Category Archives: Listening

50 Days Later: Still Grieving, Called, Woke

On the 49th day of being in prayerful solidarity with Sandra Bland, I sat in the corner of a coffee shop at the close of one more day in front of the Waller County Jail. I fielded phone calls and messages about an angry video released by a white supremacist. Concern for our safety was not a new thing, nor was the constant responsibility to redirect attention and focus back to the point of our solidarity vigil: Sandra Bland.

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Sandra Bland

To my right I saw a friend enter, make her order, and sit down across from me. At the end of a long day, my eyes welled with tears, and as they did it triggered a memory of the last time I had sat with her as my eyes welled with tears. Suddenly it all came rushing back. “You were there,” I said to her, “You were there on the first day.” She nodded, “Yes, I was there.”

Then all those details whose import I did not realize in the moment came flooding back. I remembered being awakened that Wednesday with messages from my friend Jeremyah who was concerned, along with all of his Prairie View alumni friends, about the news that a friend of theirs had died in jail. I remembered the first messages I got in the morning, and the texts in the afternoon. I remembered the first time the words #WhatHappenedToSandraBland were texted to me that afternoon. I remembered my friend Kathy sitting down across from me shortly after.

I remembered that Kathy and I were supposed to meet about something important that first day, but I do not know what it was. All I remember is that I asked her if we could sit outside, and then she sat across from me in silence as I read an article entitled, “Family of Sandra Bland Questioning Her Death in a Texas Jail.” Then more silence followed, of a duration that only a true friend could endure, as waves of grief rolled over me. We must have sat for an hour before we finally began to speak.

Now, on Day 49, I sit across from her and it feels for a minute as if no time has passed. “What do you remember from that day?” I ask her, “Was I angry? Was I sad?”

“You were so sad,” she replies, “it was the last straw.”

“It was,” I say, “it was the last straw.” It was the last straw. There were too many women in my life that could have been Sandra Bland. There were too many bold, unapologetic, brilliant, black women in my life who I knew did not live in the same America as me. There were too many women in my life who had more to fear than a ticket when they saw flashing lights.

Now, once again, on Day 49, Kathy sat across from me in our familiar semi-silence as we reflected on it all. Eventually, we parted ways with hugs and prayers.

Shortly after, as I contemplated the arrival of Day 50, I get a text message from her that took my breath away:

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She was right on all counts. When I left her side, I went to Wednesday evening Bible Study, grieving and seeking what to do. At the end of Bible Study, knowing I had been wrestling all day with what to do, Rhys suggested we go to the Jail and honor Sandra Bland in the place where she had died. We met up with our friend Nina and we did just that.

We were grief stricken. We were called. We knew what we were getting ourselves into; not perhaps the specifics, or the extent, but we knew it would be hard, and we knew it would be necessary.

There are two things I have always said since Day 1. First, my problem with the situation starts the moment she is pulled over. Second, I believe Sandra Bland would do this for us.

We were grieving. We were called. We were woke.

We are grieving. We are called. We are woke.

Wake up America.

My Instagram feed (from right to left) that first day.
My Instagram feed (from right to left) that first day.

How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

On August 25, I stood in front of the Prairie View City Council and I said that I was there because Sandra Bland had changed my life.

Despite the fact that I never met Sandra Bland, and sadly will never get to meet her, it was true. Assuredly, she had help: her friends and family helped to put her life in context, while my friends and family helped keep my life in context.

When I saw pictures of her goofing off with her four sisters, it pierced my heart, thinking of my own sisters who are everything to me. When I saw the joy in her eyes in pictures with her nieces and nephews, I recognized the pure delight of getting to be the fun, young aunt who is free to adore and be adored by children who you have a responsibility to without having the full responsibility for them. When I saw pictures of Sandra with her mother, I recognized the fulfillment of figuring out how to have an adult relationship with the woman who once wiped your nose and changed your diapers. When I saw her sign “All white people are not against us,” I knew that Sandra Bland was wise enough to recognize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not about hating white people, it is about loving black people; and the person who believes the former reveals their struggle to do the latter.

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Unlike many people who find themselves in the spotlight, Sandra Bland never had an opportunity to go back over her life and edit it for public consumption. By the time she found herself in the limelight, she was no longer with us. The story she had left behind of her life, both the pain and the beauty, would have to stand on its own.

Yet, stand it does. It stands as the testimony of a bold and loving woman, who was in a moment of emergence. A woman who stood for love. A woman discovering new levels of strength and courage within herself in moments of struggle. A woman who would take a vocal stand against excessive force by police, only to find herself on the receiving end of it. A woman doing the hard work to figure out how to use her voice in a culture that often silences women, and particularly African American women.

In the end, it was that voice that she used to change my life:

“I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help.”

My friend Jeremyah brought her words to my attention the day after her death when he told me that the news was saying a friend from school hung herself in jail. The next morning, I asked if there were any updates and he told me his friends believed it couldn’t be true and were asking “What happened to Sandra Bland?” He had asked me to do something about it, and I wrestled all day. By the time I left Bible Study that night, I was visibly distressed; so my friend Rhys, who had also gone to Prairie View, asked what I wanted to do it about it. I said I did not know, but we had to do something physical with our feet and not just our tweets. He suggested we go to the jail and take one of the nine candles we had lit the week before for the victims of the Charleston shooting and light one for Sandra. We grabbed our friend Nina, and headed out into the darkness. We arrived around 10:00 pm, just in time to see a Texas Ranger load his rifle back into their vehicle and drove away. We pulled in and lit the candle. When someone blew it out, I lit it again while Rhys anointed the step with oil.

The next day we still heard her words, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help,” and we went back again. Others joined us and the vigil still continues. Over the last 49 days of going to the Waller County Jail, we have turned consistently to the scriptures, prayer and Sandra Bland’s “Sandy Speaks” videos to keep our conviction strong.

In doing so there are three life changing lessons for which I would like to thank Sandra Bland.

First, Sandra Band taught me that you can’t truly fight for justice for others if you won’t fight for it for yourself. When Sandra Bland came back to Texas to work at her alma mater, she told her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas and end social injustice in the South.” She very quickly had the opportunity to test her resolve when she found herself pulled over by an officer who escalated the situation by making unnecessary demands. Many people have said she should have just stayed quiet and stayed alive. Yet, the fact that African Americans in this nation are expected to bow the head and keep quiet to stay alive, systemic injustices such as racial profiling, was exactly the situation she felt called to end. How could she be silent about her rights and remain consistent? Someday, someone has to say no. To stand with Sandra, there were things I would have to say no to as well. This was explained to me very early on in this journey by a friend, the Rev. Kea Westbrook, who told me that if I was not strong enough to stand up for myself, I would not be strong enough to stand up with Sandra.

Second, Sandra Bland taught me that courage is contagious. Her belief in spreading love and courage was pervasive throughout her “Sandy Speaks” videos. She was constantly sharing what she was doing in her community to try to make a difference and encouraging others to do likewise. With every move she made she invited others into action. She promoted seeking justice as a community, but she was willing to take action even if she was all alone. When she was trying to get a petition signed while eating lunch in the food court, she was asked to leave by security. Her courage inspired another young man to speak up for her and then he was asked to leave as well. When he was sent home, Sandra Bland was worried he would lose his job so she committed to sit outside his work every day if he did: because Sandra Bland also had something to teach us about solidarity. Sandra was willing to do the bold and right thing, even if she was the only one doing it. Her courage commanded a response from others. Her courage commands our response now.

Third, Sandra Bland taught me that if your faith is central to who you are, you cannot be wholly present in the world if you do not talk about it. In her first video she pauses near the end to think about whether she wants to continue with what she has begun to say because it involves her faith. She finally continues, stating that she is going to talk about God in her videos because it is God that has opened her eyes and given her this calling to seek justice. I identify so strongly with that pause. It is a moment I have experienced many times in my life, while working to build solidarity between those who seek justice within the church and those who seek justice but will not go near a church. When those seeking to end injustice through a faith motivation come into contact with those seeking to end the same injustice, while also articulating that the church has had a hand in creating it, it can be tense. It is a difficult space in which to stand. I have rarely had the courage to make the choice Sandra Bland did, not to leave her faith in her pocket when putting her cards on the table. What I very quickly realized in keeping vigil for Sandra Bland was that if my faith is the source of my courage, conviction and motivation in this struggle, then I am weaker without it. I am weaker if I do not talk about it. I am only partly me, and I need every bit of me to keep going in this journey. Every last bit.

So, like Sandra Bland, I’m bringing all of me to the table. Strength. Courage. Faith.

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

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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.

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Duke: Cutting Down Nets and Nooses

“Maybe now they’ll stop hanging nooses off trees on campus…” I read the words just moments after I had added my own throwback photo to the avalanche flooding newsfeeds with Duke alumni’s exuberance over their NCAA win.

In the midst of celebrating Coach K cutting down the net as a symbol of Duke basketball’s dominance, the irony was not lost on many that  those were not the only ropes Duke cut down this week.

My breath caught in my throat. I recognized the emotion that has occurred pretty persistently since I began my masters studies at Duke a decade ago. Conviction. It was the awareness that we do not all experience these things the same way. It was the awareness that for many people Duke is symbolic of privilege. It was the awareness that in some neighborhoods of Durham, including the neighborhood where I lived, they still call Duke “the plantation.” It was the awareness that victories are experienced differently by those who feel empowered by an institution than they are by those who feel oppressed by it.

Duke won. Those same words can mean different things to different people.

I went to Duke. That fact has provided me with many opportunities: the opportunity to have a challenging and fulfilling vocation; the opportunity to celebrate wins during March Madness; and the consistent opportunity to reflect on the deep impact of privilege and racism.

Last week, when examples of racism at Duke once again made headlines in the hanging of a noose, the church universal was celebrating Holy Week. In the Christian calendar that is the week in which we remember that our Lord was captured by a lynching mob; condemned to death although innocent; hung with nails and rope on a tree; choked to death by his inability to get a breath; and left hanging on the tree not only to assert the power of those that had killed him, but also to terrorize those that had loved him and to discourage them from following his revolutionary lead.

Chillingly, that is exactly what so called Christians were doing to African Americans in this country up until a few decades ago. In fact, they were even lighting crosses on fire as a symbol of the fervor of their faith before going to perform a reenactment, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they were not playing the role of Jesus or his disciples, but of those that murdered him. The intense psychological terrorism of leaving a body hanging, daring the family to risk taking it down, did not end with the death of Jesus and the era of crucifixions. Neither, some would argue, did it end with the era of nooses and lynch mobs; it just looks different now.

In September, when friends and I met with law professor Justin Hansford in Ferguson, Missouri, he explained to us that leaving Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for hours, in full view of children and family, achieved the same psychological impact that lynching had in the past. In other words, achieved the same psychological impact that crucifixion had centuries before. In other words, regardless of the intentions or factors, was an act of psychological terrorism on the quiet neighborhood.

Remember that: whenever you hear news of a body left lying in the street; every time you hear that no life saving measures were attempted or offered. The impact of those choices falls not only upon the victim, but rather upon the whole community.

Both crucifixion and lynching serve as a method of reminding people who holds the power and privilege. This is a tactic of maintaining power and privilege through fear. Through reminding the oppressed of the power of their oppressor, psychologically traumatizing onlookers, and squelching any attempts at liberation.

Hanging a noose is a tactic by a fearful oppressor intent on maintaining a sense of superiority and power. It is the act of a coward, striving to stave off the inevitability of recognizing their own weakness; striving to protect their illusion of superiority when faced with an equal.

The fact that a noose was hung last week on Duke’s campus is not the fault of every Duke staff, student and alumni; but it is our responsibility to vocally confront and combat racism in all its forms, and to take the time to listen and understand.

It is our responsibility to be just as willing to say, “I went to Duke” when incidents of racism are reported in the news as we are when victories and causes for celebration and school pride are reported.  It is our responsibility to be just as willing to seize upon the opportunity to discuss the importance of anti-racism speech and actions and the struggles of our institution, as we are willing to seize upon the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our school.

I am encouraged by the swift and clear words of the administration and the student government. On the part of the administration, condemning the act and calling for solidarity. On the part of the student government, making the even more bold statement that Duke as an institution struggles with racism.

The fact that those words need to be stated may seem discouraging to some; yet, the fact that they are being stated so publicly is a sign that perhaps we are making progress, bit by bit.

To my colleagues, this is my prayer for us: May the education that we received in theology help us to grapple with the ancillary education that we received in the dynamics of privilege and oppression. May our calls for justice be just as public, vocal and passionate as our cheers for basketball. May our courage to speak and our humility to listen grow with the passing of the years. And may we be vigilant in our callings so that nets will be the only ropes that need to be cut down on ours or any other campus.

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.

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.)