Sandy Still Speaks

“Mommy why are the police mad? The police pushed me…” the small African American girl said to her mother as she and a handful of other young girls were shuffled into the arms of a waiting grandmother. Looking down I saw a sight that seared itself into my memory: five pairs of eyes, in five little faces, welling with tears that balanced on the very brink of overflow and the very depth of terror.

I have never seen anything so painful in my life. Except the eyes of Sandra Bland’s sisters overflowing with tears as I looked into them at Hope AME and committed to stay at the Waller County Jail as long as they needed. Or that pair of eyes, similar to theirs, that cause me even more pain: the eyes of Sandra Bland, brilliant and lively in her videos, a constant reminder that her eyes will never well with tears again, and because of that ours must.

Just minutes earlier, the crowd that had gathered for the recently ended rally of Remembrance & Response surged to the doors of the Waller County Jail and began to chant: “Sandy still speaks. Sandy still speaks.”

I came close to see what was happening and then stepped back as a news camera asked me to get out of the way so that they could dive into the midst of the crowd. I turned to answer someone’s question when suddenly my attention was snapped back to the doors of the jail as screams erupted and people started tumbling over one another out of the doors. They weren’t so much fleeing as falling, like grains of sand sliding down an incline when you try to force them up into a pile.

“Get behind me,” my friend Steven called out, directing me back from the conflict in the same direction that that mother took the little girls. I looked down to my right, into their eyes, overwhelmed with the sorrow of their fear.

The doors of the jail pulled shut and were chained, and I thought that it was over until people started to chant, “Let them out! Let them out!” and realized to my horror that people were trapped inside… I realized to my horror that the mothers of some of these little girls were probably trapped inside… I realized to my horror that these little girls were watching their mothers be trapped inside a building where another young African American woman had lost her life, the woman whose name we chanted: Sandra Bland.

Things I did not know at that moment: I did not know what was happening inside. I did not know that crowds of troopers in riot gear were waiting around the corner ready to charge at the slightest provocation. I did not know that officers were pulling assault rifles out of their cars. I did not know that one of my mentors PK was trapped inside. I did not know which of these set of terrified eyes knew that their mother was trapped inside.

Things my friends did not know at that moment: Where I was.

Having become one of the most recognizable people at the Waller County Jail after 26 days of sitting vigil, my friends experienced several minutes of terror as I seemed to have disappeared in the midst of the confusion. They did not know that I was standing further back with my body planted between those five sets of eyes and the County Jail.

Finding me, they could only repeat, “Never do that again. Never disappear again.”

The people trapped inside the jail were eventually led out through another door. Amazingly, they had captured every second on tape on the little devices that Sandra Bland said were powerful enough to change things in this country: cell phones. Multiple videos from multiple angles all showed the same thing: people chanting “Sandy still speaks” for a couple minutes until police officers come out of the jail and into the lobby and begin pushing, shoving and sometimes hitting them until they shove the majority of them out the doors and chain them behind them leaving a few trapped inside. At the beginning of the conflict, one woman stands in the center, determined to be peaceful, her hands raised high in the air, repeating “Sandy still speaks” until it appears she is struck and falls.

The unnecessary escalation led to great sadness and confusion. People milled around shocked. It was exactly the kind of police-initiated escalation that cost Sandra Bland her life. As we struggled to overcome our shock, we had no idea that around the corner troopers in riot gear stood ready to charge at the least provocation.

Why? It was a peaceful, organized protest. We had made all the information about the event and the speakers public.

Yet there persisted a fear. A fear of black bodies that are unapologetic about their rights. A fear that has been perpetuated by local law enforcement spreading rumors to the community that we are rioters and spreading rumors to us both today and yesterday that the KKK or other groups may try to interrupt our gatherings. All of the fear, all of the rumors, have been encouraged and spread by law enforcement; escalating rather than deescalating tensions in the community. Causing the pastors that speak up to lock their doors during church services out of fear, and the pastors that do not speak up to encourage their congregations to see us as outside agitators.

Yet, if we are to be criticized as outside agitators for journeying into places of pain with a message of justice and love, then we are keeping good company with Jesus Christ who spent his life doing just that, turning over tables when necessary; as well as Paul after him, who traveled even further abroad, disrupting the plans of the Romans and the business of the Greeks.

As the dust settled, an older woman, knocked to the ground by the domino effect of the police shoving, was loaded into an ambulance; garbage lay scattered; and five sets of eyes wiped away tears as those trapped inside were released and their mothers returned.

The entire staff came out the doors of the jail and stood in full gear as a sign of force. One white officer walked past me as I picked up trash and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”

“Yes,” I replied, “you have; and you’ll see me here again.”

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An Open Letter to My Unapologetic Black Sisters

“What did Sandra Bland do wrong?” the reporter from Memphis asked as we arrived at the Waller County jail on Day 11 of what is now 21 days.

“She was black,” my friend Andrea Sawyer-Gray, Curator of (Her)story, replied without skipping a beat.

In the undertone were the echoes of another truth: she was black and unapologetic.

For the past three weeks of sitting outside the Waller County Jail, I have heard Sandra Bland’s voice consistently. So has everyone around me. Every time I have come near a microphone – whether at a rally, poetry event or church pulpit – my phone has come out and her voice has been heard over the speakers.

She is brilliant. She is powerful. She makes me want to say “Amen” after nearly every line. She is humorous. She is courageous. She is inspiringly loving. She is unapologetic.

She is. To me she is; not she was. She is lively and vibrant; and every day I have to remind myself that she was. My mind has not been trained to associate her name with a mugshot; I have averted my eyes so that the image her name summons is a smiling face saying, “Good morning, my kings and queens.” I have to remind myself each day that though her voice can never be silenced, her life has been cut short.

Yet, I am not sitting outside the Waller County Jail because Sandra Bland died. I am sitting outside the Waller County Jail because Sandra Bland lived. She lived with courage and boldness and brilliance. Her life commands respect; her life demands honor; and her life requires that the truth be told: and woe to those who try to hide it.

You can understand then why I, as may be the case for you, take issue with District Attorney Elton Mathis when he said of Sandra Bland, “It was not a model person that was stopped.”

It sends a chill up my spine every time I hear a statement like this; because every time they use her mannerisms, her tone, or her boldness, to engage in character assassination they play into propaganda hundreds of years old. They play into the fears they have taught White America to have through a lifetime of presenting African American mugshots as “part of the trend” and Caucasian mugshots as “the exception to the rule,” “the lone gunman,” and “the troubled young man.”

When they use her boldness about her rights to assassinate her character, they assassinate those same characteristics in so many women in my life that I love, respect, revere. They are portraying as condemnable the very things that the world needs: this holy boldness, this truth telling, this assertiveness, this unwillingness to tolerate injustice, this belief that rights apply to all people regardless of the color of their skin.

I am not interested in what Sandra Bland should have done to stay alive, I am interested in what we need to do to demand and create change to make sure that our sisters do not find themselves on the wrong end of a stun gun, pulled from a car, pushed to the dirt in front of a church, while a white man forces his will physically on her in order to restore his hurt pride.

I am not interested in respectability politics that would portray as less than polished a sharply, keenly cut diamond.

So, because I know that what I am doing, sitting at the Waller County Jail, is not the safest option in the world; I need you to know, for the record, why I am there. In case I am ever not here to tell you myself.

I am there because God called me to be there.

I am there because of Sandra Bland. I never knew her, but she has insured that we will never forget her. I am there because Sandra Bland said that we do not have to wait for someone important to come along, we each need to begin taking action. We need to stop saying “I knew that was going to happen” and start doing something.

I am there because Sandra Bland was unapologetic about her faith, and the church bears the responsibility to honor her life, her testimony and her witness.

I am there because when Sandra Bland’s sisters arrived in town and I looked them in the eyes, the words came tumbling out of my mouth, “I’ll do this as long as you need me to.”

But the implicit truth behind this all is that I am also there because of you. I am there to honor all of you who say of Sandra Bland: “That could have been me.” You are life. You are power. You are truth. You push against the lies and injustices of the world and refuse to accept them anymore. By refusing to accept them, you uproot this culture of white supremacy, the prioritization of the comfort of white people over the lives of black people, this false system upon which our culture has been built, that has done harm to those that look like me as well as those that look like you. This system that has minimized me as the one to be protected by authority figures, and endangered you as the one who is the threat to authority figures.

In the midst of a culture that puts lives at risk by silencing the truth in order to tip-toe around white people’s feelings, you step in and with an unapologetic love for yourselves and others create the intellectual revolution, that I engage as a theological reformation, known as #BlackLivesMatter

In the midst of all the lies and propaganda and skewed media, you remain stalwart. You are brilliant. You are glorious. You are the revolution.

You do not need me to tell you that, for black worth can never be given by white lips. It simply is. Immutable.

Which is why you don’t need me to agree with you that you are magnificent, beautiful, bold, brilliant. Yet, therein lies the very point: you don’t need me to feel comfortable with your self-love. It is this very self-love that stands up to a culture of white supremacy, seeking to prioritize the comfort of white people, and lets that culture know in no uncertain terms that you do not need them to feel comfortable about the way you feel about yourself. In that is the revolution. Your love is the revolution.

So while I know that you do not need me to agree with you, I just needed to say, for the record, just in case I am ever not here to say it myself, that I do: I agree with you. You are glorious. Your love is the revolution.

 

With all my love to Shante, Sharon, Nadiera, Theresa, Ebony, Deborah, Secunda, Morgan, DeAndre, Mellany, Brandi, April, Efe, X’ene, Karisha, Carie, Rayla, Konji, Jessica, Andrea, Chris, Christian, Tori, Brandi, Thasia, Lois, Shawn, Mia, Tracy, Fran, Nikala, Kelene, Hameedah, JJ, Christie, Sheletta, Krystal, Danita, Britt, Felecia, Connie, Waltrina, Octavia, Jennifer, Jasmine, Tasha, Tiffany, Isata, Dana, Robin, Kelly, Keisha, Chanequa, Rozella, Auriel, Candace, Erin, Navida, Garlinda, Angela, Jalantae, Faith, Ryan, Kay, Jasminne, Vascola, Bird, Tasha, Lanecia, Tiandra, Zelma, Lethee, Cy, Sonia, Attaya, Chenda, Lenora, Mischelle, Genesis, Tahieta, Evon, Ryan, Juanita, Janae, Misty, Rediet, PK, Wanda, Carla, Tierra, Ada, Tam, Destiny, Pam, Shekita, Joan, Kim, Parisse, Dara, Adrienne, LaTrelle, Angelita… and you.

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?”

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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.

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)