by Westina Matthews
It was September 26, 1990, and I suddenly found myself in a firestorm. A mayoral appointee to the Board of Education of the City of New York, I was being asked to vote on then Chancellor Fernandez’s SAFE Program, a mandatory sex education class for middle school and high schoolers that would include the distribution of prophylactic devices upon the request of students without parental knowledge or consent. We were a seven-member board, and somehow, I had become the swing vote. Persuaded by the compelling statistics of AIDs and the growing prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents, I voted yes.
I tried to stay out of the cross hairs of the press, even turning down an invitation from Oprah to be on her show. I was an educator. I had accepted the mayoral appointment to be about the business of education, or so I naively thought. How wrong I was.
Not unlike what we see today throughout our nation, New York City was all about partisan politics, and Rudolph Giuliani and his board allies were using any and every divisive issue to garner support for what ultimately would be a successful run for mayor. I received death threats; my mail was screened; my phone was tapped; and my car was followed.
Behind closed doors, the discussion became more and more vitriolic. The “Mooch” has nothing on my fellow board members. I remember one board member referring to the children in the New York City Public School system as “those dirty, little b@$#&ds!
After months of heated debates, demonstrations, and unending media coverage, in February 1991 there was still another vote on a measure to allow parents to “opt” their children out from this program. On the evening of the board meeting, after noting how many people had signed up to speak to the board on the evening of this vote, I lamented to a reporter, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 277 people were here to discuss an educational agenda?”
I knew how I was going to vote, and I was convicted. As the time to vote drew near, the then President of the Board, also a mayoral appointee, beckoned me out of the room and told me that the Mayor was on the phone.
I folded. I voted against my values. I voted politics over principles. And it’s a vote that I regret to this day. I should have resigned my position on the spot. I could have gone ahead and voted for the parental opt out. Knowing what I know now, I would have done it differently. Three months after that vote, I submitted my resignation to the Mayor and did not fulfill my four-year term.
That vote literally almost cost me my life. Diagnosed with pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac around the heart), I nearly died from a broken heart of voting against my principles. A tough lesson to learn, but a lesson that I have taken to heart – literally – and have been known for taking maverick positions on principle while serving on subsequent boards.
On October 24, 2014 after a contentious and controversial trustee vote at General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, The Rt. Rev. Andrew M. Dietsche, Bishop of the Diocese of New York, demonstrated courage and leadership in a letter, calling for repentance to all involved. He wrote, “Everyone has made mistakes, and every mistake has been compounded. My own failures or missed opportunities lie very heavy on my heart this weekend. And I am sorry.”
Oh, how I wish I had issued such a statement after my vote those many years ago. Twenty-six years later, my own failures or missed opportunities still weigh heavy on my heart. And I am so very sorry.
I so admire the senator from Arizona who voted his principles over politics. Whether we support or do not support his thumbs down, I hope we can all agree that he stood by his convictions. In doing so, he showed us that indeed, “a sling of truth still can make Goliath fall” as Tom Althouse once wrote in The Frown Face Cow. And now, the senator has traveled home to begin his medical treatments for an aggressive form of brain cancer. Prayers ascending and surrounding.
I wonder, is it only after we are forced to reach out and touch our own mortality that we are finally able to stand up for our principles? Is it only then that we can become a “profile in courage” and rise above all the politics, lobbying, and bullying whether in parishes, in seminaries, in public service, on our jobs, and yes, even at General Convention?
In this Humpty Dumpty world we live in today, do any of us continue to believe in speaking truth to power? I ask because I don’t know about you, but I sure do think that we need some new “heroes” and “she-roes” to serve as our role models on how to help put this world back together again. And may I be so bold as to suggest that we consider beginning with an esteemed octogenarian senator who is not afraid to use his thumb like a sling?
Westina Matthews is an author, public speaker, retreat leader, spiritual director and an adjunct professor at General Theological Seminary where she teaches contemplative spiritual direction. A published author with three books in the Have A Little Faith series, she has contributed to several Forward Movement anthologies, including the Finding God Day by Day series (2012, 2014, 2015) and Wisdom Found: Stories of Women Transfigured By Faith (2011); and she is completing her fourth book entitled “Reflections From Along the Wilmington River: Aging with Grace.”