Follow Up to Open Letter to Heritage University

I’ve been amazed and humbled by the unexpected response to my open letter to the President of Heritage University.

Since posting it 48 hours ago, it’s been seen over 2,000 times and shared directly to Facebook and Twitter over 400 times. This doesn’t take into account the times someone forwards the link from email or social media. The letter has been all over the U.S., England, and Australia.

I’ve been privileged to make new connections as people who want to extend the conversation about the humanities reach out via email and social media. I’ve met smart, courageous students who are passionate about social justice. I’ve connected with high school math teachers who want more of the humanities in the curriculum. High school principals have invited me to their schools to talk. Professors of biology, chemistry, and business have literally moved me to tears with their heartfelt support for my (not new or revolutionary!) vision of a liberal education. Professors and chairs from colleges and universities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois have circulated my letter on their campuses. Two English professors have asked permission to make the letter assigned reading in their classes. My own students are reading and sharing and talking (I’m so proud of them!).

What truly amazes me is that the bulk of these new contacts come from disciplines outside the humanities, and most often within STEM fields. I knew I’d a get hearty “hear, hear” from fellow liberal arts teachers. I never expected the most impassioned support to come from the sciences. And I had no idea this letter – simply something I felt needed to be said on my campus, and said in a way that could be digested slowly – would strike such a nerve.

Clearly, we are ready for a full discussion of the strange disconnect, the false dichotomy, we’ve created between science and the humanities. Clearly, scientists, mathematicians, business leaders, and social scientists are seeing the need for students who can contextualize beyond their own discipline, who can think creatively, critically, and in complex, multivalent ways. We are ready to move into a new phase of American education that drops boundaries of all kinds.

Please, continue to reach out to me. I love hearing from you, whoever you are and wherever you are. Let’s talk about how we can bring the liberal arts back not only as respected disciplines in their own right, but as companions and support for other disciplines.

Maybe I’m being too hopeful. Maybe I’m being naïve. But I feel we’re on the cusp of a cultural shift in the way we approach education. Last night a Social Work professor in my state emailed to ask how he could be part of this “movement.” That word – “movement” – is a powerful one. At first I stumbled over it. Is what I’m thinking, what I’m talking about, a “movement”?

I say we claim it. And move it forward.

Keep fighting the good fight.

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Laying a Story to Rest

I’ve been working on a book of creative nonfiction for five years. I’ve produced some good material from that work, a couple of pieces that could stand on their own that were published in anthologies. The story of which I’m proudest comes from the hours – and the thousands and thousands of words – I’ve put into this particular book. It’s also, incidentally, the shortest story I’ve ever published.

But the book has just never come together for me. I’ve scrapped it and started from scratch more times than I’d care to admit. I’ve approached it from different angles, groped toward different themes, played with wildly different plotlines, perspectives, and even toyed with genre. In five years, nothing has felt right.

In grad school, I remember talking with another writer friend about a book that was published after twelve years of work. We were incredulous. Twelve years? How does someone spend over a decade writing a single book? What was the author doing? Chiseling the words, letter by letter, into a rock face?

And here I sit on my electronic pile of drafts. Five years’ worth of work, and I feel no closer to finishing than I did four and a half years ago.

So when is it time to lay a story down?

I’ve been working these five years under three motivations. First, I genuinely like the story. Forgive my impudence, but I think it’s an important story. Second, mentors and the writing community I trust have confirmed it’s a good and important story. More than that, they’ve expressed complete faith in my ability to sell the manuscript – once I finish it – to a large publishing house. I’ve had authors I love and respect go out on a limb for me to make connections and open doors for my story. How could I let them down? Third, I’m a big believer in finishing what you start. Even when I began to suspect this story wasn’t ready to be written at this stage in my life, I thought, Just finish a draft. Just write the whole thing, start to finish, even if it’s bad, even if I hate it, even if I have to password protect it to keep anyone from reading it. Ever. And there I’ve been stuck. Do you know how hard it is to find motivation to work on a manuscript you’ve already decided is not only a lost cause, but, you tell yourself, is going to be a massive disappointment to the people who cheered for you in the first place?

And running through all the complications I’ve experienced with this manuscript, is my constant anxiety over how my words might hurt others. We nonfictionists don’t have the luxury of soothing our loved ones’ worries by telling them (whether it’s true or not) everything in the book is made up. Nonfictionists, even of the creative kind, deal in The Truth.

My Truth was big, and my Truth was hurtful.

And in spite of all the assurances that I own everything that has happened to me (and I believe that), I had to weigh that with the damage my Truth might cause. And at this point in my life, the potential damage outweighs the importance of the story.

So today I’ve officially laid five years of work to rest. It’s not gone, but lying in password-protected stasis, waiting for a moment when, perhaps, I might find the right time to make it all come together in the end.

Time to tackle the novel that’s been knocking around in my brain for months, screaming to be let out.

An Open Letter to the President of Heritage University

I recently sent the following letter to the President of the university where I teach, and copied several other VPs and interested parties. President Bassett has asked that all faculty, staff, and board members have access to and read this letter, so I post it here in its entirety:

Dear President Bassett,

I’m sure you’re aware of the fraught state of humanities departments across the country. Prominent national newspapers and journals run articles almost weekly debating the value of the liberal arts, lamenting or celebrating the demise of the philosophy major, the music major, the English major. Humanities students have become higher education’s easiest joke.

As a lifelong student of both the liberal arts and the fine arts, my loyalties are predictable. Even as my contract with Heritage University is about to end, I remain grateful for my broad education that has not only made me a better person, but has provided me a multitude of marketable skills that translate easily to a wide range of occupations. Please don’t misunderstand me. This letter is not a plea for my job, or the jobs of the rest of our humanities department. Rather, my plea is for the future and mission of Heritage University as we decide what kind of institution it will become.

I’m discouraged by the lack of acknowledgment of the humanities’ value in our conversations as an institution and in the proposed Academic and Financial Plan that will lead us into the next decade. Any path that neglects the liberal arts is shortsighted if our mission is to create lasting change in the community we serve.

My argument is not necessarily that we need more English majors, history majors, theology and philosophy majors (although I think we do), but that – especially in this valley we’ve promised to serve, where the need for change is so great – we need biologists, engineers, environmental scientists, healthcare workers, educators, criminal justice advocates, social workers, and business leaders who can look at this specific place and moment in a complex historical, social, economic, and ethical context and ask: How did we get here? Why do we lack resources? Why is our crime rate so high? Why are there so many broken families? Why are our infants dying at shocking rates and what systemic injustices lie behind those reasons? In short, why is our population so vulnerable, so precarious, and how can we repair it in ways that are transformative and lasting? As a university serving an under-resourced community, we must produce graduates who understand the bigger picture. We need graduates who can creatively problem-solve by using a cross-disciplinary lens, and who are then able to – and this is perhaps the most important piece – articulate those solutions in an accessible and persuasive way. Big ideas are of little use if you’re unable to express them effectively.

That’s what scholarship in the humanities does. Without the humanities, we are simply raising a generation of workers who keep their heads down, focused on earning the next paycheck (and spending it again), who perform the same jobs over and over in the same ways that reinforce entrenched systems of injustice. Without the humanities, social and economic progress remains static. The humanities teach us to question and, once we find the easy answers, to pull on the threads that lead us to even deeper, more important questions. History, literature, philosophy, anthropology, fine arts, and cultural studies show us how other people have wrestled with similar problems in other times and places. These disciplines foster creativity. They forge unanticipated links. They insist we examine ourselves and the parts we play in systems of injustice. The humanities give us a voice.

I’m not simply offering a leftist English professor’s idealized, inflated notion of her own importance. This is what studying the liberal arts has done for me. I am the first and only person in my family – immediate and extended – to graduate from college. My father dropped out of high school early. My grandparents migrated from Appalachia where my ancestors were coal miners and subsistence farmers, with no time or energy to think beyond the basic needs of life. My father struggled to provide for a large family without a high school diploma, drifting from one blue-collar job to another that wore his body out prematurely. At the base of Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, we ate rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. My mother canned prickly pears. We spent weekends fanned out over hills picking jojoba beans, then sat around the kerosene heater in the evenings (because we sometimes lacked electricity) to shell them and prepare them for the market. Although my mother was careful to nurture a love of learning and a sense of curiosity, my cultural background did not emphasize formal education, particularly for girls. I was raised to believe the best thing I could be in this life was a wife and mother, that focusing on anything else would only take away from this inherent calling. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid- to late-20s that I even began to consider following another path, a path for which I had no example, no mentors, no experience. By choosing an education and a career (in addition to marriage and motherhood), I became something slightly alien to my family. I still worry that in their eyes, I have turned my back on my cultural values.

This is what I have found myself trying to hide – even from myself – as I build a career in academia: unlike so many of my colleagues, I come from poverty. I’ve learned to adopt the mannerisms of a different social class, but at my center I am still a little girl standing with bare feet on the cracked clay of Arizona, with West Virginia dogwoods, an Appalachian drawl, and the survival instincts of hundreds of years etched into my very DNA. It took me a long time to discover that, perhaps, this DNA is not weakness but strength.

There are many ways in which I differ from my students, but this I understand: I understand what it’s like to be the generation that bridges two cultures. I understand that sometimes parents are scared of progress and our students struggle against that fear. Sometimes our students feel like they’re betraying the people they love most, betraying their roots. Sometimes our students want to outrun their pasts, to put as much distance behind them as possible, and I know from experience they will someday need to make peace with their origins even as they set their faces to the future. On the other hand, I also understand how exciting it is when they start seeing the world through different eyes, when they become aware of the world beyond the confines of family and immediate culture, when they start understanding the forces at play in their lives, and – here’s the best part – seeing how they can make their families and communities stronger, better, kinder, and more just.

This generation of students we serve at Heritage University are looking backward and forward all at once. My students are strong, resilient, motivated, and alight with the desire to change the world. They are powerful, but often don’t realize it. They want to understand the world. They want financial security, certainly, but they want more than that. They instinctively sense what they’ve been denied and they are thirsty.

If we are going to empower our students to become the voices of their communities, they must first become self-aware. There is no better place for this process than in the humanities. Some argue that the humanities can be rolled into discipline-specific courses. When this is attempted, however, the broad, cross-disciplinary scope of the traditional liberal arts education – the education this institution explicitly advertises in its mission statement – is short-circuited and lost.

For example, in my Comparative World Literature course, I encourage my students to tie literary themes to (1) issues within this community and (2) their own chosen field of study. The results, both within the classroom and in their writing, continue to amaze and delight me. One Environmental Science student linked letters written by Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortés to global agricultural trends that are dismantling biodiversity and devastating farmers particularly in impoverished nations. She intends to use her work from my literature class to inform her research into why Mexican farmers from her family’s home town are no longer using indigenous farming practices and what impact the loss of traditional ecological knowledge is having in this Mexican community as well as here in the Yakima Valley. Through a close study of literature, the scope of this student’s research has widened to address global inequalities and could potentially revolutionize the way we feed the world. Will she do that with an English degree? Possibly, but not likely. But a semester in a diverse literature class will impact the way she processes the material from her science courses in significant ways.

A Social Work student, working from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, focused her research on the ways American slaveholders intentionally broke families apart, taking infants from mothers, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers. She made interesting connections between this historical practice and the work of Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid and how a culture of poverty, violence, and rigid gender norms drive wedges into mother-child relationships. I suggested she look into the Dawes Act of 1887, the express purpose of which was to break tribal and familial bonds among American Indians so they could be more easily assimilated. This Social Work student is now building research on the current failings of our foster system, and how these failings have origins in racist practices and perspectives.

These moments are why I love doing what I do: the moments when my students suddenly see themselves in Frederick Douglass, in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in Frantz Fanon and Franz Kafka; when they find unexpected elegance and shared humanity inscribed in the suras of the Qur’an; when they examine creation myths and realize how the stories we grow up with shape who we are and how we see the world in unique ways and that there are other ways of seeing that are just as valuable, just as layered, just as true; when they analyze and synthesize and apply and create. That’s when I stop being my students’ voice, and they find their own. Their own informed voices are what will heal this valley.

The exciting part of my work is that I never know what ideas the assigned reading will spark in my students. Further, I never know what these ideas, shared in class, may spark in another student from a different discipline or cultural space. It’s my job to select the widest range of texts possible, texts that are provocative and nuanced, that offer both windows and mirrors for my students, then step back and watch creativity do its transformative work in ways I could never orchestrate or control. Courses within the majors don’t have this luxury – the ability to place students from all fields together in one room to share ideas, knowledge and lived experiences. Professors in specific disciplines have neither the instructional time nor the training to select diverse activities within the liberal arts that will foster this kind of unexpected creativity and interdisciplinary problem-solving.

Vocational and technical schools might produce students who can earn a paycheck, but they don’t produce agents of social progress. Without careful consideration of the role of the humanities in our students’ education, I fear that is where Heritage University is heading.

As you move forward with a plan for the university, I hope you consider fully what it means to offer a liberal arts curriculum. I hope that Heritage University’s humanities offerings are more than marketing material, more than a convenient blurb in our mission statement, more than a glossy photo on a brochure. If that’s all the humanities are at this university, we have no right to advertise ourselves as a liberal arts college. Without solid funding for the liberal arts, without exemplary, dedicated, valued liberal arts faculty, without leaders who have broad, far-sighted vision and champion the way the humanities can close – have closed – the achievement gap in underserved communities, Heritage is nothing more than a vocational school.

I’ve been told that studying the humanities is a privilege for a few. I agree. But let’s not kid ourselves: in the United States, studying any discipline at a four-year university is a privilege for a few. Nonetheless, our mission demands that we extend privilege to the underprivileged. This is why we have such dedicated faculty and staff. We believe deeply, passionately in that mission. Please consider the ways a true liberal arts education can move us toward that vision.

 

In peace,

Crystal A. Bevers

 

 

2015

2015 was a year of books and music and art, of top-heavy dahlias and nesting hawks. It was a season of fire followed by a season of ice.

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One spring day, I stood by myself in a dome of blue and green at the edge of the Pacific and thought, “I have it all,” and the very next morning I drove home in the rain, grieving for all I had lost, wondering if I’d ever had it to begin with. It was a year of slamming myself closed and then opening, opening, opening, tracing the new, jagged outlines of my world with tentative fingers.

It was a year of deep loneliness and of overwhelming community, a house empty with sorrow and then bursting with love. It was a year of blinding anger and midnight terror and sweet, steady love running, dancing, singing through it all. I woke up to face every day of this year, even though some people didn’t. It was the year I wanted to give up and didn’t. It was a year of paradox and irony, of clutching stubbornly at what I thought should be mine and then learning to let go. It was the year I forgave myself and fought to protect the softness I discovered under the crust, to keep my hands and my heart and my eyes open when my every instinct said to close them.

2015 was the hardest year of my life, but I can say that I lived it deeply. I leaned into the storms and kissed the ground each time I washed ashore. Thank you for being my shipmates, my lighthouses, my anchors, my stars in the night sky.

Bless this wild, fragile existence we share – now and in the year to come.

About That Flag Cartoon

Last week was cause for celebration in my house.

Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a legal challenge to Obamacare. The President declared affordable healthcare “here to stay.” Because my husband and I both work with impoverished populations, we’ve seen firsthand what the Affordable Care Act can mean.

Friday morning, I stumbled out of my bedroom in pajamas and disheveled hair to announce “MARRIAGE EQUALITY!” punctuated by my fist in the air. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to hear that our country can do something good, something meaningful, something that proves we’re not a lost cause, until I couldn’t keep back my tears over breakfast.

I can only imagine what that moment meant for the people who had just been granted the right I’ve enjoyed for over twenty years now.

Later that day, I watched the first black president of the United States deliver the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney: minister, senator, and activist shot to death by a white supremacist along with eight others at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I expected it to be a mournful hour. And it was, knowing what is lost from our world, knowing that the tide of racism never stops. But the president’s eulogy reminded me of what was good in the world. I remembered the power of the black church over the last four hundred years. I remembered the courage and defiance of black activists and white allies. I remembered that history sometimes leaps forward in blazes of light after the darkness of struggle.

After all the violence of this year, I can’t help but feel that as a nation, we are on the cusp of a series of jumps forward. Through the courageous and relentless work of activists, injustice in the United States has spread from the attention of the world to – finally! – the attention of the every day American. Race, sex, and gender politics are, at last, front page news here in the United States. Americans are now seeing what the rest of the world has known about us for years, that systemic discrimination, oppression and bigotry are our great national tragedy, one we must, after four centuries, look in the face without flinching before we can move forward.

On Saturday, Bree Newsome did what we all wish we had done. Tired of the circular debate over the Confederate flag, she climbed a flag pole outside the South Carolina State House and took the damned thing down herself. Arrested and charged with “defacing a monument,” Newsome emailed the following statement:

We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day…it’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.

Over the weekend, Bob Englehart’s cartoon depicting the Confederate flag being removed was modified by an anonymous cartoonist to add the LGBT pride flag going up in its place.

Bob Englehart's modified cartoon

The cartoon went viral. It became a simple, visual statement of the victories of the week.

But here’s the thing. In the last week, six predominantly black churches have burned in five Southern states. Investigators suspect arson involved in at least three, but – let’s be serious, now – most of us outside the South know that six burned black churches in a week would be a coincidence bordering on the impossible.

We who are working for justice have to remember that just because South Carolina takes down the Confederate flag doesn’t magically take racism away. In fact, such victories often only serve to inflame racism. Folks, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

We also can’t forget that where gay rights have gained enormous ground over the last decade, those in the margins – people, for example, who are bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and above all, LGBTQIA people of color – are still shouting to be heard, recognized, and even included in the movement.

After the marriage equality ruling broke on Friday, conservatives in my social media feeds seemed quiet for the most part (as long as I avoided the “comments” sections of news stories, those cesspools of ignorance). Most of my conservative friends didn’t comment, and if they did, their comments were brief and vague. However, given three days to regroup, hate is back on the menu. Only this time, it’s extra spicy.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Ruby Bridges has been on my mind. Ruby, in her iconic first grade photo, flanked by U.S. Marshalls on the steps of an all-white school following desegregation.

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She’s so small. Did she know she would become a hero? A symbol? Certainly, when Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole on Saturday, she knew she’d become a hero. She chose the spotlight, even chose her arrest. But Ruby? I think not. As an adult, Ruby Bridges Hall remembers her mother being pressured into sending her daughter to William Frantz Elementary School. She remembers not understanding why people yelled at her, threatened her, and why she sat in a classroom all by herself for all of first grade.

Sometimes our heroes don’t choose their status. History, rude and uninvited, thrusts heroism upon them.

In this historical moment, I see many in the LGBTQIA community as reluctant heroes. Yes, so many are outspoken. So many continue to take to the streets, to make themselves heard, to fight for their very existence. This is their victory. They are the ones who have done the hard work. But so many simply want to live their lives out quietly, peacefully, happily. The way I do. They don’t choose to be heroes or figureheads or, God forbid, martyrs, but so many will become just that.

It’s ugly. It’s unfair.

So, by all means, celebrate. Keep the focus where it belongs. Stay loud, stay strong.

But never think we are done.

The Cloak of Christ: A Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

The last two weeks have been tumultuous for our nation. A week and a half ago, a young white man entered Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat through Bible study and then pulled out a gun and, while shouting racial epithets, murdered nine people.

Once the initial outrage and heartache settled in, my next thought was, “I have to have this conversation with my son again. I have to tell him again that it’s not safe to be black, that there are men and women in this nation, in 2015, who hate so intensely they will kill.”

Some expressed shock that day. But anyone who has kept their finger on the pulse of racial politics in the United States knows the sad truth: that this is not shocking. This is not an isolated incident. This is just one more horrific act in a history of 400 years of racism. In the ten days since the Mother Emanuel AME massacre, three more black churches have burned under suspicious circumstances in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

As a nation, my friends, we are hemorrhaging. We are bleeding violence. What are people of faith to do in the face of seemingly unstoppable evil? Several relatives of the Charleston shooting victims faced the murderer in the courtroom and publicly offered their forgiveness. Certainly, this is the hard task that Jesus gave us, the act he modeled and continues to model for us. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Bless them who curse you. One relative spoke of no room for hate in the house of love her community has built. Another spoke of the need for second chances.

But many have spoken out against this forgiveness. They worry – justifiably – that this kind of forgiveness is too easy, too cheaply given. They say that these well-intended expressions of Christian love and forgiveness give America an excuse to ignore the very difficult issues of race and violence that keep us at the brink of explosion. The Charleston shooter wanted a race war. How many others are like him? And if we politely forgive and excuse, how many more will follow him? How do we confront and move past our shared history of violence? These are tough questions.

As a follower of Christ, I believe in the power of forgiveness. When we forgive, we lay down a burden. We don’t allow hate or anger to twist us. Forgiveness allows the pure love of Christ to move in us and through us. His forgiveness – so freely offered – brings us to the holy table each Sunday on bended knee. Forgiveness breaks shackles and heals broken hearts.

And yet, I don’t think that, as powerful and inspiring as it is, forgiveness alone can change our culture. Forgiveness and good will alone cannot stop the wounds of this nation, or raise us from a culture of death.

Today we read the story from Mark, the story about Jairus’s daughter raised from the dead, about the woman hemorrhaging for years who reached in faith for the hem of Jesus’s cloak and found herself healed. This story has both moved me and confounded me over the years. When I read this story, I want to believe. So often I do believe. I follow Christ because I believe that his is the way of healing. I believe that what Christ lays his hands upon lives. I believe that if, as a nation, we reached out to touch the cloak of Christ, we can be healed. I believe this.

But I confess moments of smallness and doubt, when I wonder why Jesus would heal this woman, raise this child from the dead, but not others. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why children are abused. I don’t know why veterans sacrifice the best years of their lives and come home to die on the streets. I don’t know why innocent people are gunned down. I will spare you the easy platitudes about building character and faith, because in moments so tragic they shake the roots of our faith, we need more than the easy answers. When we are lost in our private – or public – catastrophes, we can’t help but ask, “Why me? Why, dear Lord, did you not save me from this pain?” So often we reach for Jesus’s cloak and nothing happens. We don’t feel miraculously whole.

But this I do know: sometimes that miracle happens. Sometimes we reach through our tears and our anger and we find faith and wholeness. Sometimes our wounds are stopped. Sometimes we or our loved ones are raised from death. And often, these miracles happen in ways we don’t expect, in ways we have trouble recognizing.

And even more than this, I believe that we – the handful of us gathered this morning in this building – we are called to be the cloak of Christ. We are called to do the work of moving among the crowds of the broken and bleeding, of allowing others to reach out and touch the healing power of Christ through us.

Now, I hear often that there is no place for politics in church, that church should not be a divisive place, that we’ll drive people away with strong opinions. But here’s the thing: Christianity is divisive. To be meaningful it must be divisive. Jesus was a divisive character with strong opinions, radical opinions, about poverty, about economics, about power and complacency. He and his followers lived and died over those opinions.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says in Matthew chapter ten. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

This is a verse I’ve stumbled over many times, because it goes against everything I thought I knew about Jesus and about the Christian way of peace, about beating our swords into ploughshares. But this is what I didn’t understand until recently: Jesus isn’t talking about justifying religious war or violence. He’s not asking for another crusade. He doesn’t want us converting our neighbors at gunpoint. What he’s talking about is waging battle against evil. Yes, we are called upon to forgive. But we are also called upon to pick up the sword and fight for the cause of justice. Jesus asks us to choose sides.

If church is only a nice place to visit, to feel the love of God, to feel good about ourselves and share the peace with others like us, if we only want to fill the pews with other nice people who will open their wallets as long as they aren’t offended, we are not doing the work that Jesus died for. We are not healing our homes, communities, and nations. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we must have the courage to do the same. We must work out how to extend the grace of God to everyone, especially those who are denied rights you and I enjoy.

Last Friday, President Obama spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of those slain in Charleston. Rev. Pinckney was not just a minister. He was a senator and political activist who pushed for public awareness of racial injustices and laws to protect the exploited. He organized and led protests. He was loud and he encouraged his congregants to be loud. His career was not without controversy. But he engaged himself and his community in the work of God.

This work is messy. It ruffles feathers. It comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. We might disagree about how to do the work of God, how we bring healing to the broken masses. But if we sit comfortably on the sidelines because we’re afraid to engage in that messy work, because we’re afraid to do or say the wrong thing, because we’re afraid to fail and apologize and figure out how to work together and try again and again, we are not fulfilling our part of the bargain.

“Our calling,” Rev. Pinckney once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our church resides.”

President Obama reminded us in his eulogy that “to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

But what moved me most about the President’s remarks was his description of the role the Black church has played in American history:

The church is and always has been the center of African-American life…. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.

That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. And there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel, a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a phoenix from these ashes.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.

That’s what church means. That’s what it means to be a Christian. That we do the work both in these walls and outside them to bring justice to an unjust world, to bind up the broken, bleeding wounds, to forgive – yes, definitely to forgive and seek solace in our faith, to reach out for our own healing – but then to walk among the crowds as Jesus did and be his cloak. We must allow ourselves to be jostled and touched and moved in surprising, frightening, and unpredictable ways and channel the healing power of God through those touches.

This weekend I watched the movie Selma with my family, which documents Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for voting rights in the state of Alabama. The movie reminded me again that – yes, there have been terrible things done in the name of God – but that much of the work of justice and civil rights of the last century has sprung directly from courageous church leaders and faithful congregants who followed the example Jesus set for us.

Yesterday at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, our first African-American Presiding Bishop was elected. Rev. Michael Curry has spent his career empowering the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. He advocates for gun safety, immigration reform, and marriage equality, and supports the rights of black and Latino communities in particular.

Politics and religion, in my mind, are so deeply entangled it’s hard to distinguish them. Politics are the outward struggle for inner beliefs. Policy comes from what we believe about the dignity and worth of every human being. If we sever politics from religion, we are left as frozen statues in a dead monument. We have no power.

Friends, we stand on the cusp of history. Sometimes, we struggle and reach and we feel alone in the darkness. Our faith is tested.  But sometimes, history leaps forward in bright flashes, touched by the healing grace of God. We can be a part of that. Our salvation is not merely individual, but collective.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said,

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented…. There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs…. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

The future lies before us, and every moment is a moment of grace. What might we do with those moments?

What Is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

If you don’t move in foster or adoptive circles, you likely haven’t heard of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  Rare in the general population but more common among children who have spent time in orphanages or foster care, it’s a disorder that brings with it a flock of destructive behaviors and is difficult – some say impossible – to treat.

If you have a child or loved one with RAD, chances are, you have felt bewildered, exhausted, and isolated. Because it’s a rare disorder – a much more serious variant of attachment disorder (AD) – support groups are few and far between. For many of us, online communities are the only contact we will have with another RAD caregiver.

Many RAD children lack a diagnosis, so the source of their big behavior is not understood. When we don’t understand why our children behave the way they do, we don’t know where to begin to change those behaviors. These misunderstood children often end up in institutional care, back in foster care, or the juvenile justice system.

Understanding your child’s disorder is the first step to keeping your child safe, in your home, and moving toward healthy development.

If you found your way here because you’re at your wits end with your own RAD loved one, understand first that I’m not a psychologist or social worker. I’m simply an adoptive mom in the RAD trenches, trying to heal her kiddo while keeping her sanity. Perhaps, through this blog series, I can offer you information you didn’t have before, point you in a helpful direction, and share what has worked (and not worked) in my home.

Sometimes all we RAD parents need is to feel validated and know we aren’t alone.

What does normal attachment look like?

Usually, we learn attachment – the ability to trust and bond with other humans – as infants. We cry, and a caregiver comforts us. We are fed when hungry, cleaned when dirty, and played with when lonely. Through this process of having our needs consistently met, we learn that people – especially our caregivers – are trustworthy people who have our best interests at heart.

We’ve all seen a baby who cries if she’s held by anyone but Mom. This is a child working through healthy attachment. She’s attached successfully to Mom, but doesn’t have enough experience with a neighbor, for example, to know that the neighbor will meet her needs like Mom does. Once she learns the neighbor will provide for her needs, she will attach, though typically not as strongly as she attaches to her primary caregiver.

This normal attachment process not only helps us learn to love and trust, but also teaches us how to regulate our emotions, to recognize others’ needs and desires (develop empathy), and build the positive belief that we are worthy of love and security.

When attachment is disrupted

Several things can disrupt the normal attachment process. Sometimes children with major health challenges will spend large portions of critical development time isolated from family in a hospital or intensive care unit, where they lack normal interaction for a variety of reasons. Babies in orphanages who go without consistent human attention and affection often have difficulty attaching, learning to self-soothe, and recognizing others’ needs. Children who are neglected learn that they can’t rely on others to meet their needs. When children move from caregiver to caregiver (as in foster care), this attachment process is cut short. The more disruptions in attachment (the more foster placements, for example), the less likely it is that the child will ever successfully attach.

The good news is that these children often become extremely independent. Remember that this is a strength. A child with an attachment disorder often believes that the only person he can rely on is himself, and he will become very resourceful to fulfill his needs. However, this independence comes at a price later in life, when he has not learned the healthy give-and-take of human interaction. He will find himself without a support network, and sometimes uses unhealthy or destructive methods to get what he needs or wants.

Attachment Disorder (AD)

Attachment Disorder (AD) is an umbrella term that simply means a child has not learned the value of human attachment and struggles to form attachments of all kinds. Left untreated, AD children tend to create only superficial, fleeting relationships. With treatment, however, AD children can come to trust and attach in healthy ways.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

At the more extreme end of disordered attachment are cases where a child is actively hurt, physically or psychologically, by a caregiver or other close family figure. Abuse, abandonment, traumatic events like war or witnessed violence, and death teach children that not only can caregivers not be trusted to provide for their needs, but that trust equals pain. These children actively resist attachment out of fear – often subconscious – of pain.

If you try to attach to a parent who hits you and then abandons you, for example, you’ll learn to defend yourself by not attaching to the next parent figure who comes along. Somehow, your defenses tell you, it won’t hurt as much when this mom leaves if you don’t love her or need her. Better yet, RAD logic says, you can protect yourself by being as unlovable as possible. That creates a double assurance that painful and complicated attachment won’t take place.

Multiple foster placements can also create this dynamic.

This is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Children – and later, adults – don’t just struggle to attach but become reactive in order to avoid attachment. They will instinctively sabotage relationships, because they have learned – often from events they can no longer remember but have literally hardwired their brains in negative ways – that relationships hurt.

RAD children show “big” behavior and explosive, unregulated emotions. They lie, they steal, they manipulate people, they set fires, destroy property, run away, and are sometimes violent or seem cruel. Parents often describe their RAD children as lacking empathy, which is understandable, because empathy means you can be hurt by the feelings of others. Also, the work of learning empathy happens during normal attachment, and RAD children simply have not developed that part of their brain in normal ways.

RAD children are, simply put, done with being hurt by people, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent more harm. RAD is an impressive self-preservation mechanism, creating a strength that is at once admirable, pitiable, and frightening.

These children will fulfill their own needs and desires (which often remain very basic and underdeveloped, although they look complex on the surface) in whatever way they can, because they have learned they can’t rely on others to do this. RAD children can be charming one minute and abusive the next. They are almost always most abusive to their primary caregiver, because the fear of attachment is strongest in this relationship.

Outside of the home, relieved of the fear of bonding, they are usually at their most lovable. Most outsiders rarely see the negative aspects of RAD and tend to question a caregiver brave enough to share his or her parenting struggles. This deepens the RAD parents’ sense of isolation and self-doubt. I’ll write more about this later, but for now, do yourself a favor. If someone in your life habitually minimizes your parenting challenges, makes you feel bad about yourself as a parent, or worse, undermines your parenting strategies, look for help elsewhere. This drain on your already limited resources is not worth it.

Further complicating the RAD dynamic is the fact that many RAD children also come with a variety of other diagnoses, most commonly depression and anxiety.

My RAD child

When my husband and I adopted my son at the age of three, we were his tenth placement. He left his mother as an infant and cycled through a variety of family and non-family foster placements, several of them abusive, until he reached our home. His older half-brother, who remembered the violence of his biological family and his abandonment at the age of three, was diagnosed with RAD.

But this little one, my boy with the cheeks out to here, seemed fine considering his rocky start to life. He was smart and funny. He was compliant and, except for what I considered normal toddler behavior, was generally good-natured. He didn’t hug often, but asked to be held. I had abdominal surgery shortly after his adoption and couldn’t lift him for six weeks. He stopped asking to be held after that, but I chalked it up to a developmental stage.

He was unusually stubborn and independent. He refused to allow my husband or me to teach him how to ride a bicycle, for example. He taught himself when he was five. Even though I felt like I missed out on a significant piece of parenthood, I was impressed at his independence and tenacity, and praised him for it. (Remember, your child’s deficits can often be reframed as strengths. RAD children are rabidly tenacious, which is an asset in so many circumstances. I encourage you to practice seeing your child’s symptoms not as faults but strengths. Your child will appreciate it and your outlook will improve. I’ll write more about reframing later.)

Every night when I tucked him in for that first year, he asked, “Is it tomorrow that I go to a new home?” But his question seemed reasonable to me, given his history. I would just remind him that the judge – the man in the big black robe – told us we could stay together always. We were a family. I wasn’t particularly worried that he didn’t seem to understand my explanation and eventually just stopped asking. I thought he would get it with time.

Admittedly, I was an extremely naïve new parent. My only experience was with traumatized children, so I had no frame of reference. I had no real way of knowing what normal behavior and development was supposed to look like. As Karl Dennis says, I assumed everything was normal until proven otherwise.

It wasn’t until my husband and I started seeing the characteristic “big behaviors” at around age eight or nine that we started hearing the words “attachment disorder” from the professionals around us. And the older he got and the more I watched him, the more I saw the telltale signs of RAD. More and more, things were definitely not normal.

The road ahead

My RAD child is now thirteen, and I have to admit that the odds aren’t in his favor. Last month, a child therapist told my husband, “He’s a RAD kid, isn’t he? You know you can’t fix RAD, right?”

As RAD parents, we already feel isolated, exhausted, discouraged and fearful. We try to hide our child’s behaviors because we hope we can protect them (and ourselves) from people who don’t understand. We want to preserve the child’s reputation. We don’t want him labeled. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our child’s bad behavior. And then professionals sometimes send messages of doom, and Google searches only confirm the dismal success rates for RAD treatment, especially when RAD symptoms still exist by the time the child reaches his teen years, like mine.

Sometimes it’s all RAD parents can do to not pack their child up and move him to institutional care. Sometimes – and I have to tell you this – it’s the only option left if your child is a danger to himself or others.

If you’re in this RAD boat, please know you’re not alone. Please don’t blame yourself. Please believe that there is hope for your family, for your child.

I’m in the thick of it. I’ve felt the anger, the overwhelming sadness, the periods of hopelessness, the grief over what I thought parenting would be, and the judgement of people who don’t understand the disorder, the behavior, or the unorthodox parenting techniques it requires.

But I choose – over and over again – to hope. I have to hope that my family will get through this, that my son will find a way to work through his trauma and find happiness and peace. I see all the amazing things he could become, lurking behind the fear and trauma of his first few years.  I choose to keep facing each new day, regrouping when needed and scrounging for help wherever I can find it.

You aren’t alone. Many of us chose to bring traumatized children into our homes and lives because we thought we could do an important work. Remember that great works require great sacrifice. Remember that, no matter how reactive your child is, no matter how difficult to love, what he or she needs more than anything is to know you will stick it out. That you are safe. That you will do the hard things that no one else has done to provide for his or her needs. That you’ll be here for the long haul, stable, immovable, consistent, and committed.

The road is long and uncertain, but I still believe the end goal – a child saved from overwhelming odds – is worth everything.