Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
I met Dr. Benjamin Carson, President-elect Trump's pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, back in—oh, about 1990. He was younger then (and of course, so was I). The first edition of his book Gifted Hands had just come out and he was a hometown hero in Detroit, where I was working at evangelical Christian radio station WMUZ-FM.
Back then, a campaign for the Presidency wasn’t even a twinkle in his eye. He hadn't yet anticipated that he would be offered a major political post. Carson was a neurosurgeon, and a good one. He was a man of faith, and a devoted son.
At the time Carson came to the WMUZ studios for an interview with then-evangelical pastor (now Catholic broadcaster) Al Kresta, he no longer actually lived in Detroit. He was already a successful neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had just led a team of 70 skilled surgeons and medical professionals who successfully separated conjoined twins. The twins — seven-month-old Patrick and Benjamin Binder from Ulm, Germany — were joined at the skull; or more specifically, at the sagittal superior sinus, a critical vein which drains blood from the brain as well as cerebrospinal fluid. Twins joined at this complicated location rarely survive past their second birthday, Carson’s high-tech solution offered at least the hope of a longer life for the two boys.
The delicate surgery was a success, and the Binder twins live normal lives today. Dr. Carson went on to participate in several other groundbreaking separation surgeries, and performed the first successful surgery on a child still in the womb.
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In Gifted Hands, Dr. Carson tells the story of the Binder surgery — but also of the preparatory years, his years growing up in Detroit, in an impoverished community, using food stamps to pay for bread and milk. He talks about life with a mother who was loving but who lacked the education to help her boys to become successful.
Sitting in our studio that day, Ben Carson looked back with fondness at his years growing up in a ghetto community while his mother struggled, sometimes working three jobs as a domestic servant to put food on the table. But what Sonja Carson lacked in education, she made up for in determination: She was determined that her sons would be successful in school.
You see, Sonja couldn’t read. Her son Ben didn’t know that at the time, though. Sonja was often at work when her sons returned home from school in the afternoon; but Carson’s mother imposed a restriction on her sons: While their friends played basketball in the streets of Detroit, he and his brother would do homework and read. They were required to read two books per week, and then write book reports. He smiled as he told us that she’d put red checkmarks on the handwritten reports, sometimes circling a passage. She didn’t want him to realize that she couldn’t really understand what he’d written.
So it was that Sonja Carson, a single mother raising her boys in the inner city, engendered in young Benjamin the love of books, and of the bold adventures they promised. She paved the way to an academic career that took him from the slums of Detroit to a career as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, to the stage at the Republican presidential debate.
In 2009, Carson’s biographical Gifted Hands was made into a TNT movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. The movie has been shown in schools, churches and on the Black Entertainment Television network (BET). It’s been released on DVD and streams on Netflix. The Daily Caller tells that story, but one part in particular caught my attention:
“There's too much God in it,” Ben Carson remembers someone telling him.
Filming had already started on the TNT movie about his life, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” when one of the major sponsors suggested toning down some parts about his Christian faith. There were concerns about alienating a general audience.
“I just said, 'No problem, you can take it out,'” Carson recalled in a recent interview with The Daily Caller. 'But take me out too, because it won't be about me.'”
“And then they backed off.”
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And now President-elect Donald Trump has announced that he will nominate Ben Carson to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Some critics decry Carson's lack of political experience, which Carson himself doesn't deny. “Having me as a federal bureaucrat,” he told the Washington Post in a November interview, “would be like a fish out of water, quite frankly.” But he is talented: The retired neurosurgeon reached the top of his field by the age of 33, when he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a position he held for nearly thirty years.
What Carson brings to the post — and what I'm sure was most attractive to Donald Trump — is character and determination. He rose from poverty, he's quick to point out, not through government assistance programs but through hard work and persistence; and his successful career is an encouragement to others who may, through his example, see a way out of indigence.
According to the New York Times, Carson has opposed government intrusion into communities — for example, opposing parts of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The act was intended to prevent landlords and local communities from implementing discriminatory policies which denied housing to minorities in predominantly white suburbs, where they might have access to better schools. Carson's opposition is aimed at a second part of the Fair Housing Act, implemented by the Obama Administration, which forces integration — giving communities detailed data on racial demographics, poverty rates, school quality and housing vouchers, then requiring those communities to come up with a plan to reduce segregation. “These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality,” Carson wrote in The Washington Times,
...create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.
And of course, for Catholics and other Christians, Carson's firm opposition to abortion is a welcome sign that he will value morality above political expediency. Carson has proven effective in medical science; he has less experience in politics, but that seems both a negative and a positive. He’s smart enough to learn, and to solicit advice from others when needed.