There are crossroads in history where a person or group of people find themselves at the epicenter of dire circumstances, and they are uniquely qualified to provide leadership, clarity and courage to address the crisis at hand.
In biblical terms, great leaders such as Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Paul, and of course Jesus, were all in a place and time for which God had prepared them to provide leadership to save His people. In more recent times, great leaders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. were all instrumental in advancing the causes of mankind.
I had the privilege of interviewing such a man, Dr. Ben Carson. On February 7, 2013, he spoke at the President’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., attended by President Obama, Mrs. Obama and Vice President Biden and three thousand other dignitaries. The speech that he gave was both passionate and courageous. He set the tone of his speech by referencing four scriptures: Proverbs 11:9, Proverbs 11:12, Proverbs 11:25 and 2 Chronicles 7:14. In doing so, he established that the source of his guidance and wisdom is God and His Word.
For the next twenty minutes, Dr. Carson proceeded to lay out his ideas and opinions about the state of our nation and providing some biblical solutions for handling such polarizing issues as taxation and health care, much of which is contrary to the plans being pursued by President Obama and the inherent dangers of being “politically correct.” Almost immediately a media storm arose, ranging from calling on Dr. Carson to issue a formal apology to the President for challenging him on political hot-buttons, to the Wall Street Journal staff editorial penning an article titled “Ben Carson for President”.
"With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape."Proverbs 11:9
To understand how and why Dr. Carson is generating such a frenzy, you must understand the circumstances that have led him to this point. Benjamin Solomon Carson was the second son born to Robert and Sonya Carson. His mother, Sonya, was one of twenty-four children and married his father when she was only thirteen years old, attaining only a third grade education.
Ben and his older brother Curtis lived a fairly normal life until his mother discovered that his father was a polygamist, having another wife and children. Sonya was devastated and divorced him when Curtis was ten and Ben was eight years old, and she became the sole provider for their family. Rather than becoming a victim of her circumstances, and refusing to live off of government assistance, she worked two and sometimes three jobs to support her boys. Ben and Curtis would go several days at a time without seeing their mother due to her grueling work schedule.
For Ben and Curtis, church was a big part of their life. Ben made the choice to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior when he was eight years old and was baptized. His pastor frequently talked about medical missionaries in foreign lands. The tales fascinated young Ben, and it was then that he decided that he wanted to be a doctor. At that time, it seemed like an unattainable dream. His mother, on the other hand, had complete faith in the unlimited potential of Ben and his brother.
A Mother’s Love
As much as she believed in the potential of her boys, Ben’s mother faced the harsh realities of being a single parent with virtually no education. Sonya fastidiously managed the household finances and stretched their money to meet their needs in urban Detroit. She wasn’t satisfied, however, with the results they were getting in their schoolwork. Ben’s grades were so poor that he was ridiculed and taunted by classmates. At the time, she worked for a wealthy professor and marveled at the number of books that he had in his library and realized that the information contained within them held tremendous power. She implemented a new rule for Ben and Curtis. Each week they had to visit the Detroit Public Library and get two books each. They were to read them and write a report on each book. She would check each report for accuracy and completeness, marking and highlighting them for effect (little did they know that their mother couldn’t read what they had written). They were also restricted to watching only three TV programs per week and couldn’t go out to play until all of their homework was completed. They didn’t enjoy their new assignments but loved and respected their mother and heeded her requests.
Before long, Ben began to enjoy the books that he was reading, and his grades began to improve as he started taking an active interest in school. His vocabulary skyrocketed as a result of the books that he read, and he started competing and winning the class spelling bee. His teachers began to notice the transformation in him, encouraging and challenging him to excel. Sonya instilled the belief in her sons that they could accomplish anything that they set their minds to, and young Ben was starting to believe it himself.
By his eighth grade year, Ben had risen to the top of his class. In his book, Gifted Hands, he recounts an event in which he attended an awards ceremony at the end of the school year. He was to receive an award for academic excellence for the student with the highest achievement in sixth, seventh and eighth grades respectively. He had won the award the previous year as a seventh grader. Upon receiving the award from one of his prior teachers, she remained at the front of the stage and began to scold the other children in the auditorium. The school that Ben attended was predominantly white, and the teacher told the students that they weren’t trying hard enough, because all of the white students couldn’t outperform the black student receiving the award. A whirlwind of emotions overcame Ben, from disbelief to anger at the teacher who robbed him of the honor he deserved for his achievement.
Ben went through a time of rebellion when he started associating with the wrong crowds. His temper began to get the best of him, and his grades started to slide. He lashed out at other students and even his mother. A crossroads in his life occurred during an argument with a friend. Ben snapped, pulled out a knife and attempted to stab the boy. Miraculously, the knife blade broke when it struck the boy’s belt buckle. Ben panicked and ran to his house and locked himself in the bathroom and cried out to Jesus to take his temper away from him. He found a Bible and for the next three hours read the Book of Proverbs. It was a wakeup call for Ben, and he decided that he wasn’t going to destroy his future and the plans that God had for him. Since that time, he has read from the Book of Proverbs faithfully every day.
While in high school, Ben followed his older brother and joined the ROTC program. He set a goal for himself of reaching the rank of Colonel, the highest rank possible. Not only did he reach his goal, but was given the honor of being the city executive over all of the schools in Detroit. He was offered a full scholarship to West Point but respectfully declined in order to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
Ivy League Bound
With his outstanding high school achievements, stellar SAT scores and accomplishments in the ROTC, Ben was being courted by many prestigious universities to attend their schools. After a great deal of prayer and contemplation, Ben reduced his choices to two; Harvard and Yale. As a youngster, Ben and his brother had three TV programs that they could watch per week. One of their favorites was the College Bowl, a quiz show where two different college teams would compete each week for the prize money. They would compete in their living room with the TV contestants and dreamed about one day being on the show. While contemplating between his two school choices, an episode of College Bowl aired pairing Harvard against Yale. Yale routed the Harvard team, and that was Ben’s answer! He chose Yale.
It was at Yale that Ben met his future wife, Candy, and he discovered that they had many similar interests; they were both pre-med, highly driven, and each had an affinity for classical music (Candy was a concert violinist and was a member of the Yale Symphony and Bach Society). After graduating from Yale, Ben was accepted into the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine and excelled particularly well in the neurosurgery rotation of the program. Money was always tight for Ben, but he was not afraid to work. During summers, he worked in factories, road crews and even operated a crane for a steel company. It was while operating a crane that he discovered what he refers to as a “divine gift” of extraordinary three-dimensional hand-eye coordination. In neurosurgery, he was able to perform extremely difficult procedures because of his Gifted Hands (the name of his best-selling book and movie starring Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.). Even while still a student, he began developing surgical techniques to increase the accuracy of complex operations and decrease the time they took, providing significant benefits to the patients.
Pursuit Of The Best
Candy graduated from Yale in 1976 during Ben’s third year of medical school, and they were married that summer. She moved to Ann Arbor to be with him while he finished medical school. Upon graduation he decided to switch hospitals for his residency. Ben felt that in order to be the best, he had to be trained by the best, so he applied to the Johns Hopkins neurosurgery program. He had always admired Johns Hopkins and felt it was the best training hospital in the United States. They only accepted two residents per year, but Ben had outstanding credentials and was selected for the program.
Ben proceeded to break down racial barriers in the hospital with his superior intelligence, surgical skill and the love of Christ that was evident in his life. He began performing extremely difficult surgeries on patients with severe head trauma, such as victims of automobile accidents, and quickly gained a reputation as being one of the best surgeons in the U.S. At the age of 33 he was honored to be offered the position of Chief Pediatric Neurosurgeon and gratefully accepted.
As word spread of Dr. Carson’s abilities, parents of children with brain tumors that were given no hope by other doctors began to contact him. He refined techniques for successfully removing brain tumors and for performing hemispherectomies (removing up to half of the patient’s brain to treat severe, uncontrollable seizures). The surgeries he performed always carried with them the risk of leaving the patient paralyzed, blind or even dead. Before each surgery, he prays for God’s wisdom and direction and has witnessed miracles beyond explanation time and time again. He was blessed with a remarkable rate of successful surgeries and saving the lives of previously untreatable patients.
Pioneering New Procedures
In 1987, Dr. Carson was contacted by a physician in Germany. A young couple had just given birth to twin boys who were conjoined at the back of their skulls. They had heard of the work that Dr. Carson and his team at Johns Hopkins were performing and pleaded with him to review their case to determine if he could separate them. After he and a group of three other doctors flew to Germany to examine the boys, they agreed to attempt the procedure, the most challenging of his career.
For the next five months, a team of seventy surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and technicians researched and practiced the procedure to insure that every move was deliberate and every complication considered. The surgery took place on September 5, 1987 when the boys were seven months old, lasting 22 hours and taking over 60 units of blood. The boys were successfully separated, and after 22 post-separation surgeries were able to return to Germany.
Dr. Carson has remained the Head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, performing over 300 surgeries per year. He has earned over 66 honorary doctorate degrees and authored over 150 neurosurgical publications. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush (the highest presidential award given to a civilian) and the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal and has written four best-selling books. He also holds titles as Professor of Neurological Surgery, Professor of Oncology, Professor of Pediatrics and Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. He says that not even a fairy tale could have scripted the way his life turned out.
Education was instrumental to the success of Dr. Carson, and he encourages others to pursue the best education they can get. He is continually invited to speak to schools and organizations to inspire young minds to set and achieve their goals. He and his wife Candy have three grown sons and are the founders of the Carson Scholars Fund, established to provide scholarship money based purely upon academic excellence and community service.
Looking back at where he came from, Ben realized that through hard work and discipline, he was able to achieve more than he could have ever imagined. He reasoned that if he could do it, those same principles could be applied for anyone. In his book Think Big, Ben explains his philosophies on reaching your full potential through a strong, God-centered spiritual life, maximizing your education and putting in the time and effort to reach your goals. He developed an acronym for releasing your potential - THINK BIG (see figure). These are keys to inspiring people to pursue their dreams and to give them hope.
Voice of a Nation
Dr. Carson’s latest book, America the Beautiful, is a remarkable manifesto written from his unique perspective. He writes about our American heritage, the good and the bad and the moral foundation of which our constitution is based - the Bible. He recounts how our nation has turned into a nation where an attitude of entitlement prevails and that our government is funding programs that deteriorate incentives to work while multiplying our staggering national debt. He goes to great lengths to identify problems with our country, but doesn’t stop there - he offers solutions.
It was these points of view that led him to the topics he discussed in the National Prayer Breakfast. If anyone deserved to receive government assistance, it was Ben’s mother, along with him and his brother. Rather than succumbing to a life of “riding the system,” they determined their destiny. Not only did Ben exceed his dreams of becoming one of the best surgeons of our time, his brother Curtis became a successful engineer. Their mother, Sonya, continued her education and received her high school diploma as well as an Associate’s Degree.
Dr. Carson recently announced his retirement from the Head of Pediatric Surgery to focus on teaching and the next chapter of his life, wherever God leads him. When asked if all of his background, education and experience have led him to this juncture as a voice of reason for our country, “Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “It has all worked to prepare me to have a platform to do something greater, to help people understand the corrosive effects of political correctness. You have to be at peace with your relationship with God and be true to that relationship. While filming the movie Gifted Hands, the producers felt that there were too many references to spirituality and God in the film. They said it was a movie for general audiences, not a Christian audience. They said that they needed to take those sections out of the movie. I told them ‘ok, but you will have to take me out of it as well since it wouldn’t be about me.’ I make no apologies about who I am, what I believe and who I believe in. That includes being forthright, honest and fair.”
"If my people, who are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."1 Chronicles 7:14
For business leaders in the private sector, Dr. Carson says, “The key is that business owners must stop capitulating, stop rolling over. People of principle must be willing to stand up and say ‘enough, we have rights, this is what we believe, and we’re not lying down’. It will take a lot of people, not just business owners. Don’t surrender your values and take a strong moral stand in order to preserve the fabric that made us a great nation.”
He has emerged as a voice of reason for our aching nation with the courage to voice and stand behind his convictions. He has been overwhelmed with the reaction of his speech and the resulting media attention. There have been over two million views of his speech on YouTube, and America the Beautiful has risen to the top of Amazon’s best-sellers list. His other books have also surged in popularity. He has received a tremendous amount of email, the most poignant from elderly people who had given up hope for our nation. In him, they have a new glimmer of hope. Perhaps it is for such as time as this that Dr. Carson has been equipped to provide the vision and clarity to overcome the obstacles that threaten our great nation.