There is a crisis within the United Methodist Church (UMC) related to the role of LGBTQ clergy within its ministry. Evanston is home to four UMC congregations and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the United States and the only one located in Illinois. Tensions are high; it is unclear what the next steps will be for the UMC. The RoundTable wanted to know how Evanston’s UMC congregations and seminary are dealing with this crisis and what effect it is having, if any, on their respective religious communities.

General Conference, 1972: Homosexuality “Incompatible” With Christian Teaching

It wasn’t always this way. In 1972, at the General Conference (an international gathering of UMC clergy and laity held every four years) in Portland, Oregon, a four-year committee had studied and made recommendations on the denomination’s Social Principles, including changes to the official position on homosexuality. The committee recommended this language be adopted:

“Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”

A delegate from Indiana, Russell Kibler, asked what was meant by saying “homosexuals are to have their human and civil rights ensured.” This question led to a public debate, which resulted in a statement being added to the official record of UMC bylaws, the “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Beth Swanick, an active member of First United Methodist Church in Evanston for 25 years and a lifelong (“baptized as a baby”) Methodist, remembers her hometown pastor in Libertyville returning from the 1972 General Conference and saying the rules over same-sex relationships “will split the Church.”

By 2015, the year before the 2016 General Conference, many clergy and lay people were still grappling with the topic of same-sex sexuality within the Church. This is the same year the United States Supreme Court established same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right.

Lead-Up to 2016 General Conference

Moderate voices within the church asked that the 2016 General Conference consider eliminating official language that is “unnecessarily harsh and narrow.”

The Love Your Neighbor coalition, a group of 14 ethnic and special-interest Methodist groups, stated in a letter,  “We must insist that peace is not going to come through ignoring the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians for full inclusion in the church.”

The Reconciling Ministries Network, advocating full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the United Methodist Church, threw support behind The Simple Plan, which “equally honors all of God’s children” and removes any punitive language.

Another group, the Connectional Table, a church council comprised of clergy and lay members, recommended a plan called The Third Way, which supports decriminalization of homosexuality and allows for same-sex weddings within the church and for congregants to come out publicly.

A One Church Plan was also proposed, which would allow each congregation to choose the best option for that particular community.

Alternatively, a group of African bishops advocated “the return of our denomination to biblical teachings.”  Most of the UMC’s growth comes from outside the United States, and Africa is the fastest-growing segment. Many African countries are extremely conservative about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Consensual same-sex sexual acts are illegal in 32 African countries, including four (Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) where it is punishable by death.

2019 Special Session General Conference Opts for Most Conservative Plan

The tensions brewing over the past 47 years culminated in two events. The first occurred in St. Louis, Mo., on Feb. 26, the last day of the 2019 Special Session International General Conference on human sexuality and the UMC clergy. There are five jurisdictional districts in the U.S. and each district sends a group of representatives to General Conferences. Every delegation in every country is comprised equally of clergy and laypeople. Individual delegates vote anonymously on resolutions via electronic ballot.

At the 2019 Special Session General Conference, there were 862 voting delegates; 36% of those were female, 64% were male and 12 delegates did not indicate a gender. These delegates passed the so-called Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 (53.28%) to 384 (46.72%). Forty delegates, 4.64% of the total number present, did not vote. Kathy Gilbert, a reporter for United Methodist News Service, said the UMC does not keep track of who or why a delegate does not cast a vote.

The Traditional Plan was one of four proposed and the most conservative one offered for consideration.  The other plans, mentioned above, called for some level of inclusion – referred to within the Church as “reconciling” – of clergy who identify as LGBTQ.

2019 Judicial Council Upholds, Extends  Prohibition on LGBTQ

The second event took place two months later, April 23 to 26. When the United Methodist Judicial Council (similar to the Supreme Court in the United States) met in Evanston and upheld most, but not all, of the amendments related to the Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan, as approved by the Judicial Council, bars LGBTQ clergy, prohibits same-sex marriage within the church, forbids bishops from “consecrating, ordaining, commissioning self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as well as recommending or approving them as candidates for the clergy, and strengthens complaint procedures and penalties as stated in the “Book of Discipline.” The proscribed punishment for clergy who ignore these edicts is a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and permanent defrocking for subsequent ones.

The Judicial Council also approved an “exit plan” for disaffiliation that will permit churches who disagree with the Traditional Plan to leave the UMC with their property providing all future pension commitments to living former clergy are honored.

A proposal to review a clerical candidate’s social media posts to ascertain whether or not that person identified as LGBTQ was deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council and rejected.

The plan is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and in May 2021 in Africa, the Philippines and Europe, one year after the 2020 General Conference.

Evanston United Methodists React

Recent conversations with local United Methodist ministers and congregants about the vote reflect palpable pain, disappointment and uncertainty. Grace Imathiu, pastor of First United Methodist Church, 516 Church St., is the spiritual leader for approximately 600 families. First United was founded in 1854 by the same group of people who founded Northwestern University (1851), Garrett Biblical Institute (1853, which later became Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) and the City of Evanston (1853). First United Methodist is open to all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Pastor Grace Imathiu

Pastor Grace Imathiu

Pastor Imathiu said she felt crushed when the final vote was taken in February, saying “It’s about people. I didn’t know how I was going to get in the pulpit the following Sunday without weeping. I felt ashamed and scared. To talk about God is to talk about diversity. One cannot legislate God.

“After much prayer, on that first Sunday after the final vote, my sermon encouraged the congregation to join Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration. The service broke our normally formal mood and there was participation with even the children joining in.  Around us were rainbow flags and ribbons showing our welcome and support of the LGBTQI community.  When we celebrated communion that morning, we had arranged that at every station the servers were our LGBTQI siblings. It was a moving hour of worship filled with tears and laughter and hope as we journey with Jesus.

“We do not know clearly what the future holds, but in the meantime, we are faithfully praying, deeply listening and imagining God’s church. We ask ourselves very Methodist questions such as: What does Scripture say? What does our tradition say in interpreting scripture? What does our experience say? And what does reason say? Although we are disappointed, angry and grieving, we will not give in to our lowest instinct. We do no harm.  We do good.  We stay in love with God.  We are a church for everyone.”

Ms. Swanick of the First United Methodist Church emphasized that she “very much favors inclusion and fully supports overturning the Traditional Plan.” She says this issue is similar to the way integration was a controversial issue during the 20th century, and that those who do not share those ideas “resist coming into the modern age.”

Ms. Swanick continued, “It’s the elephant in the room every Sunday and part of every sermon, but our clergy keeps bringing it up and saying what they believe. There is so much good that the Methodist Church does and all of that is being overlooked now. I love this Church. It’s too much a part of my life for me to leave it. Yes, I am sad and disappointed. But we are not giving up. We will keep fighting the good fight.”

Barbara Ulrich, a 30-year member of First United Methodist, was also sad and disappointed with the results of the St. Louis conference, but not completely surprised. A retired former math teacher, she framed the issue from an educational perspective. “Does one have the open mindset of a lifelong learner or that of a closed mindset?”

Ms. Ulrich sees no way forward other than an “amicable divorce” between those congregations who want to disaffiliate and those who wish to follow the Traditional Plan.

Scort Christy, pastor of Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 1401 Oak Ave., leads a congregation that is predominantly Indian. Each Sunday he leads three successive worship services, one each in Hindi, Gujarati and English. His congregants drive from all over the suburbs and Chicago to worship in their native language and be with those who share their cultural background. Pastor Christy said, “At Emmanuel, we welcome and love anyone who wants to worship with us, but we choose not to comment at this time.”


Rev. Dr. Barbara Morgan

Reverend Dr. Barbara Morgan is the Pastor of Sherman United Methodist Church, 2214 Ridge Ave., the oldest African American congregation founded on the North Shore by an African American woman, Lula B. Sherman, in 1922.  In a series of email exchanges, Reverend Dr. Morgan shared her dismay over the current situation and how she is ministering to the congregation’s more than 100 families.

“I am saddened by the recent decision handed down to us by the Conference in reference to ‘The Way Forward.’ It saddens me because we see our Church dying every day due to our differences. You would think that we, as the Church, would be the last to become critical and judgmental towards one another. We, as the Church, supposedly understand what Jesus meant, upon His departure from earth, when he left us with the one commandment that totaled all the commandments combined. That was, ‘To love the Lord with all thine heart, soul and mind, and to love thy neighbor as thy self.’ If we, as the Church, would strive to keep this final commandment, then we wouldn’t have time to sit and judge and criticize one another as we’re doing at this very moment! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simple but seems to be extremely difficult to do.”

Pastor Reuel Talapian, leader of Hemenway United Methodist Church, 933 Chicago Ave., did not respond to repeated phone calls and email attempts to speak to him.


Dr. Lallene Rector

Dr. Lallene Rector, President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Associate Professor of Psychology of Religion and Pastoral Psychotherapy, spoke at length about what happened at the conference and what effect the decision has had within the seminary. Dr. Rector is Garrett’s first female leader and the first lay person to lead in its 166-year history.

She noted that the 2019 Conference was a rare “single issue” conference outside the typical General Conference held every four years. She said the outcome of the vote has been “devastating.” She described students who are “frightened, not sleeping, anxious” and worries that there could be a “witch hunt” when the edict goes into effect on Jan. 1. “The Traditionalists are trying to take over,” she said, but added, “It is an organizational mess. I believe we can’t keep this [the church] together, especially when it comes to finances and who owns the name, ‘United Methodist.’”

Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, a Garrett seminary student scheduled to graduate in May 2020, works as a youth minister in Palatine and attended the St. Louis conference with a contingent of Garrett students. She was not a delegate and thus did not vote. She is active in Sacred Worth at Garrett, an LGBTQ organization whose name comes from a section on inclusiveness in the 2012 “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth …”

Ms. Ruch-Teegarden grew up in rural Tennessee and was not totally shocked by the conference’s support of the Traditional Plan. She grew up with people who “100% believe that homosexuality is a choice and that you can change, and if you can’t change then you should be celibate.” She says she refuses to live her life in fear, instead “choosing to live my life as God has called me to do. I know there are queer kids in every conference, and the Traditional Plan leaves them behind. I am not willing to do that.”

She feels the vote has “galvanized” plans for the upcoming 2020 Annual Conference and has prompted much rethinking in Methodist churches across the country. She knows of churches that have passed inclusivity declarations since the vote in St. Louis. Nationally there has been a push to nominate more progressive delegates to attend the 2020 Annual Conference. Some  hope that this change will also spread to UMC congregations abroad.

Currently the UMC is polarized, Dr. Rector said. If there is to be a split, the Church’s name, property and finances will need to be separated. Pension funding is already off limits. One of five regional bishops in the United States, North Central Bishop Sally Dyck, has said publicly that the pension requirements for individual congregations disaffiliating are already so expensive that the option may not be possible for some who wish to leave.


Rev. Brittany Isaac

Rev. Brittany Isaac, the District Superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District, part of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, said of the 51 churches in her district, half are reconciling and several others are leaning that way. Ironically, the efforts to regulate same-sex clergy are already too late: there are at least 265 members nationwide in an invitation-only Facebook group of Methodist LGBTQ clergy.

When asked about the “un-Christian-like” attitude of those who favor the Traditional Plan, she suggested that “when you dial all this back, it’s about how we envision God and how we interpret Scripture. If you believe in a God of fear and retribution, then you want to do the right thing and keep God pure, and will do anything to protect that. But if you believe that God is grace and we are all children of God, then how can we legislate people?”

Dr. Rector is aware of “conciliatory efforts” of many people working to “find a way to honor our differences leading to an amicable separation,” but it is too soon to tell if anything will change. Enrollment at Garrett has not been affected, and the faculty, Board of Trustees and student body’s commitment to equality and justice remains strong, she said.

Ms. Ruch-Teegarden said, “Fear equals silence. People don’t know who we are. They are invested in their own context, and not thinking about people who are actually hurting.”

(This article was originally printed in the Evanston RoundTable on July 24, 2019.)



Pick Your Tree Carefully


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about work, love, friendship, illness, and the tenacity female scientists need to succeed. This is a brave book; it is raw and honest and overall inspiring. I recommend it enthusiastically.


After reading Lab Girl, it is impossible to look at any tree or even a leaf without begrudging respect for everything it took for that respective piece of vegetation to venture into the world and live.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is only known to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.

Jahren tells of growing up in a family that rarely talked and barely emoted. (“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.”) Her relationship with her mother was strained, but she drew comfort and strength from her scientist father whom she idolized.

I grew up in my father’s laboratory and played beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them. My father taught forty-two years’ worth of introductory physics and earth science in that laboratory, nestled within a community college deep in rural Minnesota; he loved his lab, and it was a place that my brothers and I loved also.

Jahren is passionate about science and driven to succeed. She describes the obstacles female scientists often encounter — narrow-mindedness, failure to be taken seriously and be included, prejudice, sexual harassment — and how she barreled through and worked harder than anyone else to prove she belonged. Belong she does, and she has succeeded magnificently: three Fulbright Awards, one of only four scientists (and the only woman, natch) to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences, tenured professor, and kick-ass writer.

There is a special skill to writing about science. It’s a secret language to those of us on the outside and one has to be especially adept to explain what’s taking place without losing the reader in complex jargon. Jahren is gifted with luminous prose when describing scientific experiments, the rhythms of efficient soil sampling, and proper laboratory procedures. I fell in love with her as she struggled and persevered, and cheered her professional and personal milestones. The passages in which she meets and falls in love with her husband, and regales us with tales of work adventures and friendship with her lab partner, Bill, testify to the depth of her feelings and the fullness of her heart.

She also wrestles mightily with manic depressive illness. Her raw candor about its effects on her life are mesmerizing and heartbreaking. I was awestruck by her strength, grit, and bravery, especially in the section where she describes the impact stopping her medication for 26 weeks (she was pregnant) had on her life. Thankfully what she had to endure worked successfully and her son was born completely healthy. She is fortunate: she has a true partner in her husband, who cared for her and advocated for the medical care she needed; she has access to the best medical care in the world; she has financial resources. That Jahren is aware of and appreciates these gifts make her triumph all the sweeter.

The Jahren Lab is in Norway now but you can keep up with her on her blog and be on the lookout for random op-ed pieces in The New York Times.







The Week That Changed Everything

World Series Cubs Indians Baseball

It has been a strange year.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump won the Presidential election. To me, those two events symbolize the best and worst of us.

The Cubs’ World Series victory is the major sports story of 2016…maybe even the decade.  But business schools will also be studying this team for years; a case study is already in the works. And I can’t wait to read it. It’s a gold mine for research into the organization’s management style, investment choices, business goals, and hiring practices.  I want the details about how Joe Madden’s unique style was able to inspire and motivate this particular group of players.

The penultimate example of this management ethos was during the fateful, 17-minute rain delay during Game 7. In any business, meetings are frequent yet often ineffective. Not so with the meeting Jason Heyward initiated. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be an invisible eavesdropper on that meeting?

There are many great business lessons — even life lessons — to take away from this team. The entire organization worked toward their goal with skill, class, sportsmanship, camaraderie, and collaboration. They were focused and professional. They helped each other. They learned from their mistakes, worked to correct them going forward, yet did not dwell on them. They appreciated their customers (fans) and one another. They respected their differences and understood how each person contributed toward part of the larger ‘whole.’ These Cubs were multicultural, multi-racial, and observed different religious faiths. They played cleanly and followed the rules.

Even if you did not follow sports in general or baseball in particular, it was difficult to ignore the Cubs. They made baseball fun to watch. The games were also a great distraction from the endless election talk on television, radio, and social media. The euphoria of winning Game 7, in extra innings after a rain delay, made the final victory that much sweeter. After 108 years, it was an emotional and sentimental win, especially for those with relatives and friends who had not lived long enough to experience the victory.

The exuberance after the final out was pure joy. You can see it in the photographs of the players, the sounds of the crowd outside Wrigley Field, the overview of the city immediately after the game and during the parade two days later. Unbridled happiness. Joy. Euphoria. The sun shined on the city and the country shared in this win. Wednesday, November 2, the day they clinched the Series, through Friday, November 4, the day of the parade, were days to savor and remember, regardless of where you lived.

But the stupor of baseball bliss petered out by Monday, November 7, and then it was election day. More partisan talking and yelling of who did what to whom and when. Neither candidate ran a flawless campaign and neither of the major party candidates were ideal. But only one candidate was patently unqualified for the job he sought, a status he kept reinforcing with appalling regularity week after week.

There are many examples of egregious and undignified conduct from which to choose. Two stand out for me. Most abhorrent and disrespectful are the lies he knowingly fueled and perpetuated for five years regarding President Obama’s birth and citizenship.

The second example, the one I cannot watch on television out of revulsion, is Trump mocking and mimicking the reporter Serge Kovaleski. Any human resource professional will confirm that Trump’s behavior is illegal in a workplace, but he got a pass on this behavior from those who voted for him.

To go from the intoxicating elation of the Cubs’ victory to the unnerving Trump ascendency within six short days was and is nothing short of depressing.

The Trump win will be studied far more than the Cubs’ win. Yes, business cases will be written about how the campaign was run, the unrelenting four-word message, and the savvy media choices. He changed a lot of the rules. But the Cubs’ fascinate because their growth and success took place internally and independently. The fans responded by buying tickets and branded merchandise, but the team’s success was not dependent on the fans. The fans helped a lot, no doubt, but this team had fun and played well all on their own.

In contrast, Trump’s responses are fueled by his crowds and his crowds are encouraged by his bombast. His psychological needs for adoration and attention are immense, regardless of the outcome. There is an interdependency between the one making the outrageous statements and the crowds believing them to be true. The fact that the teller is a proven, documented liar of longstanding does not seem to matter. And that is why this ‘win’ is so sad and the Cubs’ win seems so pure by comparison. Collectively, we chose this outcome.

If you share these sentiments, there are ways to protest and fight back. Get involved. Volunteer to run for office or work for candidates in local elections. Support voter registration and voting. Donate money. Call your U.S. Representatives and Senators often to express your opinion — every call is tracked and can impact which bills and initiatives are supported. Purchase an online news subscription or buy a paper every day: we need objective, thorough, investigative journalism to combat a culture that rewards celebrity for its own sake.

And keep the faith. Pitchers and catchers report on February 13, 2017.

Best of Evanston

ew_suptspotlight_video2015Dr. Eric Witherspoon gets my vote for Person of the Year. He is an inspiring speaker and educational leader. He cares deeply about the students at Evanston Township High School. But the pitch perfect message he delivered over the loudspeaker the morning after the election resonated in the school’s classrooms, across the houses and apartments of Evanston, and soon went viral across the country. This short epistle is only 275 words, but together they are more riveting than all the Tweets, speeches, and position papers leading up to the election and more comforting than all the ones that followed. Read it again to be re-inspired; save it for future reference in the coming months. I suspect we are going to need it.

northwestern-universityNorthwestern University is a great corporate citizen within Evanston. It is the city’s top employer and an essential contributor and participant within the social fabric of Evanston. It offers a beautiful lakefront campus and a calendar filled with lectures and first-class musical, theatrical, athletic, and cinematic entertainment, much of it open to the public. It is the home of groundbreaking research and Sir Fraser Stoddart, one of 2016’s Nobel Prize recipients. I am a fan of the Jazz Small Ensembles and National Theatre Live at the Wirtz. Come join me.



The beautiful lakefront of Lake Michigan serves as my backyard. I love the bike path that winds around its edge and the serenity I feel whenever I pass by. The view from Northwestern looking south toward Chicago never fails to inspire me…as well as remind me of Oz, the Emerald City.



Evanston fosters a wonderful environment for small businesses and creative, artistic stores. One of my favorites is Ayla’s Originals, a shop that inspires, encourages, and provides supplies and lessons to beaders (those who bead) all over the North Shore. I originally visited Ayla’s for some assistance with jewelry repairs, but was drawn in by the friendly atmosphere and wonderful sense of community. Ayla’s offers a fantastic selection of beads from all over the world — including rare, collectible, and antique ones — as well as an array of individualized classes on techniques of jewelry-making. Take a class and see if this craft is for you. Treat yourself: do something creative every day.

We love to read in Evanston and there are many great bookstores catering to bibliophiles as well as a fantastic public library system. My favorite bookstore is Bookends & Beginnings for its fantastic selection, personalized service, great recommendations, and cozy atmosphere.  But there are others. Try Chicago Rare Book Center, tucked away on Washington Street; they specialize in children’s books, modern literature, jazz and blues, art, Chicago, the Midwest, and Americana. Comix Revolution specializes in comics and graphic novels. And if those specialties are not niche enough for your tastes, try Montagnana Books. They focus on books and collectibles about the violin family.

Happy reading, biking, and beading. As Dr. Witherspoon advises, “Let’s protect and take care of each other. Everything is going to be okay.”

Options for College Success: Helping Special Needs Students Realize Their Dreams

Initially printed in the Evanston RoundTable on 10/5/2016

Shoshana Axler (left) and Christine Anderson

Most students start school in the fall with some confidence that they will have opportunities and choices when they finish. But the options available to special needs students and their families when they age out of public school are not so obvious.

That is where Options for College Success (OCS) plays a vibrant and possibly unique role.

Options for College Success, 820 Davis St., is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that has been addressing this issue since 2008. OCS is a post-secondary educational program geared specifically for young adults, ages 18 to 30, who have some sort of learning challenge. The program’s ultimate goal is to help each student achieve independence and full potential through education and meaningful employment.

The offices, reception area, and individual rooms where studying, tutoring, and counseling take place are utilitarian. The brightest spot in the office is the Hall of Fame, painted sunshine yellow and lined top to bottom with certificates of completion and awards given to many of its past and current students. These walls provide tangible proof of the effectiveness of OCS.

Some of the challenges students deal with include autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, executive function disorder, social and maturation issues, ADHD, processing and non-verbal learning disorders. The program’s brochure lists more than 20 conditions or disorders, some more widely known than others, but each presenting specific and personal challenges to the affected students and their families.

OCS distinguishes itself because each student receives a customized program. The staff of Options for College Success works closely with the student, the student’s family, and the appropriate professionals at the student’s school or work to develop a weekly schedule designed to maximize that student’s success.

Students sign contracts that outline their specific goals for the year. They also spend time learning and practicing independent living, social, and financial management skills as well as education and career development. The program includes membership in the McGaw YMCA, and students are encouraged to exercise regularly. Everything is done to encourage and support good and healthy habits for daily living.

Christine Anderson, Options’ Executive Director, and Shoshana Axler, the Director of Admissions and Development, advocate for the students and serve almost as surrogate parents, especially for students who come from beyond the Chicagoland area.

The schools the students attend are diverse, ranging from community and junior colleges to four-year universities throughout the area. By law, each college or university must have a staff member on site as a resource for students with disabilities.

Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler have no hesitation reaching out to on-campus resources to advocate for fair accommodations for their students. These accommodations are to “level the playing field” for the student and to compensate for a particular disorder; the goal is not to make work any less rigorous or standards for accomplishment any less steep.

Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler have an extensive network of contacts within the learning disability and disorder community. Resources they will involve as needed include the Department of Health and Human Services, job coaches, physical and occupational therapists, and the people at the Evanston-based Institute for Therapy Through the Arts. New tutors and therapists are constantly being added, depending on what students need at any particular time.

In addition to working with the students, Ms. Anderson works extensively with the parents and is in regular communication with them. The parents go through an adjustment period as much as the students do, she explained; it is very important that parents feel they have someone to talk to who will listen to them.

The parents of most of the students have been advocating for them their entire lives. It is difficult for these parents to give up control, and Ms. Anderson understands that fear and hesitation. Over time, she says, parents learn to trust her judgment.

“The amazing thing is,” Ms. Anderson says, “as the students are treated with more respect and as adults, they start to become more independent.” Ms. Axler adds, “The students all look out for one another. They know we help their dreams become realities.”

Those who do not commute locally live in individual apartments in an apartment building in Evanston. A married couple, one of whom has a background in social work, lives in the same building as the students, and they serve as Resident Advisors (RAs).

The RAs facilitate the social activities and serve as resources outside the normal work and school day. Although the program does not offer 24-hour supervision, someone from Options for College Success is always available and on call – a boon to students and parents alike.

Evanston is an ideal location for this program. The office and apartment building are within walking distance of the CTA and Metra Davis Street stops, and the train station is a hub for most North Shore bus routes. Most of the students do not have cars; they learn how to navigate using public transportation and how to manage their time based on train or bus schedules. The staff meets with students regularly and is available for support and counsel.

Twelve months of Options for College Success costs $41,400 plus tuition, room, and board. Families may apply at any time. The application process includes a detailed application form; interviews with the staff; reviews of all transcripts; references; and a neuropsychological report on each student. Once a student’s file is complete, the family is notified within 30 days. Enrollment is limited to about 20-25 students at any one time to ensure each student receives individualized attention.

Families tend to find out about Options for College Success through word of mouth, referrals by the counselors and professionals in their lives, or finding the program online. As far as Ms. Anderson and Ms. Axler know, Options for College Success is unique in the United States because of the individualized and intensive one-on-one management students receive.

Despite the cost, families speak highly of the program. Janet Hoffman, an Evanston resident, talked with pride about her daughter Julia, a participant in the program. Ms. Hoffman said, “We had hoped, but didn’t really believe, that at this point in her life Julia would be leading such an independent life, handling day-to-day challenges, living on her own, graduating from community college, and more. With help from Options for College Success, she has exceeded all of our dreams for her. Julia is happy. She has worked so hard to achieve all of these accomplishments, and we are very proud of her.”


Missing Nora Ephron


everything is copy

I have been a fan of Nora Ephron’s work ever since reading Crazy Salad. She was funny and sophisticated and very hip, everything I was not as a confused and moody teenager growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When I still lived in Manhattan, I saw her on the Upper West Side once. She was holding hands with her best husband, Nicholas Pileggi, and they looked really happy; I behaved like a true New Yorker and didn’t fawn or ask for her autograph.

Like so many millions of other people, I was completely caught off guard and very sad when I heard the news of her death in 2012. I loved reading about how she had planned her memorial service down to the last detail, and provided copies of her favorite recipes to be given out to those in attendance. (I use her recipe for egg salad and it is a knockout.)

She was a great writer of books (I Feel Bad About My Neck) and screenplays (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle), a wonderful director (Julie & Julia), a devoted mother to Jacob and Max, and a maven of the first order. Her first marriage ended before children and her second marriage was the source of her greatest thrill (becoming a mother) and worst hurt (finding out her husband was having a very public affair while she was pregnant with her second child). But she directed her own story, made lemon meringue out of the bitterest lemons, and turned her soon to be ex-husband from a famous journalist into a humiliated punch line.

Success is the best revenge, and she succeeded by any measure. She found marital happiness with Pileggi, her third husband. When asked to write her autobiography in six words, she famously answered, “Secret to life, marry an Italian.” She seemingly had it all, except for–perversely–her health, but of course she hid that from almost everyone she knew. It was the one story whose ending she could not direct.

jacob headshot for the timesOne of her sons, Jacob, must have recognized the yearning her fans had for one more Nora fix, and he at least partially satisfied that desire with a long, heartfelt, and intimate portrait of his mother’s final days and the period leading up to her illness. It is a wonderful piece of writing. I read nearly all the letters in response to it and realized I was not alone, by far, in how much I admired her work and appreciated her son’s essay. He is a gifted writer.

Fortunately, Jacob felt compelled to probe more deeply. He developed and directed a documentary film about his mother entitled, Everything Is Copy. It is currently available on HBO and absolutely worth watching. The movie confirms what was evident to any student of her work: she was smart, ambitious, and witty. She made her own luck even when the world was falling apart around her. She did not give up. She made sure to control her own story. Better to have people laugh at something you wrote (where you can control the joke) than become the joke and have them laugh at you.

Bravo, Jacob. Great movie. Your mom would have loved it.



Thoughts About Death and Life: When Breath Becomes Air

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live. (pp. 131-132)

Bibliophiles know about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: the heartbreaking memoir of a highly gifted (degrees from Stanford University, University of Cambridge, Yale School of Medicine) neurosurgeon and writer who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 35, only months away from completing his surgical training. The book is dedicated to his infant daughter, the child he and his wife, also a doctor, chose to have after his diagnosis.

Of course the book is sad and poignant for many reasons: first and foremost, because his daughter will grow up without her father. His wife, whom he loved deeply, is now a widow. He was incredibly talented and on the cusp of realizing the pinnacle of his professional training. Given his expertise, he could have helped many more people. Now all that is for naught. His premature end is both tragic and cosmically wasteful. And yet his life was rich and full of meaning.

When Breath Becomes Air is a brave book. Death hovers on almost every page, but the book is not macabre. It’s beautifully written, and at times, even profound in what Kalanithi observes; his perspective shifts back and forth between writer as doctor and writer as patient. He observes death, is aware of death, even feels the presence of death as a medical student and throughout the stages of his training. He writes about how his training taught him to “actively engage with death” and thus, to “confront the the meaning of life.” Being a doctor meant assuming mortal responsibility, and it was a responsibility he embraced forcefully and with passion. Kalanithi was a man who ran toward challenges.

Near the end of his life, contemplating the brief overlap of his life with that of his daughter’s, he muses about what wisdom he can leave her. The message he wrote is this:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing. (p. 199)


The idea of ‘providing a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world’ is one of the book’s central ideas. As Kalanithi’s disease progresses and various drugs and treatments he is pursuing lose their effectiveness, his options narrow and the time he has left dwindles. He mourns the losses of his life, of dreams not realized, children he and his wife would not have together, of not growing old with the one you love. But he accepts these hard truths and strives to make the most of his remaining time, energy, and concentration. He labors to complete this book, to leave some tangible record of his thoughts, before the cancer overtakes him.

For each of us, the idea of what we have meant to the world, is unique and intensely personal.   Kalanithi made his life matter. He made a difference to those around him and touched many, mostly strangers, with his thoughts about making the most of his remaining time. A teacher and researcher to the very end, he found ways to contribute at Stanford even when he could no longer operate or treat patients. You will think about this compact book long after you complete it.

Remembering Oliver Sacks

I’ve been a fan of Oliver Sacks‘ ever since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. Dr. Sacks was a masterful storyteller; his TED description lists him as a neurological anthropologist. What I loved most about both Sacks’ style and subject matter was how he made science, especially all things medical, both relatable and understandable. The reader did not need to be an expert to empathize with each compelling tale.

His two most recent books, published in the year prior to his death on August 30, 2015, are Gratitude and On the Move, and they couldn’t be more different. Gratitude is a compact reflection of what it means to live a worthwhile life. The four essays that make up this tiny book were previously published in the The New York Times; each essay is powerful and thought-provoking. The writer is at peace and satisfied with the life he has lived.

On the Move is a memoir that expounds upon Sacks’ growth and development into the person he became. Whereas his earlier memoir Uncle Tungsten recounts his childhood, family, and love for the periodic table, On the Move describes adult successes and failures, both professionally and personally, from high school through a year or two before the end of his life.

The instant the librarian handed me the book, I did a double take examining the photo on the book jacket. The virile and handsome man on the motorcycle seems light years away from the grandfatherly looking and kind man I thought I knew. How did one become the other?  The journey spanning sixty or so years makes up this brave and honest book. He shares painful subjects: his mother’s hurtful comment when learning that her son had homosexual desires; unrequited loves; drug addiction; professional failures. I never imagined or knew he was painfully shy or that his approach toward treating his patients was considered radical and untraditional.

Sacks’ knowledge base was grounded in philosophy, nineteenth century medical histories, and his fascination with the world around him. He was a geek of the first order. He won a prize while in high school or college and with the money bought a used set of the Oxford English Dictionary…which he then proceeded to read and finish. (A new set today consists of 20 volumes and costs $1,045.)

He was an expert in flora and fauna, animals, geology, words, music, and countless other subjects. He was endlessly curious, but without judgement or fear. He traveled extensively, always documenting his voyages with photographs, notes, and essays. He kept journals religiously from the time he was a young teen, as well as copies of his voluminous correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues all over the world. He loved reading, writing, and learning, and was most comfortable with his own company. He swam nearly every day; water was where he did his best thinking.

Sacks’ brain was big. He revised his work constantly and gave his editors agita because he insisted on adding seemingly countless footnotes. His mind was expansive and his desire to share, to let all of us–his readers, his fans, and acolytes–in on the riches he saw and experienced, at times made the books long or even tedious. Yet reading about his adult life and the experiences that shaped him, I am convinced that his sharing this knowledge was an act of love.

I wish I had had a chance to meet and speak with him. His TED talk on visual hallucinations complements his fascinating books.


Strong Women

Jeff_combined photosLast week I read Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negrolandin anticipation of an April book discussion at the Evanston Public Library. The discussion can’t come soon enough; I am eager to talk to someone–anyone–about this book. Here is how the book begins:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.

I related to part of this underlying tension. The town where I grew up from the age of five until I graduated high school was a small suburb about an hour northeast of Philadelphia. We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, and while there were other Jewish families in our neighborhood, they weren’t prevalent. The nearest synagogue was 20 minutes away by car. In elementary school, more than once I was the only one not celebrating Christmas, and I felt that distinction keenly.

It’s not as if I wanted to celebrate Christmas or was embarrassed to celebrate Chanukah. I did not like was the scrutiny of ‘otherness,’ of feeling like an exotic exhibit outside the safety and security of my home. Otherness often felt isolating, more peculiar than special. Margo experienced a similar flavor of otherness as a black girl throughout her childhood.

Body image is a struggle for many women, and Margo navigated issues dealing with the shade of her skin tone, hair care, and thick lensed glasses due to poor eyesight. She excelled academically, athletically, and musically. Even with all of these accomplishments–and she writes of the period before she won the Pulitzer Prize!–I think this must have been a difficult book to write. She mined her psyche as well as her memories and the memories of her friends and relatives. She is brutally honest about opportunities provided to her and her sister as a result of her parents’ education, and equally candid about the limitations they faced because of racism. The book is not bitter, merely revealing in heart-wrenching detail.

After Negroland, Beyoncé’s new song and video, Formation, suddenly seemed very relevant. I don’t know if I would have thought about the song and accompanying video in any depth except for the kerfuffle surrounding the video’s unannounced presence the day before the Super Bowl. I watched and listened, then did it again. I read about the critics’ and public’s reactions to each, and then watched again.

Brava Beyoncé! Already scrutinized and reviewed countless times, the video offers a proud and unapologetic stance on being a powerful black woman. She is proud of who she is and where she came from. Beyoncé ties in images of and references to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. (Many of the references I did not understand until I read some of the commentary about the video. Read one here, here, and here. There are plenty of others.) She is a woman in control of her career and her personal life. She revels in the power and friendship of sisterhood. She is proud of her body. She does not shy away from making money and the power that comes with an elevated economic status.

Beyoncé is not apologizing for anything. Good for her. Negroland tells of dreams aborted or postponed; Beyoncé is proactively making her dreams happen. Knowing dreams can come true is good news for all of us.







Thinking About Racism

This past Friday evening I attended Sabbath services at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, located at 1224 Dempster. The guest speaker was Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Funnye also participated in a panel discussion after a delicious Shabbat dinner attended by about 200 people and catered by Curt’s Café.

The panel was moderated by Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet. In addition to Rabbi Funnye, the people on the panel included:

Each person shared their personal perspectives about how they see and experience racism. Every speaker was poised and articulate, easily connecting with the supportive crowd.

I learned many new facts that evening and considered things which I previously took for granted or never bothered to re-examine. For instance, Evanston Public Library is one of the jewels of our city and one I’ve written about here. I live within walking distance of two out of the three library locations, yet it never occurred to me to consider why a branch is not located further south or west for the convenience of residents who live there. Admittedly, this lack of thinking on my part is endemic of the overall problem–real change has to come from people who benefit from the inequity and who are motivated to upend the status quo.

This geographical disadvantage is not just about borrowing books and videos; it is about access to tools and skills for finding employment and other essential resources. Libraries have public access computers and librarians can instruct technologically unfamiliar patrons how to establish an email address, complete an online job application, create a document in Word or save one as a PDF. Online access is essential in the twenty-first century. Do we have a responsibility to make that access easily available to more residents, especially those who do not have those resources at home? I think we do.

Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell spoke movingly about the positive changes they are starting to see in test scores at ETHS. Eight years ago, when Dr. Witherspoon first started at ETHS, he noticed that Advanced Placement (A.P.) classes were filled with white students and regular classes were filled with minority and low-income students. He realized students were automatically being tracked into particular courses based on the results of their eighth grade standardized tests. Past behavior was establishing future expectations with little opportunity for the impacted students to request or make a change.

To combat this institutional and systemic racism, Dr. Witherspoon set the bar higher and increased expectations across the board. All incoming freshmen were automatically enrolled in honors-level English and humanities (a history class). The goal was to help as many students as possible be prepared for A.P. courses by eleventh grade. Not only were more students enrolled in more A.P. courses, but the school developed all kinds of support for students under the aegis of teamASAP (Team Access and Success in Advanced Placement). Tellingly, as success was expected and encouraged by the school administration, the students delivered.

Between 2011 and 2014, A.P. enrollment at ETHS was up 30%. When tracked by racial group, each student group showed an increase: 19% among white students, 35% among black students, and 78% among Hispanic students. The number of white, black, and Hispanic students achieving a score of three (out of five) or better on an A.P. test., typically high enough for college credit, also increased. The increases by racial group for students taking A.P. exams and scoring three or better were startling: 31% among white students; 98% among black students; 116% among Hispanic students. Not surprisingly, Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell are just getting started: their work is not done at ETHS in spite of well-deserved national attention. Listen to a PBS News Hour podcast about these amazing results here.

One of the most poignant and inspiring speakers of the evening was the sole ETHS student on the panel, Cameron English. She spoke of her work with SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) and what SOAR is doing to increase awareness of racist attitudes and opinions among fellow students both at ETHS and other schools along the North Shore. SOAR works with Northwestern University to conduct programs twice a year. I look forward to hearing more about SOAR’s–and Cameron’s–good work in the future.

One of the questions asked of the panel toward the end of the evening was what each of us could do to be part of the change and make a difference going forward. The suggestions were elegant and simple: Listen more. Go outside your comfort zone. Read a book by a black author. Listen to music or go to a movie by a black artist. Expand your set of experiences. Try to see what life is like from another’s perspective. Embrace another’s reality as your own. Recognize that racism affects all of us regardless of skin color.

It was a lovely and heartfelt evening. I learned a lot. I met new people. I am proud of my synagogue for hosting such a program and shining a light on this important social issue. But I left feeling humbled and chastened by how much more I need to do.

The year is still young. I resolve to do better. Will you join me?

[Post Script: For more information about the locations of the library branches and who can easily access them, refer to this article and this part of the city budget.]