Category Archives: Featured

Sandra Bland: Fighting For Life, Both Hers & Yours

“Isn’t that what you are here for?!?” the white, female ABC reporter in front of us raged. She had watched from her SUV as those of us keeping vigil for Sandy Bland outside of Waller County Jail watched the video of Sandy’s arrest for the first time, huddled around one of our smart phones. It was a disturbing video; traumatic; infuriating; and we were visibly upset. The majority of those sitting in front of the County Jail were African American women close to Sandy’s age, similarly outspoken, and committed to the same ideals of justice that she was so vocal about in her #SandySpeaks videos. Over the course of the past seven days that we have sat in front of the scene of Sandy’s death, they have made it very clear: Sandy could have been any one of them.

Rushing out of her SUV and eager to capture the emotion, the reporter shoved a microphone in their faces saying, “You just watched the dash cam video didn’t you. What’s your reaction?” When they politely asked to be left alone and said they could not answer any questions right now, she badgered them aggressively. Finally, in my exhaustion, I said, “Fine, I’ll do an interview, please just understand that what we just watched is very painful and this is a traumatized space right now. Please will you speak to them in a more respectful manner.”

“What, don’t you want your message to get out? Isn’t that what you are here for?!?!” she raged.

My next words were clear: “I won’t be doing an interview with you,” I said as we all walked away and she continued to rage. I was shaking. I was shaking because it was not the first time that week she had treated us that way. I was shaking because in that moment she was giving embodiment to the very things we were fighting against: white indifference to the suffering of African Americans; the expectation and insistence of white people that our own comfort, feelings, and agendas will be prioritized over those of people of color even in moments that most impact people of color; and the inability to mourn the death of African Americans, compounded with the unwillingness to allow African Americans space to mourn without analysis.

White supremacy is not usually a man in a white hood; in fact, it hardly ever is. It is the way that we, as white people, daily occupy space in this country in a manner that demands and expects our needs, wants, comfort and feelings will be prioritized.

The dangerous implications of that reality are what we see playing out in the dashcam footage released on Tuesday: a man with authority becoming enraged that his feelings, comfort, and pride are not prioritized over the rights, safety and life of an African American woman.

The dynamic is all too similar to the arrangement upon which our nation was built: that black lives are less important than white comfort. That was what was taught by philosophers and theologians, and then spoon-fed to congregations by white pastors like myself who promoted a system of “Christian slave-holding” – a contradiction if there ever was one.

Now many white people are feeling the discomfort as we try to right the ship midstream. Our discomfort is necessary to right the scales on which their lives have been undervalued for so long.

This is what I would have said if I had given Jessica Willey of ABC an interview:

First, we are not sitting outside the Waller County Jail for the sake of the media. We are sitting out there for Sandra Bland. We are sitting out there because, as her mother said last night at the Memorial Service on the campus of Prairie View University, Sandy knew she had a purpose here in Texas. As her mother quoted her, “My purpose is to go back to Texas, my purpose is to stop all social injustice in the South.” That calling was so evident in her videos. Which is why, as we sat overwhelmed with the tragedy of her death a week ago, listening to the words of one of her #SandySpeaks videos, we could not ignore her call for assistance: “I need your help. I cannot do this alone.” We knew what we had to do. We had to go to the spot where her life had been taken and give her honor, sitting vigil for our sister in Christ so that the world will know that #SandySTILLSpeaks and cannot be silenced.

Second, what I see in this video is a woman fighting for her life from the minute she is pulled over. Fighting to live in a country in which she had rights, and in which her humanity was respected. Fighting to live in a place where you are able to assert your legal rights regardless of the color of your skin, and you do not have to genuflect to authority when that authority is misused and abused in order to save your own skin. In doing so, Sandra Bland was not just fighting for her own life, she was fighting for all of our lives. Fighting back against a system that says you have to treat police with respect even if they do not treat you with respect. Fighting against a system where the wounded male ego is cause for arrest. Fighting against a system where the voices of women are silenced, and the bodies of women are grasped without their permission.

On Monday, July 20, a week after Sandy’s death, District Attorney Elton Mathis said, “It was not a model person who was stopped.” To say I disagree could never be enough.

So I will continue to sit outside the Waller County Jail in vigil to let the community know that here was lost a life that deserves to be honored. I will continue to listen to #SandySpeaks and encourage you to do likewise.

I am confident that Sandra Bland did not kill herself. I have been confident from the second I heard her voice: the voice of a woman who unapologetically loved herself, others, and her God. That can be a difficult thing to be, however, when you live in a world that expects women like Sandy to apologize for their own greatness.

Rev. Hannah Bonner

St. John’s Downtown, Houston, Texas

What Happened to Sandra Bland?

From July 15 – Sitting Vigil for Sandra Bland – Arrested for failing to signal a lane change and found dead in her cell

“Blow that out,” the voice came loud and stern over the loud speakers of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and County Jail.

Moments earlier, we had lit a votive candle on the front stoop of the building with the words, “What happened to Sandra Bland?” written on the side. As I picked up the match stubs, not wanting to give anyone cause for a litter fine, and turned back to rejoin my fellow travelers, a woman leaving her car passed me on her way to the front door.

“Can I help you with something?” she had asked politely.

“We are just here to pray,” I had replied, squinting in the darkness to try to see her face as she walked from her car. It was dark on that street, everywhere except the lights of the Sheriff’s Office. Pitch dark.

We passed one another, and as she reached the front door, she read the sign on the candle, and then continued on to open the door and walk inside.

“Blow that out,” came an angry voice addressing her over the speakers that we could not see on the side of the County Jail.

I spun around from the friends I was begin to pray with, and watched as the woman bent her body completely into a V, lifting one leg slightly off the ground as she balanced with her hand on the front door of the County Jail, and *puff* the candle was out.

Rhys and I looked at each other in shock. “She blew it out, I can’t believe she blew it out.”

I picked the unused matches back up off of the car seat where I had dropped them and slipped them into my pocket. We had known that we must be being watched. We had pulled off the main road into the neighborhood where the Sheriff’s Office lay, just a few minutes after the Texas Rangers and their vehicles had pulled out for the night.

I didn’t know Sandra Bland, but I knew people who did; I loved people who did; I share life with people who did.

She sounds like an amazing woman from their reports, but the truth of the matter is that Sandra does not need anyone to say who she was: she speaks for herself. The internet is full of her videos of inspiring and convicting messages. It turned my stomach to see the video of her explaining the importance of #BlackLivesMatter to those who use the language of #AllLivesMatter – and to know that her name is now being hashtagged as well. But she is more than a hashtag, and #BlackLivesMatter could not come close to strong enough words for what we were feeling.

Even while she believed so strongly in the power of social media: She is more than a hashtag. We are all more than a hashtag. She deserves more than our fingers typing. She deserves our lips to say her name. Our hearts to beat her name. Our feet to march her name.

So when Rhys Caraway said to me, “You think we should go to Waller?” I said, “When?” He said, “Now.” I said, “Yes.”

We decided we would take one of the votive candles we had lit for Charleston, and light one tall, lone, strong candle for Sandra in the last place she had been: Waller County.

Our friend Nina joined us and read evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer in the backseat as Rhys and I prepared ourselves, driving past the college where both Rhys and Sandra had attended: Prairie View A&M. Rhys took anointing oil from his backpack and reached across the front seat to place it on my forehead as I drove.

It was that same anointing oil that Rhys held in his hand as we finished praying in front of the County Jail. He stood up and began to walk away from the safety of our circle and boldly towards the stoop of the County Jail. I followed him with the matches in my hand.

Rhys knelt and began to pray as he anointed the stoop with oil. Praying for truth and justice to be served.

I walked towards the candle.

“She’s going to light it again!” voices began calling to each other from the pitch darkness that surrounded us. The neighbors must have been watching. We had no way of knowing if they were friend or foe. I bent close, struck the match, and watched the wick glow out its strong but powerful statement once again: “What happened to Sandra Bland?”

IMG_6442 IMG_6452

Silence

Silence.
That is what lay between my aunt and I for years after I answered the call to ministry. I knew that it was because the idea had been planted in her mind that I condemned her, because she was a lesbian and I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The distance hurt both of us, but I did not know how to fix it. The pain of potential rejection blinded this pioneer of women in the film industry to the fact that I too was walking a path difficult for women. Meanwhile, the pain of what felt like her rejection made the tears trap the words like a lump in my throat, incapacitating me from communicating to her how I really felt.

That is until she lay dying of cancer.

When the cancer attacked her body, it was not the first time that it had come knocking, but it would be the last. I found myself driving across the state of Pennsylvania as often as I could to visit her. My congregation in Lancaster was incredibly supportive and prayed persistently for her and for me. The loving families of the church made sure I knew that I was not alone.

The ice began to break when I visited her in July, before I went to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I remember sitting in her garden while she still had strength; taking a walk at night to look out over Mount Washington as she told me her story; and getting scolded by her partner Ana for letting her exert too much energy – but really there was no stopping her, there never was.

On my last visit, after returning from South Africa, I visited her in the hospital daily, bringing her a different gift each day. A large blue beaded bracelet that hung loosely from what had once been her muscular forearm. A lamb made out of beads – like her name, Amy K. Lamb. On the last day, I brought her a rainbow pin, made of beads at a hospice near Durban, South Africa. I had purchased three, and began handing them around. One for my aunt, one for her partner, and one more for them to give to a friend. “No,” she said, handing it back to me. “This one is yours.”

Of course it was.

And that’s when I knew- that she understood. That she knew that I did love her and did accept her and did support her.

That was the last time I saw her.

She insisted that I be the only one to lead her funeral. Not everyone understood why, but I did. It did not have anything to do with family politics or favoritism. Suddenly there was so much to say to me, but no time left to say it. It was the only way she had left of communicating something huge that we no longer had the luxury of time to tell one another.

She wanted me to know that she understood how hard what I am doing is. That she supported me. That she trusted me to do the right thing.

So I climbed up in the pulpit of my friend Sue Hutchin’s church in Pittsburgh, and I addressed the largest crowd I had ever stood in front of, film producers and Pittsburgh Steelers, all there to honor their beloved Amy. And I told her story, every beautiful bit of it.

Silence between us had returned in her physical absence, but it was a comforting silence rather than the silence of distance. It was a silence that spoke everything that needed to be said.

She is still trusting me to do the right thing.

I have served rural congregations and urban congregations; and every single place where I have gone, in every single county and country, the families of those “Family Churches” knew and loved people who were LGBTQ and were looking for the space to love them and support them. And they are not alone.

To the United Methodist Church: please change your stance. I do not want my stole and my collar, my credentials and my calling, to continue to be the cause of her suffering or anyone else’s. I do not want this to be the only ceremony I could give for her.

-Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

218194_10100188199438624_923143933_n

My Feet Are Planted

“Don’t you think there is another side of the story,” was his opening line, as I pondered the stranger in front of me with puzzlement. My mind scrambled. What story? What other side?

“What do you mean?” I queried, studying the white collar, Caucasian man, a couple decades my elder.

“Well don’t you think there’s other people who have responsibility?”

“What people? And what responsibility?” I asked, trying my best to remain polite and engaged. Whatever code language it was that we were speaking was one that I either never learned or, more likely, had forgotten how to speak from years of disuse and disarming bluntness.

“Well, Michael Brown. Don’t you think he had a responsibility not to charge at a police officer?”

Oh. Michael. Michael, we are still talking about you. I promise we have not forgotten.

Despite the fact that not a day goes by in my life without a mention of the small community outside of St. Louis that brought national attention to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, I found myself surprised that his line of questioning bent my gaze towards Ferguson.

I was surprised to be questioned about Michael as Baltimore erupted over the killing of Freddie Gray; Chicago demanded answers for the silence surrounding Rekia Boyd‘s homicide; and South Carolina’s old wounds had been laid bare by the murder of Walter Scott.

Part of me wanted to say exactly that. Part of me wanted to simply say “Walter Scott” and walk away, but I knew I could not do that. To direct his attention away from Michael would somehow feel like walking away and leaving Michael lying in the street. But I had taken my shoes off, out of respect, and laid my bare feet against the pavement where Michael’s blood still remains, and I cannot walk away from him now. I will not walk away from him. My feet are planted.

Quickly self correcting, I said instead, “Let’s not get lost in the weeds. You and I could stand here all day and debate whether Michael charged a police officer, but we really have no way of knowing for certain what happened that day in a way that will satisfy both of us. But that is not even the point; the point is that I know that if I charged a police officer, I would not be shot. I could even hit a police officer and I would not be shot.”

He had to agree with me. Seeking to remove my diminutive size from the equation, I pushed the point further.

“And the same is true for you. You know that you could charge a police officer and not be shot.”

My conversation partner could not disagree. The fact that we did not disagree on this point is important. The reason why it is important is not whether or not it is true that I can do what I want to a police officer without being shot; the important detail is that we, as a white man and white woman, believe that it is true that the police will not shoot us. That is what people have called white privilege.

White supremacy, consequently, is the belief that that reality is acceptable. In other words, believing that the police will not shoot me is a part of my reality, regardless of how I feel about that fact. I can cry out to high heaven that it is wrong that I do not have to be cautious around law enforcement while other people do have to be cautious around law enforcement, but it will still be my reality. When, we accept this reality and do not fight against it, however; when we see it as justifiable and acceptable that a black man is more likely to be shot than a white woman, it is then that we have bought into white supremacy. We have accepted the current reality as just. We have become accomplices to a system of white supremacy.

White supremacy does not look like a cryptic figure in a hood. It looks like you and I when we are silent in the face of injustice.

Silence is simply not an option. Our only ethical option is to speak out and act out against a white supremacy system built upon an acceptance, whether active or passive, of white privilege. Our only option is to undermine the very system that seeks, through the offer of benefits and privileges, to purchase our integrity and occupy our souls.

“The point is that we have a real problem in this nation,” I said to him, “that problem lies in the fact that regardless of what Michael did or did not do, the reason he was killed is because he was black.”

Once again, he could not disagree. So we ventured deeper into the footnotes of our minds.

We discussed all the painful history of our nation’s crimes against humanity. The painful reality that it was Christian theologians who, along with European philosophers, created the foundation for our system of slavery, rape and murder. That it was our own beloved Scriptures that were twisted and tortured until the god they squeezed out of its pages could no longer be called love. That it was the words of our own prophets that were wrestled to the ground, bound, whipped, and gagged until they fought their way free and came roaring out like a loosed lion from Sojourner Truth’s throat. That it was the blood of Christ himself that we spilled with every single life we took. That five hundred years of unspeakable cruelty and outright heresy were not going to be undone in the flash of an eye.

That there were theologians who taught that the Indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas and Australia, were not quite made in the image of God in the same way that the people of Europe were, and thus, it was not murder to kill them. The fact that this encouraged our nation to put in place the 3/5ths compromise, that defined people in bondage as 2/5ths less than a whole person. That this lie, built upon theological heresy, philosophical errancy, and scientific fraud led to a devaluing of life whose repercussions are still felt to this day.

That the fact that the shootings of Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – are related to this history and not independent of it. That the heresy that many churches taught, that black lives do not matter, is the heresy that we now have a profound responsibility to speak against as clergy.

Once again, he could not disagree. And I loved him for it. It meant there was a chance.

He could admit that his feet belonged planted firmly beside Michael, Eric, Rekia, Walter, Freddie, but would he stand there?

First he tried the ‘use your family as an excuse’ maneuver. “Are you married? Do you have children? Then you wouldn’t understand, it is so much harder when you have others to think about.”

“The question is not whether it’s hard,” I responded, “The question is whether it’s right.”

Yet, there was still one “Hail-Mary” left, the ‘your generation will change things’ maneuver. “I really believe that it is going to be your generation, the Millennials, that will fix this,” he said, making the full turn from active resister to passive ally.

But to be passive and an ally is not a possibility.

“I know you’ve heard people say,” I replied, “that ‘we’ll have to wait until so-and-so dies before we can change the carpet or the organ or the parking.’ Well, my generation does not want to spend our whole life waiting for your generation to die. I don’t want to spend my whole life waiting for you to die. It would be so much better if we could do this work together. Join us; let’s do this together.”

In that moment, he had no maneuvers left, for who wants the world to place their best hope in our own fleeting mortality.

I do not know where his feet will be planted; but I know where my feet are planted.

And they shall not be moved.

IMG_8275

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.)