Tag Archives: church

Open Letter To the Sheriff of Waller County

Dear sir,

Last night, for the first time, I looked at one of the articles that was written after you told me to “go back to the Church of Satan that you run.”  At the time, I’ll be honest, I was aware that there was a good deal of media taking place around your comments to me; yet, I did not look at any of it. The reason was that I had more important things to do, to be frank. I was focused on staying alive and hydrated in scorching heat, and trying to maintain a peaceful and prayerful attitude, despite your threats that there would be “consequences” for those in vigil and despite the death threats I was receiving from people as far away as Alaska and as close as the farm up the road. I could not afford to be distracted, because I needed all of my focus to be on God in order to have the strength to continue.

When I looked at that old article from the Houston Press today, it actually caught me off guard. I think that at the time we all assumed that you either intended a slight towards a) the radically inclusive and loving congregation where I serve b) The Shout community of artist activists or c) that you were simply from an old-school mentality that found it difficult to acknowledge women as clergy.

What I saw instead last night shocked me. You actually intended to accuse me of working for the devil on that day in August. Despite the fact that the local superintendent of my church had come by the jail to sit with me and talk a couple weeks before. Despite the fact that I had sat in front of your jail for three weeks before that and your officers had marked my plates repeatedly and I felt certain you knew exactly who I was, exactly where I worked, and exactly where I lived. Despite the fact that just the week before I had marched beside Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to honor Sandra Bland at Hope AME. Despite the fact that everyone else in Waller County seemed to know I was a Methodist pastor, leading to the organizing of the Concerned Methodists of Waller County to protest against my presence in vigil for Sandra Bland. Despite all of these factors, you still stated that you intended to accuse me of working for the devil?

From the Houston Press: “In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Sheriff Glenn Smith attempted to explain why he called a clergywoman a Satanist, set up barricades to deter protesters, and cut down a nearby tree where protesters liked to gather for shade. “My grandmother used to tell me, if you’re not doing godly things, then you must be working for the devil, because there is no in-between,” said Smith, who was suspended and fired from his post as chief of police in Hempstead [by the predominantly African American Hempstead City Council] in 2008 amid accusations of racism and police misconduct before being elected Waller County Sheriff later that year [by the predominantly white Waller County].”

You went on to say that you had seen Satanists wearing clergy collars like mine before… in Waller County? Despite the humorous letter the Church of Satan wrote, disavowing any connection with me yet offering their wholehearted support, it is clear that you intended your words to be a condemnation of myself, those who stand with Sandra, and those I love. It is clear that you were summoning the most vile condemnation you could muster, and there were no stronger words you could find than to say that I serve the devil. Beyond unprofessional and abusive, your words and actions were reckless and could have put myself and my colleagues in the path of harm.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 4.09.33 AM
Some of the words sent to me that week after you accused me of working for the Devil.

Which brings us to the ironic part of this whole situation. The irony in your statement is that the thing that both summons me to this work and gives me the strength to carry it out is the love and calling of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without the calling of Christ, I could not have endured 80 days at your front door. Without the peace of Christ, I could not have found the compassion to sit in front of your office and pray not only for the conviction and honesty, but also for the safety for those working inside. Without the perfect love that casts out fear, I could not have found the courage to stay there despite the fact that you very clearly intended to draw animosity and danger our way.

To be clear, I am 5’2”, 120 lbs, and the only form of defense I have ever carried is my Bible and my guitar. Yet, I frighten you.

This is why, sir, you make me sad, and I will pray for you. You make me sad because from your own words, you seem to have had a grandmother that loved you and talked to you about God and what it means to serve God; I am sad that you have not given the world the impression that those lessons sunk in. That is important to me, as a Christian minister, and as United Methodist clergy, because all who claim the name of Christ have a responsibility to one another and to the whole world that God created and loves. When we fail to live in a manner that inspires faith in others, we do a disservice to the cross of Jesus Christ. We mock him in his suffering, our crucified Lord, a legally innocent man taken into custody by members of his own faith community, just as Sandra Bland was.

My calling to stand with my sister in Christ, my fellow Methodist, Sandra Bland, is no work of the devil. My choice to continually say her name is no trick of the tongue. My persistence in demanding an answer to “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” is nothing more and nothing less than a conviction that whatever happened to her would not have happened to me; because as a white woman in a collar, I would never have had Officer Brian Encinia try to tear me from my car. That is a state of affairs that, as a Christian minister, I cannot be silent about, because it was my own Christian faith that helped to build a system where black bodies were not treated as sacred, cherished, and loved. I must be a part of dismantling what a distortion of my faith’s teachings put in place.

Know this, intimidation will not work. We will continue to ask: What Happened To Sandra Bland? We want the truth. There is no answer we are afraid of receiving; we stand with her whatever may come, for we already know the truth is that she should never have been in your jail to start. You can understand why, for me, the way you have spoken of and treated me makes it hard for me to believe that her treatment could possibly have been above reproach. You can also understand why it has been difficult to believe the official narrative when I heard you with my own ears say that Sandra had died by tying a noose and then sitting down on the toilet. Remember, you told that activist from Dallas that story and she recorded it? I think I heard three different versions from you that first week. It made it impossible for me to accept your official version once you all got together and got on the same page and decided what it would work to say happened.

You may not see me every day, but we have not gone anywhere; we have merely shifted our efforts to acknowledge the complexity of the justice system. Be assured that we will drop by from time to time to ensure you do not forget to #SayHerName #SandraBland

As for me, sir, I am still waiting on an apology from you. I heard a rumor that you apologized to a reporter for me. Yet, you have already made it abundantly clear that your grandmother was very involved in instructing you; so I am certain that your grandmother made it clear that apologies must be made to the person to whom offense has been given, and that they must be sincere. So I will continue to wait, and pray that God softens your heart. If that be not the will of God, hardened hearts have been known to work just as well to set God’s people free.

Your sister in Christ,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

p.s. I will be lifting up prayers for your friends as well

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 3.59.14 AM

Ravens

“Hey, you up?” There’s only one thing that could mean, I think to myself, pulling on my robe: JJ brought me food. She has been doing it ever since she moved in a few months back. Working long hours, and then picking up something to eat on the way home, and bringing something for me as well. At first, I used to tease her that she was trying to fatten me up; but as time has gone on and finances have gotten tighter, I don’t feel amusement any more; I only feel gratitude.

She is a raven to my Elijah; making sure I don’t go to bed hungry.

Come to think of it, ravens have become pretty common around these parts lately. Although unlike Elijah’s story, they don’t swing through with a mouthful of bread. Instead, they take the form of lunches after church; bags of groceries when my car broke down and money got tight; bills at restaurants, intercepted and paid before they could make it from the waitress’ hands to mine; texts from down in our kitchen, letting me know Sim Q is cooking; and, yes, late night hollers of “Hey, you up?”

I can’t help but think of our dinners at the Isaiah House, my heart’s home, where I lived the happiest year of my life with Rebekah and David, Sarah and Tom, Luke and Timothy, Ms. G and Ms. S. We were a whole bunch of strangers become friends become family, which is not too far off from my life these days.

Our meals were the best eating of my life. They were a collision between rice and oil and the vegetables from our garden; occasionally topped off by a cake that Ms. S or Ms. G had gotten from the food bank. We ate vegetarian, except on birthdays, for reasons having to do with finances and stewardship of the earth’s resources (food you grow yourself is free after all).

Although we were not all in agreement on this, and when Ms. G could get her hands on some chicken wings, into the toaster oven they would go. “Hey, you hungry?” she’d whisper to me conspiratorially, slipping me some buffalo-battered deep-fried protein: our little not-so-secret secret.

The two most treasured food memories of my life are as follows: my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, and Rebekah’s Tomato Pie (made with ingredients from the backyard of the Isaiah House). I will probably never get to eat either of them again, but I will never forget the love that went into making them so much more than food.

That is the way it so often is. Food, as necessary as it is, is so much more than food. It can be a means of showing love, expressing solidarity, and creating community. In the act of sharing food, we take the thing without which we cannot live and we give it to another; as if to say that we do not want to live without one another; as if to say that in sharing what gives us life, we give our lives to one another.

That was what Jesus meant when he picked up a loaf of bread when he was having dinner with his friends. He picked up the loaf in front of him and he broke it into pieces and gave the pieces to the friends sitting around him. As he did it, he said, “This is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” In doing so, this word made flesh, God made man, did what comes natural to so many people – he used food to send a message about love. He used food to say that he would give his life for them. Only in his case, he meant it literally not figuratively.

Within a matter of hours after they had eaten together, he would be arrested unjustly; he would become a victim of some of the most extreme police brutality in recorded history. Without the rights of a citizen, and because he was an ethnic minority, he would receive no legal representation. He would be given the death penalty and promptly executed by the State.

When he regained his life, his friends would not recognize him. At least not at first. Not until he picked up a loaf of bread, and broke it, and handed it to them.

We find ourselves in the breaking of bread. We learn to see God. We learn to see ourselves. We learn to see others.

That is what we have been doing ever since: handing each other pieces of bread to show that we are family and we give our lives to one another.

When the early Christians began sharing communion, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, it had a lot more to do with community than ritual. When they gathered and shared food, there were many amongst them that actually needed that food. The act of sharing was more than a tradition, more than a recitation of words, it was a necessity. In feeling their need for food and their need for one another, they recognized their need for the one who had first broken bread for them and told them to share it and told them to do it in remembrance of him. As they sacrificed what they had for one another, they remembered the ultimate sacrifice that he had made for them.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the funny thing is, I have never wanted to be a Solomon with all the wealth in the world. I have always found the story of Elijah to be so much more compelling. A man surviving on pieces of bread, brought to him in the beaks of ravens and later from the hands of widows and orphans. A man who spoke truth to power at the risk of his life, and went where God told him to go without questioning the reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer to have a reasonably stocked refrigerator, and bank account if we are being honest. Yet, there is something so faith provoking about hearing those words, “Hey, you up?” and knowing that as long as there is bread in this world and people faithful enough to share it, none of us needs to be hungry.

Yet, while there is so much bread, there are still so many that are hungry. All we need is a little more faith. All we need is a little more confidence in the fact that two thousand years ago, when Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me,” he really meant it. He really meant that if someone puts a loaf of bread in your hands, the most faithful thing you can do with it is share it.

I do not think I am the best at remembering this, but I have a lot of ravens around me and they are teaching me how. It’s hard sometimes; and it’s humbling; and it’s so very beautiful.

It is in the breaking of bread, and in the sharing of bread, that we who are broken become whole.

Raven
Raven
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Ravens
Raven... icecream raven to be exact.
Raven… icecream raven to be exact.
Ravens
Ravens
Raven
Raven
Ravens
Ravens

 

Ravens
Ravens
Ra
Raven
Ravens
Ravens
Oh... just dreaming of ravens.
Oh… just feeling grateful for ravens.

 

A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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