All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

At least there was a baby to clothe…

Searching through the racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, only one thought was running through my mind: thank God they are together. The thought of the alternative made my stomach contort itself into knots. Five days earlier, I had knelt on the ground on the Mexico side of the Deconcini Port of Entry, pushing a small red car back and forth between this baby’s brother and I, while she laughed and built up the courage to crawl closer. They were halfway through what would be 11 days of waiting outside in the summer heat, with temperatures well over 100 degrees, hoping that their name would be called one morning and they would have a chance to go through that doorway into the United States and begin their plea. Next to them, five sick children – siblings – slept with limbs entwined on the ground in the heat and dust.

I had driven down that morning with my friends Gretchen and Kat, wanting to see for ourselves where the people were who usually filled the cots in our refugios. Hundreds of people stretched out from the doorway into the United States, all the way back to the small tables of wares and men offering taxis that welcome newcomers to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. 

A man with a stethoscope slung over his shoulders, Panchito, walked the line, checking on the needs of those seeking asylum. Volunteers from Kino Border Initiative fed them, while Voices From the Border carried in water and clothes. Each day, only 5-12 people were being permitted through that doorway into the United States, the same one that I could walk through with such ease. 

When we did walk back through that doorway, only one of us with a passport but all of us with blonde hair, I spoke to the mother in the best Spanish I could manage. I tried to tell her that we would be waiting and praying on the other side; that we would have a place for them; that we wanted them; that they were welcome. I tried to hide the fear behind my eyes, knowing what our government had given itself the right to do. Knowing that some families do not make it to us; that some families are torn apart and sent to separate facilities, just as families throughout history’s cruelest moments have been sorted left and right. 

I did not know if I’d ever see her again. I prayed I would. The only families they send to our refugio are the ones where at least one parent has been permitted to stay with the children.

Five days later, when I unexpectedly saw her face, holding her baby and calling to me, I was overjoyed. With all the hundreds of families that we see each week, this week has felt different. For the first time, we were taking joy in something as small as no one having arbitrarily decided to tear this woman’s baby from her arms. This was a level of cruelty that I had not imagined we would have to face. This was a relief that I did not think I would ever have the necessity to feel.

I carried that relief with me as we dug through bins of clothes, searching for a clean shirt for her 18 month old, and came up with nothing. At least there was a baby here to clothe, I told myself.

Ten minutes later, standing alone in front of racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, I sorted through tshirts trying to find even a single one without Minnie Mouse or a white Disney Princess on it. At least there was a baby to put in that Minnie Mouse t-shirt, I told myself.

As an aunt of five with a sixth due any day, I am well versed in the skills of playing back-up and indulgent aunt. I am well versed in what it means to be family.  I am well versed in trying my best when I am not sure what to do… There are so many moments now when I am not sure what to do. 

Pulling down a fuzzy baby blanket from the wall, I thought of the two children who had spent the past month living under my roof, leaving drawings on my fridge, taking naps with my dog, watching telenovelas on my television, falling asleep in my arms. Once again, a spasm rocked my gut at the thought that they too could have been separated from both their parents instead of just their father. Just their father. As if a gaping hole in your heart that keeps you awake all night crying, and in bed all day sleeping could be captured by the word “Just.” Is this what we have come to? That we must give thanks that only one parent has been taken?

I am so tired of giving thanks for small mercies, with the knowledge ever pressing on my mind of the great cruelties that have been escaped, that hang ever threatening over our heads from my own government. I can do these little things. I can lessen the pain for those that cross my path. I can put warm socks on the cold feet of babies, and smiles on the faces of children too young to understand the truths that are causing their parents to despair. Yet, these are such small things, and this cruelty, this complacency, this occupation of our community is so vast. 

At least there is a baby to clothe, I tell myself. At least the baby wasn’t strapped into a car seat with dozens of other children in a converted prison bus, screaming as they are transported away from their parents. 

At least there was a baby to clothe.

Has it really come to this?

Somewhere, a Christian man or woman sits behind a computer, typing comments onto every post they can find. Not even understanding the laws themselves,* they are saying that these desperate families, these children, these mothers, should not have broken the law and deserve what they get. 

Whose law? 

While these parents and children stand accused by us of breaking the law of man, we stand guilty of breaking the law of God. We sort them left and right, mothers to one side, children to the other; yet, God has sorting to do as well.

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

Somewhere, a five year old child is crying out for their mother. They are tired. They are traumatized. They live their lives in fear 24 hours a day. They do not understand what the people around them are saying. Perhaps they are being held in an institution like Southwest Key where the staff speaks Spanish or English, but not Portuguese or K’iche’ or Q’eqchi’ or Kaqchikel or whichever language their mother uses to soothe them. Perhaps they have a video translation device that talks to them and translates the staff’s orders. Let go of your siblings. Be quiet. Behave.  Every day that passes, every tear that falls, was the choice of our government, and was a part of a system financially dependent upon keeping its beds full of children who are kept from getting tucked in by their papa with a good night kiss.

Here we stand, where the rest of the nation makes our decisions for us, and a Federal force occupies our streets, and we are relieved simply to see a baby still in her mother’s arms. 

You can organize. You can talk to your neighbors. You can petition. You can donate. You can call. You can write. You can refuse to let our elected officials rest until these children are resting back in their parents arms.

Stop. Family. Separation. Now. 

*For more information on how the United States Government is breaking it’s own laws read about American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh and the screening process that we are bound to apply for credible fear and reasonable fear.

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Anatomy of An Artifice

As I struggled with the strange aftertaste in my mouth after reading “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict,” I have been left wondering, should I swallow? I was not sure if this was a sugar coated pill or a spoonful of sugar. I was not sure if I was being given a sweet story to help the medicine of interpersonal learning go down, or if I was receiving some interpersonal lessons to conceal the fact that some very heavy opinions about race relations in the Middle East and the United States were being fed to me surreptitiously. After all, isn’t the best propaganda hidden in plain sight?

Hidden in the midst of it all was the lesson that Palestinians ought to look to Israelis to see how they can bring peace by caring for the needs of the ones that they see as their oppressors, and that African Americans were in the wrong for protesting in outrage in the streets.

In order to know what this was in my mouth, it was very important to know who formed this narrative, regardless of whether they intended consciously to sway people politically or not.

I soon saw that as I was drawn into the story of a Palestinian Arab Muslim, who has experienced oppression, teaching a white man how to treat the people in his life better, what I was actually reading was a group of white men using a fictional story, barely perceptible as such, to teach oppressed people that their suffering was of their own making.

Let me explain.

If you are in any kind of leadership role in the United Methodist Church, it is likely that you have been asked this year to read “The Anatomy of Peace” by The Arbinger Institute. It’s a feel-good read that, during these stressful times for the denomination, gives many of us hope that we can figure this all out. 

It’s feel-good. Real good. Maybe too good?

As the book describes itself:

Yusuf al-Falah, an Arab, and Avi Rozen, a Jew, each lost his father at the hands of the other’s ethnic cousins. The Anatomy of Peace is the story of how they came together, how they help warring parents and children come together, and how we too can find our way out of the struggles that weigh us down.

The weight and authority of the information presented in the book comes from the horrific experiences that these two men have experienced and the way that they have overcome their pain in order to create a progam for youth in Arizona called Camp Moriah. 

The only problem is – these men do not exist. There is not a Dr. Yusuf al-Falah who teaches at Arizona State University. There is not a Camp Moriah in the wilderness near Phoenix.

Technically the authors have themselves covered because there is a sentence in the preface, if you were diligent to read it, that states, “Although some of the stories in this book were inspired by actual events, no character or organization described in this book represents any specific person or organization. In many respects, these characters are each of us.”

Despite this subtly placed disclaimer, however, the clear intention of the book is to get the reader lost in the story and drawn into the characters; and, thereby, to use the experiences of those characters to lend credence and authority to the teachings.

The fact that these people and places do not exist would not be a problem were it not for the people and places that do exist in their place.

When I Googled “Camp Moriah,” what came up on my google map was The Anasazi Foundation, the actual location of the lessons in the book. The Anasazi Foundation in Mesa, Arizona is a Troubled Teen Wilderness Treatment Center near Arizona State University and Phoenix. Its President and CEO, Mike Merchant, writes one of the glowing references for the book at the beginning.

Although founded by Larry Olson and mentee Ezekiel Sanchez, scrolling down past Michael Merchant’s photo on the Anasazi Foundation staff page, and past the two white men who are the Co-Directors, one could perhaps wonder whether this is an all white staff running a Foundation named after an ancient Native American people. Apart from co-Founder Ezekiel Sanchez, it would appear that the Foundation has a Board of Directors also made up entirely of white men.

The Anasazi Foundation, confirms that they are in fact Camp Moriah on their “About” page, “ANASAZI’s preventive efforts—including parenting workshops and community drug awareness/education forums—have inspired two international best-sellers (Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace).”

So, Camp Moriah does not exist, but the Anasazi Foundation does.

Does that matter?

You tell me. Does it bother you that you were drawn into a story about a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew who had both experienced trauma and built Camp Moriah in response, with a superfluous amount of information and opinions about Palestinian/Israeli relations, only to find out that that camp is actually directed by a group of white folks with degrees from schools like Brigham Young and Liberty University?

Does it matter to you how things are framed? It matters to me. Especially when the truth and the fiction are so far from one another.

The men in this story, Yusuf al-Falah and Avi Rosen, build authority to speak directly to the experiences of the oppressed because they have experienced oppression and trauma. Why frame it this way when the men who work at the Arbinger Institute and the Anasazi Foundation are so far from that reality?

Why frame work done by white men from Brigham Young University as work done by men who have suffered in the Middle East?

Could it be that we would only listen to critiques of the oppressed if they came from the oppressed themselves? Necessitating, therefore, an act of authorial black-face in order to help us to swallow a philosophy that the oppressed create their own problems by not attending to the needs of the oppressor

Which brings us to the character of Dr. Benjamin Arrig, an African American scholar seemingly at Yale, who at this point you ought to be able to guess is also fictitious. The fictitious Palestinian, Yusuf, watches as “black protestors were being restrained by shield-carrying police who were shooting tear gas toward the crowds.”

As a Palestinian, he feels empathy with the oppressed protestors, until Dr. Arrig teaches him a better way, telling him that both are in the wrong because while the police have the tear gas, the protestors have “the desire for tear gas” (p. 187).

(Would it interest you to know that one of the featured leaders from the Arbinger Institute is “Charles “Chip” Huth, “a Major with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. He has 26 years of law enforcement experience, commands KCPD’s Special Operations Division, and is the State of Missouri’s defensive tactics subject matter expert.”)

Therefore, Arrig teaches, “If you see a people of a particular race or culture as objects your view of them is racist, whatever your color or lack of color or your power or lack of power… [The oppressed become the oppressors] Because most who are trying to put an end to injustice only think of the injustices they believe they themselves have suffered. Which means that they are concerned not really with injustice but with themselves. They hide their focus on themselves behind the righteousness of their outward cause” (p. 189).

You may have felt uncomfortable when you read that part, if only subconsciously, but maybe swallowed it down because it was a Black man saying it about other Black people.

But it wasn’t.

Those words, that sound all too much like talking points from a conservative pundit, are exactly that.

WarnerCTerry-clr

You see, the founder of the philosophy presented in Anatomy of Peace is neither Yusuf nor Ben, neither a Palestinian scholar nor an African American scholar but – you guessed it – a white man who teaches at Brigham Young University. While you were picturing a stoic African American gentleman on the green at Yale, the person actually producing this knowledge was probably sitting in an office down in Utah, looking a little bit like this. This is the Founder of the Arbinger Institute, BYU Professor Emeritus, Dr. C. Terry Warner, who did in fact go to Yale, prompting the nod to his alma mater. He built a philosophy that we are responsible for our negative actions and emotions that sometimes leads us to accuse others of oppressing us rather than attending to the needs of those we are accusing. To give some context, up until the year when C. Terry Warren founded the Arbinger Institute at Brigham Young University, the Mormon faith had barred African America men, like the fictional Dr. Arrig, from the ranks of their priesthood. One might wonder if Warner met someone like Dr. Arrig at Yale. If he did, however, one would think to find the credit given to him, if not in this fictional book than it least in the white paper of the Arbinger Institute that explains their philosophical grounding. Unfortunately, in neither the white paper nor the video of the history of philosophy before C. Terry Warner is Arrig found. Only white male philosophers, like Freud, preceded C. Terry Warner in his path to knowledge according to the video.

JimCropWhile Warner’s philosophy is the foundation of these theories and practices, we cannot look to him as the author of the book, although it is his philosophy being taught. The book, abstractly credited to The Arbinger Institute, does in fact have one named author in James Ferrell, the Managing Partner of the Arbinger Institute. And, yes, James also went to Yale… before coming to Brigham Young University.

If you’re interested, these are the faces of the Arbinger Institute.

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Amongst them are, “Charles “Chip” Huth, who as referred to above, “consults for international law enforcement, military, and corporate clients” and Cameron Cozzens, who has “more than two decades of distinguished leadership and operational experience in the Intelligence and Special Operations communities.” You see how the book reads differently when you remove the fictional narrative and see the wizard behind the curtain?

Those who deal in war are teaching us how to create peace.

So, one must ask, what kind of peace is this?

Is it Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s false peace that is the absence of tension, or true peace that is the presence of justice? Is it an approach that affirms those that stand up for justice, or condemns them as blaming others for problems they have created themselves? As Dr. King wrote,

“You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?… Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Why does this book want us to see the robber and the robbed as both bearing a responsibility to fix the theft? It wants us to say “there were good people and bad people on both sides.” When we take all these teachings and critiques of the oppressed out of the mouths of a fictitious Palestinian Arab and a fictitious African American scholar, and place them in their rightful context in the mouths of the white men that truly created them, it becomes quite a different conversation.

Why place this between an Israeli man and a Palestinian man? It may interest you to look at the recommendations at the beginning of the book to see that among them are two Former Director Generals of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Former Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister of Israel. Not a Palestinian in sight.

“It doesn’t matter if you have power,” one of the statements from the fictional Arrig, is something that in actuality only people with extreme power could desire or afford to say.

As lovely as this book is, could it perhaps be the long awaited response from the White Moderates to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s scathing “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”?

*Dedicated to Gwyn, the fictional daughter of Ben Arrig, because you are much more than the caricature of the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype that you were cast as. I am sorry they put words in your mouth. I know, there were no women of color in the room to stick up for you; quite possibly no women at all… I hope this helps.

Thank you to Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Pat for being my conversation partners as I wrestled with this.

Grief on Both Sides of the Border this Mother’s Day

On May 10th, the Thursday before Mother’s Day, Mothers from throughout the United States plan to converge on the Capitol for #STAND, a Day of Action organized to demand legislation and reforms that would address the police brutality experienced by their loved ones.

As they gather at the center of the nation’s power, thousands of miles away, here in the borderlands, their cry will echo from the lips of a mother who shares their pain.

In Mexico, Thursday will be Mother’s Day itself, and the mother of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez will walk the final steps he took in life, just as she has done on the 10th of every month since he was murdered by Border Patrol in 2012.

A mere seven months after the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin rocked the nation, the October 2012 murder of 16 year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez shook its furthest territories. Their deaths proved that even a Border is insufficient to protect Black and Brown teenagers from the racialized violence that stalks our streets.

With piercing irony, it became clear that the Border Wall erected to keep the sons and daughters of Mexican mothers out of the United States could not protect them from the police brutality they would encounter here. As 16 year-old José Antonio stood in the Mexican streets of Nogales, Sonora, where the road dipped 20 feet below the wall, Officer Lonnie Swartz put his gun through an opening in that wall and fired 16 bullets – one for every year of José Antonio’s brief life. After 3 bullets, José was facedown on the ground, as Swartz fired 13 more bullets at his motionless back.

It is impossible not to think of the 20 bullets fired at Stephon Clark’s back in California. The 8 bullets fired at the back of Walter Scott in South Carolina. The brutalized body of Joe Campos Torres, dumped into the Bayou in 1977 by Houston police.

They say they want to build this wall to protect us, but those on the other side are the ones needing protection from us. We left slats in the Wall not big enough for a body to squeeze through to our side, but – like any fortress – wide enough to let our bullets pass through to theirs.

Like Trayvon, José Antonio longed to be a pilot when he grew up. As Trayvon toured Opa-Locka Airport in Florida, dreaming of the day when he would pilot one of the planes, about 2,300 miles to his west in Sonora, Mexico, José Antonio was sharing the same dream. Achieving that dream, for José Antonio, involved plans to join the military and make his mother proud.

Those dreams were cut short as Border Patrol Officer Lonnie Swartz gunned José Antonio down in the quiet streets of his own hometown, aiming from where he stood safely above on the US side and raining down a hail of bullets on the child below.

In 2012, just as life was beginning, like Trayvon, José Antonio was rendered powerless to tell his own story, portrayed as a threat by his own killer, and dehumanized in court.

Nearly six years later, his mother had to cross through the Nogales Port of Entry, past the Border Patrol Officers, and into the country where they killed her son. She came hoping for justice, only to sit in a courtroom in Tucson, Arizona and hear her a jury of US citizens find her son’s killer not guilty of second degree murder.

As mothers who share her pain walk the streets of our nation’s Capitol this Thursday, José Antonio’s supporters will surround his mother at the Border in Mexico in the spot where he lay face-down as bullets ripped through his body from above. They will carry grief and outrage, but also the hope and prayer that United States Prosecutors will send a message about the value of their lives by choosing to begin a retrial in the case of his killer, Officer Lonnie Swartz.

Preach the Disruptive Gospel

A word for my clergy colleagues: We do not have to decide whether or not we will be “political.” We simply have to wake up each morning and answer the same question we have every other day of our careers, be it 10 years or 50 years: will I preach the Gospel today?

If that Gospel critiques the Powers, it will not be by your choice: it will be by the choice of those Powers who have positioned themselves in opposition to the Gospel of love, compassion, and kenosis. Our task and responsibility has not changed, it has merely become harder. You bear the task of saying what is and is not Christ-like; that is not a political agenda, it is a spiritual responsibility. Our message cannot be compromised, merely because others have colonized and appropriated its name. The church has been sold right out from under it’s shepherds, will you stand by as the wolves advance?

You bear the task of saying what is and is not Christ-like; that is not a political agenda, it is a spiritual responsibility.

The scriptures tell us, “Preach the Gospel, in season and out of season.” Yet, today and for many days to come, we will wake up in a nation in which the Gospel is most decidedly out of season.

You may be tempted to miss this fact, because it will appear that Christianity is in season. You will wake up each day in a nation where Christians elected the President, and where Christians feel more safe than any other religion (despite the fact that we will claim we are under attack). You will wake up in a nation where Christians fail to recognize that the people whose deportations they applaud are members of the same flock.

Do not allow this to distract you. There is an irreconcilable difference between the Institution of Christianity being in power and the Gospel being in season. If greed, prejudice and exclusion are in fashion, then the Gospel is out of fashion. We serve a Christ of “kenosis”, of self-emptying, of choosing love over power, of seeking solidarity over security.

We serve a Christ of “kenosis”, of self-emptying, of choosing love over power, of seeking solidarity over security.

In a context where the ‘Gospel’ is for sale to the highest bidder, you will have to choose: will I sell the ‘Gospel’, or will I preach the Gospel? Choosing to preach the Gospel is what makes us pastors, not a stole, a robe, a piece of paper, or the seat of honor at the prayer breakfast. Never choose any of those things over the Gospel.

It is entirely possible, dear friends, that the more the Institution of Christianity is in season, the more the Gospel will be out of season. Every day, then, your responsibility to preach it will grow heavier. You will be called political if you preach it, you will be called a traitor as Bonhoeffer, King, Grimke, Sojourner Truth and Jesus were. You will find that the doors of friends and colleagues do not open to you anymore. It may cost you your job, it may cost you your life to preach the Gospel to a nation where the Institution of Christianity holds the keys to power. The greatest threat to a coopted Christianity is the Gospel itself, this is always the case when religious and political power becomes aligned.

So, as you wake up each day, keep your mind set on one thing: will I preach the Gospel today? Will I speak up against cruelty and racism and sexism today? Will I lift up the women about to be stoned? Will I protect the widow and orphan? Will I welcome the immigrant, visit the prisoner, confront the Pharisee? Do not worry whether it will sound political, disruptive, or divisive. Worry over whether it is the Gospel. If it is the Gospel, then preach it. Preach it with love, but preach it. Preach it. Preach it. Preach it.

May our lives be a holy sacrifice, however long or short they be.
May every day begin with, “Yes.” May every day begin with Love.

Link to Resources

*Originally shared with friends on January 9th, 2017, posted here on January 9th, 2018, upon hearing that convicted racial profiler Joe Arpaio will run for Senate in the state of Arizona. 

 

We Will Not Be Owned: A Response to Roy Moore & Purity Culture

Nausea washed over me when I saw the article in my feed about Pastor Flip Benham’s statement that Roy Moore dated younger women because of their purity. The coded fetishization is something that ought to sicken us all, but for those of us raised in purity culture it bears with it an extra stench.

The heartbreaking stench of a “Vote Trump” sign in front of the home of a friend, father, brother, whom you were taught was supposed to “protect” you from men like Trump.

The stench of Joshua Harris’s apology during the heat of last year’s election to all the women whose lives were damaged by his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, the Holy Grail of purity culture.

The stench of insincere apologies from unrepentant men who preened on the progressive moral high-ground for decades, while using their power to take from women what they wanted behind the scenes.

Purity: freedom from adulteration or contamination. freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes.

Freedom. It would be hard to find a more ironic choice of word. 

Purity in reality has been related to women’s status as property. Women, transferred from one man to another. Unsullied. Undamaged. Property. Extra virgin, just like the olive oil. A descriptor of our status and value and worth. Neither “Good” nor “Excellent” would do, our Amazon rating must be “Like New” or the purchase is void.

We strived to keep our wrapping intact, for the purchaser on the other end. We tried to make sure that we were worthy of being “Handled with Care.” Even so, our wrapping could be torn by a bike accident. Or a young ER doctor in Nashville who really wants to get in some practice with a speculum while you are sedated on morphine and cannot say no anymore. Or, for so many of us, a #MeToo moment, a Roy Moore moment, or a #ChurchToo moment.

Then in this historic moment, all is revealed. The evangelical churches that raised us overwhelmingly stand up in support of a man who we have known was a tearer of wrappings since we were kids. He is no stranger to us. We have watched how Trump treated women our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. When the churches we were raised in supported him, it revealed that our whole lives were a lie. We had never been special. We had never been precious. We had always been property. Like a hammer. Like a spoon. Utilitarian. Use us as you may.

Is it any wonder the onslaught of fury and honesty that has been unleashed from women who have been betrayed. Women who have stayed silent because our culture told us that it was we who were at fault if the estimation of our property value was diminished by the unwelcome touch of a heavy hand.

Then a pastor leans up to a microphone in Alabama, and he tears the whole facade down. “He did that because there is something about the purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.” He tells us that Roy Moore went for younger women because they were more pure. Translation: Some conservative Christian men fetishize our innocence and fantasize about being the first to get to us. Our purity, they believe, like everything else about us, belongs to them. In their lecherous perversion, they salivate at the innocence of children. They long to unwrap us like a new phone, with no fingerprints or scratches. They do not want to be the second one to get to us.

For we all know the property value drops the moment that you drive the car off the lot.

As a Christian minister, I must confess the role the church has played in this, even while standing in the role of victim more than perpetrator. Yet, is that not the burden that the world places upon women. To both bear the mess, and be the ones to clean it up. We told young women this was about our relationship with God, which it can be. Yet, the earthly consequences we heaped on them when they acted with self-possession, as if their bodies were their own and no one else’s, made it clear that this was much more about earthly powers than heavenly ones. We called them damaged goods. We taught them that male aggression was caused by the length of their shorts. We measured them with rulers when they came to school. Once “sullied,” we told them no one would want them now. At the same time we elevated the very men whose contact supposedly contaminated them. We looked down our nose at them like so many dented cans in the bargain bin, judging can but not denter.

If we really think about it, we never even tried to hide it. For what are “damaged goods” but another way of telling someone they are property. What is “left on the shelf” but another way of saying unpurchased.

I will not be owned.

Sisters, let us not be owned.

You are valuable, just as you are. You are powerful, just as you are.

You are beautiful, even if no one ever tells you. I’m telling you now.

You are brave, look at all that we have born.

We will not be owned.

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

On Appearing in the Senate Intel Report

When I first saw myself in collar and Sandra Bland pin, front and center of a photo released by Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I laughed it off. “Well, I’m part of Russian propaganda, now,” I told my friend as we watched the Houston Astros crush Game 7 of the World Series.

When I took a closer look at what the photo was supposed to portray, however, I became concerned. The photo was not part of the propaganda the Russians had employed, rather it was photos the government had on file of a protest they were describing as one which the Russians planned in an attempt to bring together two volatile groups to fight in the street.

By the next morning, when I awakened to a clip of Jimmy Fallon talking about the thousands of people who had been manipulated to show up for contrasting pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim protests, I began to realize that this was more than a laughing matter. By mid-morning, when receiving messages from friends assuring me that they knew I wasn’t a servant of the Russian state, I was concerned.

Let me set a few things straight.

IslamophobiaFirst of all, no one that I know holding “Peace on Earth” posters and boxes of Arm & Hammer baking soda had come to stand outside the Islamic Dawah Center because of a Facebook event planned by Russia under the premise of claiming to be “United Muslims of America.” Folks were there because of a Facebook event put together by a real, live, Lonestar College student who delivers pizza when he is not studying criminal justice and was wise enough to change from Papa John’s to Pizza Hut before their stocks tanked this week. The event was called “Stop Islamophobia: Defend the Muslim Community.”

And, yes, for those of you who may already have guessed, people brought boxes of Arm & Hammer so that we could make light of the fact that we were standing across the street from men and women with AK-47’s who actually had been brought there by Russia under it’s “Heart of Texas” disguise. We were “armed” too… with baking soda. You have to smile when you can.

What people need to know about the past few years, and let’s just call it decades, in Texas, is that, for some of us, confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee. Pre-election, that same group that was summoned by the Russians would show up on regular occasions with their assault rifles and vitriol. They did it in front of the NAACP; they did it in front of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League; they pretty much went anywhere that Hitler would have gone. They may have shown up on May 21, 2016 because the Russians summoned them, but the Russians did not create their racism; the Russians only created one more of many opportunities they had to exhibit it.

“…confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee…”

On September 26, 2016, several months after the event that Burr released photos of, and just shy of a month before the election of Donald Trump, a disgruntled attorney wearing a Nazi uniform showed up at a strip mall near the offices of the Anti-Defamation League and opened fire. He injured nine people before being shot by police.

What Senator Richard Burr failed to include in his comments is that standing up against white supremacy in Texas means looking death in the eye every day. To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth.

“To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth…”

So, let me tell you who was hanging out there across from those assault rifles on May 21, summoned not by the Russians, but by a pizza delivering college student who wanted Muslims to feel safe and loved in our city of Houston.

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Photo by Burnell McCray

Instead of Jimmy Fallon’s thousands, there was probably more like a hundred of us. We were poets, and musicians, and grandmothers and children. There was a hilarious comedian, David, who got on the mic to do a set about flying while being a brown man to lighten the mood. There was a band that often showed up to these kinds of events with brass instruments and drums to keep the atmosphere light-hearted; you don’t want things to get too serious when you are staring at the barrel of a Nazi’s gun. There was a whole crew of Unitarian Universalists in their highly recognizable yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tshirts. I think it was Amir, one of the most influential poets in Houston, who brought the Arm & Hammer baking soda that cracked me up. There were folks from SURJ, and a sweet older woman who had brought the speaker that the comedian did his set on. I also used it to talk to the folks across the street about Jesus and our calling to love. Surprisingly, they actually stopped their taunts and listened, causing me to wonder if hearing a preacher speak against racism was that rare in their life that it merited curiosity.

We showed up there not to fight with white supremacists, in the street or otherwise; and to be clear, Russia had nothing to do with our presence. The reason we showed up was very simple: our Muslim brothers and sisters were going to be faced with armed men and we did not want them to do it alone. We placed our bodies, as we often did between hate and its object and we spoke love into the space.

In the year that followed, white supremacists became even bolder. With the election of Trump, they made every sidewalk a potential place to encounter their hate. The week after the election, while attending one of the poetry events that Amir curates at Avant Garden, a white man who works for “Hook it Up, Towing” in Houston, Texas began to heckle the Black woman who was performing poetry over the fence of the courtyard with the words, “White Power, Donald Trump Rules! White Power, Donald Trump Rules!” When we came outside the venue and I found him cowering in his black BMW with a license plate reading Euro Power, he threatened us by telling us he had a gun before speeding off into the night. He would continue to be an intimidating presence in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston.

In January, when Trump’s travel ban kept some of our college students trapped at Bush International Airport, I would be physically assaulted by William Fears, a white supremacist who now lies in custody at the Alachua County Jail for attempted homicide of protestors in Florida.

We do not stand against white supremacy because Russia compels us to do so. We stand against white supremacy because our consciences compel us not to leave hate unanswered.

Some took a stand for love because they were Muslim; or assumed to be, because when hate is looking for a place to land, it is not overly picky. Some because they know that violence against one is violence against all. For me, it was because some wise people once said these words:

“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.” -Fannie Lou Hamer (beaten to the brink of death by racist jailers, June 9th, 1963)

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (martyred by white supremacist, April 4, 1968)

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” -Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred by the Nazis, April 9, 1945)

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” -Jesus of Nazareth (martyred by the Roman Empire, AD 33)

To Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, let’s be careful about creating any appearance that we are equating racists with those who stand against them. History has taught us how easily it is for those who preach peace to find themselves under the heel of the boot.