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Sandra Bland was not perfect. Thank God.

“I have this lady’s records from Chicago, and from ’89 to 2014, she’s no good.” The older African American gentlemen turned around from the podium of the Prairie View City Council to glare at Sandra Bland’s supporters and sorority sisters and repeat, “She’s not. She’s not. She’s not.”

With his finger inches from my face, it felt for a moment as if Twitter had taken on human form in the middle of Prairie View City Hall to unleash all its vitriol.

That is what Sandra Bland’s friends have been enduring for months as they refuse to be silent and refuse to let Sandy be silenced.

Having gotten off a plane that morning from Sandra Bland’s Chicago, that he claimed to know so much about, I focused deeply in prayer to maintain my composure. I closed my eyes and saw the faces I had just left: the faces of Sandra Bland’s mother, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews; the faces of a family just as transparent about their strengths and questions and convictions and love for one another as Sandra Bland had shown herself to be. I knew that my name was coming up after one more person, slotted to speak after the two most vocal opponents of the recently renamed Sandra Bland Parkway.

Laying aside for the moment the fact that Sandra Bland was 2 years old in the year 1989 that he claimed to have researched, the richness of personality and passion that Sandra Bland brought to the world and the extravagantly loving manner in which her family journeyed through life together still had me reeling.

I have been accused on more than one occasion of portraying Sandra Bland in just as narrow and unrealistic a manner as this man: as a saint rather than a sinner.

To see her as one or the other, however, would be to completely miss the point both factually and theologically. Like every person in that room had the capacity to be, Sandra Bland was both. For “all fall short” but at the same time all who seize God’s love are “forever made perfect” through it.

What made her compelling for so many in my generation was not that she was a saint. My generation has grown up respecting sincerity and authenticity far above the value we place on the perfection we do not see as realistic and the self-righteousness we have experienced as hurtful. Instead, she grasped the hearts of many with the boldness, sincerity and vulnerability with which she shared herself; the urgency with which she expressed love and concern for others and their well-being and personal growth; and the commitment she had to taking action to make the world better even if she had to take action alone.

Through her #SandySpeaks videos there remained a constant refrain: she wanted people to know that they were loved and valuable. To be told you are loved and to be told you are valued, not only by a human being, but also, as Sandra Bland said, by God, is perhaps the deepest longing of the human soul.

It is understandable, as reporters in the room were quick to note, that there was a generational divide in the room. The older members of the Prairie View community had been assembled with City Councilwoman Paulette Barnett to oppose Sandra Bland Parkway in what would ultimately turn out to be an utter failure of a reversal when the City Council voted 4-1 to keep it Sandra Bland Parkway. Their ignorance of Sandra Bland’s impact was understandable because they did not know Sandra as many of her young adults friends did; neither were they likely to have gotten to know her by having explored her #SandySpeaks videos.

Yet, neither generational difference, nor lack of technological access, nor lack of personal connection could ever justify the lack of compassion with which they spoke about a person, a child of God – yes, a young woman whose impact has transcended borders and languages – but more importantly, a child of God whose freedom, rights and life would come up equal on God’s balances to both the Mayor of Prairie View and the current occupants of the Waller County Jail. We can never allow frustration to extinguish our ability to clasp onto one another’s humanity and hold it as if it was sacred – because it is.

As for me personally, do I think Sandra Bland was a saint? Of course not, no one has ever claimed that. It is not necessary for her to be a saint in order to honor her, respect her, and be impacted and changed by her witness.

What is true is that I like her. I really do. Enough to give her space in my life for as long as she needs it. In fact, she is so likable that she has become a litmus test of sorts for many. She easily reveals the misogyny on the one hand, and the racism on the other, of the people who seem incapable of speaking of her with a tone of respect befitting a beautiful life lost. It is highly likely that those who do not feel an easy affection for Sandra Bland would also find themselves struggling to appreciate the magnificence of Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumpin in my living room.

It is easy to celebrate her if you understand that all the things that people criticize about her in the last moments we see her speaking are exactly what the world needs in order to become a better place: an unapologetic black woman who loves herself, knows her rights, and is not willing to bend the knee to injustice.

The fact that that unbending knee was knocked out from under her is more painful than can be bourn for those who understand its importance. The fact that that unbowing head was slammed to the ground is enough fuel to fire the call for justice for years to come. The fact that that unapologetic voice seemed to be silenced, only causes the sound of her voice to travel further across the planet.

I thank God that Sandra Bland did not have to be perfect in order to impact the world. It gives me hope that maybe you and I can make a difference too.

Sandra Bland: Love Is Not A Factor In The Bail Equation

On a Sunday afternoon at Waller County Jail, you see something you do not see much of during the rest of the week: children.

On weekends, the focus of activity shifts from trying to get people out of Jail, to visiting those who are stuck inside. Energy shifts from negotiations with bail bondsmen to consolations between loved ones. As visitation days, Saturday and Sunday experience a rhythm that does not happen all throughout the week. The labor at the Jail shifts on Sundays to focus on security because there are so many additional people present that are not usually there. The weekday rhythm of transporting prisoners, engaging with bail bondsmen, and holding meetings slows and the space is filled instead with faces that are not present on a typical work day.

The rhythm actually feels pretty similar to the summer I spent working in the Chaplain’s Office at a hospital. I remember that patients always knew that if they did not get discharged by Friday afternoon, they probably would not get discharged until Monday. In the tower of triage paperwork, as administrators prioritized patients based on severity of condition, if you could sit tight for a couple days, that is probably the situation in which you would find yourself.

This would be simply a quaint analogy with images of children running Matchbox cars over the tile floors of both hospitals and jails around the country if it were not for one important fact: Sandra Bland was arrested on a Friday afternoon.

From what I have observed over the past couple months, getting someone out of Jail on a regular business day is complicated enough. One day I sat beside a woman who was calling bail bondsmen all day long and not able to get one to answer. Another day, I watched as a bail bondsman spent the entire day sitting, trying to get someone out of Jail, only to be turned away at the end of the day and told that there were no staff available to process his paperwork.

I have to admit, watching all of this take place has made me highly aware of the privilege that has shielded me from ever having to understand how any of this works. That ignorance has made it take several weeks for me to understand how crucial these complications are to Sandra Bland’s situation.

Many people with similar levels of ignorance to my own of the bonding system have tweeted criticism that Sandra Bland’s family and friends could not just pull together the $500 and bail her out. Have you ever had someone you loved suffer and not been able to fix it? How would you feel if everyone and their brother then felt entitled to have an opinion about what you should have done? How would you feel if they tweeted those opinions in your moments of deepest grief?

It is true that Sandra Bland’s bail was set at $5,000, only $500 of which needed to be paid immediately, but where most people go wrong is that they think anyone could just walk down there, put $500 on the counter and say, “Hand over Sandra Bland.” It is not as simple as that. Especially not on a Friday.

Especially not on a Friday at 4:27 pm. Get admitted to the hospital ICU at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon, and you are in until at least Monday morning. Get booked at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon in a quiet Jail, on a side road, in a rural county, and you are going nowhere fast.

After spending seven Friday afternoons in the parking lot of the Waller County Jail, I can tell you that it has the feeling of a man loosening his belt after Thanksgiving dinner as the turkey does its trick and leaves you ready for a nap. After a week of meetings and administration, non-essential staff is headed out the door and everything is getting pretty quiet.

Even if you could get there during regular business hours, slam $500 down on the counter and say “Hand over Sandra Bland,” that is simply not how the bail system works. To start with, you are not even going to be giving the $500 to the Jail. You are going to be giving the $500 to the bail bondsman. He is then going to go to the Jail with his license as a bondsman, with which he can prove that he has the $5,000 collateral to commit in order to obtain Sandra Bland’s release. You see no one actually hands over $500. The bail bondsman has a license and a limited collateral that he can commit against the odds of someone jumping bail (not reporting for their court date). Once he has reached the limit of his collateral, he cannot bail anyone else out.

The only way I can understand the bond system is to think of needing to have my parents co-sign on my student loans in college. Those that gave me the loans did not know if I could pay them back, but they did know that my parents had collateral and if I failed to pay, they could come after my parents’ assets. That is what a bail bondsman does: he puts his collateral on the line. He gambles against the odds of someone jumping bail; and if they do, he can send someone after them.

So, even when you have the money (which Sandra’s family did), first, you have to find a bail bondsman. Yet, that is not always the easiest thing to do, even if you are close by, and especially if you are far away. Remember the woman sitting in the parking lot all day unable to get a bondsman? Even if you drive over from Waller, or Cypress, or Houston, or Chicago, that does not mean you will be able to get a bondsman to show up when you want them to come. They could choose not to answer because they have reached the limit on their collateral; or they could prefer to wait in order to do multiple bonds on one trip. Or they could simply be busy, uninterested, asleep, or at their daughter’s soccer game.

Because here is the thing, bondsmen are not civil servants, they are business men. They have no obligation to the people that call them. They do not have to answer the phone, they do not have to come, and they do not have to put up their collateral against the likelihood of whether a person’s loved one will jump bail.  Without getting one to answer, and agree to come, your loved one is not getting out of jail. They are doing the people who call them a favor, with the hope of a financial reward, betting their collateral against the loved one’s good behavior.

Beyond that, even if a bondsman comes, that does not mean your loved one is getting out of jail. Remember the bondsman who sat all day and still could not get the loved one released? When I went into the lobby to use the bathroom, I observed him submitting his paperwork through the slot. Hours later, he finally came out and said that he had been informed that there was no staff person available to process his paperwork. So a family member had actually contracted with him to come and put up the bail; and he had sat there all day; and he still could not get the person released because no one was available to process his request.

So, to those of you who have been asking why someone’s family would not be able to get them out of jail immediately, ask yourself whether your family could if you were arrested on the other side of the country, in a quiet, rural town, at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon as everyone was going home for the weekend. The measure of how much you love a person is simply not a factor in the equation.

Sandra Bland’s death in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail is serving to bring light to what many families around the country suffer when their loved ones are arrested unexpectedly, whether they be far away or close by.

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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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

Put Me In Coach

“Will you pray for me?” Rudy asked. Pulling myself out of the worship moment, I opened my eyes and nodded. “Just go up there and start praying,” Rudy said to me, motioning towards the stage area where the worship leaders of St. John’s Downtown were raising a worship ruckus for Wednesday evening Bible Study. ‘Oh, he means that kind of pray,’ I realized, as I looked up at the stage and lights and room full of strangers on my first day in Houston. ‘All you’ve got to do is go up there and talk to God,’ I told myself calmly, ‘That is something you like to do.’ It was true; talking to God was something I had been doing an awful lot of these days, and it was not that much of a leap to do it out loud.

I liked this new way of doing church. This was something different. I liked the unpredictability of it, the activity, the energy, the sense of teamwork. In this worship party, Rudy was that friend that made you stop being a wallflower and get out on the dance floor with everyone else. In this game, Rudy was the coach that got you up off the bench and sent you into the action.

From past experience, I should have known that you don’t step on Rudy’s field unless you are prepared to play, because the coach might send you in at any moment.

I was not used to that kind of impulsive action. I was accustomed to church being more like a chess game than a soccer match. I was accustomed to a world of order and predictability where full grown adults, even rooms full of pastors, sit around a table during Bible Study; and when the question of “who wants to pray?” is raised we act like there is something incredibly interesting on the table in front of us and avoid eye contact at all costs.

But here we were. Who was going to pray? I was. When was I going to do it? Now.

I should not have been surprised. When I met Rudy three years ago, he did something similar. After I introduced him to a remarkable and pure-hearted young leader from the church I pastored, Jordan Harris, he told Jordan that he was going to have him come up on stage and share his story with Annual Conference. Jordan got pulled up off the bench and into the game, and I’m pretty sure that experience changed his life.

There are many ways of being a leader. Some leaders do all the work; some leaders want all the praise; some leaders need all the focus. And some leaders look their players straight in the eye and tell them to just go out there and do it, making them believe that they can. Do what you were born to, called to, trained to do. Just do it.

After I prayed, one of St. John’s young pastors, Steven Chambers gave an excellent message where he talked about that exact phrase – Just do it. – and how effective it was for a certain sneaker company because of it simplicity.

There was a question that had been rolling around in the back of my head for the past few months, and actually the ball had been thrown in there by Rudy. He had asked me, while I was spending time with God on the island of Eleuthera, what it meant to me to be a pastor. Over the months that passed since then, I have had a lot of images, memories and experiences that have come to mind and been woven into my answer to the question – “what does it mean to be a pastor?” Yet, at the end of the day, there are many ways in which elaborate theories and answers and strategies are not what is needed. When you cut close to the bone and get at the heart of the matter, the defining moments in every pastor’s life are those moments when you “just do it.” I call those the flashbulb moments; the memories imprinted that will never go away; the moments that teach you something about yourself, God and others.

In his message that night, Steven used a clip from a sneaker commercial that featured not a professional athlete, but simply an average teenage boy running down an average back road in an average manner. The commercial closed with those words we know all to well. Just do it.

My mind swirled to the last time I went for a run like that on the island of Eleuthera in December. I had already been stopped by several families along the side road of the coastal village of James Cistern by the time I happened upon Mark and his grandfather. Along with their dog, they were walking away from the small, four-room elementary school and towards home. We exchanged pleasantries and Mark’s grandfather inquired about his behavior at the after-school program. I assured him that Mark was a great kid and we enjoyed having him. What commenced after that was a start-stop conversation as I attempted to continue running while Mark stopped me every few feet with a question, not understanding what I was doing.

“Where are you going?”

“To the other side of town, to the grocery store.”

“Why are you running?”

“Because I like to run.”

“Do you have to run?”

“No, I just enjoy it.”

Finally I was able to break away and continue my evening’s jog, picking up the pace to try to arrive at the James Cistern dock before the sun set. I knew that there would be men cleaning fish and cracking open conch shells as their girlfriends watched and talked and laughed with a bottle of Kalik in one hand and a friendly salute waiting in the other. I have a sixth sense for sunsets, and I could feel that this one would begin dipping below the horizon within minutes.

Yet, a few minutes after running past Mark, I sensed that I was not alone. Looking back over my right shoulder as I ran, I saw Mark in hot pursuit with a huge goofy grin on his face.

“I am running with you!” the sweet, Bahamian child exclaimed, delighted with himself.

And in that moment he was more beautiful than any sunset I would find that night.

There are many ways to answer the question of what it means to be a pastor. Yet, all the theories and education and training in the world won’t do us any good if we don’t know how to get out there and just do it. It is when we just do it that others start to do it too; not out of obligation or guilt; not out of the need to follow rules or check things off a list; not out of the pursuit of power, attention or self-righteousness; rather out of the pure joy of living life the way we were created to live it.

Pastor is not a job. Pastor is not a career. Pastor is not a title.
Pastor is a calling. Pastor is an action. Pastor is a life.

Just do it.  Run the race.  Love the race.  See who joins you when you do.

The talented Lanecia Rouse once again captures a beautiful moment for me at St. John's Downtown
The talented Lanecia Rouse once again captures a beautiful moment for me at St. John’s Downtown

Red… Yellow… Green

“Ms. C, will you sing a song for Hannah. Just because it is such a blessing and I have not heard you sing in so long.” As Lanecia spoke, I looked up from the art that I was examining to the form of the artist standing over me; the same beautiful soul that was reflected in her art shone down at me from behind her tender eyes. Sitting at a table in the Knowles-Rowland Center at St. John’s in downtown Houston, at the end of Bread of Life‘s Saturday breakfast with the homeless community, I found myself entranced by the many forms of beauty around me.

“What should I sing?” Ms. C asked, looking at the Project Manager of The Art Project. “Anything you want,” Lanecia answered.

What happened next was something transcendent. “Our Father, who ART in heaven…” I smiled broadly as Ms. C began to sing the Lord’s Prayer to the same tune that my mother had taught me as a child, making sure to emphasize the fact that God puts art all around us, even in our prayers. “…give us this day our daily bread…” Lanecia and I both turned our head slightly, in a subtle act of reflex, as the four year old child sitting in the back of the room behind us began to sing along. “…and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

Ms. C finished with her bowed slightly, “It’s been a while,” she said, “my voice is gravel-ey.” “No,” I responded, “it was beautiful. And you don’t know it, but you blessed me in a special way.”

I then began to tell her about the day a couple weeks ago when I had been walking on the beach in North Carolina and the song had come to my heart. I was having trouble finding the words to talk to God, until the song came to mind and I started singing. It was windy and the beach was cold and empty so I sang it to my hearts content, over and over again in Taize style all the way. Two miles from Southern Shores to Kitty Hawk, and two miles back. It was a beautiful walk, don’t get me wrong, but the impact of it did not hit me until that moment. It seemed God was winking at me once again, as my mind turned the two puzzle pieces to see that they fit together, reminding me that there was a thread of meaning through this journey we are on together.

“The Lord’s Prayer is our prayer,” Ms. C said. “The Lord’s Prayer was meant for homeless people. That is why it says ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ We know what it is to need our daily bread.”

“I need daily bread too,” Lanecia said.

“Yes, but no one is more in need of daily bread than a homeless person. No one understands it better than we do,” Ms. C replied.

Lanecia nodded as if to say ‘touche’ and answered, “You’re always teaching me.”

A couple months before, while I was listening to God with my friends on Eleuthera, I had been blessed with a spiritual direction visit via Skype from Pastor Juanita Campbell Rasmus, one of the founders of Bread of Life, Inc., the non-profit of St. John’s responsible both for the morning’s breakfast that fed the community’s bellies, and for The Art Project that fed their hearts. The challenge she had left me with was to ask God how God wanted me to pray. And here, coming full circle as I sat in a building that hosted Bread of Life, was another piece of that puzzle.

I was learning to live my prayers. I was learning what it meant to live as if I really trusted God for my daily bread. It was hard at moments, but God always sent me what I needed to keep my courage up. The day before it had been my beautiful friend Yvette Davis, who had found her way from Pennsylvania, where we had served together, to a conference in Houston. Today it was my gentle friend Lanecia, whose beautiful soul had welcomed me first to Durham, and then to Nashville and now, in this chapter of my life, to Houston.

“Tell me more about your art,” I said to Ms. C, as she and Lanecia finished their dialogue about the Lord’s Prayer. “I love the colors you use, tell me about the colors again.”

She pointed to a small painting of what seemed to be a stop light, with the colored circles stacked – red, yellow, green. It was painted on cardboard because, as Lanecia explained, it provided a way of redeeming the medium that many were compelled to use to make signs asking for help. With a little love and paint and talent, cardboard became a sign of strength rather than vulnerability.

“Red is stop. Yellow is wait. Green is go, it is hope,” Ms. C said. “When a homeless person looks at a stop light, they can see green and see hope and motivation. Green means go. Go to HUD and get housing. Go to St. John’s and get love. Go gets people moving.”

I looked with admiration at the spread of paintings in front of me. Throughout all of them the colors remained, bringing her message through again and again.

Go. Hope. Green. Life.

God had certainly been giving me the green light these days.

I had slammed my brakes on hard a few months back, when after feeling tossed around and battered, I had realized that I did not have to wait for anyone else to say “Stop” or “No more.” When the realization that I had the power to say “Stop” finally washed over me, it was an incredibly liberating feeling and Red glowed with all its warmth and power and welcomed me to its embrace.

Gradually, as the tire skids began to fade, and the shock of a full-on stop dissipated, Yellow came into view. Thousands of miles from home, on the island of Eleuthera, with people I loved and a God who cherished me, it was easier to respect the authority of Yellow than it would have been anywhere else. As I stood throughout those months watching the sun set, Yellow lapped at my toes, as the golden waves rolled in. Yellow lingered, as its grains of sand clung to my dampened skin. Yellow caressed my face, as it’s final rays dipped below the horizon, revealing an echo of red as it disappeared. I submitted to Yellow’s loving command. Wait.

Then a couple weeks before I met Ms. C, Green spoke up. My feet were back in my favorite place, my sister’s home in Arlington, when I heard Green come through my headphones. A song I’d never heard before, by Sandra McCracken, an artist I had long respected, whose music had accompanied me along many other roads.

“Go, go if you want
Go, on your own
Go when you’re ready
Brave girl you are smart
Go when your heart is strong and is steady

Diamonds are your words, babe
Speak them slow, the wisdom is coming
Sure the steps that you take
In sorrow and hope, your beauty becoming…
Hush the noises, hush your doubt
Find your courage, draw it out…”

The time of Green has come. For Ms. C, and also for me.

Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person
Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person

From The Art Project’s website: “The Art Project, Houston’s ultimate goal is to  provide homeless artist an opportunity to make their own trade by creating, displaying and selling their art as a collective body through art exhibits in collaboration with those who are actively engaged in ameliorating suffering and bringing an end to this condition including local agencies, groups, organizations and individuals who share the concern of  the homeless dilemma.”  Interested in supporting homeless artists?  Find out more at http://www.theartprojecthouston.org

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