Paul was an anchor in law school.  When I didn’t believe I was worthy to be among my classmates, he convinced me otherwise.  He supported me and encouraged me in all endeavors.  Paul, however, wanted no part of my endeavors.  He rarely accompanied me to events, small or large.  “You go and have fun,” he would say.

Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at Duke Hospital, a job that provided a living wage and good benefits.  It didn’t take long, however, for Duke to become Paul’s new object of anger.  In our home, Duke became the evil institution – a bit awkward given I was pursuing two graduate degrees there.

I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to study at such a grand university.  I loved walking the beautiful, gothic campus, sometimes pinching myself to make sure that this trailer-park girl was really a Duke student.  Sure, I had philosophical differences with the traditional, Socratic delivery of legal education at Duke, which I found to be oppressive.  Yes, I bristled at the excesses and the obsession with high paying law firm jobs.   But I could not relate to Paul’s intense anger.  Duke was, after all, providing me with invaluable training and opportunities, with the means to pursue my calling.

Paul also continued to harbor anger at institutional religion.   Since high school, he had planned to be a preacher.  He was a very good preacher too.  But the Southern Baptist Convention had left Paul behind when it turned fundamentalist, and Paul could not see another avenue to a career as a preacher.

Paul and I joined Watts Street Baptist Church when we moved to Durham, our first church home as a couple.    Watts became a sanctuary for me, a place where I could both worship and be an activist.   Such was not the case for Paul.  Despite sharing the values and mission of Watts, Paul struggled to attend, often opting for his “bedside” place of worship.

Paul was miserable, and as you know, misery loves company.


I called my Dad out of the blue in 1988.    We hadn’t spoken in several years, and I wanted him to know that I had started law school.  Calling him was a way of dealing with a nagging burr of unhappiness.

Dad seemed happy to hear from me, which was surprising.   Most of our phone calls over my life were about me needing money and were painful as he explained how he didn’t have the money to give me.   Those were the days when fathers weren’t required to pay child support.   It was a terrible position to be in as a child.

I figured this phone call would be a relief to him, since law school sounds like a ticket to financial independence.   Ironically, Dad was finally doing very well for himself, and for his third family.   He wanted to fly me down to Orlando to see him, a first.

Funny how we adults can suddenly be transported to being a child.  Wow!  My Dad wants to see me.  How cool is that?  I was 26 years old.

Dad and I spent a lot of time on that trip talking and crying.  I expressed my feelings of abandonment, and he expressed sorrow for the pain he had caused.  He wanted to do better, and I wanted him to do better.  But there were a lot of broken promises in our past, so I tried not to get my hopes up, even as we lounged by his in-ground pool.

Dad took me to his local watering hole to show me off to his friends.  Occasionally, he would look at me and say “I can’t believe you are my daughter.”  “And you did it with very little help!” he would add proudly.    The “survival of the fittest” tradition was passed on.

Father Void

I began working for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services in the summer of 1993.    Finally, I had arrived at my destination – public interest lawyering.  As much as I loved being a student, I was ready to settle down.  But for a year and a half break between seminary and law school, I had been attending school full-time since kindergarten.

My family was very much ready for me to settle down.  My birth family had seen me off to college when I was 17 years old.   For fourteen years, every time I spoke with my grandfather, he had two questions: 1) you working? and 2) how’s the weather?   Granddaddy came from a long line of farmers, so I guess those were very important life questions to him.

I was a “good” kid, so I never dreaded Granddaddy’s questions.  I had been working since my freshman year in college, through seminary, until law school.  In law school, I worked only in the summers, causing me to be a bit creative in answering his questions during the school year.  But I was always able to point to something that resembled work to him and almost always able to tell him about the weather.

My husband, Paul, supported us during law school.  He worked full-time as a psychiatric aide at Duke University Medical Center.   I met Paul when I was 19.   He came from a working class family in east Tennessee.  They were union people, having moved from the coal mining country across the border in Virginia.

Paul’s father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when Paul was just 13, leaving his mother to take care of two boys.  There was little to no life insurance and Paul’s mother had been a traditional housewife.  Literally overnight, Mary was forced into the job market with no college education and no job training.  When I came along, she was working as a manager at a Hallmark store.

As Paul and my relationship became serious, I was sad that Paul’s father was not around.  Both our mothers were single, and, oddly, as I moved through my twenties, I felt the father void in my life more acutely.

The Unspeakable

I was alone amongst the hoard in Guatemala City.  I had somehow become separated from my travel companions.  I could not speak Spanish well enough to communicate with those in the city square.  I looked around for a safe place and spotted the Cathedral of Guatemala City.   The Cathedral was built in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Over the centuries, it had had stood witness to immeasurable suffering and had served as a sanctuary for the oppressed.

What better place to find help?  I entered one of the large doors.  It was dark and dank inside.  All around the sides of the Cathedral were alters lit by rows of candles.  Women and men were kneeling in prayer.  Some faced the stone wall, weeping.   Some alters were dedicated to the thousands missing and murdered in the civil war that had not yet ended.

The suffering was palpable.  I was overwhelmed by the grief of others and moved to tears.  I had never been so aware of the cruelty of humanity.  My biggest fear on my Central American pilgrimage had been getting separated from my group.  Now it had happened, and my plight seemed slight.  I sat for a while.

Eventually, I rose and exited into the light.  I headed in the direction of the house where we were staying and found my way home.  Image

Baptist Peacemakers

The Peace and Reconciliation Mission Group at Watts Street Baptist Church was small but influential.  Its members believed that the church had an obligation to speak out against violence, work to prevent violence, and help victims and perpetrators of violence reconcile. 

The “P & R group” began in the early 1980s with one middle-aged woman, Ruby Leigh Herndon.  She set out to convince others in the church that the nuclear arms race had become a serious threat to God’s creation and had to be stopped.   Her recruitment began with her Republican brother, Fred, and his sister, Nannie Mae.  The fledgling group set a goal of reconciliation with the Russians — our “enemies.”   This small group of North Carolinians reached out to individuals in Russia and the cold war ended.   

Ok, perhaps these Baptists were not totally responsible for the end of the cold war, but they contributed to the many voices that brought light to the senselessness bred by propaganda and hate-mongering.   They broke down the walls of fear within our church, leading to a church to church relationship in Kostroma, Russia.  Internationally, people to people relationships played a significant role in tumbling the wall. 

By the time I joined the P & R group in 1988, they had added the U.S. backed violence in Central America to their list of concerns.  There was the Contra War in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The group sought to educate the congregation of the needs in those countries and sought to be reconciled with the people there. 

I came to the group with a keen interest in the problems of Central America.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was drawn to Liberation Theology and its grassroots perspective of God having a preferential option for the poor.  

In 1990, the P & R group voted to send someone to Central America to learn firsthand how our church could better assist the people.   I could hardly contain myself.  I had wanted to go to Central America since seminary but lacked the means.  “Send me,” I volunteered. 

I began researching the options and landed with a group from Minnesota that ran educational trips to Central America focused on micro-enterprise projects, mostly craft co-ops.  They had a trip to Honduras and Guatemala in August of 1990, just before my third year of law school would begin.   The focus of the trip was a good fit, since I was committed to socially responsible purchasing whenever possible.     

Needless to say, my trip to Central America was life-altering, not only because of the educational experience but because of my personal growth.   I had never been to a non-English speaking country much less a third world country.  I had been outside the USA only once and that was to Quebec, Canada, on a high school band trip. International travel has a way of building your problem-solving skills and your confidence. 

My most significant “personal growth” experience involved my getting lost in Guatemala City.   Getting separated from the group had been my biggest fear, and it happened.   It was just like a movie.   One minute I was with the group and the next thing I knew, I looked around and my group was gone.   Don’t panic I told myself.  Above all, don’t look panicked.  

Balance in Law School

Law school did not nurture my spiritual self.  In fact, traditional legal education has a way of sucking spirituality right out of a student.   You are trained to think “critically,” to put aside feelings of sympathy and vague notions of morality.

To be fair, this training is essential for students to become the zealous advocate for a client that they need to be.   Unchecked sympathy for a client or for the opposing party can lead to disastrous results.   Lawyers need detachment and objectivity to navigate the treacherous waters in which their clients swim.

This training to “think like a lawyer” is the focus of the first year of law school.  The problem is that it often goes on for three years without much encouragement of, or assistance for, students to incorporate into their new lawyer-self the essential moral and human values with which they entered law school and the additional ones they need to develop.   Many law schools today are aware of this problem and are intentional in addressing the values gap.  Such was not the case when I was in law school.

Thankfully, I found a counterweight to the narrow training of law school, which served to keep me balanced:   Watts Street Baptist Church.   And in this church I found a small group of elders who became my mentors:  the Herndons (Fred, Nannie Mae, and Ruby Leigh) and Leslie Dunbar.    All were in their 60s and 70s.   They formed the core of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee.  I joined them, or perhaps, it is more accurately to say that they took me under their wings.

Finishing School

Beginning law school was a shock to my system.  I cried every day my first two weeks and many times after that.  (My current students should be interested in hearing.) The reading was intense; the pressure in class extreme; but the hardest part was trying to fit in.  Duke Law became my finishing school.

Having grown up poor in a small Southern town, I felt like a fish out of water.  Most of my classmates were from families of means.  Many had undergraduate degrees from Ivey League schools.  They had studied, or at least traveled, abroad – something I had never even dared to dream of doing.   They read the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.  Really, they did.

I had a steep learning curve, but having a sense of mission gives you focus.  I knew that if I were going to accomplish my goal to help “the arc of the moral universe” bend toward justice, I needed to know how to play the law game.

There were so many firsts.  I attended cocktail parties and had lunches with governors.  I flew to New York for a job interview, rode in a taxi and tasted sushi.  I argued cases in mock trials and worked on group policy projects.  I shook hands with US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and stood with Senator Joe Biden in his Washington office as he talked about getting through the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident.  I helped create a student public interest organization.  I even made my first run for public office, a position on a faculty student committee that dealt with career services.   I won.  And I read the NY Times and listened to NPR.

For my first summer, I was fortunate to clerk for N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Charles Becton.  For my second summer, I interned at Ferguson and Stein, a civil rights law firm in Chapel Hill.  During my third year, I took a very part-time internship with the North Carolina Resource Center, an organization that defended inmates on death row in post-conviction proceedings.   Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was building a network of friends in the right places.

I added a second life theme song: Faith by George Michael