Category Archives: Human Kindness

Misunderstandings about Your Religion? (Part 1)

Religion is a man-made construct. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” In our quest to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we turn to others who are like-minded, decide together what we believe, and find strength and community among kindred spirits.

Faith and spirituality spring from within the human soul. In our quest to connect with the unseen Spirit that inhabits us all, we cling to what we believe. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we attack the validity of the beliefs of those who see God through a different human lens. And even in our best moments we are often confused by why anyone would believe what others believe.

Today’s post is the first in a series that will explore what I think people misunderstand about the religion I’ve chosen to help me understand my own spirituality, my own place in the universe. I don’t pretend to be a theologian. These posts will simply offer my own thoughts and my own understanding as I’ve come to see God through Christianity—and, in particular, through Presbyterianism.

I invite you to respond—to help me understand what I might not about your own religious community and practices.

Part One: “Don’t they believe in predestination?”

Beckley Pres OrganThis is a question I’ve come to expect from other Christians. It is the first question I was asked after I began attending services at a Presbyterian church because I was attracted by the beautiful old brick building and the kindness of the pastor, a man whose child I taught.

Wounded by a religious community in which men wielded power and women were forbidden from speaking in services, I found the rituals and the quiet time to think in my new church comforting. Continue reading Misunderstandings about Your Religion? (Part 1)

Know a Teen Who’s Struggling?


After hearing a number of stories this week about teenagers and young adults who are struggling with what it means to live in a world that isn’t always kind to them, I’m posting again a blog from the winter of 2013. Please share it with a young person who feels out of place in the world, and please comment to add your own stories.

9th Grade

“How are you doing?” I asked a teenager this week.

In a moment of unhesitating honesty, she responded, “Well, everyone at school thinks I’m a freak.”  And then she paused.  “But I guess I’m okay.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment—thinking about how many times a day we casually ask about each other’s well-being.  When we ask that question, “How are you doing?” we expect to be answered in a sound bite response:  “Fine. How are you?”  The niceties are out of the way, and we can get on with our busy days.  Sometimes we get the opposite extreme of the sound bite—the lengthy complaint—the one that stops us in our busy tracks and requires us to listen and pretend empathy for a litany of maladies that makes us wish we hadn’t asked.

Continue reading Know a Teen Who’s Struggling?

A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Poor Kids

Today’s Washington Post reports that a majority, a whopping 51%, of our nation’s public school students now qualify for free and reduced meals. This does not, of course, include those children whose families live just enough above the poverty line not to qualify for government assistance.

I was one of those children in the second category. Continue reading A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Who Gets Addicted to Heroin?

Sibs--not used yet

Look at that face. It is the picture I see in my head when I think of my baby brother. It’s odd that I have a harder time picturing his face now—the man I hardly recognize as that child. For me, that sweet little boy, holding a puppy, and that serious little blonde boy on the right are the embodiment of the issues we face as Americans. They are my brothers—and the souls who remind me that behind all the political posturing are the very human faces of people in need.

I know this is not an unfamiliar story. But many of us don’t talk about the hurting and the broken ones in our families. I didn’t. For a long time I was embarrassed to admit to all the normal and successful people around me that I grew up in a family that society would have labeled “dysfunctional” had they known the truth of my childhood. My colleagues knew that I had worked my way through college, but for a long time none of them knew that my youngest siblings didn’t fare as well.

And then a strange thing happened. Somewhere along the way, when some of my colleagues became close friends, I began to share stories of my profound grief for my brothers. And I began to learn that while few of my colleagues grew up as poor as I did, many of them had family members that, in one way or another, hadn’t fared well either. Our stories are common, but most of them remain untold. Only when a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of a heroin overdose is our society reminded for a few weeks that it isn’t just the dregs of society who die after shooting up.

My middle brother, the chubby child who rarely frowned as he did in this picture, died in 2007 of a prescription drug overdose. As a child of poverty, he accumulated a mountain of debt for the two years he attended college. He took a job as a bartender—a place where his interest in people, his ready laugh, and his charming amiability would earn him a single night’s tips that amounted to more than my sister and I made in a week from our work-study jobs. But after he died, a friend of his who was also a bartender told me that in those days doing cocaine was an everyday part of the bar scene in their lives. My brother knew he needed to get his life in order and felt he couldn’t do it in a college town, so he quit school and joined the United States Army. For a while after he served, he had a good life, but when he lost his job at the beginning of the recession, his life spiraled out of control. His story, tragically, is an all-too-familiar one.

My youngest brother, the sweet-faced boy with the puppy, just got out of jail for the third time on charges related to his heroin addiction. He served 17 months for what is probably the lowest point of his life so far. As our mother lay in a nursing home, dying a slow death after a debilitating stroke, my baby brother took one of her checks, forged her name on it, and used the money, allegedly, to feed his addiction. (He maintains he used it on living expenses.) He finished his sentence in November and will be on a probation that requires him to be drug-tested for the foreseeable future. He tells my remaining two siblings and me that he’s clean and that he’s trying to find a job but that no one seems willing to hire an electrician’s helper who has a prison record like his. His story, sadly, is also a familiar one.

I have become more open about telling these stories, and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction—and most of the problems we face as a nation—are easier to ignore at an arm’s length, and I don’t blame people for wanting to distance themselves from my family’s reality. But if our leaders knew how many “normal,” “successful” people are affected by these issues, our nation might be in a very different place.

We need research into the genetics of addiction. We need support and therapy for children broken by abuse. Ultimately, the only way we will ever diminish the numbers of the abused and addicted is to stop treating them like criminals and to find ways to heal their broken bodies and wounded psyches. And as long as we as a nation tell ourselves that these people are to blame for their own problems, we will never make progress as a society in dealing with the issues that face us.

Please. Tell your stories.


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Adichie’s Single Story of West Virginia?

Poor KidsChimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” is my all-time favorite Ted Talk. As a middle class Nigerian whose professor once told her that her stories were not “authentically African” because the characters weren’t poor and starving, she shares with honesty and humor the stereotypes she had to overcome to be published in the United States. She concludes

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete….I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Because I have admired Adichie for so long, I felt I’d been kicked in the gut when I got to Chapter 38 of her latest novel, Americanah. Continue reading Adichie’s Single Story of West Virginia?

Where Do Children Learn Racism?

Ash 7.30.86

No one is born with prejudices. Though we may sometimes argue about nurture versus nature, I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that racism is somehow wired into our genetic make-up. Prejudice is something we learn from the people who teach us how to be human.

My mom taught me a certain amount of prejudice against what she called “hardshell” Christians in her family—those who wielded a heavy weight of judgment and condemned others to hell. They taught her that women could not wear make-up, pants, or jewelry; that women couldn’t cut their hair; that women must be silent in church. Mom felt guilty for leaving such a church for most of her life, but she tried to free her children, telling us, “That bunch gags at a gnat and swallows a camel.” Continue reading Where Do Children Learn Racism?

Who are They, That We Should Remember?

World Trade Center

I didn’t know a single one of the nearly 3000 victims personally. The closest I came to understanding the terror of September 11, 2001 was in trying to help students and staff at my school whose loved ones worked in Washington, D.C. that day. The assistant principal came to my door between classes to tell me about the attacks, and shortly afterwards, the towers came crashing down. I allowed student after student into my office to make frantic calls to parents, and when they couldn’t reach a mom or a dad, I reassured them, with more certainty that I felt, that their loved ones were safe. Continue reading Who are They, That We Should Remember?

The Only Way? Really?


Today was the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time—the 29th Sunday when life and faith just move along in an ordinary fashion. Easter is a distant memory, and Advent is still several weeks away.

Out of town for a quick long weekend, I spent the morning walking on the beach instead of sitting in church as I would have back home. But when I checked in on social media, I had a reminder from a childhood friend of the message many people who share my faith hear nearly every Sunday morning. Continue reading The Only Way? Really?

What about Ray Rice, the Child?

OHS Football Negative

At my recent Oceana High School class reunion, seven of my classmates who had played football together lined up as they do each time we have a reunion—in poses that mimic the pictures of them in our high school yearbook. There are fewer of them now, and some of them are finding it harder to bend their knees these days. But each time we have a reunion, I enjoy seeing how they’ve changed and how they’ve stayed the same. This week they made travel plans to visit one of the coaches of their freshman team, who is in need of a heart transplant.

My classmates have big hearts, and they no longer fit the description of the cheer we chanted on the sidelines, “Ah, we’re mean! The Big Red Machine!”

I’ve thought of them often in the past two weeks. As a long time Washington fan, I thought of them as I watched my controversially named team lose its first game of the season. We were the Oceana Indians, a school that no longer exists, though each of our yearbooks has countless pictures of our mascot in full headdress on the sidelines. I’ve thought of them, too, as I’ve followed the controversy over whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should resign in the wake of the Ray Rice controversy. Continue reading What about Ray Rice, the Child?