At the back of the hotel ballroom, I stood shaking from my encounter with the Spirit. Outwardly composed, the pen I held in my hand betrayed my secret, resisting being steadied each time I tried to set it to the page.
I had just stood on the stage with simple straw basket and cup, and celebrated Holy Communion for the United Methodist Women as if my life depended on it, because in so many ways it does. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, as I tried to calm myself. Stepping out of the focus of this community of women so beloved to me, I found myself standing face to face with the core of what is at stake this month: This Table. This welcome. This meal. This family. This calling. This community. This life.
We can write and think and debate all we want about legislation and pensions and politics until we become safe and numb, losing all connection with the emotional and spiritual consequences of our actions. Losing all sense of the fact that families once said “I love you” across the breakfast table, and churches once said “Peace be with you” across the Table of the Lord.
At the end of the day, this is what is at stake: Will I lose my ability to serve at the Table of the Lord in the United Methodist Church simply because I have named that I know myself to be Queer?
I word that statement carefully, because this is not a question of whether I can serve at the Table of the Lord. The United Methodist Church does not have the authority to invite me to eat at the Table of the Lord, nor does it have the authority to invite me to serve at the Table of the Lord. Only the one to whom the Table belongs can give those invitations. This is the theology of my tradition. We believe that this is an open table; that our priestly task is merely to extend the invitation that Christ has already made to those that love God, repent of their failures to love, and seek to live in peace. It is my denomination that credentials me, but it is my God who called me.
It is possible that the strategies of those that fear us could rip my credentials from my hands, but they cannot put out the fire shut up in my bones, the coal that has touched my lips, or the lamp that shines from my eyes. Cowardice cannot quench the force of my courage. Hate cannot weaken the power of my love. The assumptions birthed in the dirty minds of patriarchal men cannot imagine away my integrity.
You should know by now, love never goes down without a fight, and justice never lets the oppressor define the terms of success or failure.
Justice is a beautiful and creative dance, and the clumsy steps of those who do not know how to sway to its rhythm will soon painfully reveal where each of us truly stands.
If the end of this month brings news that I, and my Queer sistren and brethren, have been barred from a Table, it will not be the Table of the Lord. No mortal has that power. Instead, we will stand shut out from the Table of Man. For a Table to which not all are invited, cannot be called the Table of the Lord. That is not Wesleyan theology, even if it was sadly his youthful behavior.
When we use the word Wesleyan to describe ourselves, which chapter of John Wesley’s life does our behavior emulate? Do we admire the young man, heart yet unwarmed, who barred Sophia Hopkey in 1737 from the Table for his own petty, personal and ego-driven reasons? Or do we admire the experienced leader, who in 1771 would break with church tradition, as well as the accepted interpretation of scripture on a woman’s role, to argue that women like Mary Bosanquet should be permitted to preach on the grounds of having an obvious and extraordinary calling?
As we think to our own future, let us remember in which chapter his ministry was destroyed by his arrogance, and in which chapter it was strengthened by his humility.
Let us be clear, if we choose to exclude from God’s table those whom we exclude from our own table, then we will have built for ourselves an idol in our own image. A Table, surely, but not the Lord’s.
Just as those before us have so often gathered their coins and trinkets to melt into a Golden Calf, those groups who have squirreled aside their coins, in violation of their covenant with the greater community, will have their moment to forge an idol to Man. Whether that idol will stand within the bounds of United Methodism, or outside of them is what we have yet to determine. Those who find themselves, at the end of the day, standing before that Idol, will continue to say the words, “We confess that we have not heard the cry of the needy” without ever facing the real crime: that they never truly tried to listen.
They have been too scared that they will find their heart strangely warmed, their attitude strangely shift, their mind strangely altered. They have been afraid of what love will do to the beliefs they hold so dear. I know well this fear of transformation, for as a child I was taught not to listen. All throughout those years, my little brain wondered every day: if what we believe is true, then why are we so scared that someone will change our minds?
That little girl with all her questions, has become a woman with the humility to know when she does not have the answers. A woman whose strength has been forged in fires whose heat no man who now stands against her could bear. A woman whose mind and heart have blossomed as she has aged, without ever losing her reliance on the vine supporting her, that is Jesus Christ.
So, when all this debating, and strategizing comes to an end, you will still find me at the Table of the Lord. Somewhere, perhaps in a United Methodist Church, or perhaps in the highways and byways, I will still take that loaf in my hands. I will break it as if our lives depend on it, and I will eat it together with those that hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Crumbs. Gathering them used to be the first task of sacred ritual with my mother. I would sweep them into a pile, and off the edge of the table into my cupped hand, while my mother put the teapot on to boil. Brushing them off my fingers into the sink, the dance continued as she pulled down the box of English tea from the cupboard. I would select two of the fine, china mugs from the corner cabinet, and finish my portion of the ritual with a pirouette-like turn back to the table. All that was left was to sit and wait, as she brewed the tea extra dark, extra strong, extra bitter, then poured it into the cups – mine with raspberries, hers with a peacock – as we settled in for our two or three or four hour chats.
We talked about all kinds of things at that altar. Bullies at school. My mom’s concern for my lesbian aunt. The boy that I dated for 4-6 years (depending on how we define it) without ever being able to muster up an interest in him to match his passion for me.
My mother’s nickname for me was her Second Brain. I picked up the things that spilled over the edge and held onto them until she needed them. I kept a careful mental record of every time she mentioned that she liked something, so that my father could always know the perfect gift to get her.
Crumbs. Pushing them around on my plate, I sipped tea from a styrofoam cup the day that all of this began to crumble. I sat in a large fellowship hall in a Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. I had driven up from the southernmost tip of Maryland’s Eastern Shore peninsula, where I was appointed to my first two-point charge. It was 2010, and I was there to attend one of the many conversations that my Bishop was hosting on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, in between the General Conferences of 2008 and 2012. I watched as the sacred privacy of my family was broken, as the conversations that were held around our kitchen table were taken into the public. My parents rose to talk about my aunt, about how she had a sad, hard life because she was a lesbian, and how if we were loving we would not encourage people to accept themselves as LGBTQ+, because to do so would be to condemn them to such a hard, sad, sinful life. I had expected to avoid this, having driven the further distance to attend a different District meeting than the one where my parents lived. Yet, I was informed upon arrival that my parents’ passion to speak out against LGBTQ+ inclusivity was so strong that they were driving to each and every District’s meeting to share about my aunt’s sad life.
I wept all the way home. Ashamed of my silence, of my failure to speak up for my aunt. Ashamed that I let my parents begin to build a platform on her back, while she sat somewhere in Pittsburgh unknowing. Yet, I could never tell her, it would break her heart. It was one thing to speak of my aunt that way in the privacy of our own home, but another to speak of her as a sad sinner and a cautionary tale publicly. It had been the constant refrain of my childhood, continually ensuring that this queer little kid would push down the questions that I had about my own identity; ensuring that I would hear the words, “I don’t care who you end up with as long as they make you happy,” without ever thinking that those words were really true. Happiness was not possible for the Queer community. As much joy as my Aunt brought into the world, it was all a performance, because Queer people could not be happy and could not live a full and abundant life. It was a logistical impossibility.
Crumbs. It is no wonder that my Aunt seemed hungry around us, if that is all we were ever willing to feed her. The partial acceptance of who she was. The withholding. The gaslighting. The unspoken undertones of “I love you, but not all of you” – of “I want you to be happy, but that’s just not possible for you” – of “I accept your partner, I just wish she wasn’t in your life” – of “You are the most loving person that we know, it’s just too bad your love is a sin.” Yes, she was sad around us – who wouldn’t be. Yes, she had a hard life – like every other person in my family regardless of their orientation… only the rest of us didn’t get to hang out with NFL players and movie stars.
Let me be clear, my aunt may have been hungry around us because we fed her crumbs, but boy did she eat well elsewhere. Nobody pours the kind of love and light and talent and joy and sacrifice into the world that she did without some of it splashing back on them. She loved hard and she was loved in return. She was a home to the homeless, a mother to the motherless, an anchor for the aimless. She was joy. She was the favorite person of everyone she met. She had the kind of talent that most can only dream about. My grandmother had a closet full of musical instruments in her house; when I asked who played which ones, the answer was Amy every time. Amy, who hung out with Katherine Heigl on set, and insisted she was a sweetheart to the crew. Amy, who talked people off the ledge, both literally and figuratively, and saved lives whether it was bridge-jumpers or Queer kids being fed crumbs of love just like her.
Amy K. Lamb, like her sister Jackie, was also a cancer survivor, and in 2011, a year after my tearful drive back to Maryland, that cancer would finally take her life. I would take the pulpit in Pittsburgh, in front of her NFL friends and her fellow film producers, and I would lead the final celebration of her life. I would stand beside her partner, my Aunt Ana, as we laid her ashes in the ground. As I walked away from the grave in the cold, Pennsylvania wind, a butterfly would appear where one should not have been able to survive. Of course it did, because this was Amy K. Lamb’s burial.
Crumbs. I have struggled my whole life with how to explain that starving someone will not change their appetite, will not change their orientation, will not change their identity. It may make them more willing to gobble up the crumbs we are willing to give them, but it will not change their desire to be loved for the wholeness of who they are.
I remember walking out of a poetry event in Houston a few years ago to find a woman in her 50’s collapsed on the front steps. She was inconsolable. Triggered. She kept insisting that God couldn’t love her, that her momma couldn’t fully love her, because of who she loved. I sat on the pavement with her and others for hours, but there was nothing I could say that could convince her otherwise. It did not matter that I was a pastor. It did not matter that I promised her God loved her. She had been trying to survive on crumbs of love her whole life, and she did not know yet how to eat anything else. There is no other moment in my life in which I felt more impotent as a pastor.
Three years after my aunt’s death, in 2014, I saw Amy’s face come across my computer screen in an article from UM News. “Sister believes in Jesus’ love for lesbian sister”, the headline read, the last painful crumb of postmortem gaslighting offered to my aunt.
“Amy died of cancer in 2011, and Jane is certain she is in heaven. Just as certain as she is that a “gay lifestyle” was not what God wanted for her sister.”
I remember the first time I met my Aunt Ana, Amy’s partner. I was a little kid, bouncing on the bed at my grandmother’s house in a town outside Scranton. Ana did not scold, instead she made me laugh harder than I had in ages. She brought me joy, just like Amy, and without a moment’s hesitation, I let her into my heart as my youngest, funnest Aunt. When I was assigned to my first church, and had to make that long drive down to Maryland the day after Thanksgiving, Ana was the only person who would make the sacrifice to help me move. I had just turned 27, and I was driving alone five hours straight south, and then twenty minutes west into the marshes. I was moving into a big, empty house, all by myself, and becoming the pastor of two churches on the same day. Ana was the only one willing to go with me.
Ana was not my Aunt Amy’s “gay lifestyle,” she was the love of her life. When Amy met Ana, she was in Paris, on her way to a tour of French wine country. She left for the trip with her friends, but could not get Ana out of her mind. She rushed back to Paris, found Ana, and they were inseparable for the rest of Amy’s life. Theirs was the greatest romance in my family’s history.
I scrolled below the pictures of my mother and my aunt, to the article below.
“Jane L. Bonner is president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection and a strong advocate for The United Methodist Church’s position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that God intends marriage to be only between a man and a woman.”
“Bonner attended both days of the trial of Frank Schaefer, the pastor who performed his son’s wedding ceremony. She also helped write a letter sent to Johnson calling for her to hold the pastors who officiated at the Arch Street same-sex wedding “accountable to their ordination vows.”
On cursory glance, the point that was being attempted was that people could be gay and sinners, but still worthy of love not condemnation. The point that was truly being made was that people could call their family members sinners and tell them they were not receiving the abundant life Jesus had planned for them, and still expect them to receive that as love.
This article was not about Amy. It was not about fighting to make the church more accepting of Amy. This was about proudly fighting to make sure that Amy could never be married in a Methodist church, while simultaneously pretending that my Aunt did not know whether my parents would have supported her marriage.
It does not work that way. One cannot fight with every part of yourself to keep lesbians from being able to marry, and expect your lesbian sister to not know your feelings on the topic.
Neither can you commit every fiber of your being to the fight against Queer clergy, commit vocally to vote against their existence at General Conference, and have your Queer clergy daughter not know your feelings on the topic.
When I finally came out to my mother, I heard an angry tone on the other side that I had not heard before, that could not be hidden anymore. “Well, I feel sorry for you,” she spit out. “You are going to have a hard, sad life. But don’t think you get to surprise me. I’ve known for a long time. Don’t think you get to pull a fast one on me. I’ve known for a long time.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying, mom? The biggest fight of your life has been against Queer clergy, and you’re saying that you knew that is what I am?”
It was my worst fear coming to life. That my mother knew that I was Queer clergy, and that she still had committed her life to fighting against our existence, to stripping me of my credentials and banning me from my vocation.
“Well, you’ve never heard my perspective,” she said.
This she said to her Second Brain, to the one who listens so carefully and retains everything; to the one who had heard little but her perspective all my life, but who had never truly told her mine.
“I have to go mom, we can talk about this later.”
“Well, don’t think you’re going to change my mind.”
“I have to go mom.”
Somehow, it was worse than I could have expected. She reacted as if she had been bracing for this. As if she had been preparing. As if I had an agenda to use my queerness to hurt her. Didn’t she know how many years I had been choking it down? How many years I had been resisting being used against her by those who found it humorous that they could guess the daughter of Jane L. Bonner was queer? Didn’t she know how that robbed me of the support that I needed, and made me a joke instead? Didn’t she know how I had been protecting her, while she waged war on me?
It may not make sense, until you think of all the odd ways that we protect the ones who hurt us… all the ways that Aunt Amy fought like a lion for my mother. Part of me still was, after all, that little girl who swept up the crumbs from her mother’s table, and focused all her imagination on what would make her happy. The little girl who brought home art history books to try to revive the spark of the passion her mother had given up for her children. The little girl who fixed the VCR and the toilet, and put in new countertops, and did whatever she could to make life easier and happier.
I was the little girl, living on crumbs, pieces of love to match the pieces of myself that were acceptable.
I was the little girl, who just wanted to protect her mom, and make her mom happy, and earn her mom’s love. I love my mom; I understand that sometimes we can only give to others the crumbs that have been given to us… but I also know that I am worthy of more.
Which is why… we don’t live on crumbs anymore. You hear me, Amy K. Lamb? We don’t live on crumbs anymore.
I’ve become a baker, and I’m going to bake so many beautiful things for you, so that the Queer kiddos that you loved will never have to live on crumbs again.
You hear me, Amy K. Lamb?
We don’t live on crumbs anymore.
I’m going to bake you cakes with icing so decadent that it will make your teeth hurt.
I’m going to bake you pies with butter-crust hand pressed into the pan so that I leave my mark with every finger print.
I’m going to bake you cookies that are vegan and gluten-free so that anyone and everyone can take a bite.
I’m going to bake you cakes, beloveds, because we don’t live on crumbs anymore.
“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.
Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.
Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.
So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.
All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.
For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.
At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.
From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.
We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.
Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.
On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.
As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”
A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”
He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.
At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.
Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.
Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.
Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.
Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.
Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.
That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
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.
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
“Si, se puede! Si, se puede!” The voices of Spanish speakers mingled with the struggling accents of the primarily English speakers who stood in solidarity with them in front of the White House on Monday morning. The prayerful supporters called out the words as they faced, across police barricades and yellow tape, the religious and migrant leaders who knelt on the concrete, engaging in a pray-in just feet from the White House lawn and calmly awaited arrest.
The words flowed back and forth, supporters straining to hear what those awaiting arrest sang in order to join their voices in support. “…this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” flowed into “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…” flowed into “…Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land…” Intermingled with the singing were chants, not only “Si, se puede” but “Obama, Escucha! Estamos en la luche” and the rallying cry of the event “Not one more: Deportation.”
They took all the women away first – fastening their hands tightly behind their backs and leading them into waiting vans. Sol Cotto, a devoted teacher, wife, and mother was one of the first to go; the last time I had seen her, she had been smiling her amazing grin as we celebrated the Commissioning of our friend Lydia over Italian food in Philadelphia. Now her face was solemn and determined as she was led away to detention.
They continued to arrest the women, finally bringing Hermina Gallegos to her feet and fastening her arms behind her back. That morning she had shared with us about her daughter, Rosy, who had been in detention for more than a month and was becoming ill. Hermina was there, without documentation, risking everything to plead for mercy, justice and a halt to detention and deportations that were dividing loving families like her own. When she had first begun to tell us about her daughter over coffee that morning, I had been shocked. Looking at her youthful face, I realized that her daughter must be young; and she is – Rosy is only twenty years old.
Next to Hermina in the front row was Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who knelt in solidarity with her, prayed in solidarity with her, and finally was arrested in solidarity with her. They would maintain that solidarity until the very end; remaining in detention together throughout the day and evening and finally emerging together at the end of the trickle of releases – Carcaño only willing to come out when they could both come out.
As the arrests slowly continued, we could see the physical exertion of those who waited and waited with their knees planted on the hard concrete. For several minutes after the rest of the women had been taken away, Harriett Olson, the General Secretary of the United Methodist Women, continued to kneel with a determined posture as the last woman among the men. Then, the officers came, finally; they pulled her to her feet, they fastened her hands behind her back and they led her away.
At the very end, after more than an hour of kneeling, only Bishop Julius C. Trimble and a couple other men remained. It was then that the tapestry of songs and chants found its way home again to its most frequent refrain, as Bishop Trimble, whose voice itself embodied protest, its strength refusing to be diminished by the physical strain, sang out: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
That was what this was all about. Demanding that the nation, that the President, that the world see what we are doing to families like Hermina’s. People who are neither criminals nor moochers nor sluggards, but hard working people with loving families that just want a chance to be together and make a contribution to the world.
That is the kind of family I come from too; and when my great-grandparents brought my grandparents to this country, they experienced struggle and prejudice, and they worked hard in menial jobs. They found people like Adair, from whom my name has trickled down, to help them and support them when they struggled in a new country.
But there are differences that made the road smoother for my family. One is that my skin is pale, undercooked as Elias Chacour says, and my eyes are blue, and our culture has always had a prejudice that somehow this land belongs to people who look like that more than it belongs to people of a different complexion. This lie is so powerful that it somehow enables us to feel comfortable saying that this is “our country” and “we were here first” as we tell people to “go back where you came from,” even though neither of those statements is true. This land belongs to God; and the native peoples, who truly were the ones who originally inhabited it, were much better at remembering and honoring that than its current stewards have ever been.
It is true that our immigration issues today are not exclusively issues of racism, our economic prejudice leads us to treat many Caucasian immigrants just as poorly. However, while our immigration issues may flirt with other people, it often feels like they are going steady with our racism issues. While parents of children who look like me can feel fairly safe sending their kids out the door, there are far too many families in our nation that have to worry about whether their kids will come home – whether they come up against Stand Your Ground in Florida or detention of young DREAMers like Rosy in Arizona. While saying “all men are created equal”, we behave as if all children are not created equal.
What happened to the nation that claimed to proclaim proudly from Lady Liberty’s base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Was it ever true?
As I waited and prayed for release with other drivers outside of the detention center in Anacostia where our protesters were held, I could not help but keep thinking of three words. “Si, se puede.”
At the end of the pray-in, when Bishop Trimble had finally been taken away, the lingering echo of Amazing Grace had faded, and all that remained was bare concrete, my friend Leticia turned to me and asked, “Was it what you expected?” I responded, “I do not know what I expected.”
That could be as true for the past several years of my life as well as it was for the past few hours. The reason was those words, “Si, se puede.” When I had heard them chanted that day it was as if a wave of memories and emotions smacked me in the face.
The last time I had heard them chanted that way was in 2008, when the majority of my life was devoted to urban teen leaders in Durham. In this group of amazing youth, we had many leaders that were the children of immigrants. And as Barack Obama was running for his first term, the chant “Si, se puede” was common in the part of the city where we lived.
When he won, they were given the chance to go to the Inauguration. We traveled north and stood out in front of the Capitol at 4:00 am to get our spot, as they looked at me despairingly in the bitter cold and I assured them they would be glad someday that they had been there.
Throughout the day they were interviewed by news cameras and the New York Times, but I had a question of my own. I asked them what their personal reasons were for being excited to have this man as their President. I will never forget what they said.
One of them looked at me and said that Barack’s daddy was an immigrant just like their daddy, and they believed he would help him.
When Leticia asked me what I expected, I did not know, but I knew what those young leaders expected. One twelve year old believed that his cousin, who was serving his new country in the armed forces, would be brought home from war. The five year old who came to church crying every single morning because she missed her deported daddy expected that she would see him again. They expected things would be different, could be different, will be different.
And they will. But it takes more than one man whose daddy was an immigrant. It takes all of us realizing not only that we are the children of immigrants; realizing not only that other people love their children just as much as we love ours and deserve to be with them; but also, for those of us who are Christians, it takes us realizing that we follow a migrant God who wandered from the time he was born into danger and taken into Egypt.
It takes more than one man whose daddy was an immigrant to change things. He can do a lot to help, and we need him to listen; but it will take all of us.
“Si, se puede” does not mean “Yes, we can” as many of us Spanish novices assumed. That would be “Si, podemos.”
“Si, se puede” means “Yes, it is possible.” That means something slightly different. It is a challenge, not a chant, a challenge for all of us. We know it is possible to treat one another with love and compassion. We know it is possible to create the beloved community. We know it is possible to do justice while loving mercy. The question is – do we have the will to do it? Because it costs something. You cannot insist on having everything, if you want there to be something left for others.
On Monday, many brave leaders knelt on the cold concrete sidewalk in front of the White House because they were making a statement. Not only do we as United Methodists believe compassionate justice is possible, but we also have the will to take action and make sacrifices to see that day come. They were willing to spend one day in jail away from their families, because millions will spend a lifetime separated from the people they love.
It is possible. But it will not happen if we are silent. God gave us voices that they might be used to speak truth. God gave us hands that they might be used to do justice. God gave us minds that we might imagine a better way.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Lev. 19:33-34
Wish you had been there Monday? Well there is something you can do today.
Mr. President, as your administration approaches 2 million deportations, people of faith have a simple message for you: Stop the deportations. The United Methodist Church calls for a ban to all arrests, detainments, and deportations of undocumented immigrants. We need you to show principled leadership to end all deportations. Thank you.
“Watcha doin’ tomorrow?” Leroy asked as we postponed my stick-shift driving lessons after his niece Courtney demanded my attention. The child had jumped out of the bathtub and come running straight out the house yelling “Hannah! Hannah!” when I drove by on my way to work that morning, and by the afternoon she was tired of waiting for her promised adventure. It would have been impossible to escape; she had an ear attuned after much practice to recognize the sounds of Brenda’s car and intercept her on her way from Rainbow to Camp Symonette. And now, driving Brenda’s car, I was to reap the benefits of all that practice.
“I’m going to Preacher’s Cave tomorrow,” I answered. Preacher’s Cave had captured my fascination from the first time I heard the words about eleven months ago. On a trip with some amazing clergywomen from my home Conference, Eastern Pennsylvania, I had come across a tea named after Preacher’s Cave. A tea which I, of course, had to purchase and spend the next few months drinking. I have to admit that I did not even realize that Preacher’s Cave was a real place when I bought the tea. I simply thought it was an elegant Bahamian metaphor for the secluded state that is necessary for many when giving birth to a sermon. Don’t ask me why I thought that the marketers believed that might appeal to the general populace.
Imagine my shock and delight then when during my first week on the island, somebody told me that I needed to go to Preacher’s Cave. Whip lash – “Wait, Preacher’s Cave is a real place?? And I am close to it right now?”
Apparently Preacher’s Cave was a real place, but not many people came across it because it was on a secluded island. Yet, wonder of wonders, I too was on that secluded island.
God had already blown my mind with this spiritually tantalizing serendipity, but there was more!
First, Preacher’s Cave was amazingly beautiful and the aesthetics – light filtering in through holes in the roof of the cave – were equally delightful to my eye and to my heart. For someone who chose to name their blog after the Cohen lyrics “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” it felt that this place was the visible representation of the contours of my heart. It revealed the reality that holes and cracks and imperfections are not the things that destroys us, but rather the things that make us beautiful. And yeah, the rain pours in the holes when it is storming, but on most days the sun streams through those same holes; I accept that you have to take a bit of rain on your head, in order to experience the sunlight on your face.
Second, Preacher’s Cave had a powerful story to go along with it’s imposing form. In 1647 a group of adventurers set out from Bermuda on a journey seeking a space to worship and practice their religion in the way they felt led. They called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers (for those rusty on their Greek, eleuthera means “freedom”). As they passed by a long strip of land, 100 miles long by 2 miles wide, they found themselves face to face with the Devil’s Backbone – a tremendous reef that winds along the Atlantic side of the island. The survivors of the shipwreck made it to shore and found shelter in a large cathedral-like cave. It was there in that perfectly contoured space, that they gave thanks to God for their lives and celebrated their first worship service.
They found the beautiful island to be uninhabited; not because it had gone undiscovered, but because it had been discovered. This island was one of many whose population had been drained and decimated by Spanish explorers. The original Arawak inhabitants, the Lucayans, had been taken from the island to work the mines in Cuba and Hispaniola, in an era before the attention of the “explorers” had turned away from native populations and towards the continent of Africa to satiate their thirst for slaves.
The shipwrecked adventurers decided that God had brought them to this perilous and beautiful snake of an island, and so they decided to stay. They spread out and became the first to settle the Bahamas, still returning for over 100 years to worship at the cave. They carved a rough pulpit into the rock, seats for the ministers, and even a choir loft. They named it Preacher’s Cave, and they named the island Eleuthera – the place where freedom is found.
In those days, that was indeed how one found freedom. There was plenty of “empty” places in the world to go and set up shop; and if they were not empty you could simply convert, enslave or decimate the populace – usually a combination of all three was employed. Ironically, the way that the European world found freedom, was the same way that the rest of the world lost it.
Thankfully that is not the accepted method to find freedom anymore. Yet, there is still a draw towards freedom, a hunger for freedom. People are still wrestling today about worship; but these days the struggle has shifted from not only how you worship, but also with whom do you worship.
Back home in Eastern Pennsylvania, where my Preacher’s Cave Tea sipping friends are laboring through the final week of Advent, it feels like everything is in question. The United Methodist Church wants to affirm the dignity and sacred worth of people of all genders and orientations; while simultaneously withholding certain positions and ceremonies from those who diverge from the traditional norm. We simply cannot have it both ways. The longing for freedom that has run its course through every phase of the church bears the fruit of its ancient DNA right in front of us today. The pot of discontent boils over, and the voices heavy with the guilt of many years of silence hold their tongue no more.
My Bishop stands in the center, and God be with her, is finding the words and the courage to lead us through it. My friends stand upon ground they would never choose – judge, jury and credential-executioner for one of their own. Today the Rev. Frank Schaefer goes before the Board of Ordained Ministry, having refused to voluntarily surrender his credentials after performing a marriage ceremony for his son and his partner. He stands today firm in his integrity, having satisfied the demands of his convictions. He confronts the church with the question, is there not another way?
I cannot be with them on this painful day, a day that cannot be easy for anyone regardless of their stance, and so I will travel up this snake of an island and stand in Preacher’s Cave and I too will ask God, is there not another way? I will plant my feet on solid Eleutherian soil, and ask what freedom means and how we are to find it.
While, thankfully, exploration, conquest and colonization are no longer the methods employed to find religious freedom, it does leave us all with a little less air to breathe. We cannot escape one another, we have to fight it out living side by side.
Unfortunately, we still do find it necessary to employ the other ancient tool of struggle within the church – the trial. The trial is a method that reached its low point during the Inquisition, while throughout the ages never seeming to bring out the best in us regardless of the time or space. In the United States, we usually consider the Salem witch trials to be the low point of church trials, and looking back it is hard to believe that really happened; hard to believe we really did that to one another. The recent genealogy craze revealed the loss of an ancestor on my mother’s side to the Salem witch trials, and it is certainly not difficult these days to feel a sense of sardonic affinity with that virtuous woman.
The funny thing is, the man in whose name we carry out these trials, fell victim to a very similar trial himself. The witnesses were brought in, the rigged questions were asked, and Jesus Christ was declared a religious heretic. His sentence was not the loss of his credentials, but the loss of his life. There was no appeal, and no mercy. And at the will of the jury, we put God made flesh to death. It is just so hard to imagine that same man wanting trials to be carried out in his name.
So today, I will stand in Preacher’s Cave, and I will pray – for a miracle if the Board can find one; and for a new way forward if they cannot. We do not need more trials, we do not need more executions of calling. That is why I wear an Eleutherian rock around my neck rather than a cross these days. It represents for me the cave of refuge, the solid rock on which I stand, and the tomb that gave birth to resurrection. Because it was not a trial, an execution and a cross that changed my life; it was the tomb in which death was defeated, a verdict was overruled, and life burst forth with freedom.
Trial, execution, death – that is only half the story. Shipwrecks have survivors. Tombs have escapees. Trials have pardons. Death has resurrection.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)