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The magazine of Alliance Defending Freedom

Maggie DeJong

One Less Tear

Targeted For Her Beliefs, An Art Therapist Pours Her Life Into Helping Hurting Youth

Different dads find different ways of spending meaningful, memorable time with their little girls. Some take in father / daughter date nights or dances. Some cheer for the same teams or find movies they can watch together.

And then, there are the DeJongs. They pour concrete with each other.

It’s done much more, daughter Maggie says, than cement their relationship.

“My dad is a sixth-grade teacher, and in the summers, he was also a concrete contractor. I grew up doing concrete with him.” Her job, she says, was to shovel wet cement into a wheelbarrow, push it to wherever the cement needed dumping, then run back for another load.

“No laziness, just hard work, running the wheelbarrows,” says her dad, Todd. “It’s not easy. But Maggie had a good attitude, never a complaint. She just knew how to push hard. The drivers of the concrete trucks were always impressed. They’d say, ‘She’s better than all the guys out here.’”

A good work ethic aside, Todd had other reasons for enlisting his youngest daughter as a “wheeler.” Maggie had decided she’d like to run for her high school cross-country and track teams.

“‘If you can push that wheelbarrow 20 times up a hill and back,’” Maggie remembers him saying, “‘then you can run up a hill in cross country without a wheelbarrow.’” It worked.

“When I would hit hills in my races, I was like, ‘All right. There’s no cement. I have no wheelbarrow. I can do this.’ And that’s where I would pass people. I loved the hilly courses because of that. My dad trained me for them.”

The training paid off. Maggie ran track in state competition four years in a row; in her junior year, her 32-meter relay team broke the school record. But more than the competition, it was the running itself that she loved. In her running shoes, she tucked a line spoken by the Eric Liddell character in Chariots Of Fire: “[God] made me fast, and when I run, I can feel His pleasure.”

Now, years later, Maggie is still building on those high school experiences. Still running, and feeling God’s pleasure. Still able to push hard when she has to.

And a good thing, too. Because the loads she is carrying have only gotten heavier. And the path has been uphill all the way.

Maggie DeJong running cross country

The idea of becoming an art therapist caught Maggie by surprise.

“I was like, ‘This is a thing?’” she says. “I didn’t know a lot about it. But I just jumped in, and I didn’t look back.”

Mothers, though, look back, and Maggie’s mom, Barbie, saw her daughter’s career choice as a natural culmination of things she’d been observing for a long, long time. An art teacher herself, she remembers teaching a very young Maggie how to shade the colors on the pictures she was drawing.

Maggie with her parents, Barbie and Todd.
Maggie with her parents, Barbie and Todd.

“She just took to it,” Barbie says. “It was amazing. She’s an incredible artist. Even if she were not an art therapist, she would be a fabulous illustrator. But she also knows how to teach others and draw them in, patiently.” That patience with people showed up early, too.

“In elementary school, probably first grade, there was a little boy in her class who would never talk. And she sat by him and just graciously, day after day, she would get this little boy to speak. It was the most wonderful thing.

“Maggie sees things that very few people see,” Barbie says. “Very intuitive. I used to tell her, ‘If God allows you to see something, ask Him what He would want you to do about it.’ And when she would see something, she would act on it. She would pray and ask God. She didn’t just see it — she would do what she could to help out.”

That inclination deepened into conviction when Maggie read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who challenged the Nazis and paid for it with his life. She was struck hard, she says, by his warning that “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

So, faced with evil, she spoke. She acted. And paid a steep price for doing so.

The art therapy counseling program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is regarded as one of the best in the country — a graduate program so elite that only 10-12 new students are admitted each year. The more Maggie learned about it, the more she knew that’s where she wanted to go. She was so sure that’s where she belonged that, when turned down the first year she applied, she rejected offers from other universities, choosing instead to take a “gap year” and reapply at SIUE the next fall.

During that year, she worked at a clinic for children with autism — a job that proved educational in its own way. Maggie saw some treatments there she thought might be doing more harm than good.

Even before joining the art therapy program, Maggie found opportunities to use her skills helping autistic children.
Even before joining the art therapy program, Maggie found opportunities to use her skills helping autistic children.

“I learned a lot on how to disagree with what was going on,” she says, “and how to advocate for those kids.” She also began to understand the self-discipline and sacrifice her chosen vocation might require.

“I’m high empathy,” Maggie says, “but there is that line between feeling what the other person is feeling and also knowing right from wrong and tethering that line.

“My biggest thing is to meet people where they need to be met, instead of coming in with a mindset. I need to understand them first.” Sometimes, she says, that understanding brings tears — of outrage, frustration, compassion. Some of the tears are for others, and some, truthfully, are for herself.

“Years ago, though, I was driving, and this prayer came into my mind: ‘Lord, let every tear I shed be one less tear for them.’ The pain that I experience … there’s going to be purpose in it.”

On her second application, Maggie was accepted into the SIUE art therapy counseling program. After two interviews in as many years, the faculty must have had some idea who they were getting. And to some degree, Maggie knew, as well.

“I didn’t go in naïve,” she says, “but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. I didn’t realize how much indoctrination they had going on.”

Ten other women were in Maggie’s class, or “cohort,” and from the beginning, “I really worked on building those relationships, because I loved them and they felt like family,” she says. “We were very close.”

Maggie knew the other students understood that she looked at some things differently than they did. She also realized that, for at least some of the women, she was their first real exposure to a serious Christian with a biblical worldview.

“So, my biggest thing was not, ‘How do they see me?’ but ‘How do they see Christians? How am I representing God?’”

“So, my biggest thing was not, ‘How do they see me?’ but ‘How do they see Christians? How am I representing God?’”

The SIUE program covers three years; for most of the first, Maggie’s strategy of kindness seemed to work. But even as she cultivated friendships with her classmates, her concerns grew over what they all were being taught in classes supposedly designed to make them effective therapists.

“I realized, even going into it, that this is a very left-leaning program — very post-modern,” she says. Sitting in classes, “I realized that this was not aligning with what I wanted to be, as a therapist. I wondered, ‘Why aren’t we learning therapy?’”

Though some aspects of the profession were covered, much of the program, Maggie realized, was “an indoctrination camp — pushing feminist theory and social justice. I thought, ‘We’re learning to be therapists who adhere to their specific ideologies.’”

She did a great deal of research about the ideas she was hearing — critical race theory and Black Lives Matter violence, Marxism and censorship, political events and COVID-19 restrictions — and with what she learned, her confidence grew. As the program moved into its second year, she began to ask more questions — to push back on some of the ideologies she was hearing from her classmates and professors every day. But it wasn’t easy.

“I’d be sitting there, praying, ‘God, I don’t want to speak today. But if You tell me to speak, I’ll speak.’”

“I’d be sitting there, praying, ‘God, I don’t want to speak today. But if You tell me to speak, I’ll speak.’ And I’d get this feeling in my gut: ‘This isn’t right.’” Her hand would go up. “I questioned how we view people and put them in these factions and tag them with these labels.” She challenged the presumptions presented by her professors … posted some of her opinions on her social media platforms … engaged in classroom discussions and text messages.

She was treading in a minefield — and the explosions soon began. Accusations of racism and white privilege and religious intolerance.

Soon, several of her classmates were complaining that she was saying things “harmful” to their beliefs, views, and sense of identity. Maggie took care to listen to other viewpoints. “Don’t you think it’s not okay to say a person’s belief system is wrong?” texted a fellow student, after one of their discussions.

“You ask a very good question,” Maggie replied. “You can totally disagree with me, and that is your right.”

Maggie DeJong

When challenged on statements she’d made or posted, she offered to engage in friendly conversations. “I want to reiterate to you today how much I value you,” she wrote another student, after a four-day ongoing debate (via text). “Even though we don’t agree, I see a beautiful heart and compassion for children in you.”

Maggie tried to explain how her views were drawn from her Christian faith, a faith that taught her to love and respect even those who disagreed with her. In response, she learned that a fellow student had created an art project for display on campus that featured a quote Maggie had shared in a private social media message: “My personal held beliefs are grounded in objective truth by the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The project was entitled, “The Crushing Weight of Microaggressions.”

“If you’re a Christian — not a ‘cultural Christian,’ but a Christian who goes by scriptural truth — you will be criticized.”

“If you’re a Christian,” Maggie says, “not a ‘cultural Christian,’ but a Christian who goes by scriptural truth, you will be criticized. You will be taken down for that.” In her classes, professors increasingly fostered a painful environment in which Maggie’s fellow students tore into her beliefs and twisted her ideas to mean things she wasn’t saying. Her parents saw the effects.

“She was an emotional wreck a number of times,” Barbie says. “Thank God she had a strong faith. But physically and emotionally, it was taking its toll on her. It was hard to watch.”

“As a parent, you’re concerned,” Todd says. “But we had always tried to impress on ourselves and on our children that you’ve got to trust God. You just have to learn to do that … to cast the burdens there.”

And the biggest burden was yet to come.

One afternoon early in the spring of her final semester, Maggie received three emails in quick succession from SIUE administrators, informing her that she was legally required to have no further contact of any kind with three of her fellow art therapy graduate students.

The directives identified no law, policy, or rule that Maggie had violated. They didn’t say what the “no contact” orders were based on, or why the orders were allegedly necessary. She was given no chance to defend herself. She was simply told that any interaction with the students named “could be perceived … as unwelcome, retaliatory, intimidating, or harassing,” and that if she violated these directives, she would face “disciplinary consequences.” Campus police were copied on the orders.

The director of Maggie’s program then sent an email to more than 30 students, confirming, without naming her, that Maggie was under investigation and implying that she had engaged in “misconduct” and “oppressive acts.” The disclosure violated a university policy requiring officials to “take all reasonable steps to ensure confidentiality” during an investigation of a student. It was but one of a number of ways the university’s actions violated its own policies, as well as Maggie’s constitutionally protected right of free speech.

Maggie DeJong reading the Holy Bible

A few weeks later, a number of art therapy students and alumni added their names to a letter to the editor of the SIUE student newspaper, accusing Maggie of “racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric” — without offering specific examples of any of those things. The letter suggested that Maggie was unfit to work as an art therapist.

It took 18 days to get the “no contact” orders rescinded. During that time, she found her ability to participate in her classes sorely limited by the fact that two of the students named in the “no contact” orders were part of those classes. Both also worked in the same building she did. Maggie couldn’t join in group chats or Zoom classes where those students were participating, and was even hesitant just to walk across campus — afraid she might bump into the students and be penalized for violating the orders.

In effect, her speech and even her physical movements were being censored — all because fellow students and professors disliked her point of view.

Increasingly isolated from everyone else in the program, she began to lose sleep, appetite, and weight. She felt chest pains and found it harder and harder to concentrate. And she began to realize that the same professors who were abetting the attacks on her words and ideas would soon be the ones determining her ability to find employment as an art therapist after graduation. If they allowed her to graduate at all.

It was a level of persecution that even Alliance Defending Freedom’s most experienced campus attorneys have scarcely observed.

Sketching Aslan (the Christlike lion of C.S. Lewis’ stories) encouraged Maggie to stand strong during her most difficult days in the art therapy program.

I was really surprised,” says Tyson Langhofer, ADF senior counsel and director of the ministry’s Center for Academic Freedom. “The extent to which a university would be willing to violate the rights of a student, based solely upon what is inarguably protected speech, and without any real due process.

“That a public university administrator,” he says, “would essentially issue restraining orders against a student who had been there three years, never had any other complaints against her, had never done anything wrong … and none of the other students involved had ever asked her to stop communicating with them.

“What’s more, the majority of the complaints were from social media, or in response to questions that those same students had asked Maggie.” If universities can issue such no-contact orders based solely on one student’s objections to another’s personal beliefs, he says, it will completely destroy universities as “a marketplace of ideas.”

Inevitably, Langhofer says, students will start censoring themselves, because “what’s happened to Maggie can happen to literally anybody. You don’t need to go looking for trouble on a college campus for it to find you.” People assume, he says, that if a school issues a no-contact order, the student must have done something to provoke such a response. “And today, that’s just not true.”

ADF attorneys sent a demand letter to SIUE shortly after the no-contact orders were issued against Maggie. Eventually, the orders were rescinded, but the harm they caused Maggie could not be, the atmosphere that produced them clearly hadn’t changed, and the threatened impact on Maggie’s future employment remained. ADF then filed suit in the U.S. District Court for Southern District of Illinois, seeking damages and a ruling that the university had flagrantly violated Maggie’s constitutional rights.

SIUE asked that the lawsuit be dismissed; a judge’s ruling is pending.

“Courts are recognizing that [there] is a significant threat to speech on campus. The broader concern is whether society itself is going to support those [court] decisions.”

“The good news,” Langhofer says, “is that we are succeeding in challenging these types of policies. Courts are recognizing that this is a significant threat to speech on campus. The broader concern is whether society itself is going to support those decisions.”

Upon entering the SIUE program, students are presented with a white scarf. Twice a year, the students of each cohort gather for a decoration ceremony, reminiscing and encouraging each other while embroidering their scarfs or dipping them in colorful dyes to illustrate their progress.

“It’s a very ‘art therapy’ thing to do,” Maggie concedes, but “when we first started, and were all so close, I loved it. We’d shed tears together and talk about our journey. I loved my scarf … at first.”

But the events of her later semesters changed all that. “The scarf started to represent pain to me,” she says. She placed it in the back of her closet, thinking, “Everybody else has this beautiful image of this scarf. And all I see is hurt and exhaustion.” Eventually, she just stopped going to the ceremonies. “I didn’t feel welcome.”

One evening, at the close of an ADF event where Maggie shared her testimony, she was presented with a gift box. Inside was “this beautiful, vibrant silk scarf. It was so glorious looking, and on it was written, “For Faith” and “For Justice.” Touched, she showed the scarf to her mother.

“Maggie,” Barbie said, “that’s in place of the scarf you were given by the university.”

Tears filled Maggie’s eyes, she remembers, as she thought, “That’s right. What Satan intended for evil, God made into something good. He brought redemption to something so sorrow-filled to me.” She wound up wearing the ADF scarf while presenting her oral defense of her graduate thesis. “I remember grabbing the ends of the scarf and reminding myself that ‘He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’”

Sketching Aslan (the Christlike lion of C.S. Lewis’ stories) encouraged Maggie to stand strong during her most difficult days in the art therapy program.
The scarf Maggie received at an ADF event proved a particularly timely blessing in her life.
Sketching Aslan (the Christlike lion of C.S. Lewis’ stories) encouraged Maggie to stand strong during her most difficult days in the art therapy program.
The scarf Maggie received at an ADF event proved a particularly timely blessing in her life.

Maggie’s lawsuit drew media attention all over the country. It also caught the eye of some Christians who run a safe house for adolescent girls rescued from sex trafficking. After her graduation, they called Maggie, invited her for a Zoom interview, and hired her to work in art therapy with the troubled girls they served.

“I love my job,” Maggie says. The girls she works with have suffered complex trauma. “In trauma, a part of your brain shuts down. It just can’t come up with words or anything like that. Art provides a mode of communication, and it bridges that gap, where you can actually express what’s going on, and what you’re experiencing.”

Art, she says, “has been a way to lend my girls voices. It’s crazy how much comes out through their work. They start to open up, and a lot of it, then, is relationship-building.” For some, Maggie says, it’s like experiencing the innocence of childhood for a second time. And in some cases, for the first.

“It’s a ferociously gentle approach. The best way to describe it is like the Michelangelo painting in the Sistine Chapel, with God touching the finger of Adam. I get to watch these girls just be so impacted by the Holy Spirit … and to be an advocate for those who have been wronged in the most heinous crimes that a child can be wronged in. I get a front-row seat to what God’s doing.”

“The trials in her life have just deepened her faith. They’ve increased her knowledge and her yearning for the truth.”

The trials in her life have just deepened her faith,” Barbie says. “They’ve increased her knowledge and her yearning for the truth. We never wished for it, but when we look back … it’s a beautiful thing.”

“It has changed me,” Maggie says. “It has made my resolve much more firm. When you love Him, everything pales by comparison.”

Maggie DeJong

Her fondness for quotes brings her back to something she heard Alistair Begg, the Scottish preacher, say years ago: “We have to go through God’s school of brokenness. In order to be great, we have to be broken.” For Maggie, the years at SIUE doubled as God’s School of Brokenness, and now she brings what she’s learned to the wounded girls in her art therapy room.

“I took this job, which is a hard job,” she says. “It will break your heart. There are so many things that I know now that I can never unknow, unsee. And I would never have it any other way … because you also see the goodness of God.”

It’s enough to make even a strong young woman cry. But every sob, Maggie figures, is one less tear “her girls” may have to shed.

Maggie DeJong