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Sandra Bland & The Heart of An Aunt

“It’s okay, she understands,” my sister said on the end of the line. “It will really be okay if she doesn’t get to see you. She understands that you have priorities.

Pain cut a line down from the area right behind my chin to a spot in the middle of my chest, and my breath became tight; I believe this is what they would call a lump in my throat. It struck me as unacceptable that my life would ever get to a point where my niece would think of the word priorities and her name would not show up at the top.

I blinked hard to keep the tears back. It was the weekend of my niece’s twelfth birthday; I was in the city where she lived; and she was leaving in the morning for a trip out of town. I felt my heart collapsing in on itself. I had not seen her in several months; I won’t be specific because I am embarrassed at how long it had been, but long enough to leave me wracked with guilt and a longing to have her in my arms.

Those words – “She understands that you have priorities” – rang in my head. “Exactly,” I finally replied, “that is why I need to see her.”

Climbing into the backseat of a rental car with Ms. Geneva Reed-Veal, I sat quietly to keep the tears inside. Being in the city where my niece lived was a coincidence, as we were in town to #SayHerName #SandraBland at the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March.

About halfway through the drive to the hotel, a tear snuck past my guards and slid quietly down my cheek, intent on leading others to freedom.

“I hate to see you cry,” Ms. Geneva said. ‘I feel the same about you,’ was my unspoken response. It was 88 days since she had received news of the death of her daughter, Sandra Bland. 86 days since we had begun to ask “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” at the Waller County Jail where she had died.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. I just get emotional when I think about my nieces and nephews,” was my spoken response. In truth, I could never think about any of them without tearing up. To say they are important to me would be an understatement. There is no better sound than their voices on the other side of the line. There is no better sight then seeing them liking my Instagram pictures at the Waller County Jail late at night when they can’t sleep. There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing than getting to babysit them; sitting with them on either side of me, with a bowl of ice cream on my lap, and an episode of Myth Buster’s on the television.

To be honest, that is one of the strongest emotional chords that Sandra Bland struck with me. I knew what it was is to be the 4th sister in the family. I knew what it was to be the fun, young, single aunt. I knew what it was to love your nieces and nephews with a fierceness and sense of responsibility that those with children of their own cannot understand.

Last year, I said to my niece when she was going through a particularly difficult period at school, “Can you tell me, who in the world is more important to me than you?” I watched the wheels in her head turn as she realized that they are the center of my world.

When I fight for justice, I don’t just fight for Sandra Bland, I fight for her. I fight for this to be the kind of world that does not value my golden locks over her gorgeous brown tresses, courtesy of her Cuban father. I fight for this to be a world where the choke hold in which white supremacy holds our young women has been broken once and for all.

Ms. Geneva was watching me. I could feel her eyes on me. She is always watching. She hears everything. She knows when the people she loves are hurting. I tried my best to hide my pain, but you cannot hide anything from her.

“What is wrong?” she says.

“She needs to see her niece,” Shante replies from the front seat, always reading my mind without even having to look at me.

“Well, that has to happen then,” Ms. Geneva replies.

I call my sister back, who is still understandably concerned about inconveniencing Ms. Geneva. What my sister did not understand, however, was that I was with two women who loved me and who were uncompromising in making things happen for the people they loved. Hence, the reason why I feel sorry for anyone who tries to get in their way with delays and dishonesty as they seek truth and justice for their daughter and sister, Sandra Bland.

“We are taking you there,” Shante said in that tone of voice that lets me know not to argue. Leaning forward, I lay my head on her shoulder and whisper, “thank you.”

Arriving at my sister’s house, I saw my nephew and then my niece’s heads peering out the windows. They have been doing that since they were three years old. Always watching for me when I am coming. For some reason, I am shocked. Perhaps I thought they had gotten too old for that after more than a decade. Yet, their heads are still there, watching eagerly, and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

They run out of the house and soon I have my niece and then my nephew in my arms. I cannot stop crying as I hug my nephew tight. The most important man in my life.

I realize once I pull myself together that I am in a moment of becoming whole again. There was a moment, about 60 days ago, when I put the most important parts of me in a box for safe-keeping. It was after the Sheriff of Waller County had taken a picture of my license plate and my face on his own personal cell phone; it was after he told me to go back to the church of Satan; and it was after he informed me that there would be consequences for me and anyone who tried to help me seek justice for Sandra Bland. Much like the Officer who took a picture of my face on his personal cell phone in front of the Texas Headquarters of the Department of Public Safety in Austin last week, I knew then as well as now, that the picture would be shared and the safety of myself and those close to me would be impacted.

So I stopped talking about my nieces and nephews. Put them in a box for safe-keeping. Hid them from the world, afraid that the danger people thought I was in could spread to them.

With my nephews tousled, wavy hair in my hand, and my niece in my lap, I felt a piece slide back into place.

Beware that you do not view Sandra Bland as a woman without children. Beware the mistake of underestimating the visceral power that nieces and nephews have upon their aunt’s heart. Beware the mistake of forgetting that we think about them every single day. I know the names and the faces of the young people that Sandra Bland was thinking of when she was in that cell in Waller County. They are the same people she refers to in her first #SandySpeaks videos when she is explaining that her motivation for starting the videos is to make the voices of the children heard.

Beware the power of a devoted aunt. The very fact that those children we love are not our 24/7 responsibility is the very thing that makes us dangerous: having the love for children without the responsibility for children frees us up to fight for them. There is no limit to the fire and the fight that lies in an aunt’s heart when her nieces and nephews are the center of her life, and whether they will live in a just world where their voices are heard and honored is on the line.

Sandy said she spoke so that the children might be heard. Well… are you listening?

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A Little Longer To Serve – An Irish Blessing

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

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

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

the Bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her benediction.

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God Enters the Circle

“To the Powers women!” My aunts and I had gathered in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, almost immediately upon their arrival, as was our custom. My two eldest aunts – their age separated by little more than the duration of a pregnancy – stood in a circle with my mother and I as we celebrated our solidarity as Powers women. At first glance, it does not make much sense. My name is Bonner. My mother’s Bonner and her sisters are Nagorney and Lapp; all three of them have the maiden name Lamb. There is not a Powers amongst us – but we are Powers women all the same. Just like my grandmother before us and hers before her.

Within this circle of women we honor all the women who have come before us and gone before us into eternity. Within our number we count Rebecca Nurse who lost her life in the Salem Witch Trials as a result of the courage that she possessed and her neighbors lacked. We count Hannah Powers who watched faithfully at the port in New London, Connecticut, for the sails of her husband Hazard Powers’ ship The Hope returning to port from patrolling the Caribbean. We count all the women who followed after Hannah, working hard on Pennsylvania farms after Hazard Powers moved the family away from the sea and the wandering life of a sailor. We count Louise Lamb, who gave birth to seven children, and watched six of them grow to adulthood and recapture the Powers wanderlust; finally taking the family story back out of the Pennsylvania mountains, hundreds of years after Hazard brought them there. We count, most recently, Amy K. Lamb, a pioneer for women in the film industry who changed the landscape of movie production in Pittsburgh, and as my youngest aunt by nearly twenty years was the first to pass on into the sacred sisterhood of those who have gone before.

The experience of being among the Powers women makes my heart beat faster and my chest swell with pride at being counted by my aunts in the same circle as all these women whose stories we tell. It is a comfort and encouragement to know that I am somehow connected to women who have lived boldly and loved boldly; taken risks and sacrificed for the good of others; used their minds and their hearts and their hands for good.

Now I find myself on the road to join my own sisters in the gathering of our circle – the Bonner women.  We have our own traditions and our own stories to tell as we celebrate what binds us together. While with a Willert, a Herrada, and a Sowder among us, I am the last to bear the Bonner name, its not the name that makes the circle. What makes the circle is the knowledge that we are on this adventure called life together, always have been and always will be.

For our circle, that is as much of a choice as it is a natural occurrence. My older sisters were already teenagers in my earliest memories, off to college before I was finished learning my multiplication tables. But every holiday – Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas – there was a care package – not from me to them, but amazingly care packages from college sent back to me. I wore those Gettysburg College sweatshirts, several sizes too large for me, with a pride bordering on what Joseph must have felt in his coat of many colors.  I knew exactly how rare and precious my sisters’ choice to love me and to know me was.

There are so many interlinking circles of women that make up our lives, knit together like the overlapping sections of a quilt. Some of those circles you are born into and some circles you are called into. These days I think a lot of the circle of clergywomen that I entered when the circle was still shaken by the defrocking of one of our own who had entered the circle not long before me, Beth Stroud. There is something powerfully compelling about that group of women and the journey they have traveled together. No matter where I go, I don’t seem to ever feel very far away in spirit. One moves to South Carolina, while another becomes a District Superintendent, and I wander who knows where – and still the circle remains one of my greatest sources of strength.

Mavis Staples’ recording of the turn of the 20th century hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, always sends a thrill down my spine when it begins to play from my speakers. According to the song, the circle never need be broken; come distance, turmoil or even death, we will all be sitting together again someday.

Before leaving the circle of Powers women in Pennsylvania today to join the circle of Bonner women in North Carolina, I took a long walk in the snowy woods. I wondered to God where all this circle of sisterhood thinking was coming from and what was the purpose.

What do all these circles of women have to teach me about a God that became a man? Well, first of all, God is not a man. God is God.

Yes, God is certainly not a man in the “sitting on a white cloud with a big white beard” kind of way; and God in God’s internal and eternal identity is either no gender or all genders, and in the end simply beyond genders. But we are, at this time of year, celebrating the fact that God did take on flesh and came in the form of a man to dwell among us.

Which made the next realization even more surprising.  Whether you view God abstractly, spiritually, or physically as the Christ – God actually has everything to do with circles of women. God is the silent weaver behind the tapestry.

At the beginning of the life of Jesus, God led a woman named Mary out of her town, in order to give birth outside of her circle, her family her home. Mary did not have her circle, she was all alone. She had been called out and forced to rely upon God to be both her circle and her midwife. Elizabeth was not there, nor was her mother or sisters or friends. The poor woman was surrounded by a bunch of men, no offense, by Joseph, by shepherds, by sheep – not a woman in the bunch. At that birth, God started God’s circle from scratch.

Then throughout his ministry, Jesus added to his circle.  He was found by Anna in the Temple, and she became the first person to proclaim the good news of who he was.  He sat down at a well and made friends with a Samaritan woman who would go on to tell her whole village about the good news he brought. He hung out with Mary and Martha as they bickered; and came late to their brother’s deathbed only to have Martha proclaim her faith, quite ironically, with the accusation that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. He shared an intimate moment in the midst of a crowd as another Mary came and honored him as she washed his feet with her hair.

When he hung on the cross, it would be his circle of women that would surround the cross – unwilling for the circle to be broken. When he was buried, it would be these women who prepared his body. That man, whose inception had first been announced to a woman, whose birth had brought him into the arms of a woman, and whose death had been witnessed by his circle of women, lived a life through which he formed a circle that refused to be broken.

When the time came, for that savior, now risen from the dead, to make his presence known to someone, he chose his circle of women. He appeared to Mary and told her to go and proclaim for the first time that he had risen from the dead.  Mary his mother had begun the circle when she proclaimed the good news of the meaning of his birth; and now another Mary would complete the circle as she proclaimed for the first his triumph over death.

We often point out the way that Jesus crossed social boundaries by allowing Mary, of Mary and Martha fame, to sit in the place of a student and enter into the male domain. Yet, perhaps another truth is that Jesus was always crossing boundaries with his own two feet as well. Walking right into the territory of women, entering right into the circle, even forming a circle of women who would go on to tell the story of Jesus and his love. Jesus was not simply honoring women by allowing them the privilege of entering male spaces; Jesus was honoring the spaces women inhabit by entering them himself.

The circle of women preachers began at the manger, developed at the well, went public at the tomb and continues in you and I. We women, we who are called to circle and encircle; we who are called to claim and to proclaim; to break bread and heal the broken; to serve and to preserve; to give birth and receive rebirth; we have got a good many stories to tell. Stories of the women who have come before us and of the God who called us together, into ever rippling, interlocking and overlapping circles of story, love and support.

We have got some stories to tell.  Thankfully, that is something we are pretty good at doing.

The Powers Women
The Powers Women
The Bonner Women
The Bonner Women
China belonging to Hannah Powers with her husband Hazard Powers ship, The Hope
China belonging to Hannah Powers with her husband Hazard Powers ship, The Hope
A new generation of Bonner women
A new generation of Bonner women
Circle of clergy sisters
Circle of clergy sisters

Pieces of God’s Puzzle

“He dribbled on you, that’s good luck!” Pauline exclaimed as I swung her grandson up over my head and onto my lap, getting a face-full of baby spit in the process. It was news to me that baby spit was good luck; yet, despite the fact that Pauline was laughing at me – as usual – I could see a seriousness in her eyes that assured me she was not joking. I had received a blessing in that wetting just as surely as if I was in a church. Memories of “high church” services floated to the forefront of my mind, complete with priests in cassocks spraying the assembled worshippers with waters of blessing from immersed pine sprigs. I laughed delightedly as I wiped the blessed spittle off my face with my sleeve, while bouncing the happy baby boy on my knee.

In a way it made sense. These afterschool sessions at Camp Symonette – led by the fearless, fun and creative Brenda Thompson – were a little bit of everything, so why not have some blessing thrown in there as well. There certainly was enough blessing to go around on any given afternoon.

Like many rich experiences, the after school time with the kids from James Cistern Primary School was the part of the day that filled me with the most dread and the most joy. You could hear them coming a good ways off, as TJ scooped up the entire contents of the small elementary school building into our bus and brought them bouncing, laughing, chattering and screaming down the long bumpy driveway of Camp Symonette. “They’re coming,” I would invariably say – half whisper, half scream – interrupting our preparations to sound the alarm with all the urgency of a horseless Paul Revere.

It had all been a bit too much for me the first day I had experienced it. Dozens of children, swarming around me, no clue as to what their names were or how to get them to calm down. But it did not take long for my heart to thaw out; for when you learn a child’s name, you quickly learn a child’s heart – and then everything changes. Perhaps learning Brenda’s heart was more crucial to my thawing than anything else, however. Regardless of how tired she was, regardless of how little time we had to prepare, she had no intention of giving up on her volunteer venture and no intention of giving these children anything less than all the love, discipline, teaching and laughter that she had to offer.

Like riding a bike, I felt myself falling back into a rhythm. My apprehension with getting too involved had not been because the work was unfamiliar, but because it was too familiar. It brought back feelings of the happiest time in my life, back in 2009, when I felt most certain that I was in the right place and doing what God was calling me to do. At the time I was living in an intentional community that offered a home to houseless women and children, and rehabilitated boarded up dwellings in the community. Working with a historic congregation in the heart of Durham, NC, I had joined hearts and hands with them to dream about how we could connect with families in our neighborhood – both those long established and those newly arrived from other countries. God gave us the joy of watching that dream become a reality within a couple months as we launched the Wright Room with no funding and no paid staff but with plenty of love and support from many in the city, state and beyond. I fit into those people’s hearts, and they fit into mine like the puzzle piece that starts to make your jumble look like a picture.

But my puzzle piece heart had been ripped out of that picture and I never quite felt the same again. The attention our ministry was getting from the press and community drew new faces, and my supervisors  became worried that I was being stalked by one of these individuals. Concerned for the children I was living with, I left the community for a time while church leaders tried to ascertain my safety.  After a brief interruption when my grandmother died the next week, I received the decision that they did not feel they could manage the situation with my suspected stalker.

Heart doubly broken, and aware that my family was in pain, I made the choice to go home, to head North. I never talked about what had happened, never told people why I was leaving, I just slipped away. I thought it would make things easier for those who I led in ministry. I was consumed with the worry that what had happened to me would be disillusioning for our young leaders.  I did not want them to carry the hurt that I was carrying; I did not want them to misplace their anger on the church.  They did stay, and they did grow, and my heart feels so big it could burst with joy and pride when I see pictures of graduations and of new babies and of bright futures.

And now I get the chance to serve under the leadership of a woman who inspires this community the way that God once used me to inspire another community; a woman who compels others to action through her own example; a woman who makes our oddly shaped and differently colored puzzle pieces somehow form a picture. In the symmetry, I see my story mirrored and I begin again. In the magnetic pull of this team, I feel my heart coming back together. I may not yet know where my puzzle piece belongs, but I begin again to see its contours, its shapes, its pattern. And seeing myself clearly is the first step in finding my place in God’s picture.

While I wait and while I listen to God, I’ll spend a few more of my Tuesdays and Thursdays here with Brenda, Pauline, Maxine, Lori, TJ, Leroy, and whoever else gets drawn into this picture God is creating. I will hone my soccer skills, which are epic by Bahamian standards, and my free throw shots, which are epic by absolutely nobody’s standards. I will brush up on my arithmetic, practice being patient, and feel the joy of being part of a team. I will begin the afternoon with the slightly alarmed whisper, “they’re coming!” – and end it with the confidence that I have just experienced the best part of my day.

I will rest in the humbling knowledge that God calls forth these pockets of faithfulness and joy all over the world, and I am not necessary to God moving, but I am welcome to get caught in the current.

So bless me Lord, once again, with frustrating math problems and pencils that need to be sharpened; with balls to my head and sticky fingers on my arms; with the sight of young men playing sports with the young boys who crave their attention; with snack time and craft time and play time; and most of all, Lord, cover me in baby spit, for a very wise woman told me that receiving that kind of baptismal remembrance is very good luck – and I’ve never found Pauline to be wrong yet.

Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Maxine, Pauline's sister, reads to the kids.
Maxine, Pauline’s sister, reads to the kids.

And some bonus vintage photos from my days serving at the Isaiah House and the Wright Room  in 2009.

Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
2009 - Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 – Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 - Water balloon day at the Wright Room
2009 – Water balloon day at the Wright Room