Dr. Mai Khanh Tran: Slaying Giants

Last Friday, I met up with Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, who’s running for the House of Representatives in California’s 39th Congressional District. Our meetup took place only a few hours after news outlets reported the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston.

IMG_20180518_153013_572.jpg
Chatting in Rowland Heights.

Feminist Asian Dad (F.A.D.): That high school is less than 15 miles from my own.

Dr. Tran: I’m so heartbroken by what’s happening. With all the shootings that we’ve had, I actually thought about not taking my daughter to school today. It’s really sad; when my husband and I were looking for a preschool, we weren’t really thinking about how good the school or curriculum was, but about how safe it was. We wanted to know how many gates and how many barriers there would be on the outside. As a mother and a pediatrician, this breaks my heart so badly. And when is it going to end? I think it’s going to end only when we have people courageous enough to speak up against the NRA’s bullying.

I saw that you posted something online for First Lady Melania Trump this morning.

I wrote her a note saying, “As a mother, to really fight against bullying, you can help us protect all the children in this country and give them the same security that your family and your son have. Be true to your message by standing up to the NRA bullies. How can children be their best when they’re worried about being shot at, or their parents are worried about sending their kids to school?”

One of the girls at Santa Fe High School was interviewed on the news, and she said that she just expected it would one day happen at her school, kind of like it was inevitable.

What a sad statement for a high schooler to have to make.

Santa Fe High School
Again. This time: Santa Fe, Texas. How many more? (Photo: NBC)

What would you do in Congress to take on the NRA and pass legislation to make our schools and neighborhoods safer?

I’ve been a pediatrician for 25 years. During office visits, I talk about gun safety, just like I would talk about child-proofing a house. It’s part of the daily conversations we have with our patients and their families. When I’m in Congress, I will say that gun violence is a public health crisis and an epidemic. We need to approach it the same way as any other epidemic. If we have a measles outbreak, what do we do? We use scientific data, go to the source, and contain the problem. We need to have the same approach to gun violence, and that has not been done. I think when you put it in that language, you change the conversation and take away a lot of the rhetoric about rights. It’s not an attempt to take away the Second Amendment. This is a public health crisis; let’s treat it like that and use our public health resources scientifically.

The gun violence epidemic would seem to include a huge number of suicides, too.

Yes, along with domestic violence. We haven’t presented the gun violence issue in a way that people can understand that this is about their well being and health.

Would you favor an assault weapons ban?

Oh, absolutely. Ban assault weapons and bump stocks. Raise the age limit. Have comprehensive background checks, especially when it comes to mental health. In pediatrics, when we have child abuse cases, we have providers and teachers reporting. We need to have the same when it comes to guns. And we need red flag laws that are federal, not just state.

How does being a mom and a pediatrician inform not only your views on gun reform, but also on other issues?

I’m running for two five year olds. The first is my daughter, who is five and a half. I went through breast cancer twice, so I had to do eight rounds of IVF to have her. She’s the love of my life! I’m running because I want her to feel as American as everyone else. I want her to see a face like hers in a place of power.

Dr. Tran's Mommy Daughter Selfie
Selfie.

I came here as a nine-year-old refugee. The vision of America I had when I first came is so different from the one my daughter is seeing right now. I was part of an airlift of orphans and disabled children out of Vietnam.

As part of Operation Babylift before the fall of Saigon?

Yes, my parents had dropped my siblings and me off at an orphanage. The only thing I remember from that day is that my dad was wearing sunglasses. He’s a former judge, and he’s so proper that he didn’t usually wear sunglasses. I kept looking at him wondering why he was. Then as he was leaving, I saw tears coming down behind the sunglasses; he wore them to hide his tears. My parents didn’t think they would see us again.

After arriving in the U.S., we were carried off the plane by American soldiers. The soldier who carried me represented everything good about this country to me. It had been a long, horrible flight, and I was so scared and felt so lost. And this man came and carried me. That’s the kind of country I remember in my heart, one that’s welcoming and kind, caring for those in need. That’s not the America I know my daughter is seeing. So I’ve got to run for her. I’ve got to.

VIENAMESE REFUGEES
This iconic image shows Vietnamese children looking out the windows of an Operation Babylift airplane. (Photo: AP)

The other five year old is a patient I saw the day after the election in 2016. That morning, I held my own daughter and wept; I didn’t want to get out of bed. But like a lot of parents, I had to. When I walked into my office, all my nurses were weeping. And then one of my first patients was this girl who had a brain tumor. Her mother works at a nail salon and doesn’t get health insurance from her employer. But she had just gotten insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, right before her daughter was diagnosed. I looked at this mom, and we just burst into tears. We cried like you wouldn’t believe. I said, “We’ve got to start fighting.” As a pediatrician, I see on the front lines every day the impact on families of not having health care.

I also cried the morning after the election.

I’ve never wept like that. It’s deep and makes no sound.

On Election Day, my 85-year-old mom, my daughter, and I got dressed up and took pictures because my mom was going to vote for her first female president. We thought my four year old would have, for her first time, a female president.

The election was brutal.

You announced your candidacy when it was still thought that any Democrat would have to take on Ed Royce.

People asked me, “Do you want to commit ‘political suicide’?”

He’s the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

One of the most powerful incumbents.

Then he surprised everyone and announced that he was done after 25 years in office. Now, you’re going up against 16 other candidates.

A lot of people ask me why I think I can do this. I’m a fighter! I came over here as part of the airlift and got fostered out to a family –

And after your parents made it here, y’all had to do some desperate things to make ends meet.

We were in rural Oregon, so we picked berries beside other migrant families.

Dr. Tran Harvard
With her proud dad at Harvard.

And you had other rather interesting jobs to pay the bills, all the way into college.

I was actually a security guard! And I cleaned the bathrooms in the athletes’ dorm at Harvard; they were the dirtiest places! The men there also threw away a lot of stuff. I remember picking up a lamp that they had thrown out, and fixing it, and putting it in my room. There was also a cassette player I got from there. Whatever they threw out, I would try to salvage and make the most of it. So I worked as a security guard and cleaned dorms; I also read for blind people.

That’s what we do when we’re given the opportunity. My story isn’t really anything different from what a lot of refugees and immigrants, like those in Little Saigon, have to go through. But I was grateful for the opportunity, and I worked hard. I’m a fighter.

I also fought cancer twice, and I fought for my daughter, going through those eight rounds of IVF. I don’t think most men would survive the pain of all the injections and other procedures!

No one has to convince me that women have a higher tolerance for pain than men do.

But I still get that question when I go out and knock on doors: “Why do you think you can get to Congress?”

I’ll bet that’s partly because folks aren’t used to seeing an Asian woman in Congress. They don’t know about Patsy Mink and other fierce women like her.

When people told me running would be “political suicide,” I said, “Maybe it will take a little lady to slay the giant.” It’s time that we change the narrative and bring a different perspective. You can do anything with the heart and steel in you; it’s not about being flashy or your size.

Here’s a visual: I can see Mother Teresa slaying a giant. That’s the message I want my daughter to have, and what I want the community to understand. We can get things done by compassion and strength.

Dr. Tran with Chloe
Actress and activist Chloe Bennet confesses her surprise that Dr. Tran worked as a security guard to pay the bills at Harvard, in this still from their recent interview for (RUN).

The president has made it clear that he sees not only undocumented folks as a problem for our country, but legal immigrants, too, because he wants to dramatically cut legal immigration. If you could, what would you say to him about the value of immigrants?

A lot! But I’d say, “I’ll be forever grateful for this country, for the people who gave me a secure place to live, and for all the opportunities. Stop vilifying us! Give immigrants a helpful hand, and you’ll have a nation that’s grateful to you.”

And DACA recipients, those who were brought here with no control of their own, should be given their documents. We’ve invested so much into them, and they don’t know life anywhere else. I wouldn’t know what to do if I had to go back to Vietnam right now, either!

For family reunification that so many of us have benefited from, let’s expedite the legal immigration process, the visa application process, and the asylum seeker process. And about separating families, I heard about that asylum seeker who was separated from her five year old, with the little girl going halfway across the country to stay in a detention center. I have to ask, “How is that humane?” Let’s have comprehensive immigration reform that’s truly humane.

The announcement that the Trump Administration will put in jail every parent who comes into the U.S. illegally, sending each kid away, makes me think of what you went through after the fall of Saigon. You didn’t know for months whether you’d see your parents, ever again. These kids don’t either.

It’s so traumatic to a child. Why do they have to do that? Why is that even part of the conversation, separating families?

Dr. Tran Filing
Three generations of Americans.

If I could switch gears a bit – you’ve talked before about your husband’s support.

When I went and filed for my congressional race, I had my mom and daughter with me. I put up my hand and did the swearing in, and I shared that picture on International Women’s Day. But that night I looked at it and thought, “Where is my husband?” I felt really bad that the picture just had my mom, my daughter, and me! So I went back and found a picture of my husband at the Women’s March, carrying a banner that said, “Elect More Women.” I posted that online and wrote that the other picture wouldn’t even be possible without my husband, who not only marched, but he’s cleaned, and cooked, and looked after my five year old while I’ve been campaigning. It’s not just the moms and grandmothers who are getting our daughters to believe and find strength in themselves, but it’s all the strong and supportive men who are helping us to advance the message that boys and girls are all capable.

Being a feminist man is all about being an ally and boosting the signal for women.

I give my husband so much credit. And I want to make sure that my daughter understands that, too. It’s not that we meant to leave Daddy out of the picture, but his support is genuine. It’s hard to teach daughters to want partners like that. Our society still puts so much emphasis, like when I was growing up, on finding a partner with achievements, success, money, and power.

Dr. Tran Fourth of July
Celebrating the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” just like their shirts say.

I know you have to go, but I wanted to close by thanking you for running. I know you’re running in part for your daughter; I feel like you’re running for my daughters, too. Like you, I really want my girls to see faces like their own in office.

It’s also so clear to me that if the voters of this district want to send a message that they reject Trumpism, they’ll vote for you. Your life story is a repudiation of his policies and rhetoric – as a refugee and immigrant, as someone who works in health care and who’s had to fight insurance companies for your own treatment, as an award-winning small business owner, as a woman, as a person of color. Thank you for running!

Oh, thank you! That means a lot.

For more on Dr. Tran’s life, achievements, and what she’ll do as the California 39th’s representative, visit her campaign website at DocTran2018.com. You can also connect with her on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to vote on Tuesday, June 5!

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

#RepresentationMatters for My Daughters – and Me

I’m not joking: I feel afraid. Of what, I don’t yet know.

I’ve only just been watching some of cultural savant Will Yu’s magical videos for #SeeAsAmStar. If you haven’t yet seen them on social media, they’re part of his hashtag initiative to help movie lovers envision legit Asian American leading actors and actresses in really prominent film roles. Will does this by taking short movie clips and replacing a lead character’s face in each with either John Cho’s, Constance Wu’s, Arden Cho’s, or Steve Yeun’s face. It’s quite seamless visually, and much more affecting than I anticipated, at least for me.

SeeAsAmStar Collage
Katniss, Major, and Silver Linings’ Tiffany like you’ve never seen them before. (Images: Will Yu)

I’d actually describe it as jarring, in a good way. Seeing Arden Cho as Katniss Everdeen, or Constance Wu as Major in Ghost in the Shell, or Cho in Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-winning role in Silver Linings Playbook, is startling. I think it throws me because I’m not expecting an Asian American in such a prominent role. Hollywood’s recent slight uptick in racially diverse characters has hardly dented my subconscious expectation, formed over 46-plus years of media consumption, that the leading characters in big shows will still be white.

I experienced a similar jolt when watching the super fun trailer for this summer’s Crazy Rich Asians. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen a massive movie production with numerous characters that almost all look like me (an Asian American) and sound like me (an English speaker), without it being a martial arts thing. It was fantastic to take in! And simultaneously, it felt truly weird to behold.

But the #SeeAsAmStar video that most shook me was the one where Will makes it look like John Cho is Captain America, preparing to crash his plane while saying a final farewell to Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter:

Watching that bit of Will’s video wizardry made me think of one of his previous diversity campaigns, #StarringJohnCho. That thought, in turn, brought to mind times John Cho played a romantic lead opposite a white actress – for example, in the ABC show Selfie (opposite Karen Gillan, image at top) and in last year’s indie film Columbus (opposite Haley Lu Richardson).

Starring John Cho Crop
#StarringJohnCho. (Images: Will Yu)

Dear reader, are you ready for a psychoanalytic trip through my neural pathways?

Here’s why these things connect for me.

As a teen, I was mostly attracted to Asian American girls; as a young adult, I was mostly drawn to Asian American women. In fact, I married one; my wife and I have now been happily together for over 21 years.

But the times as a teen that I was attracted to white girls were always sad experiences for me. It’s not that they broke my heart, but that I never even tried to ask them out. Some of that grew out of my own insecurity and teenage awkwardness. But some of it, I truly believe, was influenced by portrayals of Asian American men I’d grown up seeing on TV and in movies.

Asian American dudes were universally depicted as nerds – obsessive about good grades, brainiacs with computers, and just not very cool. They were always, if not the butt of jokes, relegated to being the sidekicks of the cool white protagonists – think Sulu on Star Trek and Quincy’s assistant on Quincy, M.E. (See, I can’t even remember his name.) And they never got the girl, much less one who was white.

Quincy and Sam
From Quincy, M.E., which most of you have never heard of. It was sorta like the CSI of the late 1970s, with Jack Klugman (white guy) as a medical examiner and Robert Ito (Asian guy) as his assistant. (Image: Universal)

Combine this with my feeling highly uncool all the time and my nagging suspicion that I couldn’t really do much beyond academics anyway. Then throw on top of all that the reality of 1980s Texas, where there were, relative to today, very few dating or married couples consisting of an Asian American male and a white female. I only knew of one, an older married couple at my church. I never knew any such dating couples until after I’d gone to college.

Now, I never thought consciously, “I don’t have a chance with __________” (insert name of cute and classy white girl), but all of the above came together in my psyche so that I never even tried. I just assumed that I didn’t have what it took.

Looking back, that was more painful than I realized. Perhaps that’s why seeing John Cho opposite these white actresses takes me back to those memories.

Earlier, I said I feel afraid, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I feel exposed.

You see, I talk a lot about diverse representation in media, particularly of strong female characters. That’s because I want my young daughters to feel confident, strong, and capable as Asian American girls growing up in what’s still, essentially, a man’s world, and a white man’s world at that. I even frequently add #RepresentationMatters to tweets or posts because I’m thinking about my daughters. One example:

But suddenly, a question slices through my I-don’t-have-a-problem-with-this-anymore veneer: Don’t I myself also need stories with Asian American male leads, even at my age?

And in the blink of an eye, I’m exposed! I say that representation matters for my girls and other kids as they grow up. But truly, representation still matters for me, too, even at the age of 46.

It no longer has to do with crushing on white gals and thinking that I’m not good enough for them. It’s about my ongoing self-doubt about my ability to make it in a white man’s world. I myself still need to see Asian American male protagonists doing cool, and even heroic, things to encourage me to keep going and trying my best at whatever it is that I do.

At first, that sounds foolish, even to me. Shouldn’t I be past all that? But considering all the years of accumulated microaggressions with occasional incidents of overt racism, beginning in a childhood devoid of heroic characters who looked and sounded like me, and it makes sense. Of course I’m going to deal with feelings of inadequacy about succeeding in a white man’s world.

Jeremy Toronto
F … T … W!!! (Image: TSN)

Why else did I cheer so hard for Jeremy Lin when he first went nuts with the New York Knicks back in 2012? Why did I literally cry after he nailed the three at the end of the game in Toronto? Why have I checked box score after box score in the years since then, even when he wasn’t playing for my beloved Houston Rockets, to see how he’s doing?

Because I haven’t just been rooting for Jeremy. I’ve been rooting for me. Jeremy’s success in a space where Asian American men are outliers, where there are no shortage of folks looking at him and questioning whether he’s worthy of being there, inspires me.

As does #StarringJohnCho and now #SeeAsAmStar.

So I have two messages as I conclude:

First, Will Yu, my friend, bravo! Thank you for the work you’ve been doing.

And second, for storytellers and other creators who develop and promote diverse lead characters, thank you for believing that #RepresentationMatters! Please keep up the good work.

Because you’re not just inspiring my daughters.

You’re also healing me.

Why Does America Still Struggle with Racism?

It will not surprise regular readers of this blog that I believe racism is one of the core dysfunctions gutting American society. It also won’t shock the world that I’m convinced American racism is directly tied to the inability of Christians, our nation’s largest religious group by far, to deal with their history of, and their ongoing participation in, forms of racial oppression.

Such forms have sometimes been overt. For example:

  • Forced conversions of indigenous peoples to Christianity by European invaders
  • Enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans
  • Ethnic cleansing of Native nations from their homelands
  • The founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to preserve slavery
  • Genocides of Native tribes
  • Ban on Chinese travel to the U.S.
  • Native boarding schools
  • Jim Crow laws
  • Japanese American incarceration
  • Government-imposed sterilizations and experiments on people of color
  • Segregation
Boarding Schools
Native American girls pray at the Phoenix Indian School, June 1900. Over 200,000 Native children, many forcibly taken from their families, “attended” Indian boarding schools, which were mostly contracted by the U.S. and Canadian governments to Christian denominations and organizations. Expressions of Native culture, dress, diet, language, and religion were banned; child abuse of all kinds was rampant. An unknown number of children died. The boarding school experience fits the United Nations definition of genocide. (Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior)

At other times, the forms are masked by institutions or by rule-of-law rhetoric. For instance:

  • Racial profiling
  • Excessive force disproportionately used against African American men
  • Excessive minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
  • Neglect of the health and environmental concerns of people of color
  • Propagation of the “welfare queen” myth
  • Cruel immigration “enforcement” actions
  • Mass deportations of previously protected refugees
  • The admitted Muslim ban
  • A refusal to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism
  • The latest of many attempts to strip away Native sovereignty
Syrian Refugees
In one of the largest refugee movements in recorded history, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country’s civil war, with another 6.1 million internally displaced. Half of these millions are children. So far in 2018, the U.S. has accepted 11 Syrian refugees. (Photo: National Geographic)

Millions of Christians through our nation’s history have been complicit in these horrible deeds, whether by active means or by silent shrugs. And until modern American Christians find a way to resolve the massive racial rifts among themselves, America as a whole will not.

I say this not out of a sense of American Christian exceptionalism. Rather, it’s because of the sheer numbers of American Christians and their influence on American society, both for better and worse. America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

Christian Racism
Some context for the first two photos in this post. American Christians have been complicit in many racist deeds, whether by active means or silent shrugs. (Click here for more details about some of these images.)

Last week, an invitation-only group of fifty evangelical leaders gathered at Wheaton College near Chicago to talk about the negative effects of hard-right political influence on the evangelical movement. Matters of race came up, as Katelyn Beaty reported yesterday for The New Yorker:

“Something of a generational gap seemed to emerge among the attendees over the question of whether the Church should seek to rise above contentious political questions or address them head on. With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women. They contended that white evangelical churches and organizations had for decades supported a political agenda that deemed unborn lives more sacred than living black lives.”

American Church
America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

It doesn’t appear that any consensus was forged on race, though it is encouraging that a handful of Christian leaders have begun talking about it across racial, gender, and generational lines. But what happens from here is unclear.

What is clear is that what ails American Christians is much bigger than Donald Trump, though it cannot be fully discussed without addressing his highly influential role in the current situation. He has frequently denigrated people of color, particularly those born in another country, and has bent over backwards to not criticize white supremacists. He often has stoked Americans’ fears of foreigners with weapons of mass destruction and said very little about angry white men who have taken dozens of lives with their own legally purchased weapons of mass destruction. His policies have uplifted the wealthy at the expense of the poor, disproportionately impacting minorities. And few white evangelical leaders have boldly called him out on these.

Complicity abounds.

Would that more American Christian leaders, especially those who are white, spoke truth to power like the prophet Nathan of Old Testament times! When confronting King David for his rape and murderous cover up, he declared, “Thou art the man!”

Nathan and David
Thou Art the Man by Peter F. Rothermel, 1884. (Photo: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Yet I have to remind myself sometimes, Trump is truly not the enemy. For us American Christians, our true enemy is found deep within our history and our present.

It is our racism, both active and passive.

It is us.

Barbara Bush and the End We All Face

Update: About a day after I posted this piece, Barbara Bush passed away. I pray for comfort for those close to her.

It’s truly sad news: former First Lady and longtime Houstonian Barbara Bush, surely one of the quickest wits to ever grace the White House, has decided to forego further medical efforts to cure the illnesses that will end her life. She is 92 years old.

Many of you don’t remember her, given that she last was First Lady 25 years ago. So I’d like to share my own Barbara Bush story.

It takes place in August 1992 at the Republican National Convention in Houston, where I served as a volunteer. Yes, I was a strong Republican in those days, but it was a much, much different party back then. (In fact, 55 percent of all Asian Americans casting ballots in that November’s presidential election voted for Barbara’s husband, incumbent President George H. W. Bush, to win a second term. He was defeated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with independent Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot playing the part of spoiler.)

Me minus 25 years.

My morning shift mostly involved checking the passes of politicos, journalists, and vendors maneuvering through the hallways and tunnels leading to the floor of the Astrodome. But at one point, the Secret Service instructed me and a couple of my fellow volunteers to move back a good 100 feet from our post. The reason? Barbara Bush’s motorcade was approaching! I caught just a glimpse of the long black sedan as it pulled up slowly into the stadium.

Shortly afterward, we were allowed to resume our previous positions. Over the course of the morning, noted journalists like Peter Jennings (whose autograph I got) and Cokie Roberts (whose signature I didn’t get because I blanked on her name) passed through our checkpoint, which made for its own bit of excitement. Then the Secret Service informed us we had to move back again because Barbara Bush was about to walk down the main hallway closest to our location.

We volunteers chatted among ourselves about how the famously independent-spirited First Lady might have chafed at the amount of security precautions taken on her behalf. And then, hearing a commotion, we looked into the hallway and saw a golf cart zip by. It was Barbara Bush herself at the wheel, with nary a Secret Service agent in sight.

She wasn’t about to let herself be caged! It was truly delightful to witness.

I will miss seeing her sitting behind home plate at Houston Astros games. I’ll miss hearing her poke wicked fun at her famous sons, former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The end of this life comes for us all, regardless of how distinguished or delightful our lives have been.

Now in my mid-forties, I’ve thought a lot about my own mortality over the last several years, realizing I probably have fewer years remaining than I’ve already lived. Recently, when getting together with high school friends I hadn’t seen in nearly three decades, I confessed that it took two or three years just to get over the shock of turning 40.

Creek Mini-Reunion
With dear friends Marnie, Huy, and Lorie in Orlando, where I was speaking at a conference.

One of the resources that has spoken the most helpfully to me in my midlife angst is the British television show Doctor Who. Seriously.

In the U.S., you’re truly a geek if you watch Doctor Who. (It’s fairly popular in the U.K. but still somewhat obscure on our side of the, shall we say, Pond.) It’s a science fiction franchise that first launched in 1963, ceased production in the 1990s, then resumed in 2005. Since its restart, the BBC America channel has made new seasons accessible to audiences here; I’ve been watching the last several on Amazon Prime.

The show is not actually new to me. When I was a teenager, I occasionally watched syndicated episodes that ran on PBS on Saturday afternoons or evenings. But jumping back into it over the last several months, I’ve really been struck by all the good-byes that are part of the story line. Every other season, it seems that one major character dies or otherwise disappears from the narrative.

That’s partly a function of the main character, The Doctor, a time-and-space-traveling alien who fights injustice and oppression throughout the universe. He is practically immortal; whenever he dies, his body “regenerates” into a new one (though the number of times this can happen is finite). A new actor then takes the role of The Doctor, giving the character a completely different look and a significantly different personality. Regeneration episodes usually produce tears from the characters and often from the viewing audience, too.

Dr Who Goodbyes with Quote
Some of Doctor Who‘s tearful good-byes.

The good-byes are also frequent because The Doctor almost always travels with a buddy or two. These are the “companions”; they’re usually human, and always, before long, they become very close friends with The Doctor. But because they accompany The Doctor into new dangers in each episode, they also don’t survive for more than two or three seasons.

When I first began watching the renewed series, I thought, “Why do so many people love this show with all of its tear-jerking farewells? Life is hard enough as it is; I don’t need any fictional sadness to make it harder.” But then I noticed that one of the repeated plot devices is the ability of The Doctor’s race of beings, the Time Lords, to erase selected memories of others. Whenever this happens in the story line, it’s to save someone’s life or to spare someone great suffering. It’s definitely tragic, and viewers get the sense that such a fate may actually be worse than death.

In one dramatic example, The Doctor tells his dear companion Clara, who has been with him on numerous adventures, that he needs to wipe her memories of him, for her own protection. She won’t have it – at all.

The Doctor and Clara. (BBC)

DOCTOR: When you wake up, you will have forgotten me. You’ll have forgotten we ever even met.
CLARA: And why would I want that?
DOCTOR: Because it’s the only way. That stuff in your head, the image of me, they could use it to find you.

(Moments later)

DOCTOR: I’m trying to keep you safe.
CLARA: Why? Nobody’s ever safe. I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.

The idea is this: as terrible as it is to lose a loved one, and as painful as it is for people who care about each other to be separated by death, not ever knowing them would be far worse.

This theme appears in the show at other times, when a time traveling character’s actions threaten to change history so that another character is never born. Again, Doctor Who reminds me: losing a loved one is a horrible experience, yet it would be even worse if we’d never known that loved one in the first place.

Believe it or not, this has actually brought comfort to my heart. It helps me to take a small step toward accepting there will be sorrow when I inevitably die, but a greater sorrow would be to fail to live boldly and love extravagantly my wife, my daughters, and everyone else God brings into my world.

Yes, I do believe in heaven and in the reunion of loved ones that awaits there. But I’ll be doing myself and others a disservice if I fail to plunge into life fully because I’m stuck worrying about how much of it remains.

An American beloved by family and nation. (NBC)

Barbara Bush, by all accounts, is facing the conclusion of her earthly life with dignity and courage, having come to terms with the approaching end, choosing to embrace life fully in her last days. I hope that by God’s grace, I’ll do the same for however long I have on this side of eternity, choosing to love and receive love with gusto, treasuring the preciousness of life and milking it for all it’s worth.

In the Name of the Alma Mater

Based on what I’ve heard in conversations, and on what I’ve seen on news sites and social media, the grown-ups of America have been really surprised and super-impressed by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That’s the Parkland, Florida, school that experienced 17 lives lost, dozens of others injured, and countless others traumatized due to one man’s violence on Valentine’s Day. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers (of whom I’m one), and Millennials have all marveled at the courage, eloquence, savvy, and passion demonstrated by the Gen Z teens who, having seen their friends and teachers killed in front of their own eyes, are taking the fight for gun reform to politicians beholden to the National Rifle Association – and even to the gun lobby itself.

A variety of factors have been raised in public discourse to explain the skill and sophistication of these teenagers. But there’s one aspect of these teen leaders’ backgrounds that has mostly gone unnoticed nationally, and that has to do with the namesake of their school: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Now, I do not know how well-versed MSD High School students are, as a whole, in the details of Ms. Douglas’ life story. But at least a few of the student leaders know about her. One of them, junior class president Jaclyn Corin, tweeted this quote from Ms. Douglas:

Apparently, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ name is legendary in conservation and wildlife advocacy circles, particularly for her years of activism in defense of the Everglades. Her contributions were so noteworthy that President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few years before her death at the age of 108; one of her homes was even designated a National Historic Site a few years ago. Before either of those honors, she helped to inspire Lisa Simpson’s Thanksgiving centerpiece (featuring likenesses of Ms. Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and Georgia O’Keeffe):

Lisa Simpson MSD
From The Simpsons episode “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”

But my first exposure to Ms. Douglas’ story came through one of the many women-in-STEM books that my wife and I have checked out for our daughters from the library. It’s a best-selling book we first brought home several months ago entitled Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, beautifully created by Kansas City-based designer and illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky.

Women in Science

The book features profiles of women in STEM fields (that’s Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) both well known (e.g., Marie Curie, Grace Hopper, Jane Goodall, and Mae Jemison) and obscure, at least to most Americans (e.g., Wang Zhenyi, who lived in the 18th century, Chien-shiung Wu, Valentina Tereshkova, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard). Each of the 50 STEM pioneers has her own beautiful full-page illustration, as the one for Marjory Stoneman Douglas demonstrates:

Women in Science - MSD Picture

Opposite each of the 50 large illustrations is a page that tells the story of that particular scientist in considerable detail. These pages feature smaller, sometimes whimsical illustrations; for example, here’s the story page for Ms. Douglas:

Women in Science - MSD Text
My apologies for the out-of-focus photo; it looked okay in-camera! I wasn’t able to retake it, because we had already returned it to the library.

Ms. Douglas, as we might say these days, persisted and resisted through her unceasing advocacy, inspiring both her contemporaries and now a new generation. I highly recommend Rachel Ignotofsky’s book, so Marjory Stoneman Douglas and 49 other trail blazing women can inspire you and the kids in your life, too!

And to keep up with the activism of the MSD High School students and staff, I’ve created a public Twitter list with over 100 of their accounts. They’ve called us to action, in the spirit of Marjory Stoneman Douglas; let’s support their efforts!

Going Back to School with CARE

Hi friends! It’s been way too long since we last met on these pages. I’ve very much been wanting to write, but my regular routine has changed considerably since my last post in early December. The biggest difference between then and now? I’ve gone back to school!

Well, not in the usual sense of going “back to school.” I’m not working on another degree. Rather, I’m working for a school, the University of California, Irvine, to be specific! I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to get back into anti-violence work, something I’ve longed to do ever since I had to step away from my role with Man Up Campaign a couple of years ago. UC Irvine has hired me, on an interim basis, to serve in its Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) office as the school’s Violence Prevention Coordinator! That means I’ll be helping to lead the university’s efforts to educate and train members of its community in recognizing and stopping gender-based violence, including dating and domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking, and other forms of intimate partner violence. I’m excited to have this chance!

CARE Staff (Christmas 2017) - Cropped
My colleagues!

My appointment is a temporary one, as I just mentioned, while UC Irvine looks for a permanent Violence Prevention Coordinator. But I hope I’ll prove worthy of the long-term position, which I’ve already applied for.

As for the work itself, so far, it’s going well. There’s still a lot for me to learn as I get up to speed on policies and procedures, but working alongside my colleagues and connecting with the students has been truly delightful.

And hopefully, as I get settled into my new routine, I’ll be able to get back into the regular rhythm of posting on this site! Take CARE until then!

O Brothers and Sisters, Where Art Thou?

Little Boy with Bible
Back when “King James” had nothing to do with LeBron James.

Beginnings

I still have my very first Bible. I was five years old when it first overwhelmed my small hands – a heavy, black hardcover edition of the King James Version with “Holy Bible” stamped in golden, old English lettering on the front.

I still remember the first verse I ever learned using that Bible. My teacher at the fundamentalist Baptist school I attended underlined it with a red felt pen, as she did for all the students in our first grade class. In what we’d now call an eight point serif font, that verse spoke these words in black and white: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1.1).

I don’t use that Bible anymore; I haven’t since junior high in the early 1980s. Even during my twelve-plus years as a church minister, I favored modern translations, meaning King James either gathered dust on my office shelf or slumbered with other religious tomes in a storage box.

But I can’t bring myself to just give it away. That Bible represents the first baby waddles of almost my entire lifetime following in the path of Jesus Christ. It also reminds me that the white Southerners who ran my Baptist school, in a working-class part of oil-boom Houston, were the first to teach me what Christians call the gospel. That’s the “good news” about a God who loved us so much that he sent Jesus, the faultless One, to willingly endure enhanced interrogation, skin-shredding torture, and an unjust, grisly execution – all so we wouldn’t have to.

Heavy Baggage

Tragically, I also absorbed from these fundamentalists a plethora of self-righteous and judgmental teachings, massive errors of biblical interpretation which sounded perfectly legit to my young mind and faith at the time. The toxicity consumed me from within as I became a harsh judge not only of others, but also of myself. Emotional and spiritual anguish came to dominate my waking hours, and did so for years.

Boy on a Jungle Gym
My fundamentalist school gave me some good … and a lot of bad.

Over the last decade, deep personal archaeology guided by a skilled and caring therapist, supported by my wife and a small circle of friends to whom I can tell anything, has been vital in my still-ongoing recovery from fundamentalism.

But though my first Bible teachers saddled me with a ton of theological and psychological baggage, I am still thankful that they introduced me to Jesus. That much they got right, these Southern, white evangelical Christians who distrusted government and universities; looked with suspicion upon any scientific theory that measured time in millions of years; abstained from profanity, pop music, drinking, and dancing; and cherished both Robert E. Lee and conspiracy theories about the end of the world.

The Descendants

Though many of those teachers have passed on, I recognize them in today’s Religious Right. That’s the millions of evangelicals, overwhelmingly white, who intensely support very conservative politicians and causes, believing that doing so returns America to its Christian roots. Such a spiritual revival, they say, spares the nation from God’s judgment for its immorality and brings economic blessings and security. Their words and actions make them seem descended from my Baptist school teachers, and not in a good way.

Nothing grieves me more right now. It both shatters my heart and infuriates me that so many politically conservative white evangelicals, who were first to tell me about Jesus, have made his “good news” look, to a watching world, like anything but. Not since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s have I witnessed so many people who aren’t Christians express their shock at the actions of those who profess to be.

Most of this, of course, has come in reaction to white evangelical support for Donald Trump; 81 percent of white evangelicals casting ballots in the last election voted for him. Even now, 66 percent of them still believe he’s been a good president.

Thank You Lord Jesus for President Trump
Without white evangelical enthusiasm, Trump could not have won. (Photo: HuffPost)

Particularly galling have been the defenses of Trump and his policies from some of their most prominent leaders, including Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Pat Robertson. (This follows their rape culture-promoting comments on Trump’s behalf after his sexually violent history became a major campaign issue.) Their enthusiasm seems undiminished, notwithstanding the strong public consensus, expressed in historically low approval ratings, that he’s been ineffective, dishonest, reckless, and indifferent to the needs of regular people.

More troubling, their unwavering support seems terribly hypocritical, in view of the numerous ways Trump and his actions as president have opposed basic Christian principles of love and compassion, especially toward people who are already suffering.

Heavy Damage

By supporting him so strongly, these and other evangelical Trump enthusiasts, ranging from those with prominent pulpits to the average Joe and Jane in the pews, have effectively tied many Americans’ perception of Christianity to Trump’s behavior. And again, not in a good way.

Don’t believe me? Check out this small sampling of op-ed titles:

“White Evangelicals Are Why America Can’t Have Nice Things” (HuffPost, June 13, 2017)

“Trump’s Pious and Dangerous Enablers” (The New York Times, July 14, 2017)

“Does God Believe in Trump? White Evangelicals Are Sticking with Their ‘Prince of Lies’” (Newsweek, Oct. 5, 2017)

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard so many comments that reflect our current reality – that evangelical Trump enthusiasts have made Christianity look terrible, unrecognizable to many who aren’t Christians, as well as to some of us who are.

And what, then, of the gospel? The gospel, the good news about Jesus that these evangelicals would claim is the most important message in human history, gets completely lost.

White Evangelicals Support Trump, Damage Gospel
I wish it were not so, but it’s so painfully obvious.

To be perfectly clear: I truly believe that white evangelical support for Trump has seriously damaged the cause of the gospel. The Religious Right is alienating far more people – “causing them to stumble,” to use Jesus’ language – than it is attracting, all in pursuit of political goals.

A number of us Christian public commentators said that this would happen if Trump were elected with a high level of white evangelical support. One of the most prominent was Andy Crouch, longtime executive editor of Christianity Today. One month before the election, he wrote:

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

Sadly, Crouch’s words are ringing more true by the day.

Along Came a Senator

And we haven’t even mentioned the harm done to the gospel endeavor by the strong white evangelical support for Senate candidate Roy Moore. That has come despite several credible, carefully vetted accounts of his sexual abuse and harassment of women as young as age 14. 60 percent of likely-to-vote evangelicals in Alabama say they still strongly support him. 67 percent still believe he’s a man of “strong moral character.”

Roy Moore at Church
Moore speaks at Angel Grove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Alabama. (Photo: The Anniston Star)

Appallingly, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, an evangelical Christian, believes that Moore’s accusers are telling the truth – but will still vote for him.

But lest we think it’s just folks in Alabama, the Religious Right’s unofficial national spokesmen have also weighed in. Jerry Falwell, Jr. declared his belief that Moore is the one telling the truth. Longtime Christian radio host and author James Dobson has not withdrawn his endorsement. And then there’s Franklin Graham:

Graham misses the fact that some of the most scathing denunciations of Moore’s candidacy have come from Alabamians. Also, at least 18 prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and even Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby have called on Moore to withdraw from the race. (And I don’t know what Graham thinks about child sexual abuse, but I submit that there’s nothing more evil than that.)

Many strong denunciations have also come from white evangelicals who opposed Trump last year, particularly among evangelical women. I know many such followers of Jesus, and I’m proud of them for continuing to speak out. But that doesn’t keep the Religious Right’s perverse backing of Moore from reinforcing the already grotesque image that many people have of the Christian faith.

To be honest, if I weren’t already a Christian, I would perceive Christianity that way, too.

Power to the (Wrong) People

Standing with Moore also gives a sense of power to sexual predators and child molesters. I highly doubt there are many evangelical Moore enthusiasts who have considered this.

It is a terrible fact of life that there’s no place on Earth where abusers and assaulters won’t go to carry out their evil acts, and that includes houses of worship. I have known a number of abuse survivors who were victimized by people they knew from their churches. I have heard countless other such stories; often, the perpetrators were trusted family friends and even church leaders.

Many a church has a predator in its midst. My friend Boz Tchividjian, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an organization called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), says that, for all the problems the Catholic Church has had with abuse, “More children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church.” That says to me that the presence of abusers is truly widespread.

And what are these sexual predators, sitting in churches where Roy Moore is being defended as a godly man, thinking? They’re feeling emboldened, seeing and hearing exactly what they’ll need to say and do to get people to support them, should their own abusive acts ever come to light.

And what are abuse victims, sitting in these same churches, thinking? If they have yet to come forward to talk about what’s happened to them, they are now even more frightened of doing so; it would be an added trauma to tell their story, only to find people believe their victimizer rather than them. Those who have already told others about their assaults will likely feel re-traumatized.

Support Moore, Embolden Predators
Another consequence of supporting Moore’s candidacy.

Further, when students are sexually assaulted at Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell, Jr. is president, what are they to think about coming forward? Between 2007 and 2016, 42 sexual assaults were reported at the school’s main campus. If Liberty’s incidents of collegiate sexual violence are under-reported at the rate of the national average (one out of five), it’s reasonable to assume that over 200 sexual assaults took place at Liberty during that 10-year period. Falwell’s support of Moore, on top of his vocal defense of Trump last year against charges of sexual misconduct by a number of women that grew to 22, can only serve to discourage more victims from coming forward and getting the help they need.

The Religious Right’s strong support for Trump and now Moore are hurting a ton of people.

Man of Constant Sorrow

Yes, I am grateful to politically conservative white evangelicals for introducing me to God and the gospel many years ago. Yet their descendants now weigh my heart down with great sadness for all the damage they are doing. Sometimes, it very much feels to me like I’m reading from a totally different Bible than they are. And their Jesus? Unrecognizable to me. I wish it were not so.

Bible
Last I checked, our Bibles were identical. Why doesn’t it feel like it?

Andy Crouch also wrote last year (emphasis mine):

There is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Dear brothers and sisters in the Religious Right, in love I plead with you to turn away (in biblical language, repent) from depending on men like Trump and Moore. Repentance is the right thing to do, but I ask you to also do it for the sake of sexual abuse and assault survivors, and so that predators are not emboldened in committing their heinous acts. Do it, too, for the sake of the gospel, and so that you don’t continue to cause many to stumble.  

Please.