What’s UP: Episode 7

A look at the business of journalism produced by the University Press, the student newspaper of Lamar University.

UP editor Olivia Malick, left, and photojournalist Kim Brent of the Beaumont Enterprise
UP editor Olivia Malick, left, and photojournalist Kim Brent of the Beaumont Enterprise

Episode 7: UP editor Olivia Malick and adviser Andy Coughlan welcome Kim Brent, Beaumont Enterprise photojournalist.

Texans deserve better

Hard freeze warning map courtesy of the National Weather Service. UP graphic by Olivia Malick

Note: This article was originally published for The University Press.

People deserve to have power in the dark, heat in the cold and water to bathe with, cook with and drink. These things are not luxuries, they are necessities that we pay for.

Yet, as I write this, at least half a million people in Texas don’t have power and more than 14 million people are under a boil water notice.

This is due to the multi-day winter storm that hit Texas and caused the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s independent power grid, to fail. The extreme low temperatures weakened the grid’s power production as more people tried to use it, causing ERCOT to declare a statewide power generation shortfall emergency.

ERCOT ordered rolling blackouts across the state that were slated to last from 10 to 40 minutes but ended up lasting days for some customers. As temperatures dropped below freezing, some Texans were forced to survive with no power and, in some cases, no heat.

This is a complete failure on the part of ERCOT — but also the state government — to ensure that residents will be protected when adverse weather events occur.

ERCOT should have winterized their systems, but they didn’t to cut costs. And now millions of Texans are paying the price for their frugality.

Gov. Greg Abbott should’ve been 100-percent focused on getting residents the resources they need to weather the rest of the storm and to deal with its aftermath, not play a pundit role on Fox News (where he spread lies about frozen wind turbines causing the massive power outages in the state when it was, in fact, failures at natural gas and coal plants).

What Texas needs is leadership, not lip-service by presumptive candidates in order to score points for the next presidential election. We’ll remember what real leadership looks like. For example, former representatives, that aren’t even in office anymore, seemed better equipped to reach out to their fellow Texans and organize help where it was needed without resources from the state or federal government.

Then, to add insult to injury, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz decided to fly to Cancún, Mexico, during his state’s worst power crisis in a decade and a worldwide pandemic that is still raging on. Detailed in family texts given to The New York Times, the senator and his family left Houston to escape their powerless home.

It must be nice. I know myself and millions of others would’ve loved to fly to sunny Cancún, where we could escape the cold and dark and maybe even drink some tap water without having to boil it first — but we couldn’t. And as our representative, Mr. Cruz, you shouldn’t have left. Your constituents are cold, tired and scared. At least 36 people have died, and you have the nerve to turn your back on us? We’ll remember.

I write this grieving once again for my home. Not only for the people we’ve lost to yet another adverse weather event, but for the time we’ve lost waiting around for who knows what, and for the security we always seem to be desperately clinging to.

When it warms up and lights come back on, and the water is safe drink — when the resources start flowing into Texas — we need to remember what has happened here.

We can’t let those responsible off the hook — we need accountability and consequences. When the next election cycle comes around, look at which candidates are loyal to the people of Texas and which candidates are loyal to industry.

There also needs to be mental health resources allocated to affected cities because our communities are suffering under the weight of weather-related trauma.

Throughout this storm, I was reminded of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We had no power and we were under a boil notice for weeks. I remember getting buckets of water from ditches with my family so that we could flush our toilets then — this time we used melted ice.

The oil lamp that lit my house in the dark, cold hours of the power outage. UP photo by Olivia Malick

As I sat in my house, lit only by an oil lamp, a familiar feeling set in. Isolation.

These storms, whether they be winter or tropical, never fail to isolate communities from the larger world in which they reside. We see people from other states send their thoughts and prayers, but they only do so much. Oftentimes even the people who really do want to help are limited by their own circumstances. Then you have government officials who turn their back on you or just don’t say anything at all.

While we sit alone, in the dark, waiting for the lights to come back on.

We’ll remember.

Olivia Malick, UP editor

UPbeat Winter 2020 — A University Press Magazine


The December 2020 edition of UPbeat, a University Press magazine. Layout by 2020-21 UP editor, Olivia Malick and 2020-21 UP managing editor, Tim Cohrs.

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Abuse of Faith

Women share tales of religious oppression, breaking free

Eleanor Skelton looks through directories from churches she attended as a child. Skelton shared her stories of leaving oppressive church groups.

For centuries, people have looked to religion for salvation and understanding, seeking a sense of community in their congregations and a sense of purpose.

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 78 percent of Americans identify with a religion, with 70 percent of that group identifying with some form of Christianity, or religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

While religion can be a positive force in a person’s life, it has also been used to justify wars throughout history. ­­

Religion can also serve as a conduit for physical, emotional and spiritual abuse. This is the story of two women who left their oppressive religions.

“Religion disarms people — their guards go down,” Stuart Wright, chair of the LU sociology, social work and criminal justice department, said. “Religion makes claims to speaking for god and having this kind of cosmic order, so people are less likely to put up defenses and use their analytical skills.”

Beginnings

As a child, Eleanor Skelton was taught to believe that she was responsible for the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

Every year her family would go see The Passion Play, a dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ life, beginning with his birth and ending in a violent recreation of his death.

“I remember going for the first time when I was two and a half,” Skelton, now 31, said. “I remember it being kind of scary, but it wasn’t very graphic yet. He was hung on the cross, but it wasn’t very bloody.”

Skelton said the play became increasingly brutal as she got older. She wasn’t able to even approach the man who portrayed Jesus afterwards because she was afraid that he would think she was responsible for his death. By the time she was nine, the actor who played Jesus was being kicked and spit on, and screamed while he was forcibly nailed to the cross, fake blood cementing the scene in the audience’s minds.

“I was told the message that the man on the cross should’ve been me,” she said. “I was told that when I was bad, I was hurting Jesus.”

Skelton was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household where the interpretation of the Bible was strict and literal.

“A fundamentalist religion is one which tries to reclaim the pure original beliefs of that faith, but I would suggest that those are claims, and not often factual,” Wright said. “(These are) claims that cannot actually be authenticated.

“People’s ideas of originality, sometimes are pieced together in certain ways that take on cultural and political overtones that don’t really have anything to do with the original teachings of the sacred texts, whatever they may be.”

Claire Robertson, Beaumont senior, remembers her mother being religious when she was growing up, but everything changed when her mother remarried to her current husband, when Robertson was 11 years old. He was a member of the United Pentecostal Church and Robertson said it wasn’t a big jump for her mother to convert to his religion.

“I was a preteen and change is really hard at that age,” Robertson, now 24, said. “Between getting a new stepdad, moving houses and changing churches, I threw a bit of a fit. For a couple of years, they had to really strong arm me into attending church at all. But eventually, I was fully a part of the church.

“I attained salvation in the way the UPC views attaining salvation, which is being baptized in the name of Jesus. I was filled with the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in other tongues, which is an unknown language to you that comes to you while you pray.

 “I repented my sins, of course, and I began living what they call a ‘holiness lifestyle.’ That involved changing the way I dressed, I stopped cutting my hair, I monitored my media intake and started attending youth groups regularly. I really got into it pretty deep and pretty fast. I think because I was young and impressionable, and so much change had happened in my life, I kind of latched on to that as a coping mechanism, but I genuinely did believe it — I had always had a belief in the Christian God growing up, so it wasn’t a huge leap for me to become part of this church.”

Subset of Society

Skelton, who was born in Beaumont and spent part of her childhood in Port Neches and Nederland, said her family participated in, but was very much separated from, society. She said that she attended fairly “normal” churches in Texas. Her family moved to western Colorado in 1999, where they attended a small multi-denominational Christian church that was “average.”  In 2003, the family moved to Dallas and attended Rockwall Bible Church, which Skelton said was the first “cult” church they attended. In 2006, the family moved to Colorado Springs, which Skelton said is the evangelical Mecca.

“People want to know, were you a part of ‘X’ group?” she said. “Like the fundamentalist Mormons, they’re part of that group their whole lives. They have multiple wives and they live in the desert. People see that and they think cult. The crazy thing is, while we didn’t exactly look like that, a lot of our teachings were very similar.

“It seemed like we were part of normal life — we didn’t go live in the desert with a prophet. We had all of these justifications, ‘We’re different, but it’s OK.’ It took me a really long time to realize we were in a cult.”

Robertson, who left the UPC in January 2020, said that after leaving the church and reading Steve Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, she came to the conclusion that the UPC is a cult. BITE stands for Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional control.

Wright, who has studied different religious movements and cults, said that there is no one legitimate or valid scholarly definition of a cult.

“There’s probably 50, 60 or 70 scholars around the world who study new or first-generation religions, or religions that are on the margins or fringes of societies,” he said.

“There are two domains of definitions. If one is speaking theologically from a Christian perspective, I suppose they could use the term to mean a heresy or departure from orthodox tenets of the faith, which is very subjective, of course.

“Sociologically, they run into problems since the definitions turn on a different social science set of assumptions, and there is considerable academic disdain for the word and it lacks coherent and consistent criteria.

“There’s a lot of disdain for the term ‘cult’ because it’s been hijacked by people with other interests. It was hijacked in the 1970s by what we call ‘anti-cult’ groups — some of them might be harmful and some of them, I’d say most of them, are completely benign, so you have to take them on a case-by-case basis.”

Robertson said she didn’t realize how much influence the UPC wielded over her until after she left.

“When I first left, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I just left a cult,’” she said. “I hadn’t really grasped that idea yet. It wasn’t until I got some distance when I realized how much the church and their ideas had been controlling every single aspect of my life. Not only what I wore and where I went, but the kind of thoughts I allowed myself to entertain, or the people I allowed myself to talk to or the emotions I allowed myself to have — there were things I would stop myself from feeling because I felt like it was sinful. That level of control at every level of my life was so exhausting.”

Neither Skelton’s nor Robertson’s parents grew up in the strict religions they came to know. Wright said there are different push-and-pull factors that lead people to these faiths.

“A pull factor might be they sense a very strong sense of community,” he said. “Sometimes, that community turns into a controlling environment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be but there’s a fine line between a tight-knit sense of belonging and brotherhood and fellowship, and policing and surveillance — mutual spying on people to report any deviation from the norms.

“I think communities have always struggled with that, the tension between freedom and control.”

Teachings

Skelton was homeschooled in Christian-based education from the age of five until she graduated high school, often hidden away in a room she describes as a closet inside her father’s dentist office.

“Homeschooling wasn’t really popular yet and my parents were convinced that if people found out I was being homeschooled, Child Protective Services was going to come and take me,” she said. “We weren’t required to register with the school district or anything, so it was like nobody knew I existed. That happens to a lot of homeschool kids — we’re under the radar, so there’s no one to really check on you.”

Skelton said she was kept in the room for eight to 10 hours a day, barred from interacting or seeing other children, including those who were her father’s patients.

Skelton followed curriculum published by Abeka (then known as A Beka Book) one of the main publishers of American Christian-based education materials. She watched classes via VHS tapes, and later DVDs.

The history textbooks Skelton studied portrayed figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a hero and reframed other his

Skelton was homeschooled in Christian-based education from the age of five until she graduated high school, often hidden away in a room she describes as a closet inside her father’s dentist office.

“Homeschooling wasn’t really popular yet and my parents were convinced that if people found out I was being homeschooled, Child Protective Services was going to come and take me,” she said. “We weren’t required to register with the school district or anything, so it was like nobody knew I existed. That happens to a lot of homeschool kids — we’re under the radar, so there’s no one to really check on you.”

Skelton said she was kept in the room for eight to 10 hours a day, barred from interacting or seeing other children, including those who were her father’s patients.

Skelton followed curriculum published by Abeka (then known as A Beka Book) one of the main publishers of American Christian-based education materials. She watched classes via VHS tapes, and later DVDs.

The history textbooks Skelton studied portrayed figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a hero and reframed other his

Skelton was homeschooled in Christian-based education from the age of five until she graduated high school, often hidden away in a room she describes as a closet inside her father’s dentist office.

“Homeschooling wasn’t really popular yet and my parents were convinced that if people found out I was being homeschooled, Child Protective Services was going to come and take me,” she said. “We weren’t required to register with the school district or anything, so it was like nobody knew I existed. That happens to a lot of homeschool kids — we’re under the radar, so there’s no one to really check on you.”

Skelton said she was kept in the room for eight to 10 hours a day, barred from interacting or seeing other children, including those who were her father’s patients.

Skelton followed curriculum published by Abeka (then known as A Beka Book) one of the main publishers of American Christian-based education materials. She watched classes via VHS tapes, and later DVDs.

The history textbooks Skelton studied portrayed figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a hero and reframed other his

Skelton was homeschooled in Christian-based education from the age of five until she graduated high school, often hidden away in a room she describes as a closet inside her father’s dentist office.

“Homeschooling wasn’t really popular yet and my parents were convinced that if people found out I was being homeschooled, Child Protective Services was going to come and take me,” she said. “We weren’t required to register with the school district or anything, so it was like nobody knew I existed. That happens to a lot of homeschool kids — we’re under the radar, so there’s no one to really check on you.”

Claire
Claire Robertson, shared her storiesof leaving oppressive church groups.UP photo by Olivia Malick

Skelton said she was kept in the room for eight to 10 hours a day, barred from interacting or seeing other children, including those who were her father’s patients.

Skelton followed curriculum published by Abeka (then known as A Beka Book) one of the main publishers of American Christian-based education materials. She watched classes via VHS tapes, and later DVDs.

The history textbooks Skelton studied portrayed figures like Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a hero and reframed other historical events she said. “My mom had the answer keys, so she would check my quizzes and collect my tests and then send them back to Abeka,” Skelton said. “They would grade you on handwriting because it was considered to be almost a spiritual thing. We were taught that if you didn’t get As and Bs, you were displeasing God.”

Robertson said she was indoctrinated into the idea of purity culture, which she believes is used to maintain control over people in the church.

“I would define purity culture as the idea that my body has never belonged to me, or my body belongs to God and in the future, it will belong to my husband,” she said. “This idea comes from when Christ died for our sins — he paid the price. So, purity culture is living in a way that exemplifies these ideas of abstinence, modesty and purity in your lifestyle — like staying away from drugs and alcohol because your body is a temple.

“Purity culture has been pretty toxic because naturally, as you grow up, and go through puberty, and get into relationships and fall in love, you want to express yourself, and express yourself romantically. Then you’re shackled with this guilt that you’ve sinned against God, by acting on your own very natural, very human desires. What I think is unhealthy and unnatural is pretending like we are not sexual beings until we get married. And then all of a sudden, you’re supposed to have compatible, healthy, open communication and rewarding sex with your partner for life.

“I think that’s a breeding ground for potential abuse or for needs not being met by either partner. I think it makes you feel shame for your normal desires.”

Skelton’s parents read books by evangelical Christian author James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, whose vision is to, “Redeem families, communities and societies worldwide through Christ.” Skelton said that Dobson’s book, “The Strong-Willed Child,” which recommends corporal punishment to parents so that their children will follow the teachings of God, led her parents to believe that hitting her and her siblings was a way to ensure they were obedient to God.

“Dobson apparently teaches that when your child has a tantrum, you hit them until they stop resisting, so they submit to your will to become a good kid,” Skelton said. “My parents got the impression that you had to beat your child until they stop crying because crying is like rebellion.

Eleanor Skelton's family
Eleanor Skelton’s family portrait from fall 2002, featuring her father, mother, and two younger siblings whose faces have been covered to respect their privacy.

“Some of these books have been known for really harsh disciplinary methods. The book, ‘To Train Up a Child,’ by Michael and Debi Pearl, was implicated in the deaths of three children — and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t mean for kids to get hurt or killed.’ Well, you write something like that, and that’s kind of what you’re encouraging. Maybe you don’t outright say it or want it, but some people are going to take it that way.”

Skelton said she can remember her parents taking turns hitting her from a young age, to the point she could not catch her breath.

“When I was eight or nine, my parents started spanking me with a ping pong paddle and then my parents started to break it,” she said. “The paddle would split and then I would have to buy a new one with my allowance money because my parents said, ‘You made us so mad that we hit you so hard that it broke the paddle.’

“I’m thinking now, as an adult, if you hit your kid hard enough to break a ping pong paddle on them, that’s too hard.”

When the paddle wasn’t hard enough, Skelton said her parents used a belt.

“Sometimes (my dad) would just snap at us if we were misbehaving,” Skelton said. “But other times he would really react. One time I was chasing my sister around the house and he got so mad. He dragged me to the garage and sat me down on a bench. He yelled at me about how I was too old (12) to act that way and then he hit the bench with a belt.

“It hit my arm and left this big U shape. I remember seeing stars it hurt so bad, and not even being able to hear what he was saying anymore because I was so focused on not crying because crying was bad. He told me he meant to hit the bench — I don’t know if I believe him.”

Skelton’s mother made her wear long sleeves to avoid the chance of anyone discovering what had happened. She said anything that could be perceived as disobedience was punished. She recalled the day her two-year old brother was hit by their father for hours just because he cried for their mother.

“I was upstairs doing my home school and I could hear my brother screaming and he wasn’t stopping,” she said. “I tried to go knock on the door because I thought something was medically wrong. My dad opens the door and says, ‘I’m dealing with something. Close the door.’

“I went upstairs, and my mother was crying in the master bedroom. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ I could hear my dad beating my brother with the ping pong paddle and I asked my mom to make him stop, but she wouldn’t. I wanted to call the police. That was when I started to think that something was really wrong with my family.”

Skelton’s mother wouldn’t call the police and her brother eventually stopped crying after passing out from exhaustion. Skelton said her father’s abuse of her mother was more emotional and mental than physical.

Cracks begin to form

Skelton said she felt suicidal for the first time at 14, after her father made her drop out of the church recital she had been practicing the violin for. By age 19 he had made her drop out on three separate occasions.

“I don’t know why my dad couldn’t just let me go,” she said. “I would attend all the rehearsals, and then at the last minute he would say I couldn’t go to the recital, and then I look like the asshole for dropping out. Nobody knew what was really happening in my house.”

Skelton called the Focus on the Family hotline, but they didn’t offer much help. She said she felt like she was always going to be alone and she was never going to be good enough for her parents to not punish her.

At 19, Skelton started college at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She wanted to major in English, but her father wanted her to become a dentist so she could run his practice with him. They got into an argument and after she threatened to leave, her father allowed her to pursue a major in English, although he still tried to convince her to become a dentist.

By 2011, Skelton started feeling like she wanted to leave again. At 22, she had never spent the night away from her parents.

“I spent a night away from home only four weeks before I moved out,” she said. “I was getting more and more unhappy, and my dad was cracking down on me again, trying to make me be a dentist.”

Skelton read the “Harry Potter” series for the first time and took a humanities class that discussed art, politics and war — different ideas she had never been allowed to explore before.

“My parents flipped,” she said. “They found that I was watching Harry Potter DVDs in the house. My sister turned me in, and then they raided my room and they took all the fantasy literature out of it because they decided I had a problem.

“They were talking about not letting me go back to school in the spring. That was the real breaking point. I started making a plan to leave. My dad made me cut all my hair off, because he said that women with longer hair get raped, because they can hold you down — he read some book. Then he enrolled us in Taekwondo — it was one of his weird anxiety things.”

Robertson said cracks in the UPC’s teachings started to show when she met people unlike herself, people who had different gender and sexual identities.

“I realized what the church has been telling me about other people was completely wrong,” she said. “I never would’ve called myself homophobic, I never saw myself as homophobic, but I was so deeply homophobic.

“The rhetoric of the church is about how anyone who differs from cis(gender), or straight, is an abomination to God, and the way I viewed God was that he created all of the universe, all of nature, everything, he makes us perfect, and anything we do to change that is an abomination, which is a really hard mental hurdle to overcome.

“Even though I think I was an accepting friend, I would have never outwardly supported the LGBT community, because I was so scared of the backlash that I would receive in church if I ever came out with those kinds of ideas.”

Robertson said it was a Lamar study abroad trip to Brighton, England in 2019 that changed her life and the perception of the things she had been taught for the past decade.

“We went to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and they had an exhibit called The Museum of Transology,” she said. “We just happened to be traveling with a trans guy at the time, and he and I just happened to go through this exhibit at the same time. I think it was destiny, because the combination of that exhibit with someone who was trans and them telling me their experiences absolutely changed my life.

“Up until that point, I had said horrifically homophobic things out loud that are so embarrassing like, ‘I think trans people are just confused. I think it must be part of a mental illness. If they received therapy they would come to their senses.’ Stuff like that actually came out of my mouth and I thought it was OK.

“It wasn’t until I started meeting people and learning about other people’s experiences that I thought, ‘No, they’re just people with a different life experience than me.’ I literally did not recognize them as the same kind of person as me until I had that experience in England. I’m so embarrassed of the ideas that I used to entertain.”

Leaving

Robertson said she felt like she was living a double life at times. In 2018, she volunteered at the Jefferson County Democratic Party during the mid-term elections, but she didn’t tell anyone, only her mother, for fear of retribution.

“When I was deciding that I was going to leave the church and kind of working my way up to that, I thought to make things easier for myself and for my mom, because I didn’t want her to worry about me, that I would just quietly move away and stop attending church and nobody would know,” she said. “I thought, when I visit home, I can just wear the skirt and put my hair in a bun and nobody will be the wiser.

Claire speaking
Claire Robertson speaking on her church’s platform in 2016.

“My friend referred to this as functionally closeted, which I think is a great term. I was all set to live a double life like that. I just kind of accepted that because I was so scared to come out as someone who didn’t want to be involved in the church anymore.”

However, after going through some personal events, Robertson said she felt her life was out of control and she wanted to reclaim it.

“I called my mom and I told her I needed to talk to her about something important,” she said. “I went to her house and I just opened the conversation with, ‘I am deciding to not attend church anymore for these reasons, specifically — I want to support the LGBT community and I don’t think I can do that and be apostolic.

“My mom cried and cried, which is the one thing I didn’t want to see, of course. She was crying and said, ‘Does this mean that you’re gay?’ At the time I said no, but now I feel that I don’t know, because I never had the freedom to explore any of those ideas.

“But even if I’m not gay, I don’t want to be a part of a system that actively hurts gay people. As I spent more time away from the church, I realized I actually escaped from a brainwashing cult. I believe my mom is still brainwashed, unfortunately. We don’t have contact anymore because of different reasons, but I think that as long as she’s married, and as long as she’s attending the church, she’ll never really know the extent that it hurt me.

“I’ll never know who I could have been if I didn’t have all those years trying to conform to this standard of UPC. I don’t know what ideas I could have had because all of my ideas were selected for me.”

Robertson began giving away all of her church-related responsibilities as she prepared to leave the congregation, but she didn’t tell anyone why she was doing it.

“I know my mom started telling people, probably by saying, ‘Claire really needs prayer, she doesn’t think she wants to be part of the church anymore, will you please try to say something to her?’” she said. “In the beginning (after she left), I got a couple of really nice text messages, a couple of really nice Facebook messages saying things like, ‘No matter what, we’ll always love you, we’re here for you, if you ever want to talk.’

 

“I remember, I got one message in particular that was like, ‘I don’t understand, and I don’t support why you’d leave, but we’re always here for you,’ or something like that, which looking back is kind of condescending, but I think they were coming at it in the most genuine way that they could. I can’t blame them because where they’re coming from, they really believe that they have the secret to life, the secret to happiness and salvation. So, of course, when you believe that, and you see someone actively leave on purpose, it’s kind of crazy and hard to understand.”

Skelton said she realized she needed to make a change when she started seeing a counselor.

“My parents got more and more concerned about me,” she said. “Even though most the time I was staying at school late to do calculus homework, my dad taped the number for campus police on the microwave and he would text me and call me all the time.”

Skelton’s parents also tracked her cell phone and knew when she moved from one building to another.

“So, I started making a plan to leave. I didn’t know what to do yet, or where to go. Then my hand was forced because we went on a family vacation and my dad didn’t let me have my laptop or cell phone. My parents had a plan to send me to Bob Jones University (a private evangelical school in South Carolina). I was three years into a degree program, I didn’t want to lose credits and I didn’t want to leave my friends.”

Skelton was ready to leave her family and her church when she found out her parents had withdrawn all of the money out of her savings account.

“Some of that was money I’d earned on campus, it wasn’t all from them — they’d emptied out $10,000 out of my savings account,” she said. “I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ I talked to a bunch of friends, they’re like, ‘Well, it can be hard, but you can do it.’

“I told my professors about it, and they were like, ‘This is really wrong.’ I told one of my English professors who told the other professors, so all the chemistry professors knew I was having a problem, all the English professors knew, so both my majors were like, ‘This is not happening to this child.’

“And they gave me money for the apartment deposit. I still didn’t have a car, but another friend on campus gave me a bike. And seven people in five cars, some of them even from my church, got together to help me move out.

“I had two meetings with the pastor, right before I moved out. In one of them he asked me what was going on? He asked, ‘Is there any sexual or physical abuse in your home that I don’t know about?’ He did at least ask that. I said no, because I didn’t know I was being physically abused.

“He told me that the Bible wants you to submit to your parents, and I’m an unmarried woman, and I’m supposed to submit to my dad until I have a husband. I gave in for a little bit, but I eventually told my parents I was going to leave.”

Skelton said her pastor walked out of his last conversation with her, telling her she was being deceived by Satan.

“I just sat in the sanctuary, and it still makes me cry to think about it, because I never had a pastor just, like, walk out on me like that,” she said. “I felt like I always tried to be the good kid and please the spiritual leader within reason.

featured
he collection of photographs, above, show Skelton’s life from a young girl trapped in a toxic religious environment, to a young woman discovering her beliefs on her own terms. Skelton reads through her collection of prayer journals, far right, where she would write letters to Jesus. The journal featured is from 2005 when Skelton was a teenager.

“I told my mom, ‘You realize I can’t come back to church here?’ I knew how these churches worked. He didn’t outright say you can’t come back, but I would never be allowed to do things in the community. I would be under church discipline. So, what was the point?”

Aftermath

When Robertson left the church, she was no longer tied to the UPC’s ideas of what she could do with her body.

“I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself — I still think I dress pretty modestly because the idea of showing my shoulders in public is so scary to me,” she said. “There’s like a weird mind trick where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is wrong, and you shouldn’t be dressed like this.’

“A big part of Pentecostal identity for women is their hair. They teach that women do not cut their hair, because it’s a gender role that women have uncut hair as a sign of submission to their husband, and men cut their hair short as a sign of submission to God. There’s a hierarchy of God, the man and the woman. It’s also believed that uncut hair helps with your spiritual life and your communion with angels.

“When I left the church, I almost immediately cut my hair at home — I just like lopped off six inches with my paper scissors, symbolically, as a way to break myself away from what I had been for so long — I wanted to be in public and not be recognized as Pentecostal, and cutting my hair was a really important part of that.

“I did that kind of without thinking about it, it was just a reaction.”

A couple months later, Robertson made her first appointment at a hair salon since she was in seventh grade.

“I got my hair cut and colored — it was a really emotional experience for me,” she said. “I didn’t cry at the salon, but I did cry a little bit afterwards, because for 10 years I had been told that my body was not my own, that my appearance was not up to me to change.

“I couldn’t cut my hair. I couldn’t wear makeup. I had to wear long dresses and skirts, and now it’s like, ‘Oh, I did something just because I wanted to and I’m so happy with the way that I look.’ All the choices are mine to make and I can make any choice I like. I could have shaved my head if I wanted to. I’m the only person that gets to decide whether or not I do that. I don’t have to answer to my pastor, I don’t have to answer to my future husband or my (church) panelists.

“It was just kind of like a big middle finger to everyone who told me that I would never be able to do that because that wasn’t doctrine, because women are made to live into submission to men, and if not my husband, then to my pastor or to my father — always in submission to man.

“I had a woman cut my hair, I chose the cut, I chose the color, and it was all my idea.”

Robertson also pierced her nose and ears in defiance of teachings that said that all jewelry other than a wedding ring is immodest.

“Honestly, I don’t even know if I like it,” she said. “I might even let them close up. But it was my decision to make. I can get 10 more, or I can take them all out, let them close up — and it’s my choice. For the first time, I get to do whatever I want.

“I’ve always enjoyed clothes and fashion, but now I’m not within these strict guidelines of what I’m allowed to select. I can still wear a dress, but every time I wear a dress now, it’s my choice to put the dress on. It’s not the church telling me how I need to dress.”

Robertson started a Tik Tok account (@venticlaire) where she shares her experiences in the UPC. It has amassed more than 60,000 followers and 840,000 likes.

“Online, I have gotten some really hateful messages from people who say that they’re apostolic,” she said. “They go out of their way to tell me that I’m blaspheming and that it’s an unforgivable sin. But I’ve also gotten so many messages from young girls who say that they have left, or they want to leave, and they’re scared. They’re scared to leave because they’re scared their families are going to kick them out. Or they’re scared that they won’t be able to see their siblings anymore, or they just don’t know what their life would look like if they left the church, but they’re unhappy.

“It’s been rewarding, but also a really heavy burden.”

Robertson said she is not an active believer in anything at the moment, but she wouldn’t call herself an atheist. She also said that people in the UPC aren’t necessarily bad people, but their ideas are harmful.

“I know some genuinely good people who believe in God, and love God, and want to live in a way that’s pleasing to him,” she said. “Because of that desire, they will do almost anything — live any lifestyle that they believe is the correct way.”

Skelton’s parents still live in Colorado Springs and her younger siblings have both left the house and the church. She remains in contact with her mother and father, but she’s installed boundaries. Skelton finished the remaining portion of her English degree at Lamar and transferred the credits back to UCCS, graduating in 2017. She is currently working on a chemistry degree.

“I have finally gotten to the point where I can sit with Bible verses or Christian catchphrases without immediately having a negative visceral reaction and feeling obligated,” she said. “The biggest thing I think I did to help myself heal, when I decided to go to a healthy church after not being a part of a church for three years, was that I won’t do anything that gives me that obligated guilty feeling.”

Lessons

Anyone thinking of leaving the UPC or groups like that need to be prepared.

“If you want to leave the church, you need to save as much money as you can, because you never know how your family will react,” Robertson said. “If you’re lucky, your family will accept you and love you no matter what. If you’re unlucky, your family will cut you off because they don’t want to be party to your sin.”

Skelton said to keep track of essentials like identifying documents, cash and bank information, medications and enough clothes to last a week if you are planning on leaving your family. Skelton’s blog (eleanorwritesthings.com) offers different resources that people may need when they decide to leave or after they have left.

“Sometimes we leave something behind we value,” she said. “Freedom is worth losing those things. The important thing is keeping yourself safe and learning how to heal.”

While leaving their churches may have been a relief, Skelton and Robertson both agree that the recovery process has been difficult and will be for a long time.

“It’s probably going to be the hardest choice that you ever make,” Robertson said. “I still have a lot of guilt and doubt and fear from leaving — I don’t know how I’m ever going to reconcile that in my brain. When you leave the church, the people in the church will talk about you and think you’re just taking the easy way out. It’s been really hard, losing everybody that I knew and loved and having to learn a new way to live.

“Make sure you’re ready to lose those connections, because it’ll never be the same again.”

Claire bible college
Claire Robertson spent a year at Indiana Bible College to pursue ministry. However, the UPC would not allow her to be in a leadership position in the church because she is a woman.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris elected president, VP

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. UP graphic by Olivia Malick

Joseph R. Biden Jr, former vice president and senator from Delaware, was elected as the 46th President of the United States, Nov. 7, four days after Election Day, defeating incumbent Donald Trump. 

The election marks the 14th time in U.S. history that a sitting president lost reelection. 

Biden was declared the winner by the Associated Press after the race in Pennsylvania was called in his favor, pushing him over the 270 electoral vote threshold. 

As of 3 p.m. Saturday, four states remain uncalled — Alaska, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. 

NBC News projects that at least 159.8 million votes were cast in 2020 general election, which would mark the highest voter turnout since 1900.

According to The Washington Post, at least 74.5 million votes have been cast for Biden, equaling 50.5 percent, with 70.3 million going to Trump, equaling 47.7 percent. The votes cast for Biden broke the record previously set by President Barack Obama for most votes cast for a presidential candidate in 2008.

The election of California Senator Kamala Harris marks the first time in U.S. history that a woman, and a woman of color has been chosen as vice president. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, will be the highest ranking woman ever elected in U.S. government. 

President Trump released a statement in response to Biden’s election, falsely claiming that Biden is posing as the winner. He also said in his statement that he and his administration are intending to contest the election. 

The inauguration of the president-elect and vice president-elect will be held on Jan. 20. As of Saturday, there have been no announcements as to whether the ceremony will be different than years past due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The election marks the first time that the two major presidential candidates were over 70 years old. Biden, who will be 78 at the time of his inauguration, will be the oldest president ever elected. He will also be the first president whose home state is Delaware. Biden will be the second Roman Catholic president ever elected, after John F. Kennedy in 1960. His wife, Jill Biden, will serve as First Lady of the United States, succeeding current First Lady Melania Trump. Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, will succeed current Second Lady Karen Pence, becoming the first male spouse of a vice president, and will also be the first Jewish spouse to a vice president.

As of 3 p.m. Saturday, Biden had 279 electoral votes while Trump had 214. Forty-five electoral votes remain. If all 45 went to Trump, he’d still be short 11 votes. 

Alaska and North Carolina are projected to go to Trump and Arizona and Georgia are projected to go to Biden. 

Olivia Malick, UP editor

Texas counties remain GOP strongholds

UP graphic

Note: Percentages and numbers are subject to change, the outcomes of these races are not expected to shift. These races were called by Decision Desk HQ, a non-partisan organization that provides election results and data.

Federal, State races

The Associated Press has called the race in Texas for president in favor of incumbent Donald Trump (R), giving him the state’s 38 electoral votes.

According to the Texas Secretary of State, Trump received 52.21 percent of the vote while former Vice President Joe Biden (D) received 46.37 percent of the vote.

Republican incumbent U.S. Representative for Texas District 14 Randy Weber won reelection over Democratic challenger Adrienne Bell with 61.7 percent of the vote. Texas’ 14th congressional district encompasses parts of Brazoria County, all of Galveston County and all of Jefferson County.

Brian Babin (R) won reelection to the U.S. House Texas District 36 over challenger Rashad Lewis (D) with 73.6 percent of the vote. Texas’s 36th congressional district encompasses all of Chambers, Hardin, Jasper, Liberty, Newton, Orange, Polk and Tyler counties and a small portion of Harris County.

Incumbent state senator of Texas Senate District 4 Brandon Creighton (R) won reelection over opponent Jay Stittleburg (D) with 84.3 percent of the vote. Texas Senate District 4 encompasses all of Chambers and Jefferson counties, a small portion of Galveston and Harris counties, and a majority of Montgomery County.

In Texas House District 19, incumbent James White (R) ran for reelection unopposed and received 72,262 votes. Texas House District 19 encompasses all of Hardin, Jasper, Newton, Polk and Tyler counties.

Incumbent Dade Phelan (R) also ran unopposed for Texas House District 21 and received 65,648 votes. Texas House District 21 encompasses some of Jefferson County and all of Orange County. 

In Texas House District 22, incumbent Joe Deshotel (D) won reelection over challenger Jacorion Randle (R) with 68.3 percent of the vote. Texas House District 22 encompasses a majority of Jefferson County. 

Incumbent Mayes Middleton (R) won reelection over Jeff Antonelli (D) to Texas House District 23 with 60.3 percent of the vote. Texas House District 23 encompasses all of Chambers County and some of Galveston County. 

Statewide, voters chose the winners of Railroad Commissioner, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice, Supreme Court Places 6, 7 and 8, and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Places 3, 4 and 9.

Republicans managed to win all eight spots. Jim Wright (R) beat out Chrysta Castañeda (D) with 53.2 percent of the votes for Railroad Commissioner. There are three seats on the Railroad Commission board which governs the Texas oil and gas industry — all three are held by Republicans.  

Incumbent Nathan Hecht (R) was elected as Texas Supreme Court Justice over Amy Clark Meachum (D) with 53.1 percent of the vote. Texas Supreme Court Place 6 went to incumbent Jane Bland (R) over Kathy Cheng (D) with 55.5 percent of the vote. Place 7 went to incumbent Jeffrey S. Boyd (R) over Staci Williams (D) with 53.5 percent of the vote and Place 8 went to incumbent Brett Busby (R) over Gisela D. Triana (D) with 53.6 percent of the vote. No Democrat has been elected to a seat on the Texas Supreme Court since 1994.

Bert Richardson (R) won reelection to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 3 over Elizabeth Davis Frizell (D) with 54.8 percent of the vote. Place 4 went to incumbent Kevin Yeary (R) over Tina Clinton (D) with 55 percent of the vote and Place 9 went to incumbent David Newell (R) over Brandon Birmingham (D) with 55.5 percent of the vote. Like the Texas Supreme Court, Texas’s Court of Criminal Appeals has not seen a Democrat elected to it since 1994. 

Jefferson County races

Incumbent Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens (D) defeated challenger David Odom (R) in the Nov. 3 election with 53.16 percent of the vote. 

Stephens, who was first elected sheriff in 2016, is Texas’ first Black female sheriff, and is one of only two in the nation. 

Vernon Pierce (R) defeated write-in candidate Marinette Landry Parkerson with 95.53 percent of the vote for County Commissioner, Pct. 1.

County Constable, Pct. 1 went to Jevonne “J.C.” Pollard (D) with 54.71 percent of the vote over opponent Mark Mann (R).

Richard Beaumont defeated Mike Cabaniss with 63.7 percent of the vote for Jefferson County Drainage District 7 Commissioner, Groves. Jefferson County Drainage District 7 Commissioner, Port Neches went to Matt Vincent who defeated opponents Eric Adams, Jim Parson and Rand Holtam with 49.5 percent of the vote. 

Celeste Ramsey won Place 1 on the Hamshire-Fannett ISD board of trustees over Brandon Luquette and Eugene Arceneaux with 35.3 percent of the vote. Place 3 on the Hamshire-Fannett ISD board of trustees went to Mike Broussard over Chad McLeod and Joseph Schwartzenburg with 68.8 percent of the vote. Bob Thewman defeated Davilyn Walston with 62.2 percent of the vote for Place 4 on the Hamshire-Fannett ISD board of trustees. Place 6 went to Robertt Lott over Felman Malveaux with 52.5 percent of the vote. 

Dallon James was elected to Place 6 of the Port Neches-Groves ISD board of trustees over Rusty Brittain with 43.8 percent of the vote. Joseph L. Guillory II was elected to the Port Arthur ISD school board over Kenneth Lofton and Dianne Brown with 36.7 percent of the vote. 

Hamshire-Fannett ISD voted in favor of a $36.9 million bond that would go towards improving Hamshire-Fannett High School through new constructions, renovations, etc. The proposition passed with 52 percent of the vote. Hamshire-Fannett ISD voted against the second $1.48 million bond that proposed building a new concession stand and restrooms with 56 percent of the vote. 

A historically Democratic county, Jefferson County voted again for Trump over Joe Biden with 50.21 percent of the vote going to Trump and 48.62 percent going to Biden. In 2016, Jefferson County voted narrowly for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton — the first time a Republican candidate won the county since 1972. 

Jefferson County also helped incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) win his fourth term over Democratic challenger MJ Hegar. Cornyn received 50.51 percent of the vote compared to Hegar who received 47.46 percent.

The county favored Randy Weber over Adrienne Bell for U.S. House District 14 Representative with 52.16 percent of the vote, a lower percentage than the statewide average.

Jefferson County voted for the Republican candidate for every statewide race.

Jefferson County reported a total of 95,375 ballots cast in this election out of a total of 150,690 registered voters — equaling a 63.29 percent voter turnout rate. According to jeffersonelections.com, there was a 59.52 percent voter turnout for the 2016 general election. 

Early voting turnout was nine points higher in 2020 than in 2016 with approximately 88.23 percent of the county’s total votes being cast before Election Day. 

Orange County

Note: Orange County reported their votes in exact numbers and not percentages like the aforementioned counties.

Incumbent Paul Burch won reelection to the Orange City At-Large seat over Charles Ray Thomas with 3,417 votes.

Larry E. Ancelot Jr defeated J.B. Arrington for Orange County Drainage Pct. 2 with 6,153 votes. James Scales defeated Randy Fuselier for Orange County Drainage Pct. 3 with 7,510 votes.

Dan Mohon was elected mayor of the city of Pinehurst with 444 votes over challenger Troy Pierce.

The Bridge City Council Place 2 seat went to Mike Reed with 2,290 votes over Kenneth Prosperie. Three candidates were elected Rose City Councilmembers At-Large — Tony Wilcoxson, Shelia Faske and Jeff Dom who received 98, 90 and 60 votes, respectively. 

Michael C. Johnson won Place 6 on the Bridge City School District board of trustees with 4,779 votes, defeating Keith A. Jones. Place 7 of the Bridge City School District board of trustees went to Mark Anderson who received 4,602 votes over Cory Mitchell.

Place 6 of the Orangefield ISD board of trustees went to Jude Graffagnino who received 2,821 votes. 

Orange County has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election since 2000 — a trend that was repeated in this election cycle. President Donald Trump (R) received 81.09 percent of the vote over Joe Biden (D) who received 17.66 percent of the vote. 

The county also stuck with Sen. John Cornyn over MJ Hegar for Texas’s U.S. Senate seat; Cornyn received 52.72 percent of the vote compared to Hegar’s 11.47 percent. The county also voted for incumbent Brian Babin for their U.S. House representative with 53.8 percent of the vote over Rashad Lewis. The county also voted majority Republican for every statewide race.

According to the Texas Secretary of State, Orange County cast 35,974 votes in the 2020 general election out of 54,442 registered voters, equaling a 66.08 percent voter turnout rate. This is up from the 60.05 percent turnout rate in 2016. 

Early voting turnout was 12.79 points higher in 2020 with approximately 84.26 percent of the county’s total votes being cast before Election Day. 

Hardin County

Hardin-Jefferson ISD (which covers parts of both Hardin and Jefferson counties) voters approved two bonds totaling $25 million. The propositions called for construction and renovations, etc. for school building and the Hardin-Jefferson High School stadium, among other things. Proposition A passed with 68 percent of the vote in favor and Proposition B passed with 64 percent of the vote in favor of the bond.

Amanda Young (R) was elected as Hardin County Commissioner Pct. 3 over Donald Owens (D) with 88 percent of the vote. 

Lauren Caywood Rothe was elected to Trustee Position 2 for Lumberton ISD with 51 percent of the vote over Patrick Bell.

Jason McDonald was elected to Trustee Place 4 of Kountze ISD over Christopher Jones with 53 percent of the vote. Missy Jennings beat out Joyce Bottley for Trustee Place 5 of Kountze ISD with 53 percent of the vote. Trustee Place 7 went to Steve Eppes over Rachael Coe with 51 percent of the vote.

Farrah Brown Hashaw was elected to West Hardin CCISD Position 5 over Carl Price and Calvin Skinner with 55 percent of the vote.

Hardin County has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election since 1996 and continued to do so in 2020. The county voted 86.39 percent for Donald Trump and 12.52 percent for Joe Biden. 

The majority of Hardin County also voted for Republican Sen. John Cornyn with 58.74 percent of the vote over MJ Hegar who received 8.42 percent. 

For every statewide race, the county voted in the majority for the Republican candidate.

According to the Texas Secretary of State, Hardin County cast 27,555 votes in the 2020 general election out of 39,952 registered voters, equaling a 68.97 percent voter turnout rate. This is up from the 59.67 percent turnout rate in 2016.

Early voting was 18.61 points higher in 2020 with approximately 82.34 percent of the county’s total votes being cast before Election Day. 

Chambers County

Tracy Elizabeth Christopher (R) was elected Chief Justice of 14th Court of Appeals District over Jane Robinson (D) with 56.27 percent of the vote. Place 7 of the 14th Court of Appeals District went to Ken Wise (R) with 56.28 percent of the vote over Tamika Craft (D).

Place 3 of the 1st Court of Appeals District went to Russell Lloyd (R) with 55.79 percent of the vote over Veronica Rivas-Molloy (D). Place 5 of the court went to Terry Adams (R) with 56.05 percent of the vote over Amparo Monique Guerra (D).

Carlton D. Carrington beat out Lane Bertrand for Anahuac ISD Trustee, Position 3 with 64.27 percent of the vote. 

Leslie Turner defeated opponents Mike Emmons, Geraldine Brown and Michael Manders for Chambers County Public Hospital District 1 Board Member At-Large with 40.27 percent of the vote. 

Gregg Turner was elected Trinity Bay Conservation District Director, Precinct 4 with 73.57 percent of the vote over Loretta Emmons. 

Nathan Trahan defeated Danny Thompson for City of Anahuac Alderman, Position 5 with 54.44 percent of the vote. 

Taylor Wilcox received 62.71 percent of the vote for East Chambers ISD Trustee, Position 1 over Patrick A. Denton. 

Chambers County has not voted for the Democratic candidate for president since 1976; the streak continued into 2020. Donald Trump received 80.14 percent of the vote whereas Joe Biden received 18.47 percent.

U.S. Texas Sen. John Cornyn received a majority of votes in Chambers County with 55.45 percent compared to MJ Hegar who received 12.33 percent.

For every statewide race, the county voted in the majority for the Republican candidate.

According to the Texas Secretary of State, Chambers County cast 21,641 votes in the 2020 general election out of 30,709 registered voters, equaling a 70.47 percent voter turnout rate. This is up from the 62.07 percent voter turnout rate in 2016. 

Early voting was 13.65 points higher in 2020 with approximately 87.13 percent of the county’s total votes being cast before Election Day.

Liberty County

Note: Liberty County reported their votes in exact numbers and not percentages like the aforementioned counties. 

David Whitmire was elected County Commissioner, Precinct 3 with 4,274 votes over Barbara McIntyre.

Tammy Bishop was elected Constable, Precinct 1 over Martin Trahan with 2,676 votes.

Dwayne Stovall defeated Kevin Johnson for Tarkington ISD School Board Position 4 with 2,043 votes. Position 6 went to Cory Anderson with 2,320 votes over Marcus King. Position 7 went to Lane Gulledge with 2,713 votes over Nick Morrison. 

Eugene Thibodeaux Jr., Arthur Baines and Tony Scott were elected to the Raywood Drainage District with 155, 145 and 142 votes respectively.

Carly Sagar was elected to the Plum Grove City Council, Position 2 with 115 votes over Rhonda Willis. 

Coach Searles was elected to the Cleveland ISD, Board of Trustees Position 7 with 2,479 votes over Ronnie Lewis. 

The Cleveland City Council Position 3 when to James Franklin with 736 votes over Fred Terrell and Position 4 went to Dolores Terry with 852 votes over Mike Penry. 

Kellie Taylor was elected mayor of the City of Daisetta with 216 votes against Eric Thaxton and Renee McGee.

The City of Daisetta voted in favor of $2.12 million utility bonds with 200 votes.

The City of Daisetta, Alderman Position 1 went to Cindy Burchfield over Jimmy May with 277 votes. Position 2 went to Emily Shields who received 186 votes over Lori Tidwell. Position 3 went to Don Neyland with 190 votes over Benny Carroll and Raymond Williams. Position 5 went to Mike Parrish over Quinn Godwin with 263 votes. 

Hardin City Council Position 2 went to Dustin Vollert with 123 votes over Anthony Landry and Julie Terry. Position 3 went to Tommy Small with 150 votes over opponents Krystal Mobley and Rachael Smart. 

Donald McDaniel was elected to the Dayton City Council Position 1 with 1,299 votes over Wendell Null. John Headrick was elected to Position 5 over Alvin Burress with 1,589.

Lloyd Griffith was elected to Liberty ISD School Board Position 1 with 2,026 votes over Bruce George. 

David Arnold, Chipper Smith and Neal Thornton were elected to the City of Liberty City Council with 1,418, 1,140 and 752 votes, respectively.

Cornelius Gilmore was elected to Ames City Council Position 2 with 219 votes over Errol Andres. Barbara Lee Domain was elected to Position 4 over Eddie White with 251 votes.

Since 1996, Liberty County has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election. Donald Trump received in 79.44 of the votes for president compared to Joe Biden who received 19.71 percent. 

U.S. TX Sen. John Cornyn received 49.25 of the vote for the Senate race whereas opponent MJ Hegar received 12.25 percent. 

For every statewide race, the county voted for the Republican candidate. 

According to the Texas Secretary of State, Liberty County cast 29,314 votes in the 2020 general election out of 46,155 registered voters, equaling a 63.51 percent voter turnout rate. This is up from the 55.29 percent voter turnout rate in 2016.

Early voting was 10.28 points higher in 2020 with approximately 77.64 percent of the county’s total votes being cast before Election Day. Visit sos.state.tx.us, or texastribune.org to see more information about Texas races.

Olivia Malick, UP editor

Texas voter guide gives nonpartisan look at key issues, candidates

The front page of Texas2020’s website.

There are more than 400 offices at the federal and state level up for grabs in Texas on Election Day, Nov. 3. It can be hard for some voters to know who their candidates are and what positions those candidates have on key issues.

Gina Fant-Simon and Paula Barkan noticed this and decided to create a guide to streamline the information gathering process for voters in Texas. Texas2020.org is a nonpartisan one-stop shop where people can get information on candidates, issues and other voting information — it also has a function that allows people to enter their address to find out who their state and federal representatives are.

“The purpose of the guide is to educate the public about the real reasons our nation is incapable of making progress on any of the issues we are facing, like the climate crisis, racial injustice, affordable healthcare and gun violence,” Fant-Simon and Barkan said in a joint response email interview. “It’s not the fault of one party or the other, or one candidate or the other.

“It’s the system that is flawed, and until we fix it, we should expect more division, more disenfranchisement and more voter apathy. Armed with the facts on how to fix this mess, we hope people will be more motivated to vote and stay engaged between elections.” 

Fant-Simon and Barkan said they were motivated to create the website after they saw a video from RepresentUs, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization that aims to reform the American political system.

“(The video) revealed the flaws in our political system and how we fix them — how to change how we elect our representatives and get better representation,” they said. “Our state legislature determines the laws governing how our elections are run, including federal elections. Who we elect for these offices will have the power to fix what’s wrong, or to maintain the broken system.

“If we vote for candidates who support these solutions, and we hold them accountable once in office, we can affect the change we need. But how do (voters) know which candidates support electoral reform? We ask them, and then we make sure every voter has access to their responses, then we create an electoral reform voter guide.” 

Fant-Simon and Barkan said they have spent about a year working overtime putting the guide together. The site officially launched on Aug. 1, and they have continued gathering candidates’ responses and raising awareness of their platform.

“Since (the launch), we have been working hard to market on various social media platforms, newspapers and search ads,” they said. “The website traffic has been steadily growing since mid-September. We have had almost 600,000 users who average about three minutes on the site. The average time a user spends on a site is less than 15 seconds, which is a crazy short amount of time to capture someone’s attention, but we blew past that.”

Fant-Simon and Barkan said the process of getting candidates to respond to their questions has been tedious and time consuming.

“Adjusting for the candidates running unopposed — who have no need to campaign — we received submissions from a little more than 50 percent of the candidates,” they said. “The participation rate for incumbents was 14 percent compared to a 67 percent rate for challengers. This disparity makes sense when you realize incumbents are less incentivized to support changing a system that has worked for them.

“We used many methods — email, phone, social media — to motivate candidate responses and also encouraged constituents to personally contact their candidates.”

Texas2020 is targeted towards all Texas voters, not just a certain group, Fant-Simon and Barkan said.

“The guide is intended to engage all Texans and all types of voters,” they said. “However, some voters, even if they support electoral reform, may be too set in their voting habits to consider choosing candidates differently.

“First time voters, newish voters, voters who have opted out or given up may be more receptive to voting to strengthen democracy rather than voting on specific policy stances or by party affiliation.”

The response to the voter guide has been positive so far, Fant-Simon and Barkan said. 

“We have had some criticism surrounding our claim that the reforms are nonpartisan,” they said. “For the record, the reforms are nonpartisan. Not agreeing with a reform doesn’t make it partisan. A poor showing of Republican candidates didn’t help optics, but incumbents and members of the party in power are understandably less inclined to embrace changing the system that favors them.

“Compiled responses from Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents and members of the Green Party illustrates just how nonpartisan these reforms are.”

Work on the voter guide will continue even after the 2020 election cycle ends, Fant-Simon and Barkan said.

“On a local level, helping voters identify candidates who supported electoral reform was just the first step,” they said. “Post-election, we expect those voters to continue to use Texas2020 to help identify the newly elected representatives who supported electoral reform while campaigning and hold them accountable.

“On a national level, a few organizations have expressed an interest in taking what we’ve created to advance electoral reform efforts in other states. We love this idea and will be developing a package for any organization to adapt to any state’s specific needs.” 

As hard and time-consuming as the work has been to build Texas2020.org from the ground up, Fant-Simon and Barkan said they are pleased with the results they’re seeing statewide.

“We are especially encouraged by young voter interest and turnout,” they said. “We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to reach voters who are becoming more aware of their voting power, the great responsibility they have to use it, and use it wisely.”

Visit Texas2020.org for more information.

Olivia Malick, UP editor

‘I’m not a politician, I’m a human being’

SGA’s Wilson seeks to advocate for entire student body

SGA president Trevion Wilson, right, speaks to students James Farmer, Mont Belvieu freshman, far left, and Justin Ramirez, Mont Belvieu freshman, center, about SGA’s upcoming projects in the Setzer Center, Oct. 14. UP photo by Olivia Malick

“Your voice, our mission.”

 This was the slogan of the current Student Government Association administration’s election campaign. President Trevion Wilson said it represented an opportunity for students to have their opinions about issues that affect them heard by administration, with SGA serving as the liaison.

Wilson said he thinks they’re keeping in line with that slogan.

“So far, this has been a great semester for SGA,” he said. “Considering the fact that we’re in a pandemic, (we’ve gone) through our second hurricane, and there so many issues going on, I feel like we are doing a pretty good job of staying on task with our goals.”

The administration began their term on June 1, but Wilson said they’ve been working since the elections. 

“The main goal of our campaign, and the main thing we want students to know, is that we can amplify their voices and put their voices into action,” he said. “We’re trying to put forward students’ voices and just let them know they aren’t going unheard.”

Wilson said other goals for this year include strengthening community connections and building relationships with faculty, staff and administration, fostering inclusivity and equality, increasing campus sustainability, promoting awareness of issues outside of the university, and creating a sustainable infrastructure for SGA.

Transparency about what SGA is working on was one of the tenets the administration ran on during the campaign. They post updates about current projects, recent activities, announcements and important dates on their social media platforms to foster a more direct relationship with students, Wilson said.

One of SGA’s current projects is a student resource guide — an all-inclusive guide for students that will house information on services provided by the university, local resources, and how to access them. 

“One thing I’ve always noticed is that students are reactive instead of proactive when it comes to getting to their resources,” Wilson said. “One of our visions is to connect students to their resources proactively, so they’re not waiting last minute to find out, ‘Oh, Lamar does have this.’

“We want to put all of the resources in one spot. If you go on the Lamar website and type in resources or resource guide, you’ll find that nothing pops up pertaining to student resources. After digging, the most you will find is the Student Handbook, but it doesn’t contain enough resources. This resource guide will have everything students need, including local restaurants and coupons they offer, information on the health center, financial aid and scholarships — anything that students need.”

Wilson said he hopes the guide will be completed by the end of the fall semester and will be given to incoming students during their orientation. 

SGA’s purpose is to represent every student at Lamar, Wilson said, and his administration tries to reach out to all students through various forums such as joint sessions and their new mentorship program. 

“The whole purpose of the mentorship program is to help at-risk college students,” he said. “That includes students who statistically don’t have the best retention rates, students who don’t do as well in their classes and don’t follow through all the way to graduation.”

Wilson said SGA is introduced to at-risk students through the admissions office which provides information about students who didn’t do well academically prior to college. SGA is then able to reach out to those students and see if they are interested in the program.

“The mentor is either going to be an SGA executive member or senator,” he said. “The pairing process happens at the retreat — we see how everybody interacts, we have them take personality tests to see who they would align best with.”

The retreat is scheduled for Oct. 21. Students who feel they are at risk can reach out to SGA through social media to find out how to become involved in the program.

In elections past, SGA has offered shuttles to polling sites so students could vote. In preparation for the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 3, SGA helped students register to vote in Jefferson County and will continue to shuttle students to polling sites.

“Students between the ages of 18 and 24 typically don’t engage in the voting process,” Wilson said. “It’s just a fact. We had four or five voter registration events and we got more than 150 students registered to vote in Jefferson County.”

Wilson said an announcement went out through email, Oct. 12, that includes a Formstack where students can sign up to take a shuttle to a polling site.

“Students can put the date and time they want to go to the Jefferson County Courthouse and vote,” he said.

On Election Day, there will be a polling site at the Montagne Center from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. that is open to the public. Wilson said SGA is currently organizing shuttles for students.

SGA president Trevion Wilson said he’s ready to represent students at Lamar, regardless of background. UP photo by Olivia Malick

Wilson said that during his term, he wants each SGA joint session to have a theme, and for students to voice their opinions on issues related to the theme. The Aug. 18 session’s theme was “Call to Action.” 

Prior to the meeting, several Black student organizations put together a list of actions and improvements that they wanted to see initiated by the university and the administration. One of the actions listed was the removal of the statue of Mirabeau B. Lamar, the university’s namesake, from the Quad.

Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, has been called the “Father of Texas Education” because he advocated for a statewide public-school system. He was also an advocate for states’ rights to own slaves and systematically removed Native Americans from the state.

“This was something that was brought up in our joint session, and it’s something we support,” Wilson said. “Right now, we’re primarily focused on what’s going to go there in place of it. We want to find something that represents all of us as Cardinals. The Mirabeau B. Lamar statue does not represent me personally and it doesn’t represent the entire student body.” 

Wilson said he has talked to Lamar University President Kenneth Evans about the issues raised during the “Call to Action” session. 

“We did our part, we relayed the message,” Wilson said. “What (the administration) is trying to do is put everything towards a diversity and inclusion taskforce. I’m interested to see where that’s going.”

Wilson said he will continue to push for the issues that were cited in the “Call to Action” to make sure things stay on track and aren’t forgotten.

“Something like the removal of the Mirabeau Lamar statue takes legislative action to be done,” he said. “That’s going to take a little bit more time.”

Increasing cultural competency and hiring more diverse and inclusive faculty and staff members was also an issue brought up in the joint session. Wilson said he’d like a clear timeline from the administration as to when students can expect those changes to happen.

“We have risk management, which includes discussion about alcohol and sexual assault,” he said. “But in this day and age, race is a huge issue and cultural competency is a huge issue that should be discussed as well.”

SGA announced in their updates on Sept. 24 that Lamar University is no longer a corporate sponsor of Cotton Cargo, a locally owned screen printing and embroidery shop whose owner, Robert Bertrand, made comments on his Facebook page in response to the George Floyd protests which were considered dismissive of people of color. Bertrand subsequently issued an apology. 

“A lot of students were upset about that because it’s what we wear on our backs,” Wilson said. “To hear statements like that was very distasteful. We took it upon ourselves to just communicate with the right people at Lamar to see what we would have to do to no longer support this business.

“We started with a meeting with the owner of Cotton Cargo and, to be honest, it wasn’t that great of a meeting. We heard their point of view — they defended why what they did was right. Also, if you noticed in the apology statement that was sent out, it was an apology to the administration — they didn’t acknowledge the students. We brought that up in the meeting and as the meeting went on and (Bertrand) threw a literal book on the table and showed me all of their diversity, etc.

“That wasn’t the point. The point was, he needed to understand that what he did was wrong, and he wasn’t willing to open up to that fact. It got to a point where it was almost like a political debate, and that’s not what I’m here for. I’m not here to teach anybody about race.

“After that meeting, myself and (SGA vice president) Jasmine Patin told (Bertrand) we would no longer be working with them as a part of SGA. We’re both a part of other organizations as well and decided we would not be doing business with them.” 

Wilson said in the conclusion of the meeting with Cotton Cargo, the university told SGA that Lamar is no longer a corporate sponsor of the company. As of press time, Cotton Cargo is still listed as a licensed vendor, according to the office of marketing communications’ vendor list. 

Wilson said it has been tough navigating the political atmosphere as president of SGA, but he’s going to continue to advocate for students of all backgrounds. 

“I don’t want anybody to think that we’re just here for one demographic of students,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is a picture being painted that we’re just focused on one group. We can’t help it that we’re brought into meetings where people want us to talk about specific issues — then there’s a picture painted that that’s the only issue we’re focused on.”

Wilson said it has been an adjustment working through the bureaucratic process with people who may not be receptive to SGA’s agenda.

“It’s hard to change people’s perspective,” he said. “A lot of people are ingrained in their own upbringing of how they do things. It’s kind of hard for a student to change the mind of somebody who’s much older.”

The bottom line, Wilson said, is that SGA is going to continue to represent the needs and wants of all students — students just need to reach out.

“If you want to see change, right now is the time to bring it to the table,” he said. “We’re going to apply pressure to make sure it gets done.”

To contact SGA and view updates about projects, visit their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @LamarSGA, or email them at SGA@lamar.edu.

Olivia Malick, UP editor

Early voting runs through Oct. 30, SGA runs shuttle to polls for students

SGA President Trevion Wilson, right, joins students on the shuttle headed to the Jefferson County Courthouse to vote, Oct. 13. UP photo by Olivia Malick

Early voting for the 2020 election began Oct. 13 and runs until Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3.

A photo ID is required to vote in Texas. Acceptable forms include:

  • Texas driver’s license
  • Texas election ID certificate
  • Texas personal ID card
  • Texas handgun license
  • U.S. military ID with photo
  • U.S. citizenship certificate with photograph (does not need to be current)
  • U.S. passport

All forms must be current or expired less than four years. Only people registered to vote in Jefferson County can vote in Jefferson County.

The Lamar Student Government Association is offering shuttles to polling locations as a part of their “Drive the Vote” initiative.

Visit www.lamar.edu/students/student-engagement/student-government-association and click “Drive the Vote Shuttle Sign Up” to save a seat.

Early voting locations for Jefferson County are:

Courtesy of jeffersonelections.com
Courtesy of jeffersonelections.com

For those registered to vote in another county but living in Jefferson County, visit vote.org/absentee-ballot to request an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots must be received in person by Oct. 12, by mail and online on Oct. 23.

For information regarding the mail in ballot process in Texas, visit the Texas Secretary of State website.

Olivia Malick, UP editor