Category Archives: Community

How many tasers will it take to wake Waller County?

“We were advised by legal counsel to cancel the meeting,” Prairie View City Councilmen Jonathan Randall said to the crowd of students and Prairie View community members crowded around the front door of Prairie View City Hall on October 15 to stand in solidarity with their City Councilman, the Honorable Jonathan Miller. Community members had been told that the City Council would be discussing the arrest of the Honorable Jonathan Miller.
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Yes, that Jonathan Miller. The one who voted to rename the road where she was arrested to Sandra Bland Parkway… twice. The Jonathan Miller who has written letters to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to press for answers to what happened to Sandra Bland. The one who was mysteriously tased and arrested in his own front yard by officers who knew him well; officers who told him they knew he was “always making problems” before they tased him.

It was growing tiring to see the same faces show up in this situation as in the arrest and investigation of Sandra Bland. Yes, I am fully aware that in a small town there are not many options for who can erroneously order a City Councilman to be tasered, or who can oversee an investigation of potentially great financial importance. I know there are only six officers in Prairie View and Penny Goodie, who mocked Sandra Bland while she lay in the dirt, had a 1 in 6 chance of being the same officer who would order the Honorable Jonathan Miller to be laid down in the dirt. And I am fully aware that the District Attorney who called Sandra Bland “not a model person” would be the only District Attorney available to oversee the investigation of whether the Honorable Jonathan Miller was honorable or not. I understand it, but understanding it makes it none the less painful.

Moving into the City Council chambers, the crowd filled the seats and began to have their say. The media had been notified by the mayor that the meeting was off and informed not to come, but there was one lingering cameraman and a reporter, as well as a journalist from the LA Times. The purpose of the meeting, without much press present, actually shifted to the community truly listening to one another and dialoguing. Without cameras and microphones, and with the City Councilpersons and Mayor in the back, mostly in street clothes, there was greater transparency amongst residents. It was actually the best environment I have experienced in that room thus far.

One older woman, who asked me not to use her name or face for fear of retaliation, said the following:

Early in the morning, when I am in my bed, and I meditate and think about all the things that have been done, to my brothers and sisters by the police department and they just keep getting away with it. White supremacy is alive and well. And from time to time, I ask myself, what ever happened to the KKK? They used to be known by their white sheets and hoods, you don’t see that anymore. They did not fade into the wide blue yonder. My personal opinion? They did not just disappear. They have, I believe, infiltrated the police department. I believe they have traded in those white sheets and hood for a uniform and a badge and and a gun. And they have infiltrated the good officers. You can’t tell the bad policeman from the good officer. I honestly believe this where they have gone. Because here they can kill and get away with it. They can have their court system pick some more KKK guys, and this is just my opinion. Where did those guys go, who was once known as the KKK. You knew them when they showed up many, many years ago because they wore that distinctive uniform; and I believe they traded that uniform in for a blue uniform, a badge, and a gun.

A young Prairie View student had his say as well:

What if I tell you that the Mayor is also the Fire Chief and he had a Fireman’s Banquet and at that Banquet he honored Sheriff Glenn Smith. Or if I tell you that Waller County is the last county that emancipated slaves, but we don’t celebrate Juneteenth like we should. If I tell you that Sandra Bland was the first black body to be picked up by a white funeral home ever in Waller County. If I tell you that the first President of Prairie View A&M was a former slave of the first President of Texas A&M, then you start reevaluating where are we really? Because the true power is the power that is unseen.

Finally a Prairie View property owner raised the questions on many people’s minds about what the priorities of elected officials were:

How can he be the Mayor of our city, and the mayor of the campus, those two jobs conflict. But he does not receive a payment for being our mayor, he is a volunteer. So in your best assessment, if you had a job that you volunteered for and a job that paid you over six figures, where are your loyalties.

(*I believe he meant the use of the phrase “mayor of campus” metaphorically. Frank Jackson is the Texas A&M Vice Chancellor of Governmental Affairs after a recent promotion.)

The President of the Democrats Club of Waller County made the following remarks:

If I had been in [Jonathan’s] position, I would have considered that assault. I believe that there is no need to lolly gag on this. We need to let Officer Kelly know, we need to thank him for his service up until this point, and we need to let him know that we would be happy to accept his resignation, go ahead and get that notarized, and get that done with.”

We can pray things will move more quickly for Jonathan than they have for Sandra Bland.

95 days have passed since the death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail. 95 days of watching Waller County officials play games to delay or distort information while the family of Sandra Bland suffers without answers. 95 days of watching people change the story to try to make it fit the evidence.

After 95 days of watching and praying, it was comforting to know that there are some people in Waller County who can be honest and transparent with one another. Those people, ultimately, are the Boss of all the rest, for it is the citizens who vote that truly do the hiring and firing of elected officials. In Waller County, as in many parts of the nation, the nature of the democracy is questioned by many after years of watching the political machine work. Yet, in each and every election, the people have a choice whether they will wake up and stop being cogs in a machine.

Today, in Prairie View City Hall, the room was filled with people who had woken up. Perhaps if the machine is to be shut down, it will take an electric surge, the sizzle and flash of a taser. First there was the taser that the white, male Officer, Brian Encinia, used to threaten Sandra Bland and tear her from the safety of her car as Officer Penny Goodie pulled up to watch. Then there was the flash of light as the taser of the white, male Officer, Michael Kelly, drew blood from the back of the Honorable Jonathan Miller at the order of Officer Penny Goodie.

In both cases, officials in Waller County see “nothing to be concerned about” in the treatment of either of these young, African American, Prairie View alumni. It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that they are alone in that opinion.

The Complaint
“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” – Habakkuk 1

The Response
“There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” – Habakkuk 2

 

Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

A Criminal Like Me

“I don’t like being lied to,” she snarled as she walked past me and back to her car.

The taller woman followed close behind her, repeating over again, “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve made her mad. Now I am going to have to sit in the car with her for the rest of the day. She’s going to be in a bad mood, whacking me and fuming.”

If there had not been an undercurrent of threat in their words, I would have found the whole scene humorous. The pair of them were behaving like some kind of exaggerated – almost to the point of being comedic – good cop/bad cop role playing duo. I would have half expected one of them to say “Who’s on first?” if they had not instead been asking me who they should arrest first.

When I had pulled up and gotten out of my car to pick up lunch from home, I had been a little confused to see an unmarked car “sitting” on my spot. I greeted them cheerfully as I walked across the parking lot, wondering which of my friends they were visiting. Until, that is, the taller one got out of the car, flashed something that looked like a badge and asked me to take a look at a picture.

“Have you seen him?” she asked.

At first I said no. Then she told me it was an old picture, a few years old, and so I looked again. “Yeah, I might know him,” I replied, “but that sure is an old picture.”

“You know where he is? Seen him lately? Know where to find him?”

No. No. No – were my honest replies.

“No worries,” she answered. “We’ll find him. People here ain’t telling us anything, but that doesn’t worry us. We’ll just start arresting people until we find him.”

Things were taking an interesting turn.

“We think he is that guy up there. We think he is just going by a different name. Maybe we’ll go ahead and arrest him.”

No, I told her, that is ridiculous, he looks nothing like him. They are two different people all together. We all know that. She knows that. I know that. The man she was pointing to knows that. He is a really good man, a kind man, an ethical man, I told her.

They went up to the man in question and began to interrogate him about our acquaintance in the picture, whom we had not seen in quite some time. He asked to see their badges and asked for an answer about who they were. The shorter woman showed him an ID in a case, and the other woman showed him a metal star.

He repeated his request to see their official ID.

“Actually, that is why we are here. We want to see your ID,” the shorter woman said aggressively. I remembered their threat to arrest him if they couldn’t find who they wanted.

The thing is, he told them, they did not look super official and he did not know who they were. They did seem to be more likely to be some kind of bounty hunters than police officers.

The shorter one lifted up the edge of her shirt to reveal her gun. “Is this good enough ID for you,” she said bristling.

It was at this point that he decided to let them take a look around, and it was also at this point that I decided I would eat my lunch in the hot Texas sun, with a full view of everything that was taking place.

When they finally left, after treating my friend – an artist and a missionary – like he was a criminal and a liar, they did so with that parting shot, “I don’t like being lied to.”

I realized as her body shoved past mine that I was being called a liar just as surely as anyone else in that place.

I joked with the guys that I hadn’t told them anything. The truth was that I really did not know anything. None of us knew anything. All of us were telling the absolute truth.

We told them exactly nothing, which was exactly everything we knew.

The thought flitted briefly through my mind of following after her and protesting our honesty to these aggressive women with questionable identities and motives; I didn’t like them thinking they could walk in our spot and push us around and then walk out of our spot calling us liars. I thought of telling them who I was, of pulling my privilege card out of my back pocket. Of telling them that I was The Rev. Hannah Bonner. But then as quick as the thought had emerged, it flitted away. What’s the point, I figured, they weren’t worth it. Besides, even if I wanted to appeal to my pastoral identity to create a boundary between myself and these women’s aggressive hostility, it would also serve to create a distance between myself and my real life, home, and community.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the privilege of feeling as if figures with badges were protecting me was connected to my physical location, physical appearance, existing relationships, and/or whether they saw my community as something to protect or something to protect people from. I have met both types of figures.

My mind returned to the first time I had been pulled over for sticking out in my neighborhood back in north-central Durham. I was just about to pull into the church parking lot where I worked when the red & blue lights went off behind me. The policeman had not been able to tell that I was wearing my seat belt. Perhaps more importantly, I was not wearing my pastor garb; I was wearing hospital scrubs and an old t-shirt, accessorized with a pony-tail and no make-up, because I was coming from cleaning houses, one of four jobs that I had at that time.

I talked to my father, an attorney, who assured me that there was nothing inappropriate about what had happened and I was not being profiled.

When I got off the night shift at one of my other jobs a couple weeks later, however, and a police car followed me down my street and right into my driveway, I knew I had been right. As I stepped out of my car, the officer hit me dead-on with a spotlight, framing my slight silhouette against the light blue wall of the first story of the Isaiah House.

He said nothing, and I said nothing.

I don’t know what I would do if that happened to me now. At the time, however, I was still too naive to be frightened, too new to my understanding of the real consequences of our actions and choices. So I simply waved, got out my house keys, and walked into my house. I knew why I was in that neighborhood late at night, I had figured, so it did not matter why he thought I was there.

I ended up getting my fair share of attention from the police in Durham’s Bull’s Eye during my years there. My presence there, it seemed, could only be explained by less than savory reasons. Criminal activity.

These are the moments when I feel the urge to protest, to claim that I am not the person people assume me to be. But are any of us the people others assume us to be when they look at our bodies through the lens of prejudice or assumptions? Why am I any different?

The thing about pulling out the privilege card at moment’s like this, at waving the “I’m clergy” sign around, is that I become an accomplice in the system of prejudice and profiling by distancing myself from the situation, and saying that I should not be one of the people on the receiving end of injustice, false assumptions and profiling. And if I do that, I don’t need any officer of the law to say that I don’t belong here – I’ve already said it myself.

The moments do come when I will wave the clergy sign, when I do pop the collar in and make a visible sign of my identity. Those moments, however, are on my terms, in God’s timing, when the community chooses or when visible clerical solidarity brings me closer to and not further from my community.

Several months ago, almost a year now, Rudy asked me what I thought it meant to be a pastor. It is a question I will be answering for the rest of my life. Yet, if I have learned anything from the ministerial culture at St. John’s, it is that being a pastor does not exempt you from injustice in the community, it involves you in it.

The pastoral identity does not exist for the benefit and protection of the pastor; to separate oneself from the hardship that the community experiences. The pastoral identity exists for the benefit of the community; to gather the community and help them understand that what one suffers, we all suffer, when we are living as family.

Today, I did not pop in the collar. Because today, intimidation was the name of the game. And I was not playing.

Truth is supposed to be so clean and bright and shiny and obvious. Yet, the truth – if it doesn’t look like we want it to look; if it doesn’t support what we want to hear and what we want to see – then we say the truth is just another lie, told by just another criminal. A criminal like me.

The Kingdom of God is Like a Chicken Bus…

“This bus leaves at 10:30 am, and this one at 11:30 am,” the huddle of drivers explained to me in Spanish as I picked the 10:30 chicken bus and climbed on board. Drat, I had thought to myself, I was sure there was one that left at 10:00 am. Now I would have to spend an additional 45 minutes on this beautiful beast of a bus.

Chicken buses in Guatemala are cultural art forms. They look as if a group of street artists from California, got together with a bunch of chrome-addicts from the fifties, and a group of 80’s chicks gone crazy with their Bedazzlers. They are gorgeous and colorful and cheerful and imposing.

From the outside that is. Once you climb the stairs and find your seat, you discover what you knew all along – that this really is just an American school bus given a new lease on life. It is both an expression of the artistic soul, and the ultimate in reduce-reuse-recycle.

If I had any doubts on the subject, a school bus that was new to the crowd rolled up. It had not had time to become baptized and “born again” as a Guatemalan chicken bus, and so it still had “Shelby County Schools” painted in black block print on its marigold yellow side. I was pretty sure I had seen that bus before.

For that matter, I may very well have seen the bus I was sitting in before. For all I knew this was “West Chester 108,” the bus I had ridden throughout middle school and the beginning of high school.

I considered the fact that I was actually choosing to ride a school bus – a vehicle that had once been a terror to me.

When I was in high school, I was stuck riding the bus long after the rest of the kids in my class had cars of their own. It seemed like everyone but me had a car, whether it was decrepit cast off from a grandparent or a sparkling new Sweet 16 present. Sure, anyone could get a car, and if your parents did not buy you one, surely you could work and afford your own. That is if you did not also have to use that money to buy your school clothes while maintaining a high enough average to ensure the scholarships you not only wanted, but realistically needed to attend college.

So I rode that bus, West Chester 108… until that is, I was rescued. Her name was Lauren, and she was an old friend from church who had come to my school several years after I had started there in first grade. We led different lives, and ran in different crowds to some extent. But regardless of what may happen when I was out of her sight, nobody was going to bully me when she could do anything about it.

After hearing that some kids on the bus were picking on me, she declared that she was going to drive me to school. I was “on her way” broadly speaking… but not exactly. I am sure I added a good fifteen minutes to her commute. But every day, she would coming driving up my bumpy old driveway, and every day she would bring me back to my source. After classes, and after track practice, and after hockey games, home we would go together. I knew that with all that I went through as a “scholarship kid”, there was someone pretty cool who thought I was pretty special and who always had my back. When she knew I was having a hard week missing my boyfriend, who had graduated and gone to Georgia for college, she left some flowers at my locker like he would have done. She even got all her friends to vote me in for a Senior Superlative – “Best Eyes” – an assessment that the people of San Pedro seem to affirm at a fairly constant rate.

A good fifteen years after she started driving me, and just six months ago in our current story, I had heard of another friend who was tired of riding the bus. I was on Eleuthera at the time, and was seeing pretty persistent posts online from one of my close friends about the trials and tribulations of using public transportation to get to work. I knew that I would not have much use for my car this year, being out of the country so much. So, I thought about what Lauren would have done: I sent her a message telling her to go and get my car from my sister in DC.

You see, I finally had a car, a beautiful red one too. Very sacramental. Although, I had been told by other pastors, not ideal for funerals. Being somewhat concerned that they made their automobile choices based on what looks good in a cemetery, I responded that I did not plan to spend much of my life there. I bought the car during a brief period of years in my life when I thought that I would be “normal.” This was the same period of time in which – with illusions of normality – I had bought a beautiful dining room table, a big heavy slab of environmentally conscious mango wood; with the dream that someday my grandchildren would make crafts upon its old worn wood surface.

So now, while I live and learn in Guatemala, my friend drives my beautiful red Esperanza to work instead of taking the bus. Why? Because once upon a time someone very kind and loving taught me that if you have got an empty seat, you should fill it with someone who needs it.

Lauren taught me that love does not just “say,” love also “does.”

She is a beautiful example of God’s abundance.

Fifteen years later, in Guatemala, the vibrantly colorful buses feel different than the ones I used to avoid. Part endurance test, and part carnival, they are the most popular way to get around the country. Which is why I actually choose to ride the bus here, much to my friend Delia’s chagrin.

Today, enroute from Xela to San Pedro, I was learning a whole new meaning to the word “abundance,” and a whole new definition to “empty seats” as we packed into them. First it was one person to a seat; then it was two; then it was three full grown adults; then a child on a lap, or perhaps an actual chicken, would bring the count to four. The aisles would fill until it felt the bus could hold no more, and then more would squeeze into it.

It began to feel as if the bus was a living thing. When we stopped at a town, you could feel it breath a deep sigh of relief and relax for a moment as a torrent of people poured out. But almost as quickly you could feel it draw its breath back in sharply as it saw the incoming hordes, and loosen its belt in preparation to contain them all.

For, you see, just as in Lauren’s car, there was always room for more. No matter how many people were squeezed into the bus, there was not a chance that someone was going to be told that it was full. There is no such thing as a full chicken bus. If you beg to differ, then you can get off and find another way to get to where you are going.

And a chicken bus is packed to the brim with people of every kind and color and background. Extraños (foreign aliens) looking for a cheap way to get around the country. City dwelling Ladinos in designer jeans headed to the lake for the weekend. Mayan women in ropa typica, heading home from the market and traveling with babies strapped to their backs. Old men grumbling about the seating arrangements, and small children staring wide eyed at all the different people surrounding them. Everyone mixed together – crammed together in one big noisy, laughing, pushing, shifting heap; talking to each other, helping each other, even enduring each other.

As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 13, “The kingdom of God is like a chicken bus…”

Okay, maybe it does not say that… but don’t you think it should?

My first excited encounter with a chicken bus!
My first excited encounter with a chicken bus!
Kids climb all over in a chicken bus
Kids climb all over in a chicken bus
Abuelas happy to finally get a seat to themselves as the bus empties out
Abuelas happy to finally get a seat to themselves as the bus empties out

Words were meant to be Spoken

“Pato. Duck.” She taught me, as I repeated it to her delight and we fell giggling against each other on the deacon’s bench in my mother’s living room. It was my first and my favorite Spanish lesson. We were five years old, and we were the very best of friends. To my little literary mind she was the Diana to my Anne of Green Gables, the Jane to my Elizabeth Elliot, and the David to my Jonathan. When she moved away, she would leave an imprint on my heart of such devoted love that it would take a good decade before anyone could come close to the legend of Nina in my mind.

Over time I would pick up other words and phrases here and there. “Pato,” which humorously held such power over me throughout my childhood, would be replaced by words whose power was rooted in meaning rather than memories. Phrases like “La vida es la lucha,” whose force would hit me like a bucket of cold water to the face when those palabras opened to me the powerful truth that life is not about escaping struggle but engaging it. Phrases like “Vaya con Dios,” that millions have heard from the lips of priests with varying internal responses.

“Vaya con Dios,” indeed. “Vaya con Dios,” the words I had worn on a ring given to me by a couple at the first church I pastored. “Vaya con Dios!” the last words from my brother-in-law Jorge as I boarded a plane to Guatemala this morning to continue the journey that the word “pato” began. “Vaya con Dios…” the words that I fervently prayed I had the courage to live out as I left behind family and friends for more than a month to journey alone. “Vaya con Dios.”

I have been collecting beautiful Spanish phrases my whole life long. The problem is that like many collections of beautiful things, they become somewhat ironic when not put to their intended use. Like the collector acquiring, as time goes on, more and more beautiful specimens of stamps or cars or stones, I have transitioned my collection from words about farm animals to words about God. I have treasured the words, and admired the words.

But words are not meant to be curated, words are meant to be spoken. I don’t want to polish them and preserve them like artifacts. Unlike stamps and books and baseball cards, words don’t become less valuable with wear; they become more beautiful and powerful when they are used well.

I do not know how to use my words, to speak all the beautiful specimens and sentiments in my head, but I will learn.

I am weary of the privilege of my language, the language of the modern empire, that expects all the world to learn it and speak it, while we do not learn the heart languages of others.

One would think that the more languages a tongue bears, the heavier it becomes, but the reverse is true. The more words one puts to use the lighter the tongue flies, converting each syllable from collector’s curios to communal energy.

At this moment, as I fly on a plane over borders and lines, I once again traverse the man-made boundaries and walls that mar and divide the face of God’s one creation. I once again do so with the full knowledge that whatever struggles and obstacles lie ahead of me, the risk that I am taking to cross this border is minimal and the hospitality that I will find on the other side is almost guaranteed. As I cross this border with only the belongings that I can carry on my back, I do so with the full knowledge that there are others doing likewise – crossing in the opposite direction at the risk of their lives to reach Los Estados Unidas.

I risk very little to be a citizen of God’s world; I risk very little to say “the world is my parish”; I risk very little because I carry national privilege between a folded piece of blue cardboard in my backpack. This month, as we watch the lines being painfully redrawn in Crimea, I recognize that I too come from a country that has historically taken up the sword and the pen to draw lines on the face of the earth that others must obey. And while I may claim the identity of the Irish, a people that “have never been free,” I still benefit from the actions past and present of my nation, as it stumbles forward on the world stage, attempting to balance ethics and profit and all too often lurching into the latter at the expense of the former.

I risk very little as I enter this country tonight with nervous excitement, to experience and enjoy and learn, with the full knowledge that people are dying on their way into my country while hoping for the same things.

I do not have all the answers, but I know that I sure as heck need to be able to say more to them than “pato” when they reach my side of these man-made borders. If I want to live in a world that uses words to heal rather than to harm, than I have got to broaden my vocabulary. I have got to take my words off of the collector’s shelf and have the courage to use them, not only in the cause of compassion, but also in the cause of justice; not only in the cause of hospitality, but also in the cause of solidarity; not only in the cause of teaching, but also in the cause of learning; not only in the cause of giving, but also in the cause of receiving.

Thankfully, I carried with me more than one sheaf of papers fixed between folded cardboard. In addition to the small blue folder with United States of America stamped on the front, I carried a small bundle of paper and words and heart and truth fixed between a folded piece of simple brown paper. As I turned the pages in seat 26B my heart fell and then soared as I made my way through UP NEXT: The Epistemic Power of Spoken Word Poetry. In this small volume by Erica Granados De La Rosa, “hot off the presses” as it were, there was contained the story of the Spoken Word, the power of the Spoken Word.

As Granados De La Rosa shared in Chapter IV, “Spoken Word as Spiritual [Art]ivism,” about her own journey from the oppositional perspective to the non-oppositional spiritual activist perspective, I had one more of those flashbulb moments in life when something changes inside. My breath caught in my throat as she wrote of the oppositional perspective, painful memories flooding in and choking me; memories of feeling pushed away and trapped on the other side of the oppositional border by how I was born. But then my eyes widened as her words tore that wall down, and freedom flooded in as she wrote of discovering the nuances and complicated identities that each of us possess and carry and can share through the Spoken Word.

I sat blinking, as someone who had found what they were seeking at a moment when they were not looking for it. Healing. Freedom. Courage. Inspiration. That is the power of Words.

The written word – my first love – and the Spoken Word are the most powerful tools at our disposal for creating the world of peace and justice that God desires. Words are what we are; when accompanied by action, they are how we show who we are.

All of this brilliant, beautiful world was cast into view when God emitted the Spoken Word, “Let there be light!” And as we lived and breathed and spoke in this beautiful word, God could not resist becoming a part of the conversation. So the Word become flesh, and walked amongst us, and spoke amongst us, and listened amongst us. Just as the poet at the open mic, the Word made flesh chose to become weak and vulnerable and honest for us, so that we might know truth and love and justice. The Word made flesh was the most powerful thing our world has known. The Word said to a woman, “Go and tell!” – and those of us with the courage to obey have not shut up since, though it has meant torture or death for many who came before us.

The Word is not meant to be curated, the Word is meant to be spoken.

They say that you will know that you understand a language when you know when laughter is the right response and when tears are the right response. I am not here in Guatemala to add more beautiful Spanish word specimens to my collection. I am here to learn when to laugh and when to cry – and when to snap – so that I can do both when the Word is Spoken.

On a warm day twenty six years ago, a little tow headed girl laughed herself silly on the hard wood of an old bench, next to the best friend she felt sure she would ever know. If I could experience such deep love through the word “pato” used so very well, how can I not long to use words like Dios y lucha y vida to share that love with others.

The Word is meant to be Spoken.

Mi hostel in Antigua
Mi hostel in Antigua

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The Right Kind of Dangerous

“Church never felt safe to me,” he said, standing at the microphone of New Day UMC’s Harlem Open Mic night, his gentle face revealing a soul made beautiful by struggle. “The church was always a place that made me feel judged and unwelcome as a gay kid… but I came out to this event tonight because it really means a lot to my partner.” And with those words from the young veteran of four tours of duty overseas, giving testimony to his partner’s witness of faith and love, every argument against inclusion and compassion was brought to its knees before a Christmas light bedecked microphone… or, rather, it should have been.

Unfortunately the debates upon which our future metaphorically hinges are based more upon theory than practice – based more on principles than people. Competing ideologies waging war with innocent bystanders hit on both sides. Words like bullets piercing the armor of those whose scar tissue has not yet hardened enough to make them impermeable.

Although I walk with a good coating of scar tissue, I can still testify to the courage it takes to walk into a spiritual space that has not been safe for you. When I walk into the church I grew up in, although it is a different place under different leadership, I cannot forget being taught there that women should not be the ones holding authority.

My declaration of calling was one that people responded to with politeness – “oh that’s nice” – rather than the exuberant excitement reserved for men entering the ministry. Polite was the best they could muster, but we both knew what it really meant, and it ached inside. I cannot forget the funeral of the pastor I grew up under, and seeing every man who had entered ministry during his tenure seated on stage as a sign of his legacy; while I, as a woman, was not a legacy he wanted to claim. I certainly cannot forget when an email exchange among church leaders culminated in a mentor asking when we would cease our “adultery with these false prophetess Jezebels.” No one was able to convince me that those words were not intended for me, because whether he meant to hit me or not, his aim was true.

Word bullets. We do not intend them for the people we love, but sometimes we have a hard time accepting that the people we love are also the things that we hate – and when we fire at the things we hate, we will hit the ones we love. We think we are fighting over principles, but when we make our churches a war zone, it is people that are being harmed.

Both the principles and the people are important, but Jesus seems like he kept giving people precedence over principles when he healed on the Sabbath, saved the life of the woman caught in adultery, spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, allowed his disciples to glean from the fields on the Sabbath… you get the idea.

Living a life of faith is more than following the rules; it is about having an intimacy with God that helps you to live with such extreme discipline that you have the courage to do the right thing, rather than the obvious thing or the expected thing. The rules for living in such a way cannot be scribbled on the palm of your hand so that you can peek at them like a crib sheet; neither can the memorization of lists of do’s and don’t’s give us the answers to all of life’s dilemmas.

We live in an era where the fear of the slippery slope reigns supreme; where those who do not put much stock in “perfect love casts out all fear” broadcast the terror that if we let one thing slip, then everything will fall apart. This is the world that told me as a teenager, struggling with a call to leadership, that if we let the women in, then next it would be “the gays,” and then the pedophiles – somehow linking all of us, against all reason and logic, in a continuum of crime.

Yet, it is in fearing this mythical slippery slope, that they themselves create the very danger that they fear by leaving our communities exposed, without the ability to discern responsibly; without the ability to honor love that is healthy and monogamous, of any variety, and separate it from that which does harm.

A more responsible choice would be to recognize that we are living in an era where we have to come to terms with the fact that the lens of privilege – through which the world has been labeled, divided, judged and structured – is ultimately broken. The only way to move forward, knowing this, is to come to terms with the crimes that lens has led us into; and carefully, prayerfully and honestly examine the situation through many lenses and voices, rather than only the most powerful.

There are lines, there are limits, but lets find them together through respecting one another’s voices. Let us not sever from the body and the conversation a huge segment of our population and label them as “headed down the slope” and, thus, not legitimate conversation partners. This is not only counterproductive, but also harmful and abusive itself. I cannot agree with this viewpoint, because the world it wishes to preserve is not one that I feel comfortable inhabiting.

Whether the word bullets we have delivered, buck-shot style, were meant to strike our own children or not: they have. They were not meant to harm the ones we love, but their aim was true and they hit their target, leaving many as the walking wounded. Nothing short of a verbal refutation of previous statements can undo their existence in relationships, can take down the walls of guardedness they build. Only when you are told that you can truly be all that you are – and you will still be loved – can you believe it. Niceness is the necessary evil when truth and vulnerability are not an option. Politeness becomes an unsatisfying placebo for the authentic, real, vulnerable, honest, life changing experience of community you need.

When I look at my beautiful generation, with so many invisible battle wounds already present and new ones inflicted every day, where do we even begin?  We start by creating the real in response to the placebo.

We may disagree about how to do that, but it has to involve spaces where people can feel safe to fully divulge, fully emerge, fully converge. Niceness and politeness do not have the power to create those kinds of spaces; they only have the power to create half-people living half-lives in half-communities. Courage and honesty, compassion and kindness, truth and justice have the power to create whole-people living whole-lives in whole-communities. That is why you will see those words in the scriptures rather than “nice” or “polite” or “sweet” or “well-intentioned.” That is why you will see the word “embrace” not the word “tolerate.”

These kinds of courageous, boundary breaking communities are what New Day is striving to create in the Bronx and in Harlem. Spaces where young adults, with the support of the Rev. Doug Cunningham, are being empowered to lead and to speak and to explore creatively how to “connect with God”, “cross boundaries” and “confront social injustice.”

The words “crossing” and “confronting” are not in the category of polite discourse; but they are necessary. Because, you see, polite is an insult when you are starving for truth. And nice feels like emptiness when you need courage to fill you. And good intentions are merely a placebo when you will surely despair for lack of justice.

What we need is truth, honesty, vulnerability, courage, authenticity, healing. What we need is the ability to be whole – but you do not need to wait for anyone’s permission to become whole. What you need is the courage to speak your truth, and the intimacy with God that assures you that no matter what your truth may be, you are still loved and still a person of sacred worth.

Listening to all of the amazing, heart-wrenching truths that were told with such mind-bending precision and eloquence at the Christmas light bedecked microphone of New Day’s Open Mic, I had to keep reminding myself to pick my jaw up off the floor as my mouth hung open in wonder and horror and celebration. Such an intense experience of community leaves you changed and wanting more – and that is exactly what church should be.

The kinds of things we say at open mics are the things we would never say in polite company otherwise. We bare our souls.

That kind of honesty hurts. It is not polite, but it is true. And so we take the risk to be honest, and we become whole.

That is church, and there is nothing safe about it. It is dangerous; not because of the voices it excludes but because of the voices it includes. It poses a threat to our complacency, and offers us the opportunity to change.

New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem

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New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem
New Day Open Mic night at LeRoy Neiman Arts Center in Harlem

Celebrate Within the Struggle

“Things happen when women talk,” the woman who was giving the opening welcome at the evening gathering of the Cactus in Lima, Peru, addressed me. “Si,” I answered, “When women speak, the world changes.”

I had been brought there by a friend, and when they asked me to introduce myself, I had said (in my terrible Spanglish) that I did not know what was happening, but I was very glad to be there. My ignorance had prompted her introductory explanation, and now I gratefully knew both where I was and what was happening. I was in the place where the world changes.

I looked around the circle of women that surrounded me with an appreciation bordering on the surreal. For years, I had read about these kinds of conversations, in articles for my seminary classes; then later, after I graduated, in books by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz that I read by choice, devouring them to the last crumb. This was where truth was spoken; this is where practical theology was created; this was where voices before unheard learned to resound like thunder. This was the circle. This was the Cactus.

Ever since Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another, both holding a miraculous baby within their womb, there have been women gathering to speak the mysteries that only a woman can understand. Ever since the moment when God hung on a tree, there have been women gathering in circles at the foot of the cross in a display of courage and faithfulness. Ever since the moment when God chose a woman to announce the resurrection, there have been women bold enough to speak the word’s that change the world.

It is as true today as it has ever been: When women speak, the world changes.

Cactus is one of the many forms that the convergance of women has taken throughout time and place. About eighteen years ago, Cactus was begun by a group of women in Peru who wanted to create a space for empowerment and truth. They named it Cactus in order to represent survival in the desert. That is what it can often feel like as a woman when you do not follow the script.

Over the years, three of the founders had moved to other countries – two to the United States, and one to Mexico. But the circle still met, and strengthened, and grew, and spread. There are now two Cactus circles that meet in different parts of Lima, Peru. From time to time, the evening’s leader explained, they have the honor of receiving back one of the original leaders when they visit Peru. Tonight was just such an occasion; and the Rev. Rosanna Panizo, who had brought me, was just such a person.

Rosanna had been the first woman that the Methodist Church in Peru had ordained; and although people in Peru were proud of the ministry she was doing with immigrants in the United States, it was clear everywhere we went that her presence was sorely missed.

So, that evening, when they asked Rosanna for some words of wisdom, she did what all good leaders do – she started by listening. She asked them what had changed in their life over the past two years.

Most of them gave answers relating in some way to relationships; and if I had not been reading Marcella Althaus-Reid on the bus on the way there, I may have been in danger of mistaking this for one more gathering of girls talking about boys. But this was something entirely different; what they were describing was a revolution, lived out one household at a time. As Althaus-Reid writes, “machismo could not exist without women playing a specific part in society, and such is the model of hembrismo.”* These women were talking about the progress they were making away from passivity, and into strength. As they made this passage, their homes were changing and their community was changing; because machismo cannot survive without hembrismo. Lessen one and you weaken the other. This is why Tracy Chapman says that talking about a revolution “sounds like a whisper.” Only in this case, it may have started as a whisper eighteen years ago, but Cactus was slowly building to a roar.

The women of Cactus asked me to answer the question as well. Not having a household to foment a revolution within, I had a slightly different answer. Yet, it had in common with their sharing that my relationship with my first love had changed dramatically. I started by telling them that I was experiencing a freedom with God that I had never felt before, and that I was using this change in our relationship to follow God in a whole new way. I told them I was choosing to be an example, rather than to be made an example. I told them that I knew that the journey of freedom and love that God and I were on was taking a new direction, and I would be landing soon.

It was remarkable to me to find myself in the midst of the circle, in the embrace of the Cactus, at just the moment in my journey when I had been struggling to find where my voice belongs. Two things had happened that day that put me in a place of questioning God about my voice.

First, that morning I had read a blog with advice from Black Girl Dangerous about how those with privilege can resist it. She verbalized things I had been feeling, but put them in such a clear way that they really hit home. One was that she pointed out the fact that people of privilege are used to being heard, and so they always feel like they need to be heard; but sometimes they just need to sit down and shut up. Point taken. Second, she pointed out that people with privilege tend to find places where they can “identify” with the marginalized and, thus, take on that voice when it does not belong to them. Again, point taken.

Second, as I mentioned, I was reading Marcella Althaus-Reid on the bus on the way there. Even more specifically, I was reading a reflection on Mariology in Latin America entitled “When God is a rich, white woman who does not walk.” In her reflection, Marcella Althaus-Reid speaks of the arrival of Christianity in Latin America under the flags of the Virgin Mary with these words: “It was as if God had come to Latin America as a rich, white, carefully covered woman, to defeat women who tucked up their skirts to fight for freedom and country.”* I felt this deeply, for although I had not felt I was raised rich, in comparison to much of the world, I had to admit I was. And as for the rest of it? Oh yes. A white, carefully covered woman was exactly what I was raised to be, and I was still in recovery. And while I cannot help what body I was born into, I can choose to live in that body in a way that seeks not to harm others. I have been trying to learn how. For years, I had been struggling to learn to be a traitor to the script.

So, amazingly, in the moment that I felt perhaps my voice should be silent tonight, in that very moment, God interrupted as usual, with the voice of a Cactus, and invited me to speak.

So, where does my voice belong? My voice belongs here, in la lucha, in the struggle. But only after it has listened; only after it has been invited.

When the sharing was finished, the circle stood and with arms linked sang a song in Spanish that meant – “I need you. I can’t do this without you.” The evening’s leader stopped the song mid-sentence and instructed the group, “No, you must look each other in the eyes when you say those words.” And then we began again, “I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

My mind went back to other circles I had stood in, where we had said similar words, “I need you, we’re all a part of Christ’s body.” Circles, interlinking, interdependent, changing the world.

Isasi-Diaz wrote that white women, women of privilege, often don’t realize their need for and their place in these circles – because they are going through life expecting their own individual happy ending like the Disney princesses that throughout much of history have looked like us. But the rest of the world knows a different truth. The mujeristas know; the Cactus know; that la vida es la lucha – life is struggle. And we are in it together. There is peace in finding that, in accepting that life is not about finding your own individual happy ending, but rather about finding your place in the struggle that seeks justice for all.

The conversation ended. Someone called out, “Music, por favor!” And then we danced – speaking that universal language that women around the world have always understood.

Dance was the only thing for such magnificent women to do; because, as Alice Walker writes in We are the ones we have been waiting for – life is struggle, but we must remember that more importantly, life is celebration.

So celebrate.

*Althaus-Reid, Marcella. From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, p. 31, p. 38

The women of the Cactus gather for an evening of conversation with Rosanna Panizo in Lima, Peru
The women of the Cactus gather for an evening of conversation with Rosanna Panizo in Lima, Peru

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On of the group celebrated her 20th birthday that night, what a way to turn 20!
On of the group celebrated her 20th birthday that night, what a way to turn 20!
And then we danced
And then we danced
The women of the Cactus
The women of the Cactus