddlers’ Bible class in the church nursery and hosting all those church bridal and baby showers. As I remember, she adapted to the role of minister’s wife well. Everywhere we lived, she made friends with church women, and she gladly hosted youth group gatherings at our house. If she ever felt that her individuality was being stifled or that she couldn’t be genuine with people because of my dad’s job, she never showed it.

During the early years of my childhood, Mom was a homemaker who sewed and organized playgroups with the other young mothers at church. But years later, I would learn about the enormous pressure she sometimes encountered. At my dad’s second church, he was the associate minister. This was an ambiguous title that, in this case, meant he did everything but preach. Visiting the sick, organizing the youth group program, coordinating Bible classes from infant through adult—all of this and more fell on his shoulders. My brother and I were eight and four, and my mother was at home with us every day and most evenings. When their marriage began to suffer under the strain, she realized she had no one to confide in. Her closest friends were church members, and what if they knew the associate minister and his wife were having marriage problems? After all, their children were in the Sunday school classes he was coordinating and teaching. So when my dad came home at night, my mom would put my brother and me to bed, get in the car, and drive the streets of our neighborhood, silent tears streaming down her face. Eventually she would come home, and get up the next morning to start another day. We stayed at that church only two years. When we moved away, I thought we were off on another adventure. But now I know my parents were trying to escape an incredibly stressful situation with their sanity and marriage intact.

By the time we moved to my dad’s fourth church, Mom seemed to get restless. She began working as a substitute in the public schools, and after we moved to the next town, she went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree in education—just as I was beginning fourth grade. I noticed something that unnerved me at the time. For the first time, my mom was enthusiastic about something that didn’t have to do with home or church. She loved school. She came home from class and spoke endlessly about projects, professors, and her career options for the future. At her graduation, she was presented with the Dean’s Award for her academic achievement.

Mom taught first grade for several years before getting her master’s degree. As I was entering college, she became an elementary-school principal. At the time, I thought she had simply done what a lot of women had begun doing in the ’70s by pursuing her own academic and professional interests. But she was also following a trend that had been predicted by Shirley Foster Hartley in the Review of Religious Research in 1978. Hartley had conducted a study in which 448 clergy wives from six mainstream Protestant denominations were asked 138 questions regarding their satisfaction with being married to pastors (Hartley 178). The study found that the wives’ satisfaction levels increased with higher education levels and employment. As for the idea that clergy wives should strive to be nothing more than model homemakers, Hartley found clergy wives moving toward fulfillment outside the home.
Overall satisfaction tends to… decrease with the average hours of housework reported by these respondents. The myth of the joys of homemaking is exploded even for (or especially for) those who might be expected to be most fulfilled in those tasks (Hartley 186).
As the study found more satisfaction in pastors’ wives who embraced their own individuality rather than finding identity in their husbands’ ministerial roles, Hartley predicted that clergy wives would continue to gradually shift away from the roles traditionally expected of them.

Greater variety in acting out the role of ‘minister’s wife is to be expected in the future. Not one stereotypical pattern, but many possibilities within the general role are anticipated… As clergy wives have been in a most extreme, stereotypical, traditional, wifely role in American society, they can be expected to move only slowly into the more individualistic roles (Hartley 189).

Years before this article was published, my grandmother—the proud preacher’s wife—had done her part to break the mold of the stereotypical ministers’ spouse. Having never found much fulfillment in homemaking, Annie operated a private kindergarten in her home and worked as a newspaper columnist. She volunteered for the Red Cross at the local hospital’s emergency room, where she picked up a thorough knowledge of first aid. The house she shared with my grandfather sat at an intersection where car accidents were frequent, and the sound of screeching tires and crunching metal would send her into action. It was typical for my grandfather to step out of his home office into the living room to find the couches and chairs occupied by bleeding accident victims who, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, had been bandaged up by my grandmother. Annie was busy with church life, too, but something led her to create a life and identity outside of church. By the late ’70s, the ship of clergy wives’ changing roles was beginning to set sail, and my mother had jumped on board by going back to college, finishing her degree, and starting a career. In creating a life for herself outside of church and my dad’s job, she carved out her own individuality. I didn’t think much about it back then. But my grandmother’s and my mother’s examples would one day help guide me away from an unseen monster of my own.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Honest to God: Sister Hamby

When you are the youngest of your grandparent’s grandchildren, and the only one of them to have reproduced, you can count on at least one thing. One day, several boxes will arrive at your house. Boxes of stuff. Stuff that your cousins believe should be passed down to future generations of the family. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, this happened to me. I thought my cousin had gone overboard on Christmas presents for my family until I opened the boxes. And there it all was. Photos and letters and yearbooks from my grandmother’s side of the family. There seems to be a genetic tendency in my family to attach emotional value to inanimate objects, and these boxes were filled with supporting evidence. There was even a yellow wire hanger with a note from my cousin attached: “Meemaw took this with her to college in the 1920s, and I took it to college with me in the ’70s. I wish you could have taken it to college with you so the tradition could have been continued.”

A wire hanger. I’ll never know if my grandmother intended for this object to become a cherished family heirloom when she hung it in her dorm room closet in 1925.

Annie Bryan Whittington Hamby, my grandmother, died in 1996. I knew her as a physically-frail, but mentally-sharp, white-haired wisp of a woman. She weighed 88 pounds the year she turned 88, which made her the only person I ever knew to weigh her age. After my grandfather died, Meemaw spent her last years in a retirement center, where she made a host of friends and even had a couple of boyfriends. The Old Testament speaks of the woman who “… laughs at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25), and that was my Meemaw. A sweet, devout Christian woman who wore white every day to honor my late grandfather, who had loved that color on her, she also had a wicked sense of humor. My dad and I took her out to lunch one day, and, when she tried to tell us about something funny that had happened at the retirement center, she dissolved into a fit of giggles that rendered her teary-eyed and breathless as my dad and I stared at her from across the table—unsure if we should join in laughter or administer CPR.

In the spring of 1996, Meemaw went into the hospital with complications from congestive heart failure, which she had fought for years. She nearly died during that stay, and when hospital personnel ignored her DNR and revived her, she was mad. She had been blessed with a good life and, like my Peepaw, she was ready to go. That August, she returned to the hospital. As she began to slip away again, my aunt called out to her, but Meemaw would not let anyone stop her from dying again. This sweet, funny, and determined Christian woman opened her eyes, said, “You talk too much,” and was gone.

As I lifted large brown envelopes out of the boxes and slid their contents onto the floor in front of me, I didn’t see my Meemaw. I saw Annie, a young, optimistic woman—one for whom becoming a grandmother was a lifetime away. In these photos, Annie and her three sisters are children growing up on their farm in Glenmora, Louisiana. Then they are teenagers who wore the shorter dresses and bobbed hairstyles of the ’20s. Annie’s smile shines through the grainy quality of the aged photos. She had been the first young woman in their rural Louisiana town to cut her hair short, a decision that prompted the family’s preacher to visit her parents out of concern for her soul. Her sharp eyes and knowing smile reveal that, while she did all the “right” things, like going to college and marrying a good Christian man, she didn’t mind shocking people now and then. Her college photos are my favorites. At Louisiana State Normal School (now Northwestern State University of Louisiana) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Annie edited the campus newspaper and seemed to have a myriad of friends. Her father died during this time, and one of her yearbooks is full of notes of sympathy from her classmates. I knew her father had been an alcoholic, and that his death may have been related to this, but there was no mention of his drinking problem in the contents of these boxes. During these years, her eyes were bright, her hair was short, and her smile was daring and genuine. Within the next several years, she would become the wife of an accountant/preacher and the mother of two just as the Great Depression strengthened its chokehold on the economy. But in the late ’20s, her future was a crisp, blank page.

I think Meemaw was proud to be a preacher’s wife. After she and my grandfather settled at South Park Church of Christ in Beaumont, she was known to everyone as “Sister Hamby.” Traditionally, preachers’ wives are expected to be fabulous cooks, but this was not Meemaw. She had suffered from a number of illnesses as a child and was kept out of the kitchen so she could rest while her sisters did the work. So she never really learned to cook, and she did buck the minister’s wife stereotype in that way. But with her high moral standards and careful attention to her family’s image, she clung to it in other ways. Meemaw believed the families of church leaders should set examples for parishioners’ families.

This was a common school of thought in mid-20th Century church culture, and not just in the Church of Christ. As the nation thrived in post-war prosperity, pastors’ wives were upheld as ideal wives, mothers, and supporters of their husbands. In 1946, San Francisco Theological Seminary hosted a Presbyterian ministers’ wives’ conference that concluded:
… a foremost qualification of a minister’s wife is that she should preside over a well-ordered attractive home. Furthermore, she should be a woman who takes the time, forethought, and care necessary to insure good health for her husband, her children, and herself (Boyd and Brackenridge 83).

While I’m relieved—and somewhat surprised—that this edict includes the admonition for the pastor’s wife to take care of herself, the rest of it is troubling. It’s natural for wives and mothers to take care of their families, so I’m not sure why this had to be spelled out for ministers’ wives by a convention. And the “well-ordered attractive home” was not limited to the minister’s wife’s physical dwelling. Implied here is the idea that her family and life should be well-ordered, clutter-free, and—what no one had to say aloud—perfect.

People seem to find security in these stereotypes, so they have staying power. In the 1970s and ’80s, the ministers’ wives I knew outside my family during my childhood still seemed to fit these expectations. There was Sister Stevens, who always appeared at church with everything in order—from her hair to what her four children wore. At another church, there was Sister Tyson, who doted on her pretty teenage daughter and opened her immaculate home for youth group events. Another church was led by a preacher whose wife, Sister Cauley, was a sweet, loving soul who would let me sit on a barstool in her kitchen while she shared sunflower seeds, her favorite snack, with me. I never saw her without a smile. But looking back, I know now that these women’s families and marriages were far from perfect. Sister Stevens’ husband was controlling and insisted his wife have dinner on the table by a certain time every day. Sister Tyson’s husband had remained in his pastoral role past retirement age, and the church members were getting frustrated with his refusal to step down—criticism that had to have reached her ears. And Sister Cauley’s husband shocked everyone when, after 30 years of marriage, he left her for his secretary.

As for Meemaw, I know her life wasn’t perfect, either. There was tension and pressure and arguments—just as there are in every family. I guess I’ll never know how she coped with the pressure. Even if she were still alive, I doubt I would have the nerve to ask her.

The last time I spoke to my grandmother, she was in the hospital and nearing the end of her life. I pulled a chair up next to her bed and took her hand in mine.

“Meemaw,” I told her. “Chad has decided to become a minister.”

She managed a weak, but classic, Annie smile. She was proud.