All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

Snap.

Snap. Snap. Snap. As a small child I practiced over and over again. Insistent. Determined. Until, with the passing of years, the passing of my second finger down the side of my small thumb converted itself from silence to thunderclaps. With each unexpected eruption of noise I sent out a tiny warning signal to the world that within the heart of this small child there rumbled a revolution.

Snaps. I worked hard on them. I knew that I would need them someday.

Now when I snap, I can command your attention across a crowded room. Yet, I choose to use that power not for commanding respect but for giving respect, so that I might give the poets their honor due. My snaps do not stand out, they meld into a wave of sliding fingers, crashing on the shore of inspiration, then receding into silent and expectant attentiveness.

Night after night, I listen for those voices that can change the world. I listen for the sound of truth, for the sound of justice, for the sound of change. I listen for the rumbling of the verbal revolution that matches the rumbling in my heart.

I know when I have heard a voice that must be heard at The Shout.

Sometimes when you speak, I fold ever so slightly as if a punch has tightened my gut. As if a string extending from a spot just below my chin all the way down to my belly button has been snapped taut. Tightened. Strummed.

Sometimes when you speak, it feels as if someone has reached right through me to grab my spine and set it straight, heightening my posture, commanding me to own the space where I stand.

Sometimes when you speak, your words shoot right through me, piercing me with their familiarity, making me wonder if words so long a source of betrayal can be redeemed. You drop allusions to words that promised us freedom and left us beaten, and leave me wondering, ‘can these dry bones live.’ You drop allusions to a national pledge recited long before there was or is “liberty and justice for all.” You drop allusions to the very words that condemned my calling for two of the three decades I have taken up space on this earth; whispering “the woman shall not speak” in our ears until we cannot help but shout!

Oh reckless poets, doing verbal battle with the very issues that silence the voices of your peers. I hear you trying. I hear you succeeding. I hear you boxing and wrestling for the win. And when you win, we win with you.

My eyes wander around the room, asking silently in the midst of your unsilenced voice, to those surrounding me, “Can you feel this without being moved? Without moving? Without acting? Without demanding action?”

You make me want to pick up a pen and write notes in the margins of my books, like my momma did in church when I was a child; inserting written words among printed words to preserve the power and to fight ever forgetting your spoken words.

You make me want to stand up and sway like I did at my first concert.

You make me want to dance in the aisle like they do at that funkadelic Sunday worship party we call church.

You make me want to change everything around me – until the things I see match the the words you speak.

You make me believe change is possible. For why else would your words hold such power if we were not able to make those words flesh.

I believe in the power of what you do. I believe that together, the poets and the dreamers and the activists and the thinkers, might just change the world. Because they understand something that not everybody understands: we have no other choice. Words must be spoken. Actions must be done. Community must be built. Change cannot be stopped.

This is why, as a small child, I worked so hard to learn to snap. I must have known someday I would find the voices that would match the rumble in my heart.

For you, I learned to…

Snap. Snap. Snap.

A Little Longer To Serve – An Irish Blessing

Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to have a guest post from my Irish grandmother, Edna Marian Ferguson Bell Bonner. Although Edna passed away in the 1980’s, I have realized more and more as time goes on, that her soul prepared the path for the life I live now. In the 1920’s, while in high school, Edna went on a school trip to Washington, D.C. When she began to board a city bus with other students, the bus driver indicated one of her African American classmates and said, “She can’t get on. We don’t take blacks on this bus.” Edna stepped off the bus, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Then we will walk.” The two women remained devoted friends for the rest of their lives.

The Irish mother who brought Edna from Banbridge, near Belfast, taught her to treat all people with love and respect. The love that those women shared with their community was returned to me as a young child. Thus, I offer to you below, the story she wrote of the love between a mother and daughter.

My Father came to the United States in the late 1800’s. He returned to Northern Ireland to win his childhood sweetheart.

the Bells

Mother and Father, Sarah Radcliffe and William John Bell, were married on March 16, 1900, in Banbridge and came immediately to the United States. They lived on Daggett Street in Southwest Philadelphia for a short time and later lived on Springfield Road, Darby. Their first children were twins who were born prematurely. William McKinley Bell died shortly after birth and Sarah Wilhelmina lived a short time longer. They were buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery, Darby…

After the death of the twins, Edna Marian Ferguson (myself) was born there on May 25, 1906. In 1907, my Father expressed his desire to return to Northern Ireland…

They apparently remained in Ireland for about five years. Sarah Wilhelmina was born on April 22, 1911. Mina was injured at birth and Mother had surgery the following day. My parents had planned to return to the United States after Mina’s birth, but her need for special care made it necessary to leave her with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Edward who loved her dearly and gave her excellent care. My parents planned to bring Mina to the United States as soon as they were settled and Father’s United States Citizenship was final.

Only a short time after their return to the United States, my Father’s kidney problems developed to a very serious point (he had typhoid fever as a young man and that was named as the cause of the kidney condition). I recall the swelling of his legs and seeing him applying support bandages each morning. Mother knew time was running out. He was taken to Philadelphia, and he died there on January 4, 1919. Mother was devoted to him during the entire period of his illness. Her loving patience with never a cross word was beautiful to witness. Father was buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery in Darby, beside his brother, Ferguson. Mother joined him there in August, 1944…

A beautiful relationship of love and devotion existed between my parents in their short marriage, March 1900 to January 1919. Father was so proud of her. They both had a strong faith in God and were able to meet life together…

After my Father’s death, Mother went to the Delaware Country Court House in Media to inquire as to the possibility of obtaining her American Citizenship on my Father’s original application. He had received notice to be present for his final swearing in as an American Citizen, but he was too ill to appear. In answer to Mother’s request, Mr. Daltry at the Court House said he was sorry, but he had waited the full period of time before returning the papers to Washington and there was nothing he could do about it at that time. Mother then showed him a card which had been sent to Father. Mr Datry was delighted, that was all he needed to have the papers returned to Media. Sometime later Mother was one of the first women in Delaware County, if not the first, to receive her own American Citizenship. A proud day for her.

Plans were in her mind now to return to Ireland and bring Mina back here with her when a letter came from Uncle Edward that Mina had died from appendicitis. On our visit to Ireland in 1961, we placed flowers on her grave. Thus, I was the only one of the four children born to my parents left.

I recall the long winter evenings during my childhood when Mother, Father and I sat by the open fire reading or singing the old hymns they loved so much. “Nearer My God to Thee” seemed to be a favorite. I remember thinking that hymn made them recall their acquaintances who had been lost when the Titanic sank. The passengers had joined in singing that hymn as they clustered together on the deck of their sinking ship.

There were many occasions when I was aware of the respect in which my parents were held. You never knew when Mother would return home from her trip “down town.” Everyone stopped to talk with her. Two black people, Priscilla and William, “Aunt May Baker,” Mrs. Baker, and certainly Charley Wade had always been devoted to her.

Mother’s heart was full of love for everyone, so when her grandchildren arrived, it was love overflowing. I recall when she first saw Marian and she said, “ Now you are a mother and your life will never be the same again.”

How proud she was to take Marian and Hugh for a walk! I am grateful she lived to see Billy. Her last act was to hold him in her arms. That night she went into a coma. One of her few statements during her terminal illness was “Little darlings” as Marian and Hugh came to her bedside.

I recall passing her bedroom door at our South Avenue home and hearing her say as she prayed, “Give me a little longer to serve.” I truly believe that was the foundation of her life – service to others.

Dr. Benjamin of the Methodist Church of Media said at her funeral service, “to enter her presence was to receive a blessing.”

She never forgot a kindness extended to her by anyone. She became ill shortly after Bill’s birth. On an occasion as I did some little thing for her comfort, she said, “You’re wonderful, I don’t know how you do it.” That will always live in my memory.

Her benediction.

IMG_6173

Last Glance

“Agua! Agua, por favor. Para mi bebé,” the young mother boarding the bus pleaded, catching my arm. Not knowing if I would have time, I sprinted across the bus terminal to the vending machines. My friend Jasminne explained that this woman had been unable to obtain water for her infant because she did not have the right bills. Having traveled internationally, I knew well the struggle of figuring out how to use unfamiliar currency. Hurriedly, we dug through our pockets and wallets. “I have it. I have it,” I exclaimed as I slid two crumpled one dollar bills into the hungry mouth of the Aquafina machine. “What button do I push?,” I asked Jasminne in a panic. “Any button! The whole machine is water,” she responded.

Grabbing the bottle that dropped smoothly down the slot, I rushed back across the terminal, and thrust the water into the woman’s hand just before the bus doors slid closed. Our eyes met. My lips formed the words, “Vaya con Dios.” Her lips formed the word, “Gracias,” but it was the eyes that said it all.

It is always the eyes that say the most. Whether I spend two minutes, or twelve hours with a family, it is always that last glance that says the most. Gratitude and sorrow and fear and courage. At the close of a day filled with last glances, I shut my eyes and they are all I can see. Those moments imprinted on my memory; those moments when we say everything that the language barrier and our own guardedness has inhibited.

Days like this are never expected or planned. They start with a rapid succession of phone calls and texts. “Hannah call me back…Hannah call now…Hannah, a group of children came in. There’s a lot of them. Get here as soon as you can.”

When I get a call like that, a few things go through my mind. First, I know that a couple hours ago children, and likely their mothers as well, were released from a nearby detention center in Texas and sent to stay somewhere until their trial and – more than likely – their deportation. Second, I know that they are exhausted, hungry, and just as confused as I would be trying to navigate a public transportation system in a language I do not know. Third, I know that they have a long journey ahead of them and it may be a few days, or longer, before they can get a good night’s sleep. Fourth, I know that they have likely already experienced trauma, possibly even before their arrest and detention; and all measures must be taken to make them feel safe, loved, and respected.

The psychological reality for children who are two years old and four years old is chilling. Even more alarming is the messages being received by the eight year olds, and the twelve year olds, and the fourteen year olds, some of whom have grown up in school in the United States and now are being told they cannot stay. Now they are being told we do not want them. Now they are being told they are not a part of the family after all. In Guatemala, I spent time with some of those who have returned. While they focused on empowering those around them and celebrating their culture, some still carried with them scars inflicted by the nation of my birth: scars similar to a child whose parent refuses to claim them as their own. They loved us, and we cast them out as if we did not know them.

So when the call comes in, I go. I drop everything, and I go. I spread the word to those in my network that we have family in town, and we do not have much time to make them feel welcome. We might have two minutes to sprint for water before the next bus leaves. Or we might have twelve hours to collect supplies for the journey and share meals and laughter and stories.

Sitting across the bus aisle from the woman with the thirsty baby, was another mother with a young daughter. She had arrived on an earlier bus and so her transfer had not been quite so erratic. We had a two hour head start on understanding her situation and her needs. However, even with all that time, as I looked around the room at the other two dozen women and children, I could not gather my mind clearly enough to understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept saying something about “tres dias” and I just nodded politely, unalarmed. (The average length of time that these women and their children will be on buses is two to three days, sometimes four.)

Thank God for Jasminne, who came over and with her profound fluency was able to understand that the woman was worried because her cousin would only let her stay for three days when she arrived; after that time she did not know where she and her daughter would stay.

Thank God for Jordan, who lived in the city she was traveling to and answered his phone immediately. “Pastor Hannah!,” my former church member and current colleague exclaimed. I hurriedly explained the situation and left it in his relentlessly compassionate hands, as I turned my attention back to the other eight mothers traveling that day.

I am rarely that fortunate; often I do not get an answer soon enough, and I do not have the luxury of time. That day, however, Jordan did answer the phone and did have the ability to help. So, as I slipped that bottle of water into her seat mate’s hand, she slipped her name and her cousin’s phone number into mine. I would spend the next couple days praying that that information, along with the picture I had taken of her on my phone, would be enough for Jordan to find her when she arrived on the other side of the country.

The bus departures continued throughout the day, more leaving every couple hours. We organized triage so that we could deal with the needs of families case by case: focusing on the needs of those leaving the soonest first, and working our way to the midnight departure of the final group.

Contacts from throughout Houston came in shifts as they were available throughout the day, bringing what they could. Comfort food from a Honduran restaurant arrived first in the hands of Jasminne. Then a coat in the hands of Marianella. Clothes in the hands of Lupe. Hats and gloves for the snowstorm they were driving into from the hands of Brandi. New clothes for the mother whose clothes did not fit in the hands of Jenny. Resources in the hands of Mia. And one final late night delivery by Elaine to meet the requests of the midnight departure.

As I rushed about, I was pulled to the side by a gruff, Texan man with a baseball cap and boots. “I see you are helping these mothers,” he said. “The thing is, I lost my own wife to a brain aneurysm earlier this year, and it would sure make me feel good to be a part of helping.” With that he slipped a twenty dollar bill into my hand, and I slipped it into the hand of a nursing mother.

I drove across the street to get cheeseburgers for the group, and as I pulled up to the window to pay, the cashier told me that the woman in line ahead of me had already paid my bill. I made eye contact with her in her rear view mirror and mouthed a “Thank you” to accompany that last glance.

Back at the bus station, there was one pair of eyes that remained downcast throughout the day. Probably about fifteen, he was the oldest minor present, and he seemed to feel the weight of it, and the weight of caring for his younger brother and sisters.

As this family climbed on the bus in the late afternoon, I called out softly, “Vaya con Dios,” and the young man’s head whipped around. He made eye contact with me for the first time and the last time; and “Thank you!” were his first and last words to me as he finally raised his head erect and his mother’s eyes welled with tears.

There it was. The last glance. Varied in intensity, but still the same every time. A glance of gratitude mixed with sadness. A dropping of the guard carefully maintained. In that last moment, getting on the bus unhindered and realizing they can trust us; while at the same time realizing they are walking away. Safety found in the moment it ends. Heart wrenching. In that last glance, they release all they’ve been holding back. Tears well in their eyes. Mouths say words I do not always understand.

I do not know what will happen to them, and it breaks my heart every time.

I wonder what they see in our eyes. I hope they see love. I hope they see respect. I hope they see that my eyes reflect the pain in theirs, and commit to carry a little bit of it with me. I hope that solidarity makes their own burden just a little bit lighter.

***************

Two days later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Jordan. “We found her!!” Jordan had arranged for housing, clothes and support for the woman who did not know where she would live in three days; he had found her at the bus station. For the first time, the last glance would not be the final word.

Traveling mother - on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)
Traveling mother – on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)

A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

“I cannot wait until I am in a different appointment, so that I can preach the way that you do.”

I cocked my head to the side, a little puzzled. I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God as the guest preacher at a predominantly white gathering. It is true that serving as the first white pastor on the staff of a predominantly African American congregation means I am accustomed to receiving a consistent flow of interesting statements and questions from those both inside and outside of our congregation. But the clearly articulated assumption that my situation somehow gives me immunity to the consequences and discomfort of addressing injustice made me pause.

After that pause, my response was very simple, “Actually, I’ve always preached this way. No matter where I’ve served. You can preach this way anywhere. It is possible.”

When I first became clergy at the age of twenty-six, I was appointed to two small congregations in rural Maryland, in the beautiful marshes of the Chesapeake. When the appointment was made, my District Superintendent presented the congregations with a resume that led them to expect anyone but a small, blonde woman to walk through their doors. It informed them that I had served an African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina; been part of multiple anti-racism trainings and efforts; and most recently served a diverse, urban congregation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, or appropriately, the city of Coatesville, that I was leaving, shared an ignoble distinction with this community in Maryland, which I can only assume was an act of coincidence or divine intervention. The distinction is that Coatesville was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Pennsylvania; while Princess Anne was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Maryland. In the case of Coatesville, it was Zachariah Walker in 1911; in the case of Princess Anne, it was George Armwood in 1933. Both of them accused of crimes; but more importantly, both of them innocent for all eternity, denied their right to be proven guilty or not.

The way that I found out about the lynching of George Armwood was not from my District Superintendent or from a history book. The way that I heard the story was, instead, over coffee with a man who explained to me that he had relatives who had been a part of the mob. He had relatives who had told him about watching George Armwood die. He presented the facts with little value judgment given; to this day, I do not know with certainty how he felt about those who had taken part in the murder.

What I do know is the reason why the conversation, and many more like it, came up. That reason is the same reason for my colleague’s recent response: I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God.

It is true that I preach that way in Houston, Texas, at St. John’s Church, one of the largest predominantly African American congregations in Methodism. But it is also true that I preached that way in the pulpits I served in Durham, North Carolina; Dames Quarter & Oriole, Maryland; Coatesville, Wayne, & Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and any other places I have traveled. The truth of the matter was that I spoke to my congregations and audiences about these realities not because we did not care for one another; I spoke to them about hard truths because I loved them and they loved me, and we all deserved the space to talk and think about how to act in order to love others better.

I do not lead a charmed life where there are no consequences for what I do and say. The reality is that there are consequences, and I have and will pay them.

I must also acknowledge, however, that I preach this way because I can; I am able to say things from the pulpit as a white person with privilege that it would be much more difficult for my colleagues who are people of color to say without different repercussions, pressures and stresses.

For this reason, I also acknowledge that I preach this way because I must. I preach this way, in whichever pulpit I stand, because when I search “Cross-Racial Clergy” on Facebook, I am confronted with a virtual monument which will last for as long as God and Mark Zuckerberg will allow. It is the profile of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Joyce Anderson, in whose eyes my youthful exuberance often caused both a smile and a sigh. A smile because she was a loving person; a sigh because I did not really understand the difficulty of her life as “Cross-Racial Clergy.” I wish I could tell her that I understand better now; I wish I could tell her that I am still listening to her and that her experiences and witness have not been silenced by death.

In her last blog post, exactly 3 months before she passed away from cancer, Joyce wrote:

“During Black History Month worship services in white churches I have experienced White members passively, but passionately, apologizing to me for the centuries of oppression, suppression, and dehumanization against my African ancestors.  This always made me uncomfortable, because the fact is that those acts were everything but passive. They were blatant acts of cruelty and violence. They were done with calculated evil and conviction, supported by carefully legislated laws, and laced with thin and blasphemous attempts at corroborating them with Biblical principles. The true offense was, and still is, against God.  If anyone needs an apology, it’s God.”

These are the feelings that Joyce endured as she struggled to remain polite in a church culture where the silence of we, her white colleagues, caused the burden to be too heavy and change to seem too far away. We perpetuate this reality when we, as white leaders, are more concerned about the comfort of our congregations than we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our colleagues who are persons of color.

Several years ago, Bishop Kenneth Carder explained to a group of students at Duke that it is not the role of women alone to make churches ready for female pastors; male pastors must also preach as if equality was their responsibility. I raised my hand and asked him a question that he was glad to answer in the affirmative: should not the same also be true for white pastors who bear the responsibility to prepare their congregations to love, accept and follow pastors of any race or ethnicity?

This is the reason why we must preach as if lives depend on it; because somebody’s life does.

I have been quiet for the past few months; unable to write since the blog I posted about standing in a street still stained with the blood of Michael Brown. My ears were still ringing with Justin Hansford’s explanation that this disregard for Michael’s body, this lengthy exposure and exhibition of it, was – in effect – a modern lynching. The body sending a traumatic message to the community where it was left to lie.  It has been my time to listen, rather than speak; to read, rather than write; to follow, rather than lead.

The question was raised by someone a couple months back of whether it was right for me to stand, on occasion, in the pulpit of a predominantly African American church during such a time as this. I have done a good deal of thinking about it. And I know that it is, in fact, for just such a time as this that I stand where I stand. That I speak, after listening. That I write, after reading. That I lead, in the very act of following.

This is where God and the Pastors of St. John’s have asked me to stand. This is where we have chosen to stand together.

Have the courage to join us. Not only in knowing when to speak, but also in knowing when to be silent – when to listen, to read, to follow.  Then, when it is your time, speak truth; in whichever pulpit, podium, or desk you stand; with whichever congregation, classroom, or context you address; carrying whichever fears and apprehensions you bear.

“I say come ye ye who still have hope
That we can still survive now
Let’s work together as we should
And fight to stay alive

I say come ye ye who would have love
It’s time to take a stand
Don’t mind abuse it must be paid
For the love of your fellow man”
Nina Simone

Take Off Your Shoes

“Take off your shoes” had been the words that came into my spirit standing before the Michael Brown memorial in Ferguson, Missouri. Quickly and quietly, I slipped them off.

“Thank you,” said one of the men from the Canfield Apartments, standing watch over the memorial. “I appreciate your respect,” he continued, “Go on over there. Right where it happened. Feel it through the soles of your feet.”

I stepped into the middle of the street at his prompting, shoes in hand. I breathed deeply and took in all of the signs of love that had been left. Teddy bears. Flowers. Crosses. Hats. Basketballs. Items that represented the people that left them. The attempts of a community to say to a young man who had lain dead in the streets of this quiet neighborhood for hours: “You were not alone. We were with you. We were watching. Your life was important to us. Your life is important.”

Something they don’t tell you about this spot on the news is that it is one of the most visible places in Ferguson. It is at the bend of a quiet neighborhood street where several dozen apartment windows in about six buildings point directly at the spot. It is in a spot surrounded by wooden balconies and stairwells, by parking lots with cars pulling in and out, by large grassy areas where children run and play. Children whose mothers had to try to avert their eyes for several hours, as Michael lay on the yellow dividing line of their small neighborhood street; his body blocking the one lane in and one lane out.

In a town where shootings are nearly unheard of, this sight – impossible to avoid and impossible to forget – would have left an indelible mark upon the memory of every child there. Yet, the flowers and bears and hats would now create, for the youngest children, a different image of that spot in their memory. For this reason, their parents debated about whether to let them play and feel joy in that spot, or whether to scold them for picking up one of “Michael’s bears” or one of “Michael’s flowers” and remind them to be sober.

Standing there in the street, I looked down at the layers of candle wax that sealed the darkened asphalt around the memorial and I prayed:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy…”

Moments before, I had stood on the grass nearby and prayed, “Why did you bring me here? What do you want me to learn here?” And I had felt that answer in only four words, but four words that held a world of meaning: “Take off your shoes.”

That action, rooted in an ancient story, was sufficient even without words to communicate to the neighbors standing watch and the friends standing with me: This is holy ground.

It didn’t really hit home, however, until tonight, two weeks later, as the words “Right now in #Ferguson” scrolled across my Twitter feed. After a busy day at work, I had not been paying attention to much outside of my own corner of the world and attempts to create community within it.

Yet, the news that there were crowds in the streets face to face again with police drove me to prayer and then to investigation of what was happening.

With just a couple key strokes, I was confronted with a picture of that same memorial that I had stood beside when I took off my shoes; before I stepped off the grass and into the main memorial in the center of the street. The conical structure had leaned against a light pole, a construction of teddy bears and silk flowers and cards. It was there that I had witnessed a three year old girl pull a faux sunflower out from the middle and carry it, giggling with pride, to a mother who did not have the heart to scold her.

Now I was seeing that same street side memorial in flames. It had burnt earlier in the day in what officials had called an accident, and residents had called an intentional act. At the end of the day, whatever happened, the tragedy at the heart of things is how it feels to the neighborhood. The shock of seeing flames at a spot they had committed to protect; reminding them of the wheels of the police vehicles that had run over their first attempt at a memorial.

Suddenly, I had the “do you get it now moment?” once again, as the impact of what I had experienced hit my heart two weeks after it had hit my brain, drawing hot tears down my cheek.

I had understood the simple concept that the ground I stood on was sacred and important, but I had failed to take the time to really hear the rest of the story from which those words arose. The sight of that memorial in flames made it impossible to ignore.

The man in the story is Moses. He was born a slave, found abandoned, raised by a princess. He was a fugitive now, fled from home; he is living in another land, after the injustice surrounding him had been too much for him to bear and he had became violent in response. In the course of his work, he comes upon a flame, in the midst of a blazing bush, and a voice tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

God speaks to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings.” God then tells Moses that he intends to end oppression and bring the people to a joyful place, and he wants Moses to go and bring them there. Moses resists, but God insists and says, “I will be with you.”

God is with us. God was with Michael. God also once lay bleeding to death while his family and friends were forced to watch helplessly. God listens. God hears. God plans to end oppression. And God intends to use us to do so.

So, take off your shoes.

To all of my brothers and sisters from Houston, to Durham, to Philadelphia, to St. Louis. Take off your shoes.

Taking off your shoes does not mean it is time to put up your feet. Taking off your shoes means you are about to embark on a journey – a journey that will take all the integrity and all the courage that you can muster.

Taking off your shoes means you are not alone. God, and all those God calls to walk the journey of justice and joy, are with you.

Finishing my prayers, that day in Ferguson, I stepped back out of the street and onto the grass in time to hear the end of a lesson from David, the guardian of the memorial. “Religion divides people,” he said. “God unites people. Jesus said trust no man, lean on him. We gotta trust God. I am here for peace. God is protecting Canfield, and I am determined that my children will be able to play outside here.”

To his left, two of his children that were old enough to walk chased each other and giggled. They ran past a tree with a sign that said, “his blood cries out from the ground.” Not old enough to read, and consumed with delight in each other’s company, they seemed only to understand that something important had happened and that now their yard was full of teddy bears and flowers, and that their mother kept telling them that all this cool stuff belonged to a kid named Michael.

Tripping over a root, the oldest child, a girl, fell face down at my feet and lifted her head up to smile at me. The American flag that she had taken from the nearby memorial – two weeks before it would burn – had flown out of her hand as she fell and now lay a couple feet away. Stooping down, I picked it up and handed it to her as she stood to her feet. As I gave it back to her, I looked in her eyes and said, “This is yours.” I did so with a deep awareness that this was her flag; that this was her country; and that all the rights of this nation are hers equally, regardless of her gender or anything else about her.

Yet, we have learned that these rights will not merely be handed to her. Beautiful words written long ago by powerful men only come alive when their wives and daughters and brothers and sisters demand that they be more than ink on a page. We need to stand together. Whether it be in the streets of Ferguson, the classrooms of our public schools, the pulpits of our cathedrals, or the halls of justice: we need to stand together.

Then, we need to take off our shoes. We need to recognize that we are not alone, that Michael Brown was not alone. That all the young children of his neighborhood – the ones who laugh because they are not old enough to understand why their mothers mourn – that they too are not alone.

We live in a world where, be it far or be it close, injustice has an expiration date and justice is our true destination. We must remember that will not get reach it if we never start to walk.

But before we start, let’s take off our shoes and listen; because it is a very long journey we have ahead of us, and we cannot get there alone.

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Real Talk at Ferguson City Council

“I don’t hate you,” he said, as his eyes locked with mine, pleading – or perhaps demanding – that I believe him. The young man, a representative from the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition had just taken to the microphone after a wait that had lasted hours, as residents and non-residents of Ferguson, Missouri vocalized their frustration with the City Council members sitting, removed from the people, upon the stage.

Dead center in the middle of the elevated dias was the mayor who had claimed shortly after Michael Brown’s shooting that Ferguson had no racism problem. To the mayor’s left, sat the only African American member, and non-white member, of the six person council. The latter gentleman was clearly torn after his timid approach towards the microphone in front of him had ended in a silent retreat back from it; this subtle movement of his neck eliciting a seemingly simultaneous outcry of betrayal from the hundreds of African American constituents gathered in the sanctuary of Greater Grace Church. One could only begin to imagine the turmoil within his soul, as the crowd, longing to hear his voice, longing to have him claim them as family, was met with silence from the stage. Two seats further down sat Councilwoman Kim Tihen, who, while a police officer in 2009, had first beaten an African American man, Henry Davis, and then charged him with destruction of property for bleeding on her uniform.

The young man who had just taken the microphone from its stand and slumped into the chair beside me was clearly exhausted from the hours of waiting in line as voice after voice vocalized their long felt frustrations and fears. Now it was his turn, and he had an important point to make. Many of those who had gone before him had made the argument that this was not a race issue, that this was a justice issue. One woman had said, “It is not about black and white to me anymore, it is about right and wrong.” Others had given passionate speeches about their desire to create a community that was just as safe for white children as for black children. The point had been made time and time again that this was not about race, it was about justice.

“You keep saying it’s not about race,” the young man had said to the crowd, “but it is about race. It is about black and white.” As he began to make his point, an important one, his head swung from left to right and with each rotation, the realization began to dawn on him that he was sitting next to a white woman. The reality seemed to be distracting him until he just stopped fighting it. The rotation of his head ceased completely, and his eyes locked with mine. We were having a conversation.

“I don’t hate you,” he said with the microphone still in his hand, “but this is about race, and we have to face that. But we don’t have to wait for them to do something about that,” he said vaguely waving at the stage where the City Council members sat without taking his eyes off mine. “I don’t mean to single you out,” he continued, “but you are here. And while it is not about me hating you, it is about race, and we have to do something. They’re not going to do it for us.”

For the first time in the entire night, you could have heard a pin drop. I tried to nod as reassuringly as I could. Trying to communicate to him that I agreed with all of his points. Yet tension hung in the air as if a paralyzing fog had filled the room; he had said what needed to be said, but it was a truth that – for a room full of people intent on demanding justice from the authority figures on the stage – was hard to hear.

He had named this truth: we cannot expect the people in power to fix things for us. We cannot afford to wait for them to come around. While it is not about a black man like him hating a white woman like me, it is still about race and it is still about the sin of racism, and it will get us nowhere to avoid that fact. We do have to name it. We do have to begin the hard work within our own hearts, minds and lives to fight against the power that it holds over us, our society, our children, and our futures.

He had named the hard truth that justice and peace are something we have to build with our own hands. True justice and true peace are so inextricably bound up with one another, that the false peace that accompanies injustice – otherwise known as oppression – will always leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those silenced by fear and the threat of violence.

As he walked back to his seat, silence fell over the room, the first and the last silence of the night. I wished I had done more than nod in agreement in a room so large that the gentle bobbing of my head may not have been understood as solidarity. I wished I had gotten up and hugged him, or at least shaken his hand. But the weight of his words, and the heaviness of the calling he had placed on us had left me immobilized to do anything but clap quietly in the middle of a silent room.

I found him afterwards, wading through the crowd of youth from nearly every ethnicity and background imaginable that made up the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition. Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “I’m so sorry, I did not get to shake your hand in there.”

He blushed, still feeling awkward about singling me out. “I’m so sorry, it’s just that you were right there.”

“No, no. Don’t feel awkward. You had an important point to make and you made it very well. Thank you,” I said.

Walking back to the car with my friend Christian, the intensity of emotions that had been expressed throughout the evening almost made my knees buckle. My stomach was sick with how differently I had been treated by the police than my African American companion, who I loved like a sister, who I would do anything for. Each time I had been walked through security, I had received a warm welcome from the officers; while she had been detained, her body wanded and her bag searched.  My head was pounding and my heart was beating… and breaking… and expanding.

We both knew how the news media had been portraying the quaint community of Ferguson, and how they would continue to portray the events of this evening. For me, however, the strongest and most consistent theme of the night could have been summarized with that young man’s first words to me, “I don’t hate you.” As person after person had approached the microphone, the message that they had was first that they were tired and fed up with being afraid in their own streets and in their own homes. Second, that they would not take it anymore. Third, that their anger was directed specifically against those that had perpetuated inequality, and that they recognized that there were countless white allies in the room.

The people of Ferguson are not fighting a “race war”, they are fighting a war against racism.

They are engaged in the very same struggle that wages in the other 91 municipalities of the St. Louis metropolitan region, the other 49 states and unincorporated territories of the United States, and the other 195 countries of the world. The struggle that though God has called us family, that has not stopped many from seeing brother as threat and committing fratricide as Cain did.

If we truly understand what it means to be the family of God, injustice becomes intolerable, and complacency becomes impossible.

When we see one another as family, we should have “real talk,” just like family does.

We should be able to lock eyes and say, “I don’t hate you. I need you to take action. Together we can change things.”

First Ferguson City Council meeting since shooting of Michael Brown.
First Ferguson City Council meeting since shooting of Michael Brown.
"We are not letting you go back to business as usual, Mayor."
“We are not letting you go back to business as usual, Mayor.”
"We're not just "Black" - we're people! We're human!"
“We’re not just “Black” – we’re people! We’re human!”
"I am Mike Brown. My address is Ground Zero."
“I am Mike Brown. My address is Ground Zero.”
"For me, it's not about black and white anymore, it's about right and wrong. Whatever you do about Darren Wilson i going to affect the whole country - we didn't want that - we just wanted an apology!"
“For me, it’s not about black and white anymore, it’s about right and wrong. Whatever you do about Darren Wilson is going to affect the whole country – we didn’t want that – we just wanted an apology! We are black people, and our lives are valuable! People say we aren’t – but we are valuable!”
"I've got a mind! I'm intelligent! But you stereotype me!"
“I’ve got a mind! I’m intelligent! But you stereotype me!”

An open letter to the lizard on the stairs

Stair lizard waits for me. Stair lizard waits for me.

“There will be critters,” I told myself when I was settling in at the Bahamas Methodist Habitat on Eleuthera. “The sooner you accept it, the better.” And I did accept it. In some cases, I even embraced it.

Spiders for instance. I will never look askance at a spider again. They have become both my natural and my chosen allies in the never ending battle against the sand fleas; natural because we have always been about the same business, chosen because it is only now that I have realized it. They build their webs of destruction, and with every sticky circuit that they make, I applaud them. They may need to possess the patience of Job to catch those little critters in their nets; but every sand flea in their web is one less that I have to smack. And smack them I do… and myself in the process. If I feel you bite me, or if you drift into my line of vision – you are a goner. Yet, somehow, there must be many that escape me; for my ankles and feet, if left uncovered, bear evidence that lingers for weeks. And that is where the spiders come in – like friends playing tennis in pairs, I rely on them to catch the ones that get by me. In this war, they are my best hope. Without them, I am alone.

So, yes, enthusiastically, the spiders I have accepted. Even the jumping tarantulas, I have accepted. Even when Pauline said that the one in front of Wesley Methodist Church as we came out of Bible study was the biggest she’d ever seen in all her life spent here on Eleuthera. Even when later, that very same night, one scurried across my foot when I headed for the bathroom and then sat watching me under the bench. Oddly, or I should say thankfully, I never saw another tarantula before that night or after. I guess we got it all out of our system at once. Either that, or I am in denial.

The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen... in the middle of the road... like it ain't got time to worry about cars. The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen… in the middle of the road… like it ain’t got time to worry about cars.
And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home. And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home.

The snakes, as well, I have made a truce with, ending our long standing feud that dates back to the day that I let Blake the Snake freeze in basement when I was ten years old. They have agreed to pretend to be poised to attack when I see them, but to have no intention of doing so. And I have agreed to scream and prance around as if I am scared, before bravely running in the opposite direction. The most important part of our agreement is that they have committed to never, ever be poisonous. The results of our pact are that they need have no fear of my machete, and I need have no fear of their fangs.

The cockroaches I find to be cute actually, and have accepted that they will scamper about my room and my bathroom and anywhere else their hearts desire. I have warned them, however, that if they scamper too slowly, I will find them much less cute and will be obliged to step on them. This has happened on occasion, to my great regret, but they were warned after all.

The sand fleas. No-see-ums. Ceratopogonidae. Whatever you want to call them. They are my mortal and everlasting enemy and with them I will have no mercy. In fact, I will not honor their brief existence with any further commentary. I respect them. They respect me. And we will both draw blood from the other every chance we get.

All of these critters, these companions, these roommates – for lack of a better term – I have come to accept. But there is one critter whose choices I simply cannot respect.

Stair lizard, we’ve got to have a talk. For the past two weeks I have lived in terror of stepping on you every time I come down the stairs. It does not seem to matter to you what I do to alleviate this situation. Whether I gently encourage you off of the stairs with my finger, or outright pick you up and carry you to a location of safety – nothing seems to have an effect. As soon as I approach the stairs again, there you are, sitting on the edge of a step about eye level.

It’s not that you aren’t cute, stair lizard. In fact, that is just the problem to be honest. Would you want to step on something as cute as you are?

The thing is, stair lizard, you don’t move when I approach. It feels inevitable. If it is not me, it is going to be someone else. It is just not safe. All I am asking is that you find another home. Washing-machine-frog did, why can’t you?

Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly. Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly.
Washing-machine-frog being adorable. Washing-machine-frog being adorable.

Otherwise, I am going to be driven to extremes by your lack of good judgement and do something we will both regret, like trying to make you my pet. You saw how well that turned out for hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-much-too-large-conch-shell didn’t you? And we both know that my history with keeping reptiles alive is less than awe-inspiring. Think of Blake the Snake. Think of Gecko the Gecko. Truly, I am more successful with animals who have fur. I kept my cat alive for twenty years, stair lizard, twenty years – but neither Blake nor Gecko lasted more than a week.

Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long. Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long.

I’ll give you tonight to think it over. If you are still there in the morning, we are going on a hike to safer ground. Sometimes when you insist on continuing to put yourself in hazardous situations, it is the responsibility of a good friend to intervene. And that is what I’d like to be, stair lizard, a good friend. I know a lot of my own friends wished they’d taken the time to take me for a long hike this year. So, for their sake, stair lizard, either move or we’re going to do it together.

Stair lizard's brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm Stair lizard’s brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm

Lutra, the intersex chicken

Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food. Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food.

“If he’s really a rooster, then I get to cook him!” Manex exclaimed, as my eyes widened with the horror of what I may have done.

For weeks I had been trying to convince the staff at Bahamas Methodist Habitat that one of the hens I had been caring for was a rooster. When Manex finally came down to the coop with me to take a look, it did not take him more than a glance to finally agree that I was right… and to communicate to me what the result would be. Oddly, it had never occurred to me that there might be consequences for categorizing the gender of what had by then become my favorite chicken.

Lutra – oh yes, I’ve named the chicken – clearly stood out in our flock of 21 chickens. With legs twice the thickness of the other chickens, Lutra towered over them. And Lutra was changing. Every day the red coxcomb on top of Lutra’s head and the waddle under Lutra’s chin seemed to grow larger. Heel spurs appeared to be cropping out on the back of Lutra’s legs and long, shiny feathers grew on Lutra’s neck and back. Over the course of three weeks, I watched as Lutra went from simply the largest chicken in the coop to something that truly resembled the textbook physical description of a rooster. Except for one thing – Lutra still had no tail feathers. And for now, it’s those tail feathers, or lack thereof, that is standing between Lutra and the dinner table. “It’s not a rooster,” Brenda had been telling me for weeks, “It’s got no tail feathers.” It was an argument that all of a sudden I was relieved to have lost.

The truth of the matter was that Lutra stood out in more ways than one. I’ll have to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, when I tell you that Lutra was clearly a bird of a sweet and poetic nature. Having a bent towards the romantic, Lutra would crouch in the corners or on the margins of the crowd, watching the others or contemplating the turtle doves that perched overhead waiting to steal corn. When I brought out the feed or the water for the chickens, Lutra would cautiously approach and timidly try to grab a nibble, but then scamper away when the other chickens pushed and shoved.

Lutra’s behavior mystified me. How was it that Lutra was so gentle and timid with the other birds while being twice their size? And speaking of size, how did Lutra get to be so big when I never saw Lutra successfully get any of the food that the other chickens scrambled after. One thing that I certainly did not think we had to worry about was having any fertilized eggs; Lutra did not seem to be the slick type to make any aggressive moves.

But still my meddling has caused quite a dilemma for Lutra. The gender of my timid friend has become quite the talk around town, and the conclusion of that conversation will determine Lutra’s fate. As is often the case with humans, we feel a need to know the gender, and then we feel a compulsion to assign an identity, then a concept of proper roles and activities, and a likely life path. This is why the first thing we ask our pregnant friends is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Things can get just as messy for humans as for chickens, I suppose, when we assign them a role and a fate based on our own expectations of what is normal. “Boys are not supposed to wear that. Girls are not supposed to do that.”

In some small way, I experienced that myself as a child. I have always loved working with my hands, building and repairing and learning. I kept the old VCR in our home going all throughout high school; each time it would stop working, my mom would ask me to fix it; out would come the screws and whatever tape had gotten stuck and within five minutes we would be back to movie night. When I was seven, however, I had it fixed in my mind that this kind of skill and behavior was completely inappropriate for me as a girl. Having three older sisters, I had ample opportunity to observe what it meant to be a girl. Although it would not be too many years before I would watch my eldest sister board a carrier plane in her fatigues to care for the Marines as a Navy doctor, when I was seven, the future Lt. Commander Willert had not yet expanded my horizons. So, instead, I tried to hide my hobbies and talents; although it was really no secret that at Christmas my brother passed me his Lego sets to build while he kept an eye on my toys for me.

When, at the age of seven, I cut my hand with a pair of scissors while trying to deconstruct a Walkman Radio, I rushed to hide the evidence. Pulling out a set of historical paper dolls, I insisted that I had slashed my thumb open while cutting out a dress for Martha Washington. My mother looked at me skeptically. My father looked at me skeptically. The doctors looked at me skeptically. But I stuck to my story, as determined as a dog with a bone. There was no way I was going to admit that I had been doing something as boyish as prying apart a Walkman with a pair of scissors. (Mom, if you are reading this, which you probably are, there’s your confession. You were right. I was not cutting out paper dolls when you had to take me to get stitches while 4 nurses held me down.)

As someone who took many years to feel comfortable in her own skin, and even more years to be able to own her skills, gifts and calling, I can’t help but have a good bit of sympathy for Lutra. Dear Lutra, who hides and trembles and tries so hard not to stand out when standing out is clearly what Lutra was made to do.

Lutra’s situation, thankfully, is not an open and shut case. There is definitely ample cause for an appeal to the rooster declaration. Brenda, in what have thankfully been her fervent attempts to prove me wrong, has found an answer that I would not have expected and which, if true, is indeed a privilege to observe. It seems there is a good bit of scientific chatter out there that says that chickens, being hatched with both ovaries and gonads, can actually change their gender phenotype. The essays say that if the ovary is damaged, the gonad can become active in response; releasing chemicals that cause the chicken to begin to take on the characteristics of a rooster more than a hen. Although still biologically a hen, they will exhibit as a rooster.

It is still to early to say, and our access to scientific research here on Eleuthera is a bit limited, but I am fervently hoping that Brenda is right and that Lutra is an intersex chicken. Just as the lack of tail feathers has done for the past couple of weeks, such a conclusion might just save Lutra’s life. Because if Lutra is not a rooster, Lutra is not a roaster.

Oh, the world we live in is so full of boxes and categories and expectations and consequences for transgressing. For Lutra, gender ambiguity has put her life at risk, but it also has the potential to save that life if her unusual identity can be embraced. This is why I named her Lutra, the abbreviated nickname for the island of Eleuthera; because Lutra, or Eleuthera, means freedom and that is what I wish for Lutra. I wish for my unusual chicken not only the freedom to live, of course, but also the freedom to stride around the coop with the self-possession of a chicken who has accepted their identity even if others have not. It pains me to see such a beautiful creature hiding in the shadows. But perhaps Lutra is wiser than me; perhaps Lutra knows that she is safest left unseen, unnoticed, uncategorized.

For now, while her fate hangs in the balance, Lutra will have to be content to receive welcome in any flock that I tend. And for my part, I’ll have to be content that for as much time as we still have together, Lutra – who I now insist is clearly not a rooster – will not only be faithful to wake me up at dawn with crowing, but also be faithful to have my breakfast laid and ready to cook by 9:00.

*Manex, if you are reading this, you can feel free to laugh very hard at me now.