Author Archive | Becka Applegate

Circling Syria

At the close of this evening’s #GivingTuesday, I find myself wondering, when I wake up tomorrow morning and troll through to the end of the internets, what will I find as the new commercial theme? #BOGOWednesday? #EtsyWednesday? #BuyHandmadeWednesday? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that somewhere this year America decided to redeem the mass consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday with more selfless schemes like Small Business Saturday and Giving Tuesday; it definitely at least shifts the perspective a little more on others and a little less on self.

But, still. I mean, really? Is the whole month of Nov. 28th- Dec. 28th (my birthday, btw) going to transform into some kind of daily gimmick for money, capitalism, and the commercialization of national and religious holidays?

If I might, can I suggest a potentially more powerful way to focus your days and time and right clicking for the rest of this merry month?

It’s called Circling Syria, and a friend of mine shared it with me the other night. I’m not one to just push products or apps one’s way, but when I opened the link she sent, I was immediately impressed by the design of the initiative, the scale of the idea, and the urgency of the need.

Circling Syria is essentially a site, complete with all the social media links, dedicated to enabling people worldwide to intercede prayerfully on the behalf of the Syrians in crises. The idea of course, is that these global prayers would literally encircle the Syrian people and those prayers, in turn would powerfully mediation for the Syrian people, begging heaven to provide them with protection, provision, and mostly, hope. For so many of us who keep a semi-watchful eye on global events, the plight of people, like the Syrians, seems so distant, so far away, as real as Mars and about as feasible to get to in any kind of tangible way as well. And so, our hearts break, and our wallets may send a few dollars, but ultimately we’re left sickened at the thought of our own inadequacy to change the reality for millions of people suffering from the effects of war, sin, corruption, and downright evil.

And unfortunately, the news for Syria is not looking any better. Just this week, the UN announced their inability to continue providing food for Syrian refugees, of which there are 1.7 million who will be affected by this shortage. The situation is grim to say the least.

And yet, looking through the Syrian Circle website, I was reminded that these are lies. I’m not unequipped. I’m not helpless. I’m not inadequate. This world is not without hope. I have a plea I can make daily, hourly, moment by moment at the throne of heaven. God can do what the Red Cross cannot, what the UN cannot, and what refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and other middle eastern countries cannot. Jesus can provide hope and healing and new hearts. He wrapped Himself in flesh and arrived in an anything but peaceful middle eastern nation 2,000 years ago as a baby and we celebrate Immanuel this month. How much more can He wrap His Syrian children in His love and peace and joy and hope?!

And I, well, I can ask. I can bang down heaven’s doors. When I was first struck by the depravity and tragedy of ISIS’s barbaric actions this summer, I cried and I prayed, and I blogged. And then, while I did not forget about the people trying to scrape together the crumbles left of their lives after unthinkable personal and national devastation, I did forget to pray. What Syrian Circle offers me, offers all of us who believe that our prayers and that our people matter, is a focused, real, and tangible way to pray daily throughout December, specifically for the people affected by the Syrian Civil War.

There are presents to be purchased, there are cookies to be made, trees to be cut down, pinterest wreaths to be made, and countless parties to attend. But this, this opportunity to pray intentionally for a hurting people is free, and easy, and reminds me why that baby came in the first place. And, if you are already a social media addict, CirclingSyria posts their prayer focus daily on their instagram account. Simply follow them, and daily we can all be reminded to pause our holiday busyness, and pray “O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom not just captive Israel, but Syria too.”

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Less Ebola, More Mental Health, Please

I am a high school teacher. Which means that in 2014 America, I add “getting shot” to my list of daily worries, along with differentiating instruction, scaffolding for English language learners, managing classrooms of 36 teenagers, grading sets of 140 papers, and coaching after school activities.

This past weekend, some several hours after the tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington, a coworker of mine posted on social media her disappointment in the news media’s lack of coverage of this recent event, especially compared to its coverage of ebola. Her point was that school shootings, which often claim the lives of multiple individuals, have become so common-place that it’s not front page material enough to merit local and national news. Instead, ebola, which has thus far only claimed the life of one person in America, garners the bulk of the media hype. I find myself in complete agreement with her, a bit disgusted, and desperately wishing that we would turn our sensationalism as a nation from fear-based suspicions to daily tragic realities and their causes.

What am I talking about? Gun violence? Better campus security? What causes do we need to treat to prevent more school shootings? Two words: mental health.

Is gun violence a problem? Yes. Can campuses be more secure? Most certainly. Does increasing vigilance in either of these areas do anything for my student combating anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts? No.

According to an article published in 2009 for Policymakers, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Diagnosable. It’s unsettling to think about how we would begin to statistically address the undiagnosed cases. In other words, at least approximately 1 in 5 young adults will struggle with mental illness. That means that in my classroom of 36 young people, I should be on the lookout for a minimum of seven of my students to display characteristics of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, etc. In the last two years of my career, I can easily name two students who have shared with me their suicide attempts. I didn’t date a ton before I married my husband earlier this year, but two of my previous boyfriends struggled severely with mental health. A few members of my family battle anxiety and depression. I have close friends who have been or currently are on medication for anxiety and/or depression. There have been times in my own life when I have been medicated for mental health related diagnoses.

So, with numbers this high, where is the media? Where are the news reports? Why, when a student completely loses their mind and shoots their classmates, do we immediately turn to lawmakers and ask them to revise gun laws? Why do we add extra security locks on doors and have active shooter trainings at our school faculty meetings? Why don’t we have increased training on how to recognize mental illness? Moreover, why have I never sat in a training about how to help a student struggling with suicidal tendencies but I have told my kids where I want them to hide if a shooter comes in our classroom?

Unfortunately, when Robin Williams died in August of 2014 as a result of his own battle with mental illness, the media did begin to raise awareness of mental health. Sadly, it took the death of America’s beloved comedian and actor to heighten sensitivity to these issues and make them “ok” to discuss . The people who died at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at UCSanta Barbara, at SandyHook, and at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado were apparently not important enough for us to look into these problems in more depth.

Furthermore, Williams has been laid to rest long enough now that even the hype surrounding his passing has faded. Instead, we rang in the month of October with “I 3> boobies” bracelets, pink sweatbands, and breast cancer awareness tea parties, t-shirts, and 10ks. Now, look, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this. We need to do research on cancer, we need to encourage people to be fighters, we need to celebrate survivors. What does seem a bit amiss about our culture is that we place more of our focus and attention on some “diseases” than others. It is more culturally acceptable to tout a t-shirt that says “I defeated breast cancer” than it is to wear one that says, “I defeated manic depression.” It is more popular to give your money to cancer research than to local and national institutions fighting schizophrenia.

On my own high school campus, October was littered with pink; we hosted football games and volleyball games dedicated to raising money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Every May, we fundraise for the American Cancer Society by having a seniors vs. staff softball game, and it is wildly successful, an icon of our school spirit and dedication to good-will and philanthropy. And I am proud of all these things. But, it does not, cannot, and never will help us fight the invasion of mental diseases, and the possibility of a shooting that could leave more dead than breast cancer or colon cancer ever will on a high school campus. Recently, a friend of mine tried to host a week long of events for Suicide Prevention Week on our campus through the non-profit TWLOHA. He was told by both our local site and our school district that there was a process he needed to walk through in order to host something like that on campus and to wait for “next time.” Instead, last week and this week, our school hosted an Anti-Bully campaign and Red Ribbon Week. This past summer, facebook and instagram feeds were overcome by the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a successful attempt to raise awareness of and fundraise for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. These are all good and fine and wonderful, but realistically need to happen a bit more than one week out of the year, or one summer out of a hundred, and they need to be in conjunction with an equal concern for students’ mental wellness. A few days after my coworker’s attempt was denied, we held parent-teacher conferences on our campus, and I sat back in my chair and listened to concerned parents share with me about their child’s struggle with depression. Are we going to say “next time” when one of these kids does not get the help they need and they chose to lash out by hurting themselves and other students, teachers, and school staff members?

I am not sure if the reason why we choose to promote cancer and other less stigmatized disease research over mental health related research is based on our American myth of self-reliance and success, or just good old fashioned shame. What I am certain of is that if we want to see an end to the much more shameful fact that school shootings have become “normal” occurrences in America, then we need to be willing to get in depression’s face. We need to train our teachers, counselors, and school staff members on how to use more than guest speaker forms to prevent unwanted intruders on campus. We will probably need to do more than just raise awareness by asking people to wear a certain color on one day out of the year or do something shocking in front of a camera. We will need to make it just as acceptable for kids, teachers, and administrators to wear shirts announcing their struggle with and defeat of mental illness as it is for them to wear cancer survivor shirts. We will need to put mental health initiatives on the ballot in equal measure with gun restriction laws. We will need to, as a nation, commit to caring about our young people with half as much concern as we care about foreign disease invasions. Because, the truth is the disease IS here, and it’s been killing for a lot longer than ebola.

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Do You know an International?

I wasn’t surprised when Claire* and Ahmed* told me that our house was the first American home they’d been in. And they didn’t just land in the racial mosaic of America’s southern California area yesterday.

I first met Claire, a Chinese doctor, and Ahmed, a Saudi Arabian businessman, in early July, along with a young man from Japan. I volunteered at a local university with an international program as a conversation partner to help students learn English. These three were paired with me for the whole summer and through the last few months have become friends.

When my husband and I invited them over for dinner one Friday night in September, it felt strangely exciting. I say strangely because I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never hosted an international “student” in my home before. I say student because while both Claire and Ahmed are technically here in America to learn English and/or attain master’s degrees, they really feel more like peers than students. Both in their 30s, married, and well established in a career, I found myself drawn repeatedly to our similar stations in life as newly married, working adults. I also sympathized with both of them, who left their homes and spouses thousands and thousands of miles away. And so it seemed a somewhat weighty and expectation-laden experience to open up our home to them. What if they don’t come? What if they don’t like the food? What if they’re too busy and something else comes up? What if they get lost?

Or, as it turns out, what if they came, appeared to like the food, were not too busy, found our place, and enjoyed some good old fashioned community? In fact, we talked quite a bit at dinner about how closed Americans are. Other countries are much more relational than the US. It would not be hard for visitors to assume that Americans come home from their busy days, pull their SUVs into their two and three car garages, turn the deadbolt, sink onto their sofas, drag themselves upstairs, and are lucky if they exchange stories of the day with their spouses and children. We often do not think about inviting others over to be a part of our community because our lives are busy enough as is. And, if we do choose to invest in others in our daily routines, they are typically people who think, operate, and maybe even look just like us. However, other parts of the world are littered with town squares, sidewalk cafes, apartment buildings with community centers, public parks, and other inviting and encouraging structures built into the fabric of their group-minded society. This disparity in cultures is not all that shocking, given that Americans are known for their fast paced lives, rugged individualism, self-reliance, and competitive nature that often leaves us climbing social ladders alone. What IS shocking is the equally well known American concepts of opportunity, freedom, liberty and justice for all. Just not hospitality. Freedom and justice and habeas corpus, sure, just not open doors, hot meals, and good old fashioned neighborliness for all.

Unfortunately, Ahmed and Claire’s experience of living in America for several months without once being invited into an American home is not unusual, or an exception. Sadly, “statistics prove that among the international students who study in the U.S., historically 70% have never been invited to an American home during their stay. More than 85% are never invited to an American church or have any meaningful contact with genuine Christians during an average stay of four years,” according to Dr. Tom Phillips, co-author of “The World at Your Door.” Now, whether an American is a professed Christian or church attender is not the point. The point is, for a nation that touts the Statue of Liberty beckoning the unwashed masses onto her shore as her icon, we do a very poor job of welcoming the foreigners in our midst, who are anything but unwashed. In fact, a lot of international students, such as my friends Claire and Ahmed, are already well-educated leaders or potential leaders in their communities and countries. We are hosting some of the world’s most influential citizens in our backyard and we don’t even think to have them over for coffee.

And so it hasn’t taken much to conclude that Americans are woefully pitiful at loving, hosting, hell, even helping, international students, or just foreigners in our nation at all. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that we’re all immigrants, that we’re all foreigners and as Maya Angelou reminds us in her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning”,

Each of you, descendant of some passed/ On traveler, has been paid for/…[So that] You may have the courage/ To look up and out and upon me the/ Rock, the River, the Tree, your country./ No less to Midas than the mendicant./ No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Americans do a lot of things well. A lot. Hosting people from other lands and loving our foreign visitors is just not one of them. Farbeit from me that Claire and Ahmed return home and have friends ask, “What are American homes like?” and not be able to answer the question. Farbeit that I have princes, princesses, and future world leaders in my own city and I shy away from just sharing a meal with them or asking them if they need a ride to Target.

So the question is how do we bring back some semblance of neighborliness? How can we live out the mythic image of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing the first Thanksgiving together? How can we re-embrace the legend of America, land of the free, home of the brave? How do we brave the world at our doorstep? Because, the problem is, if we don’t, we exclude a large group of people, who are and can be world leaders and changers. According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs, in 2013 the ECA had 275,000 J-1 visa participants who came to the US from over 200 countries and territories. Moreover, the ECA, which provides exchange programs for both American and international students, boasts 55 alumni who are Nobel Prize winners.

Well, the ECA is a perfect place to start. There are programs for Americans who are willing to be host families of exchange students. Since America is so rich in institutions of higher learning, chances are most of us have a college (or more than one) within a 25 mile radius of our front door. Chances also are that that school has some international students who would love to make an American friend. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to be some fancy, upper-class, intellectual elite or super American to befriend an international student; you just have to speak English, and be nice. The holidays are coming up, and many international students will not have the opportunity to travel home. What better way to embrace the ideals of America than to make some new friends and invite them over to share in the Thanksgiving meal? I can think of no more patriotic and truly American act than to celebrate that first feast with someone of a different nationality than you. After all, isn’t that the whole legacy of our nation?

*- Names changed to protect individuals’ privacy

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I sometimes wonder, if the Rwandan genocide had occurred this past April, as opposed to 20 years ago, what would social media look like? I wonder if it would #trend on twitter, or whether or not celebrities would hold up posters of a tiny African country the size of Maryland with bold typography that read #Genocide. I wonder if instagram feeds would be littered with selfies of users’ hands stamped with a red “G” instead of an “X”, bringing whole new meaning to the “End It” movement.

I don’t ask these questions to be morbid, twisted, or in the least bit insensitive. The country of Rwanda and its people is about as near to my heart as any country on earth, excepting the one of my birth. It’s inked into my skin and it’s certainly tattooed on my heart, which is exactly why when the #BringBackOurGirls began to trend on twitter (and facebook), I immediately thought of Rwanda.

In April of 1994, when a tribal-based ethnic cleansing began to sweep the green thousand hills of Rwanda, UN soldiers arrived, posted, and sat. Like sitting ducks. Like target practice, and indeed, some of them were killed in the line of fire, prohibited from firing back themselves. Foreign nations, and foreign policy, refused to label the slaughter of almost a million people in just about 100 days, a genocide. Once given that title, the UN is obligated to act. And well, no one wanted to get their hands dirty. TIA, (“This is Africa,” an expression used profusely in the DiCaprio film Blood Diamond about Sierra Leone) perhaps, is a good abbreviation to express the sentiment. I was 11 years old at the time, but I would venture to say most Americans, from 7 to 77, had little to no idea that across the Atlantic Ocean and the continent of Africa, neighbors were raising machetes, completely unstopped, and cutting down families they’d lived and farmed next to for generations.

Fast forward to the present. I am 30 years old, and 200 some odd girls have been captives to a terrorist regime for less than a week, and I know about it. It’s viral. And what’s even better? They’re African. Nigerian. Muslims and Christians. People. Their names are on a list. I can find them and pray for them and advocate for them. There has been a shift in the American’s response to outages occurring overseas, and say what you may about social media, this is one area in which we have taken a step in the right direction. It has become sort of “en vogue” to change profile pictures and create hashtags that raise the public conscience to a newer level of caring about people half a world away.

Now, as the linked article above mentions, there is definitely concern that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has dwindled, and given way to other issues. This probably adds to the reasons why some see this “trend” in social media to be shallow, superficial, and “bandwagoney”. I suppose that could be true. But, I prefer to see this movement in social media to be uplifting, encouraging, and hopeful. Whether average Americans and celebrities just didn’t care about Africans 20 years ago, or they simply did not have access to media that would prompt their compassion, I am not sure. But,to be certain, twitter, facebook, instagram, even pinterest, are tools that on one hand seem middle schoolish and silly, but are actually quite capable of promoting good, and thus shaming evil. Where the world stood still 2 decades ago, it is now taking pictures, posting campaigns, sharing information, and overall, raising awareness for the plight of people and championing justice. If artists like Alicia Keys can use her instagram feed to not just promote herself, but also the safe return of kidnapped girls in Western Africa, I cannot help but appreciate her attempts, and feel heartened in general that the world I’m living now just might be more merciful than it was when I was a teenager, and THAT is a trend I am not sure many generations have had the privilege of “sharing.”

The hope is that as long as we don’t simply rest with the idea of “raising awareness,” but press doggedly forward to continue to see change come about, social media may just be the beginning of a massive world upset, a reality that is far more than just “likable.” And THAT is ALSO exactly where THE JUSTICE LETTERS comes in. We hope that in a world of social media, we can enter the blogosphere, and provide a space where voices can be heard championing the rights of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the forgotten and ignored, whether they are here in America, or across the oceans. We hope we can provide food for thought, fodder for change, and resources for further research. We hope to be advocates, empowerers, and writers of redemption, revolution, and human rights. We hope you will read our letters, and find your own way to write back hope, peace, and mercy to our cities, our nations, and our world.

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