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64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.

Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.

Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.

So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.

All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.

For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.

At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.

From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.

We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.

Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.

On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.

As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”

A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”

He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.

At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.

Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.

Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.

Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.

Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.

Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.

That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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The American Reformation


 

PART 1: The American Reformation Begins

Not all Revolutions begin with a Declaration, and not all Reformations begin with a list of Theses. The Reformation of the Methodist church in the United States began with prayer.

In 1787, ten years after Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones came to the recognition that these words though ambitious in scope were incomplete in execution. These ideals, impressive as they sounded, were not truly intended to include all people.

On July 12, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia,the city where Allen and Jones were pastors, and agreed upon the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” It was a compromise between the Northern States, who did not want African American slaves to be counted as persons in the census, but instead as property; and the Southern States, who did want them to be counted, but only so that they could receive more seats for white men in the legislature. The two sides agreed to compromise and count slaves as 3/5ths of a person.

Within only four years of the establishment of the United States, it was abundantly clear that the nation that had won its independence from Great Britain would not be extending that liberty and equality to all people. The white, land-holding men who held power in the country would continue to treat the indigenous peoples as trespassers on their own land, or rather God’s land, and would continue to hold their brothers and sisters in slavery.

While they said that all men were created equal, that was not how they treated all men, let alone all women. This hierarchy of value, placed upon persons according to their gender and nations of origin, ran contrary to the Christian scriptures. Disappointingly, however, that was not the prevailing narrative told by preachers and theologians of the time.

According to the seventeenth-century English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, “Animals [i.e. indigenous persons of the Americas, Australia and Africa] can have no right of society with us because they want reason.” With respect to land, animals had no rights, Andrewes concluded on biblical grounds, because God had given the earth to humans. Since they had no human rights, they could be exterminated, both in the sense of being driven from land settled by humans and in the sense of being killed, because biblical commandments against theft or murder did not apply to non-humans.”  – David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

Although the Methodist movement had been built upon staunch abolitionism in Great Britain, and although it contained many abolitionist preachers within its ranks, within a nation whose economy was built upon this theological falsehood, the new religious movement found itself failing in many places to remain true to what had set it apart.

So it was that Absalom Jones and Richard Allen found that the promises of freedom rang just as false when coming from the church bells of St. George’s as they did when tolling from the nearby Liberty Bell.

At the root of this disconnect was that theological error, that exegetical fraud, that hermeneutical crime – or, as we once called such things – that heresy. The heresy that God did not love all people the same. The abominable heresy that not all people were made fully in the image of God; thus, justifying leaving them out of the words, “all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thus, allowing the “Three-Fifths Compromise” to go unchallenged on theological grounds.

Falsehood in science, ignorance in philosophy, criminal greed in the economy – yes, all these things played a role. Yet, the betrayal and falsehood that cut most deeply, was the one that was the most unexpected: the betrayal that came from the church. Abolitionist preachers, of all races and ethnicities, did battle to be heard over the more common teachings of preachers that promoted and endorsed the practice of classifying African Americans as only 3/5 of a person and, thus, not made in the full image of God.

If left unchallenged, this social teaching, supported by a false hermeneutic of exclusion rather than inclusion, rang the death toll for any hope of spiritual integrity that the churches of the fledgling nation might have.

Enter the American Reformation.

In November of 1787, just three months after the passing of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones had the courage to take action in the face of theological cowardice just as reformers throughout the centuries had done before them. Rather than nailing the 95 Theses to their churches door, the renowned preachers did what many civil disobedience activists since that time have done: they simply knelt to pray in a place where they were not welcome to do so.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, did he know that Jones and Allen had been there before? When leaders of the United Methodist Church were arrested while kneeling in front of the White House to protest the separation of families taking place through deportation last year, did they know that Jones and Absalom had been there before? When we kneel to pray in the driveways of prisons about to execute human beings, or in the streets of places like Ferguson where lives have been lost, do we recognize that Jones and Allen have been there before?

With a simple act of kneeling to pray in a place that God had called them to pray, yet man had denied them the right to pray, these leaders sparked the American Reformation within the Methodist movement.

The response they received was not unlike those received by practitioners of civil disobedience today.

When they knelt to pray at the front of the church, rather than in the balcony where the white members preferred them to pray, they were pulled to their feet and told to go pray where they belonged; receiving treatment much the same as practitioners of civil disobedience today. Their response, so the story goes, was to respond that they intended to finish their prayers and then would bother the congregation of St. George’s no more. That is exactly what they did.

Absalom Jones walked out and went on to eventually found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). Richard Allen walked out and went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Sixty years after, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott walked out and founded the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A hundred years later, more leaders down in Tenessee would walk out of their church and founded what is now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).

Richard Allen had been present at the actual establishment of the denomination, The Christmas Conference in 1784. Yet he had been restricted to preaching at 5:00 a.m. early services at St. George’s Methodist rather than the regular Sunday services, and disrespected until walking out of that church was the only way he saw to be faithful – the only way to continue the movement, both of Christ and of Wesley.

For the past decade of my ministry, I have looked to this example as the root of a Reformation that began, at least in the Methodist movement, with Allen and Jones, and continues to our day. That Reformation, I would argue, quite possibly holds equal importance to the one begun by Martin Luther. The fundamental truth that all people are made in the image of God, and all people hold equal value in God’s sight, has perhaps just as much to do with our relationship with God and with one another as Luther’s sola fide.

Historically, we have not called Allen and Jones reformers, most likely because we have not recognized that their actions have universal importance; not only for African Americans, but also for all people. The men made this clear in addressing their voices to the nation as a whole:

If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or your country with them” -Richard Allen, To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice

In fact, the men were so serious about their theology of love, that when given the opportunity put it to the test, during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, Allen and Jones organized their followers to care for the dying white citizens of Philadelphia while other white citizens fled the city.They did not allow the cruelty of others to impact their own integrity and theological consistency.

The question arises, why have we been so slow to follow the leadership of Jones and Allen, who insisted upon being treated as children of God and as no lesser than their fellow human beings? Why have we been so hesitant to join our voices with theirs in condemning the heresy of a hierarchy of humanity: not only in philosophy, but also in practice? Why have we been hesitant to vocally acknowledge, repent and confront the inherently corrupting sin of racism?

The American Reformation began over 200 years ago, it is time for us to finish it.


 

PART 2: The American Counter-Reformation

When the need for Reformation makes leaving the only option for some, it also makes staying the only option for others. Every movement, revolution, and theological shift creates multiple roles that must be fulfilled. These roles work together to bring about change throughout society.

Therefore, every reform movement that has a lasting and universal impact involves not only those who are called to walk out as a statement of their theological disagreement, but also those who feel that they, at least for a time, are called to stay and work for change from within.

One of the Roman Catholic responses to Martin Luther’s Reformation was what we now call the Counter-Reformation. In many ways, the Counter-Reformation was not a response that moved away from Luther’s criticisms, it was a response that mainly moved with them and addressed them. It turned the focus of the church away from indulgences and towards faith development, as Luther had desired. Without acknowledging the fact, the Counter-Reformation followed Luther’s lead from within the Roman Catholic Church, even after he had departed from it.

Any description of the American Reformation, thus, that leaves out those who stayed within racist institutions and fought to change them would be incomplete, would be dishonoring of their labor, and would be quite discouraging to those still laboring. The story of the American Reformation must include those who believed in Wesley’s principle that “there is no holiness without social holiness” and worked with every ounce of their strength to end injustice and inequality.

There has always been a social component to Reformation, because our actions are symptoms of our theology, and the systems we put in place reveal our understanding of the nature of God.

Martin Luther’s concern for the hard working peasants of Germany in the 16th century, who lived in poverty while sacrificing to buy indulgences from the church, created distance between himself and the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wesley’s concern for the workers in the field, the destitute in the streets, the miners in their shafts, and those suffering in prison created distance between his movement and the Church of England.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ concern for those suffering in cruel slavery created a rift between themselves and the Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the United Methodist Church).

Yet, they were not alone in their indignation. There were many that stayed and used that same righteous indignation to fight for change from within, and who also taught a theology that proclaimed the full humanity and dignity of all people.

In what is now called the United Methodist Church, those people would include: the staunch abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries. People like Harry Hosier, an African American preacher who left audiences spellbound. People like John Dixon Long, who risked his life riding onto slave plantations to preach freedom and collect stories of how the slaves were being treated; who was charged with slander and brought to trial by the slave owners when he published the stories in a book called “Pictures of Slavery.”

They would include the African American leaders that insisted, 100 years after Allen’s departure, that African American congregations should not have to submit to white Senior Pastors and trustees, and formed their own Annual Conference within the denomination: the Delaware Conference, an institution that would serve an important role until deeper changes were possible.

They would even include those members of the laity and clergy who labor today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and who work to fight racism in the pews through activism and education, with the support of The General Commission on Religion and Race.

This work will not be finished until everyone in our pulpits and in our pews understands that we stand as equals in front of both God and one another.

Furthermore, the work of many churches will not even begin until they recognize that this is a conversation that needs to be had. Five hundred years of racist theology being taught in this nation will not be undone in a mere fifty; furthermore, we would be foolish to believe that the teaching of racist theology ended fifty years ago.

So what can we do as leaders, and for many of us as specifically United Methodist leaders?

First, we must celebrate and learn from the “Counter-Reformation” that has been taking place within our churches for the past two hundred years. We must celebrate the work of those persons of indigenous descent that have labored and still labor to bring accountability within the United Methodist Church. We must celebrate the work of those African American leaders who have been and continue to be bold enough to speak truth to power. We must acknowledge that our institution’s problem with racism has received a new nuance every time a new group has arrived on our shores or borders; that leaders of many nationalities, all around the world, have been a part of demanding equality and justice; and that the growth of our Korean and Hispanic/Latino ministries within the United States should translate into representation in leadership. We must ask ourselves how a theology of the full humanity and sacred worth of every person should impact the current struggle over the full inclusivity of LGBTQ persons within our movement. Lastly, those of us who are allies must learn from the examples of those who have come before and remember their part in our history.

Second, we could start by shifting our perspective from desiring reunification, to first desiring reformation. We cannot approach any conversation about coming together without first doing the hard theological and practical work that cause denominations to part ways in the first place. We must address the reasons why leaders had to leave our churches to begin with – namely racism and racist teachings.

We must ask ourselves, is it more helpful and authentic to seek to undo the division or to seek to first undo what caused the division?

What would it look like if the United Methodist Church recognized that a Reformation has been taking place, and that perhaps our role is to listen to the call for justice and liberty given by our contemporary Reformers and submit to their leadership?

What if we focused on hearing the voices of young African American leaders in the AME, AMEZ, CME, and UMC the way that crowds from all communities in the 19th century focused on AME preacher Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth?

The sign of a great leader is their ability to follow those who know the terrain better than they do. It is the fastest and surest way of making progress.


 

PART 3: The American Reformation Continues

By the time 2014 came to a close, many were ready for it to be over. Within two weeks, the United States observed two non-indictments in high-profile killings of African American men by police officers. Just days before Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Michael Brown; and a week after Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Eric Garner.

The reason why this is important theologically for the church is because there is a tradition of impunity for white men who kill African American men that stretches back centuries. That tradition was supported by philosophers and theologians who, as discussed in Part 1, did not define African Americans or the Indigenous Peoples of America as human. While God claimed them as children and people of sacred worth, false teachings in universities, newspapers, books and pulpits claimed otherwise; and in so doing, made countless murders over the centuries state sanctioned and accepted.

Therefore, when we now see African American men and women killed in the streets, like Walter Scott, we have no reason to think that this is rooted in anything other than it ever has been – lack of respect, racism and the expectation of impunity.

Therefore, on December 10, 2014, the clarion call of the American Reformation was heard once again from those who still follow Richard Allen’s example over 200 years later.

The Young Adult leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were unwilling to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Therefore, a week after the second non-indictment announcement, they penned a bold statement, encouraging their denomination to speak up.

We stand with our church leadership to follow the example of leadership of a young adult named Richard Allen who believed in a church that challenges sources of oppression and dares to believe that the United States should live up to its creed of “Liberty and justice for all.” …

“It is time that we push ourselves, our ministries, and our churches to walk out the liberating ministry of Jesus Christ.  The time is now for peaceful yet powerful protests to show our open dissent and demand that the voices of Mike Brown,Tamir, Tamika, McKenzie, and Eric are heard and not dismissed as their bodies were by those that saw them as disposable.”

Signed:

Felecia Commodore – Young Adult Rep. Connectional Lay Org.

Martinique Mix – President Connectional Richard Allen Young Adult Council

Erica Austin – Member At Large Women’s Missionary Society of the AMEC (WMS-AMEC)

Jon Ingraham – President Connectional Young People’s Division (YPD)

Those words, right there, that is the theological struggle that has defined this Reformation; the words that though blatantly obvious, are tragically necessary to say: black lives are not disposable. Black Lives Matter.

That is theology. That is revolution. That is reformation. That is truth.

Their words are a direct response to theologians like the 17th century’s Lancelot Andrews, and philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who denied that fact and wrote it into our history, culture and institutions.

We are not starting from a point of equality. We are starting from a point of tragedy. We are starting from a point of cruelty. We are starting from a point of heresy. We are working our way out of that.

We cannot, therefore, approach these issues as if those with power can be trusted, when they have never been worth trusting before. They were not worth trusting when persons of indigenous African descent were forced to cross the ocean in ships; and they were not worth trusting when religious leaders in Selma voluntarily crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Trust must be earned, it cannot possibly be assumed or expected. Having authority does not mean you cannot be trusted, but neither does possessing authority mean you can be trusted. Trust is earned.

What could be more true to this spirit of the movement then for the American Reformation to be driven forward by these young leaders’ observation of gross injustice and insistence that the church respond. In other words, their insistence that the church reveal what it really stands for and what its theology really is.

The demand for justice, the demand that the sacred value of lives be recognized is often hard for people of privilege to hear. It is hard for us to hear because our lives have been valued and protected, and so we have a hard time accepting that others have not. We have a hard time remembering that up until quite recently, a hierarchy of humanity was taught with us at the top, and a system that protected and promoted us. That teaching is not gone, it has merely gone underground. It must be unearthed from where it is hiding, challenged, and defeated.

Our discomfort with accepting that we have been treated differently, reveals that in the relationship between justice and reconciliation, the church has been far off course. Reconciliation, the restoration of trust, the coming together of what has been divided, is not truly possible without justice. Without justice, reconciliation is an act of silencing.

We, as people of privilege, want justice, but we want justice that does not cost us anything. That is not justice. The reality is that if we have more power, privilege, money, protection, opportunities than is our fair share in this world, then in order for things to be equal and just, we must have less of all of those things. Things cannot remain as they are.

Believing this to be true, Christians Uniting In Christ, an inter-denominational group that has a history of working against racism, responded to the letter from the young AMEC leaders. They worked with them to put together a gathering last month with representatives from many denominations to discuss the work that must be done (Video).

I have never felt more confident that the American Reformation is in good hands than when sitting beside some of those same young AMEC leaders and the Rev. Waltrina Middleton at “Truth to Power: Eradicating Racism” in Dallas, Texas on March 14, 2015.

Hearing from so many of my young peers, who have been keeping the American Reformation alive in the streets and in the pulpits, I knew I was looking at the next phase of this Reformation.

The leaders of this movement are in many cities and many churches and many denominations. Whether or not they are Wesleyan, they are doing something very Wesleyan. They are taking their theology out into the streets.

John Wesley could not be confined by a pulpit in a building, but went into the streets, and the fields, and the prisons, and the mines, and the factories to bring a message of hope.

Richard Allen could not be confined to a pulpit that did not recognize his full humanity and equality in the eyes of God, and he walked his movement right out of the doors of the church and into the streets of Philadelphia.

The laity and clergy involved today in the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be confined to a pulpit when their peers are struggling in the streets. They have gone out; not months after tragedy, but hours after tragedies.

They go into the streets because they understand one very important thing: to say “Black Lives Matter” is like saying “God is love.” If everyone believed it already, we would not need to say it; yet, because they do not, we must keep saying it until they do. We must say “Black Lives Matter To God” because the heresy was once taught that they do not. That is the job of a preacher. That is the job of a theologian. That is the job of a reformer. We must set things right.

Our place is not only in the pulpit, not only in the pew.

Our place is in the streets. With John Wesley. With Richard Allen. With Traci Blackmon. With Waltrina Middleton. With Felecia Commodore.

With Sandra Bland.

The theological descendants of Richard Allen have issued a challenge to us, do we have the courage to answer that call? As leaders cross denominational lines to make this not merely a Wesleyan movement, but a Christian moment, will we be a part of finishing the work of this courageous American Reformation?


PART 4: The Next Chapter

Check back in a couple years. With the help of Methodist activist/evangelist Sandra Bland, we are busy living this right now.

White Fear & the Hate Next Door

Recently a Facebook Group was brought to my attention by a friend. Before I could read the title, I was struck by the images of my face photoshopped.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 4.29.14 PM

10513491_1109615835756114_6654035767011217024_nThe photo of me reading scripture at the celebration service of Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, her Bishop’s crook carefully photoshopped out and my nose elongated as a reference to deceit.

The photo of me throwing my head back and laughing while holding my friend’s niece, her curly black baby hair rising up to almost touch my chin. The baby had been carefully deleted from the p1915561_1109614982422866_1961854907786616656_nhoto and my face altered, once again, transforming my joyful smile into more of a menacing appearance.

The first feeling that I had was violation. That someone would search me out, and go through my photos dating back several years. The second feeling that I felt was a cold child, that someone could do all of that and not be impacted in the least by those images of my humanity, my moments of joy and closeness with loved ones. It was chilling that the their sense of hatred and anger was in no way dampened by examining who I am and the people who have made me that person. Instead, they chose to distort some of the most joyful and intimate moments of my life into images of hate.

There was a mixture of horror and humor from those that saw it. Some finding the pettiness of it amusing, others finding the heartlessness of it frightening. One person commented that it must have been a “band of wretched psychos” who had put the group together.

What is truly frightening, however, is that it was not psychos. What was truly disturbing was not my altered photos, but their unaltered photos. When you clicked on the link to see the members of the group, the pictures were very similar to my own photos before they had distorted them. The people in the group were someone’s grandmother, someone’s mommy, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. They were your neighbor. They were your church member. They were the person next to you at the rodeo, the woman cheering at your son’s baseball game. They were your brother’s boss, and your sister’s jogging buddy. They were that grandmother whose cookies you can never resist at the church baked good’s fundraiser. They were the Judge who you let kiss your baby when he was running for election.

names removed group

They were not psychos. They were us. They were white America. Terrified of losing “our” country to the people who had lived there before any white people arrived. Terrified that “our” way of doing things would not be allowed to continue. Terrified of what it meant for that way of life when a woman like Sandra Bland could expect her legal rights to be respected regardless of her mood or her cigarette; and when a white woman would break ranks with them to stand with Sandra instead, calling that same Sandra Bland they had linked to drugs and disorderly conduct an evangelist and an activist instead.

They were white America. Terrified that the word “reconciliation” would be torn from the grip and control of the white America who had worked so hard to domesticate it, changing it’s meaning to “peace” and the ability to live together in comfort; terrified that the word would be taken back by the same kind of people who had used it to indicate radical change during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s; terrified that reconciliation, once set free, would be reunited inseparably with its partner justice, making it impossible to have one without the other.

The only face that I recognized of the group was a man who represents the face of Justice in Waller County, Judge Trey Duhon, who I have been told is a member of a local congregation of the United Methodist Church, as well as a member of the Texas Bar Association. The fact that he would choose, as an elected official, to be a member of a group whose banner said of me, “I hope you choke on your lies,” seemed odd. What made it stranger was that he had reportedly written himself, around the time of joining the group, to a woman named Dottie Moore, in a letter that she made public to her friends on Facebook on August 27, 2015, and as a result of tagging a friend of mine made it visible to me as well. In his letter Judge Trey Duhon wrote:

As you can see, it bothersome that someone wearing a minister’s collar is engaging in potential slander. You would think that she, more than anyone, would be familiar with scripture like the following:

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Proverbs 6:16-19 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Or how about:

Matthew 7:1-29 Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. …

I really don’t want to sue Ms Bonner for slander and I really don’t want to give her more publicity either.

Judge Trey Duhon was correct: I am indeed very familiar with those verses. In fact, I memorized them as a child and they became part of the infrastructure of my decision making. I am also very familiar with the fact that whether we can quote them is much less important than whether we can live them, and that the truth of our words and of our hearts will most assuredly be known by our fruit.

Our nation is on the brink of a change. People are fighting for their lives to be valued, while others are fighting back, afraid of what that will mean for our way of life. There is confusion, as people grapple with seeing things they do not understand.

White people who are any measure of woke: talk to your neighbors, to your brother, to your grandmother; talk to the woman who is proud of her cookies, the woman who is proud of her grandkids, and the woman who is proud of her guns.

If our country misses the opportunity to make this nation a more just place that honors God by honoring the sacredness of each of God’s children, it will not be because of those on the fringes yelling out the N-word into the open air. It will be because of us, our grandmothers, our brothers, and our children. It will be because enough of us were silent when the time came to speak up. It will be because enough of us quietly stood still when it was time to step out and break ranks to go where God called us.

That does not have to be the story of white people in America. We can change this. We can make a difference.

“I can’t do this alone. I need you. I need y’all’s help. I need you.” -Sandra Bland

 

“Dear Fellow White People”: An Appeal For Sustained Discomfort

*First posted on UMCLead.com on Feb. 10, 2015. Revised and updated… still unapologetic.

#BlackLivesMatter makes a lot of white people uncomfortable. The impulse of many is to soothe us. Please don’t. We need sustained discomfort. There are a lot of people in this nation who have been very uncomfortable for a very long time. Those of us who have privilege and have been sitting in denial about that, need to feel this discomfort, need to feel this moment.

Sustained discomfort. Sit with that for a minute. Better yet, don’t sit with it: commit to it. Refuse to allow the media to redirect your attention. Refuse to allow the passage of time to diminish the ache in your soul when the world watched that video of Eric Garner’s life slipping out of him; that video of Sandra Bland’s freedom being taken from her. Refuse to be that person who looks back in twenty years with regret. Refuse to be the pastor who was silent.

Know your history. Remember that the protection of all peoples’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has been hampered since the beginning of our nation by two things, among many. First, the fact that while we proclaimed the fundamental equality of all people, we simultaneously and ironically denied that equality to many – African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, etc. Second, since that time, change has been delayed by the inability of people of privilege who disagree with injustice to endure the lifestyle required to exchange that cultural lie for the truth, both in our cultural philosophy and in our systemic structures.

To put it more simply: we have had equality in word but not in deed, and we have not maintained the solidarity necessary to change that.

To put it even more simply: do not change the channel.

Now is the time. As the movement that has endured in our country for hundreds of years takes on new energy and strategies, we have the opportunity to see change.

However, we must acknowledge that we live in an era when that potential is threatened. We live in an era when news has become entertainment. We live in an era when justice issues have become an ever-changing cycle of temporary fads that we can exchange one for another as soon as something more trendy comes along. We check social media to see what the cool thing to care about is today.

This rapid exchange rate allows those of us who have privilege within this culture to endure sympathetic pangs of sorrow and discomfort in small, manageable doses. We change the channel before it gets to be too much; throwing our attention into a new direction that promises a rush of energy to replace the frustration of that “other” situation we could not change. Or rather, that situation we did not have the patience, stamina, and determination to change.

Our very ability to choose what “causes” to give our attention reveals our privilege. The very fact that we have the option to give up and walk away from a struggle, is the very reason why those who cannot walk away from the struggle struggle to trust us – and with good reason.

What if, instead, we did not approach phrases like “Black Lives Matter” as causes and fads, but as fundamental truths. Truths that are so important that life is simply intolerable for us if they are not universally recognized and implemented.

This is important because so many of these “causes”, both local and global, have at their root the same denial, subtle or outright, of one fundamental truth: black lives matter. To understand the pervasiveness of this, we must examine why our nation is more comfortable with crowds of white men walking the streets in displays of “open carry” then it is with an African American man shopping for a toy gun. To understand the subtlety of this, we must examine why our news media and world leaders paid so much more attention to terrorism in France, than to mass killings in Nigeria. To understand the danger of this, we need look no further than Tamir Rice.

Intersectionality exists in these justice issues, and we must name and acknowledge the connection between violence against Black bodies and violence against Queer bodies and violence against the bodies of 43 teachers below the border in Mexico. All of these lives matter, and all are connected because all pose a threat to power, to privilege and to the status quo. However, while we name intersectionality, we cannot allow that reality to become confused with our channel-changing, issue-switching culture, and cause us to remove our foot from the gas pedal that is driving this movement.

I understand that leaders throughout our nation, in many walks of life, seem to have a general consensus that change should take place – if it takes place – at a gradual rate that people can tolerate.

The reality, however, is that while some of us seek change that takes place at a rate we can tolerate, many have been forced to come to this nation and live in this nation under conditions that have been intolerable from the start. Intolerable is the status quo for many in this nation.

So the real question is whose comfort, whose pace, whose toleration are we talking about?

While we wait for that answer, people are actually dying.

Friends, we cannot endure this pace any longer. The time has come to commit to sustained discomfort. To refuse to shift our attention as the fads come and go. To understand that our very ability to choose to do so reveals our privilege, and our very willingness to do so reveals the fragility of our solidarity with those who have no choice in the matter.

True solidarity means we do not get to make the decisions and we do not get to walk away; we must follow the lead of those most impacted by the injustice in our system, and see it through to the end.

We must plant our feet, and refuse to be moved. Speak our truth, and refuse to be silenced.

We must commit to sustained discomfort not only for ourselves but for all around us, until we are no longer able to endure the denigration of our own humanity that takes place when any one of our brothers and sisters is put down, put in their place, or put away.

Change is coming, and you have a role to play. Do not walk away.

Sandra Bland Believed in You

*Cover photo by Lamarcus Feggins, @differentworldimages

On January 14, 2015, a bold, brilliant, 28 year old African American woman held a phone up in front of her face and began to speak. “Hey, y’all… so… I don’t know where to look…” she said with a smile that could charm the sting off a bee. Rarely has such an important act in history taken place with so much casual and unscripted authenticity.

We all have moments in our lives, where we feel a great sense of urgency that we are supposed to do something. Whether it is calling that friend who you have not heard from in a concerning amount of time; pulling out your cell phone at just the right minute to film an arrest; or raising your hand in class to say that thing that has to be said. The difference in our lives, and potentially the lives of many others, is made in the little moments, the little choices, the decisions to say ‘yes.’

When Sandra Bland’s moment came, she said yes. The calling to begin making her #SandySpeaks videos was weighing so heavy on her that night of January 14, that she began at the end of a long day with a dying phone battery and curlers in her hair. The gravity of the calling left no time for vanity.

Sandy set out to explain that she was not making her videos to hear herself talk: Sandy spoke so that others would be heard. Sandy spoke so that those who were silenced would be seen. And through her videos, Sandy still speaks.

She began, “I wanted to make this video message and plant my seed of #SandySpeaks… with police brutality and everything going on in the news, a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel, and somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten about an important group which are the kids… I want to get some dialogue started with them, i want to see how they feel.”

While the ethos that children are “to be seen and not heard” still echoes in our society, Sandra was determined to lift up even the smallest voice, such as the voice of her two year old niece, whom she mentioned with such reverence.

Sandy believed that she could make a difference, as she said, “I’m here to change history”; but more importantly, she believed that that we could make a difference, saying, “If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.” 

Pronouns are important, if I have learned nothing else this year, it is that. Sandra Bland used them to perfection. She knew what she could do. She knew what we could do. She knew what you could do.

Sandra Bland believed in you. It may sound odd, but it is true. Not only is it true, it was at the very core of her mission. It is why she always began her videos after this one with, “Good morning my Kings and Queens.”

Sandra Bland knew what she could do: “Laugh all you want to, say what you want, but I’m here to change history. I am ready to do what I need to do for this next generation. It’s time. It’s time for me to do God’s work, at the end of the day.”

Sandra Bland knew what we could do: “God has truly opened my eyes and shown me that there is something out there that we can do. We can stop sitting around and saying, “well maybe next time” or “Oh, well, we knew that was going to happen.” It’s time to stop knowing that that was going to happen, and its time to start doing something.”

Sandra Bland knew what you could do: “We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen. We sit out here and talk about, ‘we need the next so and so and this and that’ no you don’t. No you don’t. Start in your own home. Start with you. You start being that one to want to make that change.”

Sandra Bland sat there, with her curlers in her hair, and her phone battery dying, and she started a revolution. Why? Because she believed in you just that much. She believed that we would do it, because she believed that you could do it. She believed that we would change history, because she believed that you could change history and she could change history.

Maybe when no one else believed in you, she believed in you; and she trusted you to do something. While the confidence of a woman who is loved by her family, devoted to God, and aware of her worth exuded from her smile, she also clearly understood that she would not be able to carry out her calling alone.

As she said, “I need you. I need y’all’s help. I can’t do this by myself. I need you.”

She knew that she had to take action, and she was ready to lead by example; but she also knew that she could not do it alone.

When Sandra Bland’s friends and family woke up on January 15, 2015, they discovered the video that Sandra had posted the night before at 12:04 am. Many of them recognized the passion in her voice and responded. Yet, none of them could have known how sacred this record of her calling would become to millions of people around the world until they woke up on yet another morning, only two days shy of six months later: July 13, 2015.

So, as you wake up today, and as we return full circle to January 15, I leave you with her words:

“It’s time y’all, it’s time. This thing that I’m holding in my hand – this telephone, this camera – is quite powerful. Social media is quite powerful. We can do something with this. If we want a change, we can really, truly make it happen.”FamFull

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Open Letter To the Sheriff of Waller County

Dear sir,

Last night, for the first time, I looked at one of the articles that was written after you told me to “go back to the Church of Satan that you run.”  At the time, I’ll be honest, I was aware that there was a good deal of media taking place around your comments to me; yet, I did not look at any of it. The reason was that I had more important things to do, to be frank. I was focused on staying alive and hydrated in scorching heat, and trying to maintain a peaceful and prayerful attitude, despite your threats that there would be “consequences” for those in vigil and despite the death threats I was receiving from people as far away as Alaska and as close as the farm up the road. I could not afford to be distracted, because I needed all of my focus to be on God in order to have the strength to continue.

When I looked at that old article from the Houston Press today, it actually caught me off guard. I think that at the time we all assumed that you either intended a slight towards a) the radically inclusive and loving congregation where I serve b) The Shout community of artist activists or c) that you were simply from an old-school mentality that found it difficult to acknowledge women as clergy.

What I saw instead last night shocked me. You actually intended to accuse me of working for the devil on that day in August. Despite the fact that the local superintendent of my church had come by the jail to sit with me and talk a couple weeks before. Despite the fact that I had sat in front of your jail for three weeks before that and your officers had marked my plates repeatedly and I felt certain you knew exactly who I was, exactly where I worked, and exactly where I lived. Despite the fact that just the week before I had marched beside Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church to honor Sandra Bland at Hope AME. Despite the fact that everyone else in Waller County seemed to know I was a Methodist pastor, leading to the organizing of the Concerned Methodists of Waller County to protest against my presence in vigil for Sandra Bland. Despite all of these factors, you still stated that you intended to accuse me of working for the devil?

From the Houston Press: “In a phone interview with the Houston Press, Sheriff Glenn Smith attempted to explain why he called a clergywoman a Satanist, set up barricades to deter protesters, and cut down a nearby tree where protesters liked to gather for shade. “My grandmother used to tell me, if you’re not doing godly things, then you must be working for the devil, because there is no in-between,” said Smith, who was suspended and fired from his post as chief of police in Hempstead [by the predominantly African American Hempstead City Council] in 2008 amid accusations of racism and police misconduct before being elected Waller County Sheriff later that year [by the predominantly white Waller County].”

You went on to say that you had seen Satanists wearing clergy collars like mine before… in Waller County? Despite the humorous letter the Church of Satan wrote, disavowing any connection with me yet offering their wholehearted support, it is clear that you intended your words to be a condemnation of myself, those who stand with Sandra, and those I love. It is clear that you were summoning the most vile condemnation you could muster, and there were no stronger words you could find than to say that I serve the devil. Beyond unprofessional and abusive, your words and actions were reckless and could have put myself and my colleagues in the path of harm.

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Some of the words sent to me that week after you accused me of working for the Devil.

Which brings us to the ironic part of this whole situation. The irony in your statement is that the thing that both summons me to this work and gives me the strength to carry it out is the love and calling of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without the calling of Christ, I could not have endured 80 days at your front door. Without the peace of Christ, I could not have found the compassion to sit in front of your office and pray not only for the conviction and honesty, but also for the safety for those working inside. Without the perfect love that casts out fear, I could not have found the courage to stay there despite the fact that you very clearly intended to draw animosity and danger our way.

To be clear, I am 5’2”, 120 lbs, and the only form of defense I have ever carried is my Bible and my guitar. Yet, I frighten you.

This is why, sir, you make me sad, and I will pray for you. You make me sad because from your own words, you seem to have had a grandmother that loved you and talked to you about God and what it means to serve God; I am sad that you have not given the world the impression that those lessons sunk in. That is important to me, as a Christian minister, and as United Methodist clergy, because all who claim the name of Christ have a responsibility to one another and to the whole world that God created and loves. When we fail to live in a manner that inspires faith in others, we do a disservice to the cross of Jesus Christ. We mock him in his suffering, our crucified Lord, a legally innocent man taken into custody by members of his own faith community, just as Sandra Bland was.

My calling to stand with my sister in Christ, my fellow Methodist, Sandra Bland, is no work of the devil. My choice to continually say her name is no trick of the tongue. My persistence in demanding an answer to “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” is nothing more and nothing less than a conviction that whatever happened to her would not have happened to me; because as a white woman in a collar, I would never have had Officer Brian Encinia try to tear me from my car. That is a state of affairs that, as a Christian minister, I cannot be silent about, because it was my own Christian faith that helped to build a system where black bodies were not treated as sacred, cherished, and loved. I must be a part of dismantling what a distortion of my faith’s teachings put in place.

Know this, intimidation will not work. We will continue to ask: What Happened To Sandra Bland? We want the truth. There is no answer we are afraid of receiving; we stand with her whatever may come, for we already know the truth is that she should never have been in your jail to start. You can understand why, for me, the way you have spoken of and treated me makes it hard for me to believe that her treatment could possibly have been above reproach. You can also understand why it has been difficult to believe the official narrative when I heard you with my own ears say that Sandra had died by tying a noose and then sitting down on the toilet. Remember, you told that activist from Dallas that story and she recorded it? I think I heard three different versions from you that first week. It made it impossible for me to accept your official version once you all got together and got on the same page and decided what it would work to say happened.

You may not see me every day, but we have not gone anywhere; we have merely shifted our efforts to acknowledge the complexity of the justice system. Be assured that we will drop by from time to time to ensure you do not forget to #SayHerName #SandraBland

As for me, sir, I am still waiting on an apology from you. I heard a rumor that you apologized to a reporter for me. Yet, you have already made it abundantly clear that your grandmother was very involved in instructing you; so I am certain that your grandmother made it clear that apologies must be made to the person to whom offense has been given, and that they must be sincere. So I will continue to wait, and pray that God softens your heart. If that be not the will of God, hardened hearts have been known to work just as well to set God’s people free.

Your sister in Christ,

Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner

p.s. I will be lifting up prayers for your friends as well

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