Preventing Child Abuse in a Pandemic: Helpful Tips

Our current national landscape is one of physical isolation. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans are staying home right now, either because of stay-at-home orders, or because they fear getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. That almost 300 million Americans are homebound and probably will be for an extended period of time is extraordinary and unprecedented in our lifetime. A portion of the homebound are continuing to earn a paycheck and while the stressors of COVID-19 for that group of people are very real, there is another portion of the homebound suffering much great repercussions from this pandemic.

The Department of Labor reported that last week alone, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment. This is more than four times the previously highest recorded number. For the 75% of Americans already facing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, things just got considerably worse. Add to that the strain of fear and anxiety of a pandemic; the social isolation we must all endure; that children are home without the support (and break) given by schools or childcare; and the strain on already overburdened social services and you have a recipe for domestic disaster. And that list barely scratches the surface of the host of family-specific issues each household bears.

If history is any indicator, the result of domestic disaster will fall disproportionally on our most vulnerable; cases of child abuse and neglect (as well as domestic violence) will rise sharply while reports of the same will drop drastically: with schools and childcare centers closed, the sharpest eyes and ears of our child welfare reporting system—our teachers—are closed as well. And like so many things with this pandemic, one problem becomes compounded by another: Even as more children than ever are home 24/7 with their families, social workers are unable to conduct home visits with those already in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect and are similarly unable to visit homes when new reports do occur.

Services previously provided to families—such as drug treatment and mental health services—are severely limited or non-existent due to social distancing requirements, and family visitations are often not occurring, potentially leading to a downward spiral of hopelessness and depression for parents and teens who may turn towards drugs, alcohol, or other damaging acts to ease the pain. All of this combined leads to a significantly increased risk of harm behind the closed doors of American homes. Sadly, there is little most of us can do to fix these problems: Children’s outdoor areas are emptier now than ever, and we simply are unable to keep a collective eye on children and suffering families the way we need to.

But that isn’t to say there is nothing we can do, and what we can do, we should.

Stress of all kinds is a significant contributing factor to abuse and neglect. Tempers are short, resources scarce to non-existent, and tools some are fortunate enough to have for comfort—Zoom calls with friends; virtual “playdates” for children; paying for online games, movies, and school substitutes to keep the children occupied—are not easily obtained by lower income families. And even the families who have the resources may find they aren’t enough.

But don’t give up! There are ways we can help families from all backgrounds, though I will admit that many of the ones I’ve listed below assume that the person helping has resources of their own to draw from (time, money, or energy). A few of these might help our most significantly at-risk families—those with serious addictions, long family histories of abuse, or the types of terrible things we read about in the media—but others wouldn’t. But again, what we can do, we should.

Abuse knows no economic, cultural, or societal bounds. From my years working with families already in the child welfare system, I can promise you that. I can also say that the simplest assistance, and perhaps the silliest sounding, might be all that’s needed to avert a catastrophe.

Consider a morning from my own life:

I, an obsessively tidy mother, sit in the middle of an increasingly cluttered home. My back and feet hurt, and the younger kids are arguing loudly while the oldest child tries to get some much needed sleep. Andy, a hard-working and busy father, already stressed from hiding in the walk-in closet to do Zoom calls where kids can’t find him, too loudly shushes the arguing kids. The kids begin to complain about the unfairness of it all and I try to intervene while stumbling over the puppy pulling on my socks and biting my toes. The other dog begins to bark at a person walking by, and both Andy and I begin to shush the dogs. The kids’ voices grow louder to be heard over the din of shushes and barks, and my mom, who lives with us, suddenly appears in the kitchen, asking why her dog is barking and saying she may need to go to the hospital for stomach pains but is scared to because of the virus so what do I think she should do and can I please contact her doctor for her? The gardeners begin mowing next door and within a minute we all hear a door slam from upstairs because the 24-year-old has frustratingly given up on getting any sleep.

Our situation eventually resolves as best it can: Andy takes one kid to do a puzzle and I take the other to bake some bread, but not before I hop on one of the four laptops in our home to email a doctor, free of charge and easily accessible, about my mom. Sad to say, the oldest is still tired and the dogs still bark, but few things in life are perfect.

In this scenario, the main fridge is stocked, as are the one fridge and two freezers in the garage. We always buy in bulk so our toilet paper situation is fine. The same pay the adults usually get is still coming in, and the grandmother who walked into the kitchen at an inopportune time lives in the home and can watch the children should that be needed. Oh, and I have plenty of time to spend with the children and enough education to help them with their e-learning during our school’s closure.

And still, this isn’t a pretty situation. Imagine if:

  • The fridge was bare
  • The parents had just lost their jobs
  • There was no adult in the home with available time for the kids
  • Any one—or all—of the four adults had a substance abuse problem or untreated mental health issue

This scene could have ended in a very different and explosive way.

And so:

Think about your own circle of people, as far as it can go. Who in that circle is most in need of a break right now? Do you know any single parents? Someone who struggles with addiction? A family with a small home but a large number of kids? Someone who lost a job? Who is sick? Who is prone to anxiety and depression? The list could go on, and it should. Make an actual, physical list of people in your life facing larger-than-average stressors. Do you have their phone number? Their email addresses? Do they live within driving distance? Write those things down as well, then:

  • Call them. Talk to them. Ask to speak to the children for a while. Maybe read the kids a book over the phone or on FaceTime if possible.
  • Text them. Ask how they are. Tell them how you are. Send a funny meme. Ask if they need anything. Or don’t ask, but just assume they need something and then …
  • if possible, get it to them. Mail them $20 or a grocery store gift card. Leave food or other necessities (or non-necessities!) on their steps. Shop for them if they’re in a high-risk group. No, money doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help at times like this.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of income to spare (and hey, we’re all going without our lattes these days), order something online to send to the kids to keep them distracted. Or send chocolates for the parents. Loan them an extra laptop by leaving it on their porch and letting them use it for Google Hangout or online school or even just mindless show watching. Again, these are money and material things, but if you can do it, please do. We may not like to admit it, but material things do often help.
  • Kids are still going outside, even if not to designated playgrounds. When they’re out, pay attention. Do they seem okay? Do the adults who are with them seem okay? What do you notice? Don’t turn into the nosy neighbor peeking out from behind the curtain—that’s just weird. You’re likely a savvy enough person to find a non-stalking way to do this. If you see signs of abuse or neglect report it, even if your state’s current isolation situation means a social worker can’t make it out for a while the risk still needs to be recorded. Then make it your daily commitment to help that family any way possible.
  • Offer to watch younger kids (but who old enough not to need hand holding or carrying) outside while their adults take a break. You don’t have to forgo social distancing rules to make this happen.
  • Have a six-foot-away playdate with your kids and theirs.
  • Take a social distance walk together. Or talk to one another from your own front doors.
  • Send them a card in the mail. A homemade one is fine, so you only have to pay for the stamp.
  • Offer to walk their dogs (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of this!)
  • Volunteer with or donate to groups that are helping those in the most financial need.
  • Donate not just food, money, and cleaning products, but board games, movies, electronics, coloring books—anything that can entertain children/teens or provide relief for parents. Do the same with any and all income groups if/when you think it might be helpful.
  • And, of course, pray for them.

Here are some other resources for how you can help at-risk families during this pandemic:

End Violence Against Children

The Alliance for Children in Humanitarian Action

Prevent Child Abuse

What you will find using these resources is a significant emphasis on stress reduction. Because that is what so much of this is truly about. Stress decreases our abilities to appropriately cope with even typical events such as arguing or crying children. And without appropriate coping abilities, typical situations can quickly turn to situations of abuse, even for families who otherwise would never find themselves taking such harmful actions.

Feel free to make your own list of stress reduction ideas for how we can assist those in need during this time. Act on those ideas and do it now. It’s never too soon to help a family in need, but it is often too late.

Foreign Virus, Harvey Weinstein, and What COVID-19 is Teaching Us About Economics in America

I haven’t been able to get the phrase “foreign virus” out of my mind since the President first introduced it into our vernacular last night.

I similarly haven’t been able to get Harvey Weinstein’s well-deserved sentence out of my mind, or the fact that the United States Soccer Federation is using a grossly sexist legal defense to excuse paying female players less than their male counterparts.

And then of course there is the threat (and in some instances the actualization) of school shut-downs due to COVID-19 that will have the unintentional effect of depriving poor children of needed meals and safe spaces. Similarly, this novel pandemic has highlighted the plight of workers without health care or even sick leave. The men and women who go without are faced with losing their jobs or going to work and putting themselves and others at risk. Then there are the teachers who, even with sick leave and health care, continue to show up to work in germ-filled classrooms with Kleenex-filled trashcans and a short supply of hand sanitizer each and every day, despite their personal fears of becoming sick. And let’s not forget to mention congressmen who kill bills that might have eased the economic burden on those who need it the most.

From “foreign virus” to sexism and abuse and back to the virus again, these seemingly disparate things have one very specific thing in common: othering.

It was no mistake that Trump deemed COVID-19 “foreign.” Not because it started in China or because Europe didn’t make a good enough effort to contain the virus, but rather because it is inflammatory, self-protecting, and accusatory. If we—Americans—become ill, it is only because some other government, some other type or color or differently accented people, immorally allowed a virus to ravage not only its own people, but also ours. Economic and physical harms arising from this will continue to be laid at the feet of the other, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci says America is failing to appropriately address this pandemic.

Harvey Weinstein preyed upon women who went to him looking for work, for mentorship, for help in a cutthroat profession where women are already expected to acquiesce to nude scenes and subject themselves to playing roles that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. These women—like the female soccer players who are accused of not working as hard as or having the inherent physical talent of male players—apparently needed to pay their dues somehow and Weinstein found a way. Under these standards, the female body, whether as an athlete or sexual being, is no match for the prowess of men. Women are “other,” and in being so are less than.

But of course, that’s almost always the case.

It is the “other,” those who are “less than,” whose economic plight many are just now realizing as COVID-19 is sweeping our nation, bringing certain hardships into common conversation. It’s easy to see only the “top layer” of a story, but underneath there is always so much more. The plight of low-wage workers, food insecure kids, the homeless, and the chronically ill goes on each and every day, not just this particular moment in history. Sick leave, health care, child care, living wages; they are always relevant.

We live in a nation built on “othering.” There are moments in time that make that othering obvious, bring it to the forefront of public consciousness. But a Facebook meme showing white people in traditional Chinese garb holding a giant bottle of Corona is not a novel type of humor. The abuse Weinstein perpetrated upon women happens at every economic level and largely without public scrutiny or discussion. Women at all professions, not just professional athletes, continue to be underpaid, and the poor tend to remain that way.

Gratefully, a small but mighty portion of Americans wage a daily war against the disease of othering, though usually in ways that are underfunded, overworked, and underpaid. And as we too often do in important work sectors (such as education), we tend to push those in the trenches of this war into their own economic insecurity. Of course, with a president who continues to create new columns in which we can place those “different” than us, nationally televising and normalizing xenophobia, I think it’s safe to say these war wagers will not soon be out of a job.

The Problem with a Woman’s ‘No’

Like most women I know, I am a woman who “does things.” Whether in the church, classroom, or community, I volunteer for activities and events because I enjoy doing them.

The problem with this (one of a few) is that once a woman gains a reputation of saying yes to things, even more requests for stepping up come her way. There is some good that comes with that, but also some bad. The requests begin to broaden in scope until they encompass unenjoyable, un-called-to things. They also begin to pile up, as two hours of help turn to three, then ten, and before you know it, a whole month has gone by. Sleep is lost, kids ignored, husbands relegated to last in line for attention. Nutrition and exercise fall to the wayside, and, perhaps, stress begins to manifest in physical ways.

Hence the market for self-help books teaching women the seemingly-easy skill of saying no. There are actually books—plural!—that contain hundreds of pages explaining how “no” is a word women shouldn’t be afraid to say. Those two little letters, that tiny package of a word, is truly a linguistic barrier to a happier, healthier life. If we women who “do” things could just learn no’s value, the books claim, we could better live into our actual calling, better love ourselves, our husbands, and our children. But wait! There’s more! We also wouldn’t lose friends, professional opportunities, important roles in the community, or any of those other things we’re afraid of losing should our yesses stop coming.

It isn’t just books: Pastors give this advice. Therapists. Friends. TV doctors with good intentions. And I agree with them: no-saying is a necessary skill for those of us living in a world with too high expectations and too few people to fill the roles we’ve spontaneously created then deemed essential.

But knowing intellectually that we should balance our yesses with a handful of nos is one thing; putting it into play is another.

It’s hard to step back and let something fail, go fallow, or not be done to our personal specifications. It’s even harder to let go of things that fulfill us, that intellectually stimulate us, that give us more to talk about over dinner than laundry and homework. But sometimes there are reasons we must say no, even if we’re left not just with more family and “me” time on our hands, but also with isolation, unpracticed talents, unstimulated minds, and deep sadness.

A couple of years ago I was really sick. Like go-to-the-hospital-bi-weekly sick. In that two-year season I posted on this blog a grand total of FOUR TIMES. I couldn’t even write while at home in my PJs sipping cocoa! I was living off prednisone and even with that most hated of the best loved drugs propping me up, I still just couldn’t go on being someone who “did” things.

So my husband and I decided it was time I just said no.

I emailed heads of boards and bowed out of roles. I spoke for hours, days, years it seems, with my (very supportive and understanding) pastor about church roles I could no longer fill. I let folks at my children’s school think I’d fallen off the edge of the world. I rejected clients. I just … stopped.

So I’ve been there, and you can trust me when I say that sometimes saying no is way, way harder than the overburdening of all the yesses combined.

Being out and about in the world I knew without being an integral part of how it ran was devastating. Not because of the loss of control, but because some of us, like me, were created to be in the ranks of those who do. I thrive on the yesses.

But then … it got easy.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t like easy easy. Just … easier. Enjoyable, even. After the boredom and sadness passed, I started to feel better. I went off the prednisone. I had the energy to switch to a vegan diet (one of the top five best decisions I’ve ever made, by the way. Feel free to ask me about it.). I watched TV. Read books. Had an actual conversation with my husband. And then I was able to go off the immunosuppressant medication that kept me living off antibiotics.

Through this I learned that while the yesses might be life-giving, saying no can be lifesaving.

But I’m sad to say I learned another lesson as well.

I learned that the books are wrong. That our well-intentioned friends are wrong. That the TV-doctors and celebrities are wrong. Even our religious leaders are wrong.

The hard truth is that few people want to hear a no.

While many are sympathetic to the need to step back, many are not.

I was told I didn’t care about my church.

I stopped hearing from friends I’d made through shared volunteer activities.

I was excluded from certain conversations and actions I still wanted to be a part of.

I was stunned.

I readily admit it’s true we can’t always have the best of both worlds. In some roles you’re either in or out; there is no in between. It’s also true we can’t expect place holders: we snooze, we lose. And, of course, there’s the issue of reliability: will she or won’t she back out at the last minute?

Showing up is crucial—when one takes on a role or task it’s expected that she will perform it. How, especially after repeated cancellations, can others continue to rely on and trust those who no longer seem reliable? Likely they can trust that the intentions are good, but good intentions never cleaned the church kitchen, taught a Sunday School lesson, or edited a manuscript. You need an actual person for that.

So this isn’t a bright line issue.

There’s a burden on the chronically ill person to know her limitations and establish firm boundaries, even if those boundaries are disappointing. Being on a particular board may be something really relevant, important, and desired, but if all the meetings start at 8pm and you need to be asleep by 8:30pm, then not accepting the board position to begin with is essential.

There are other roles, however, that are more fluid. Roles someone can more easily step into on the fly if needed, roles that can be quickly understood and executed. Roles where a bit of delay won’t actually cause as much of an issue as others might like to think it will.

There is definitely nuance to the conversation.

But the point here isn’t to delve into each possible scenario, rather it’s to bring a hard truth to the surface for conversation: though we are taught, preached to, advised, and counseled that “no” is a viable and even respectable option, the response received to it does not always correlate with that position.

As I write this, I’m wondering if some will think this is a pity party or indictment of my various communities.

I reject both of those notions.

Let me say that I am writing this only because I hope that by bringing a real-life experience to light, those on the receiving end of “nos” may reflect on their own responsibilities as leaders and respond the way we’re taught to believe they will: sympathetically, warmly, and with understanding.

I also hope that by reading this, those who need to take a step back from some responsibilities can go into the process as better-informed decision makers. Are there things you will lose, perhaps long-term? Will some—even those you think of as friends—respond with criticism? Will people second guess you? And worse—will you begin to second guess yourself? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding … maybe.

All this begs the question: should you say no if you don’t feel up to a yes? Yes! And should you say yes if it may sometimes be dotted with nos? Well, yeah, I think you should.

My mentor, who has her own chronic health issues, explained it this way: we don’t forgo our work in this world because of illness. Yet we don’t necessarily need to live it out in times of flares or in ways that push us to the brink. Instead, we establish systems and supports that can be put into place as needed. That is one of the many things community is for, and part of successful ministry is learning to use the strengths of community wisely.

As hard as some things have been post-season-of-nos, it was worth it. I got a significant-if-limited portion of health back, reconnected with my family and myself, and made radical life changes that I will continue to reap the benefits of in the years to come. There is nothing more important than that, even ministry, as we cannot give of ourselves if there’s nothing left to give.

 

 

Intentional Adulting

Having been away from teaching Sunday School for a while due to health reasons, I am THRILLED to finally be back at it. And when I say thrilled, I mean bound-out-of-bed-happy-three-hours-before-church-even-starts kind of thrilled.

Anyone who knows me—virtually or otherwise—knows how much I love children. Put me in a room split into kids and adults and I will always find some reason why I should be in the kid group. I’m pretty sure part of the reason for this is because my own childhood ended too soon when I became a mom at fifteen. Or maybe it’s because I’ve lost a child and through that gained a different (and hopefully uncommon) perspective.

But rather than try to pinpoint it, I think it’s safe to assume it is the sum of various life experiences that has led me to discover and deeply understand the complexity, joy, and needs of childhood, as well as the honor it is to be an adult in a child’s life.

But let me be clear: children are not amazing because they are commodities. They aren’t amazing because they’re our future. They aren’t special because they may some day cure cancer or put a person on Mars or any of the other feats we all mention when looking into a child’s potential future. We make the mistake of defaulting to these ideas as well as descriptors such as  “innocent” and “joyful” because there are simply no words, or at least none I know, that can truly embody the essence of what makes children so special.

I stand in awe daily at the privilege it is to be in a child’s life, even if briefly. Every single interaction adults have with children is an opportunity to shape who they are, who they will become. How that child will parent, be called into God’s work, be a friend or a spouse or a random person passed on the street whose smile brightens a stranger’s day. Let that truth sit for a while until its enormity hits you.

That is huge and, frankly, overwhelming.

The collective “we” never know what might stick with a child forever and always, for good or for bad. We might never recognize that one off-hand comment that spirals their self-esteem, convinces them to be an astronaut, makes them feel they have failed everyone and everything, leads them to God.

That’s a lot of pressure. I don’t recommend thinking about it all the time; it’s too big a yoke to bear. But truthfully, it is our yoke. Not thinking about it all the time is one thing; never thinking about it is another. Perhaps adults should spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the fact that every word, action, or inaction that comes from our being shapes the children around us. Those mere few minutes should be more than enough to bring us to a place of intentionality in how we “adult,” at least most of the time.

I readily admit that I do get frustrated with my children. I’ve even met a couple of kids I didn’t like. And I am far from consistently intentional. That is my very human failure I attempt daily to rise above, but sadly too often fail. But my emphatic hope and prayer is that I live a life reflective of my privilege and responsibility as a shaper of human beings.

It is an awe-inspiring wonder that our system of human existence relies so heavily upon generational influence. That is no mistake, but rather the hand of the divine at play. My actions shape the small beings who live in my house or attend my Sunday School class or stand behind me in line at the store. Knowing that brings out the best in me which, in turn, brings out the best in others. Not always. Not perfectly. But some.

So take it seriously, folks. As frustrating and runny-nosed and loud and chaotic and time- and energy-sucking as they are, children deserve and need the best from us. And in the amazingly perfect symbiosis of our universe, when we give them our best, we too, get the best in return.

A Way to Help

The following is a testimony I gave at my church earlier this year. I have provided an update at its conclusion.

I spent summer and winter of 2018 in a state of rest that we half-jokingly called my “sabbatical.” This was a time for rest and healing and, as the balm of those two things took hold, of active listening for the Word of God. In those months I lost many things I knew I could not get back, but I also knew that as I healed, God would call me when and where I was needed. I now had time on my hands and space to breathe; all I needed was God to point me in the right direction.

A couple of months ago, Andy and I got an email from a local advocacy group asking if anyone would be willing to sponsor a family seeking asylum. The family was in Tijuana and wouldn’t be allowed to cross into the US unless someone on this side would promise to get the family here and help them out once they arrived.

I had time. I had space. I had resources. I emailed back within minutes. Andy and I would be happy to help, I said.

This last Tuesday the mom, whom I will call SJ, and her three children arrived on a red eye from San Isidro after spending several hours at a McDonalds where ICE had dropped her and children. Gratefully, through a network of concerned individuals, we were able to secure overnight respite in the house of a well-placed angel willing to help a family in need.

At 7am Tuesday morning, I watched SJ walk through the airport, carrying a one-year-old baby and an extra-large duffel bag—did I mention yet that SJ made this journey without a stroller? That means she was lugging a one-year-old from Tijuana to San Isidro to Maryland.

So perhaps it goes without saying, but SJ is an amazing woman; her children are, too. Her oldest is a brilliant artist and has handily beat my daughter in chess many times. Both she and SD have made ample fun of my Spanish skills. The one-year-old is a champion sleeper and the eight-year-old boy and my son hit it off immediately, speaking a boy-language of shoves and wrestling moves and video games.

When SJ and her children left their home behind, they also left behind two bunnies—both named “bunny”—a chow puppy named Chowbella, and a big yard to play in. They now live in a two-bedroom apartment with a total of 10 people. The 10 people are spreading what money and food they have between them, but ten mouths are a lot to feed.

Andy and I are continuing our sponsorship of this wonderful family and are learning as we go how to best do that. Tomorrow I take SJ to see an immigration attorney and Wednesday I will drive her to enroll her kids in school. Thursday Andy will take them to Baltimore for their Immigration check in. Beyond that, we’ll play things day-to-day.

On this day, my sponsorship activity is this testimony. Both so you can feel the joy of a successful story—against every odd they made it to the United States—and also so I can ask you to consider what you might be able to do to help this family get on and stay on their feet.

Their main needs right now are adequate housing and assistance with daily expenses such as groceries and toiletries. If assisting this family is something you feel called to do with the time, space, and resources you have, please let me know.

Most importantly, please remember this family in your prayers, and ask for God’s providential care over them as they begin their new life in the United States. Remember too, that when we slow down and listen, God will speak.

Since I wrote these words several months ago, much has changed. The two school-aged children are thriving, making friends, learning English, and becoming accustomed to a different way of life. The baby is confident, smart, and obsessed with our puppy. Most importantly, SJ and her children have found an apartment to call home. Each month is a struggle to make ends meet; SJ’s income does not cover essential expenses and we are often scrambling to find a way to ensure each person’s basic human needs are met. To that end, we have established a Go Fund Me page to help this family with their day-to-day expenses. Any amount helps, and I ask you to consider whether a donation to this family is right for you.

 

 

 

Out of the Darkness

Over the last two weeks, our hearts have been wrenched dry by news of Syria, Parkland, and more. Yet our kids enter into church bright eyed and laughing, the joy of youth on their faces. Before long, their joy becomes mine, bringing me out of the darkness of the news cycle, the darkness of wondering why.

Not just why things happen, but why I can’t do more. Why I can’t make some calls, pull some strings, throw some Mama Magic in and make it all better. I have no doubt you feel the same. But we don’t have those kind of connections, and those who do won’t always use it.

How, you may be wondering, is this relevant to CE?*

It’s because while we may not have connections, or strings, or magic enough to spare, we have ourselves. Our families. Our kids. We have the ability to love those things nearest to us, and to spread that love as far as our circle of influence allows. The funny thing is, that circle seems to grow bigger with each use, until suddenly we realize we do have a connection that can make one small thing happen. Maybe a safer policy on how visitors to schools are screened. Or an email to someone in power that garners more than a boilerplate response.

When we love, things happen. And the thing about kids is, when we love them, they get better at spreading love themselves. This is one of the reasons I enjoy being with kids so much: how we love them is how they’ll love others, and that is no small thing. Maybe we can’t pick up a phone and solve a national crisis, but it’s enormously important that we have those bright eyes and smiling faces to nurture in the way we wish the whole world would.

Because while it may not, we can and we do and we will. And with God’s good grace, that will make a difference.

*This post originally appeared on my church’s Christian Education (CE) blog. You can find it here.

Slow Kingdom Coming

I’ve always thought of myself as a justice-oriented, do-gooder-type person, but over the years, I’ve become a bit fuzzy about what exactly that means. For example, most people would say it’s good to donate to charities and worthy causes, but how many times have charities and worthy causes misspent, misappropriated, or misjudged? What about donating goods after natural disasters? International adoptions? Microloans? Many things that sound good on the surface—and that are almost always well-intended—aren’t necessarily doing the good work we think they are. It also seems that far too often when someone says “justice,” what they really mean is good intentions and a quick fix.

In his new book, Slow Kingdom Coming, Kent Annan makes clear that good intentions can only take us so far, and that the work of building God’s kingdom is anything but quick. He writes, “we don’t want to think … that our good intentions are enough, as though God wouldn’t expect us to love our neighbors in the best possible way.” And the best possible way, he continues, is by creating deep and lasting change that, almost by definition, comes slowly.

You can read the rest of my review of Slow Kingdom Coming at Red Letter Christians.

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#NeverTrump

I keep expecting someone to step out from behind a potted plant and say, “Smile! You’re on candid camera!” and then all of America will laugh and breathe a sigh of relief. After the nervous giggles pass and we finish pretending we knew it all along, we will go home and think long and hard about what would have happened had the whole thing been true.

And by “the whole thing,” I mean Donald Trump.

About an hour ago I learned that Ben Carson endorsed Trump. I was never a Carson fan, but from what I understand he isn’t a bad guy or anything. And clearly he’s brilliant, right? He’s a brain surgeon for crying out loud. He’s apparently also popular among “evangelicals,” which may just be the most over- and improperly used word in American media today.

Right now I’m watching a clip of a young black man being sucker punched in the face at a Trump rally by a long-haired man in a cowboy hat. This just a week or so after the Guy in the Red Hat went verbally psycho on Black Lives Matter protestors, and a couple of weeks after Chris Christie’s takeover by Trump-loving aliens.

Have I mentioned the KKK or “small hands” yet? No? Well there are those things, too.

Where’s a potted plant when you need one?

I’m about 99% sure that in 20 years we’re going to find out (assuming there’s no hidden camera, anyway) that this was all a conspiracy. I don’t know if Democrats paid Trump to run to ensure a Democrat would win, or if Trump is paying people to vote for and/or endorse him, or threatening their families, but something fishy must be going on here. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

Because that alternative is that there are a whole lot of people in America willing to vote for someone who, whether he himself is or isn’t, doesn’t mind giving off the air of a misogynistic, jingoistic, racist megalomaniac.

The hateful and insulting comments, the atrocious proposed policies, the lack of knowledge and experience to hold the most powerful office in the world, and all those other, more obvious scary Trump traits are one thing. The hate and violence and anger at his rallies and among his supporters are another. The “get ‘em out of heres,” and the “I want to punch him in the face,” and the screaming, punching, “go home” sign-wielding Americans frighten me, sadden me, overwhelm me, embarrass me, and sicken me. They drive me to an eschatological place I don’t want to be.

I get it to a certain point. He’s an outsider. He speaks him mind. His aura is one of success and confidence. He’s sort of like the bad boy/girl you might date in high school. You know what almost universally holds true about those relationships? They end. You don’t marry the bad guy/girl, or if you do, you regret it/get divorced/change the person/change yourself. Four to eight years of damaging, dangerous, and damning governance is a lot of regret. It’s also a long time to stay married to someone you can’t stand. That leaves two options: change him or change yourself.

I won’t say Trump won’t or can’t change. His efforts at self-moderation these last few days have been apparent. Clearly he gets that he needs to be “more presidential,” but in the end, he ends up right where he started: acting as the lowest common denominator. I won’t pretend to know Trump’s internal affairs, but if I had to guess, I’d say the odds of him changing are pretty darn low. So then, will he change me? Will he change us? Change America? I’d like to think he can’t. That even if elected that we’d somehow stand strong against him, singing Kumbaya in front of the White House while patchouli wafts through the air and babies coo from their mama’s and daddy’s slings and front packs and toddlers munch on homemade gluten-free granola.

But I never have liked the smell of patchouli and my kids are far too big for slings and front packs. I can also hear the bullhorn now: “Get ‘em out of here!”

It’s scary folks, really scary. This isn’t about electing a politician with whom we disagree, even on very, very important things such as cluster bombs. Perhaps it sounds extreme, but I would go so far as to say that this is about good vs. evil. Not that Trump is evil, or that Trump supporters are evil. No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, have you ever read Lord of the Flies? Remember Piggy? When you put a lot of non-evil people who have some not-too-kind ideas together in a big melting pot and stir them together—viola!—you get something pretty darn ugly.

Since I still don’t see a potted plant anywhere around, and since I may not ever know if there’s a conspiracy or not, I’m going to have to assume that this is real. Trump himself may be fake—I suspect that in many ways he is—but the voters… the voters are real. If they are both real and numerous enough to put Trump in the White House, I will be so scared, so sad, and so morally wounded that I may have to learn to bake my own granola and enjoy the smell of patchouli. But I’m still not putting my kids in a front pack.

 

Whole Women, Whole Families, Whole Truths: Saying What You Mean and Meaning What You Say

The number of abortions in the United States may have declined by more than one-third over the past two decades—reaching its lowest rate since record keeping started in 1976—but the issue is far from settled. Today the Supreme Court hears its first major abortion case in almost 10 years, and, barring a 4-4 split due to the death of Justice Scalia, will likely hand down a decision by the summer.

This case, Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, questions the constitutionality of restrictions the state of Texas is imposing on abortion providers—restrictions like requiring abortion providers to hold admitting privileges at a local hospital and for centers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Opponents argue that these standards are unnecessary and will cause clinics to close, resulting in significant limitations on women’s access to abortion.

This case has far-reaching implications as the Court is set to consider what regulations constitute an undue burden on a woman’s ability to get an abortion. As it is in all Supreme Court cases of this significance, media coverage is intense, and the protestors are many.

Significantly, this whole discussion is taking place during an election year, which is sure to force presidential hopefuls to address abortion head on. A study by the Barna Group has found that while only 30 percent of the general population places abortion as a priority in determining which candidate will get their vote, 64 percent of evangelicals say the same. And that means, because abortion will again be in the spotlight, this 64 percent will have their views heard by a larger audience than normal.

Of course, neither a Supreme Court case nor a presidential election is a top motivator for pro-lifers* to make their voices heard. Still, if history is any indicator, Whole Women’s Health v. Cole will provide a unique opportunity for influence that may not come around again for quite some time.

So the big question is how best to assert that influence.

Public perceptions of the pro-life movement are often significantly and negatively shaped by high profile cases like that of Robert Lewis Dear, the man who last November shot and killed a police officer and two civilians at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. At his first court appearance, Dear proudly professed guilt and claimed to be “a warrior for the babies.” Not much earlier, a pro-life group released highly controversial, sting-style videos of Planned Parenthood executives that resulted in a wide, public debate about federal funding for the organization. And, of course, we’ve all seen the heart wrenching and anger-inducing footage of protestors blocking young women from entering into clinics, making clear their opinion that the young, scared woman will burn in hell.

There is also the perennial issue of conservative politicians taking a hardline pro-life stance, yet seemingly disregarding the hardships that can come from an unplanned or unsafe pregnancy, and eliminating funding for programs that could either help minimize these hardships or stop the unplanned or unsafe pregnancy from occurring in the first place.

It’s a hostile context, with various “camps” pitted against one another. Surely there has to be a better way, a way far removed from pickets, judgment, hate, and hypocrisy.

To this end, it’s important to remember that when hoping to sway public opinion and/or policy to align with one’s belief system, moral credibility is key. That means the pro-life movement must become one associated with believing all life is sacrosanct—whether in the womb or already born. Perhaps it should go without saying, but the most basic tenant of eliminating abortion must be rooted in compassion and love, and not just for the unborn, but also for the expectant mothers. Certainly, pregnant woman who feel trapped by their pregnancy and are considering abortion should think of the church as the first place to turn for help, not as the last.

Thankfully, there are faith leaders who are opening their doors wide to those both considering abortion and those who have already had abortions. Last year Pope Francis declared that women who have had abortions could seek forgiveness from any priest, without authorization of a bishop. President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, wrote of those who have had or participated in abortions, “God has already pronounced what he thinks of this person: ‘You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.’ … Offer [] mercy not only at the Judgment Seat of Christ, but in the small groups and hallways of your church.” There are those who will take umbrage at the notion that a woman needs either forgiveness from a priest or mercy from church members, but for many women, both avenues of grace are desired and significant to their lives.

By decreasing social stigma within the church environment, providing non-judgmental counseling and assistance to women suffering at the hands of a partner or family member, and putting in place the go-to tried and true church supports of meals, rides to the doctor, deacon’s fund assistance, and the like, local churches can provide tangible support to women both considering abortion and those who have already had abortions. Shaming, shunning and judging will only drive women from the church.

Of equal importance is the significant contribution of churches and faith-based organizations to social services (the Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the world). One of main reasons women give for seeking abortions is financial. In fact, studies show that women with family incomes below the federal poverty level account for more than 40 percent of all abortions, and this particular demographic has one of the highest abortion rates in the nation (52 per 1,000 women). Given that six in ten women who receive abortions already have at least one child, it seems clear that greater systemic support for families below the poverty line is a prime way to reduce abortions.

These numbers indicate that being pro-life is about speaking up and acting on socioeconomic matters just as much as it is on abortion itself. Recognizing this, faith-based non-profits can and do provide subsidized childcare, job training, financial and material support, housing, and counseling for women in the “at risk” category. These efforts should be seen not just as economic in nature, but as essential ways to demonstrate  one’s commitment to ending abortion.

Similarly, better educational and vocational opportunities, workplace protections for pregnant women, and low cost, high quality childcare would help reduce the stressors on women who seek abortion for financial reasons. Many of the socioeconomic changes needed must be systemically implemented at a policy level, but others are within the grasp of individuals, places of worship, and organizations.

For those interested in having a direct, personal impact, there are many options other than marches and protests, all of which are considerably more effective. The influence of making ones position known to state and federal legislators through letter writing and phone calls, petition signing, ballot measures that increase socioeconomic support of women and families, and an individual’s voting power cannot be overstated.

For those less politically inclined, there are ways to advance one’s beliefs that may not change laws, but will fulfill the primary goal of both reducing abortion and creating more sustainable futures for those lives once they enter into the world.

Pregnancy centers, most of which are religious in nature, make it their goal to support women through their pregnancies as well as achieve long-term self-sufficiency. Women who might otherwise feel there are no options other than abortion can turn to these centers for help not only throughout pregnancy, but also into the future by learning the life skills necessary to successfully parent a child and run a household.

Despite the high number of women served by pregnancy centers, they aren’t without controversy, and some are more reputable than others. Volunteering at or donating to centers with a track record of providing sustainable assistance with long-term implications is a great way to make a local, direct impact. Before partnering with a pregnancy center, affirm that the center has appropriate medical oversight and licensing, as well as non-deceptive advertising, literature, and practices. Some pregnancy centers have come under criticism for these things, and to truly help women and the unborn, maintaining credibility and compassion, not merely pushing an agenda, is key.

Of course, pregnancy centers aren’t for all women, such as those who feel unprepared to parent. For those in this situation, adoption agencies are often presented as an alternative to abortion. Like pregnancy centers, these agencies provide pregnant women with services to help them throughout their pregnancies, but also help match birth mothers with adoptive families. Many provide prenatal care, help with housing and other expenses, and even maternity clothes and rides to the doctor.

Some of these centers are religious- or state run non-profits, others are privately owned and for profit. As with pregnancy centers, some are more reputable than others and must be thoroughly researched before a referral can be made. Each state has its own regulations, but as a general rule, adoption agencies should be licensed, been in business for many years with a well-maintained reputation, have a high number of successful placements per year, and should not pressure clients into making certain choices. Individuals and faith communities should take the time to research near-by agencies and be prepared to make a knowledgeable recommendation to a woman in need.

In so doing, it must be remembered that for adoption to be a truly viable option, women must feel emotionally and physically able to make it through nine months of pregnancy. This means pro-life advocates must recognize that the reasons women seek abortions can take all kinds of forms, including social stigmas, lack of health care, abusive relationships, family pressures, and financial and work or educational limitations, among other things. Those committed to ending abortion should consider putting time and energy toward finding a workable solution for as many of these problems as possible—although certainly no perfect or easy solution exists, nor does this list address the myriad of needs that present when women become pregnant through rape, or when a pregnancy compromises the mother’s health. Those are complicated, emotion-laden, and highly individual cases that I cannot begin to address here.

Promoting and achieving pro-life goals will come from establishing credibility by honoring the sanctity of life, both born and unborn, and taking compassionate, non-judgmental, prayerful and loving action to reduce the reasons women seek abortion in the first place, primarily their belief there are “no other options.” Simply put, we must give them options.

What if rather than creating picket signs and coordinating protests, efforts turned instead toward creating options by caring for women and families in need, and working towards systemic change that does the same? This is not only a third-way of being pro-life—it is the best way. It’s a way that respects and honors all life, at all stages, without judgment, but with honesty, compassion, and a nuanced understanding of the very real hardships faced by women dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.

State laws and Supreme Court decisions don’t change the fact that the real work of making pro-life mean all life often takes place behind the scenes, through small acts of love and kindness that have a big impact on the lives of many, both those born and those yet to be.

 

* I use the term “pro-life” because it is the term most commonly used and understood in public discussion. I find it to be a misnomer, however, as those who are pro-choice are not, in fact, anti-life. Similarly, many who may deem themselves “pro-life” for lack of a better term, are not “anti-choice,” although they would limit situations where that choice might be employed.

 

 

 

On Super Tuesday, Vote Your Hope

My friend Lucas has asked if he could guest post today on the topic of Super Tuesday. As soon as he asked, I said, “who am I to say no?”

Then I couldn’t get that question out of my mind.

Who am I to say no? Would I put up a pro-Trump guest post? Pro-Cruz? It’s a fair question.

I do tend towards political writing, although I usually publish those pieces elsewhere and keep posts here to more family- and faith-oriented topics, but a large part of what I write about is the hard work of learning to understand one another, and treating those with whom we disagree with the same compassion and standards we treat those with whom we do agree. Getting feedback from the choir is lots of fun, but not why one goes into the business. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.

So with that in mind, must the answer to my burning and introspective question be “yes?” I’d love to know your answer (and reasoning), but more importantly, I’d love to hear your voice on what Lucas has to say, whether it’s agreement or otherwise.

And for those who disagree (I have many friends and family who will, as does Lucas!), may grace abound.

Without further ado…

On Super Tuesday, Vote Your Hope
We Need a Better Choice in November

By Lucas Jackson

It’s pretty unlikely that Donald Trump is literally a fascist.

But you don’t have to believe the worst about Trump to recognize that his candidacy has unleashed something dark in our country. Like all demagogues, he’s exploited legitimate grievances. Disastrous trade deals that benefited corporations at the expense of everybody else. A corrupt political system owned by special interests. Politicians who can’t answer simple questions like:

What did you say in your speech to Goldman Sachs?
or
Will you ever lie to the American people?

And like all demagogues, Mr. Trump takes those grievances and spins them to play on the darkness in all of us – racism, prejudice, nationalism, hate.

And he is poised, today, to put a stake through the heart of his GOP opponents and become the most disliked candidate in American history from either party to win the nomination. That is not an opinion, it’s a statistical fact.

The second most disliked candidate in history to win a nomination? Hillary Clinton. Unless she isn’t nominated.

Hillary Clinton is the worst possible candidate to run against Donald Trump. Every one of Trump’s legitimate critiques of the political system hit home with Clinton. Trump is self-funded, Clinton and her Super Pac takes millions from Wall Street. Trump is against terrible “free trade” deals. Clinton has supported them. Trump is even, apparently, against the Iraq war. Clinton voted for it.

But far more than any one issue, Clinton embodies everything that sends so many voters of all parties (including independents) searching for an alternative of some kind. The lack of honesty and trustworthiness. The shifting positions on issues to fit the political mood. The corruption. Many of those voters have fled to Trump. But many have turned away from the siren call of hate and division and instead supported Bernie Sanders, an actual independent who takes no money from special interests, has no Super Pac, is funded by millions of small contributions (the average is, what, 27 bucks? I think we’ve heard that somewhere) and seems to be the rare politician who – agree with him or not – has the courage of his convictions.

With Clinton vs. Trump, the choice is between the same old politics of corruption and greed vs. something even worse.

Democrats scared of losing to Trump might consider supporting the more electable Democrat. And despite multiple polls showing Sanders doing better against Trump than Clinton, the media seems to be convinced that Clinton is more electable. Democrats wary of the rise of Trump may support Clinton out of fear, even if they like Sanders better.

Don’t vote your fear. Vote your hope. Vote your love. Vote your conscience.

The alternative is that come November, we’re left to choose between two troubling candidates – one of them is surrounded by aides who lobbied against the Affordable Care Act, is on record supporting the use of cluster bombs, which mostly kill children, has been involved in coups around the world and promoting perpetual wars of regime change and whose last campaign used racist divisive rhetoric.

The other candidate is Donald Trump.

We can do better.