Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors
The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good,invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage. These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.
On June 13, 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop that was immediately suspected to be racially motivated.
When Sister Green, Carolyn Olivia Vance-Green, chose to unlock the doors of Hope AME Church in Prairie View, Texas to me the week that Sandra Bland was arrested, no one expected that I would unlock those same doors for Sister Green’s funeral exactly a year later. Nor did they foresee how the open doors would usher in change to that community.
In the moment, it can be hard to see how a series of small acts of courage build up into major impact. Looking back, Sister Green’s simple act of faith opened the doors to my simple acts of disruption, and ultimately to the declaration of our common motivation: It was faith that drove each of us.
The events that led to my meeting with Sister Green were set in motion six months earlier, in January of 2015, when a Methodist woman in Chicago posted her first vlog in a series she called “Sandy Speaks.” She was concerned about racism and violence, saying it was “God that has opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.” She talked about the many ways she vocally and actively sought to disrupt racism in her community.
Ironically, six months later, it was something as non-disruptive as failing to use a turn signal that landed the creator of the “Sandy Speaks” videos under the knee of a State Trooper, pinned to the ground in front of Sister Green’s church in Texas.
Sandra Bland, who went by Sandy in her videos, was arrested in front of Hope AME on July 10, 2015, and verbally assaulted before being physically assaulted. The last thing she saw as she was taken to the police car, under arrest for resisting arrest, was those church doors Sister Green would unlock a week later. She would remain in her cell for 3 days before the community heard that her cell had become her tomb.
Sister Jackson, Ruth Ella Perkins Jackson, the matriarch of Hope AME, was away for a meeting in Philadelphia, surrounded by African Methodist Episcopal women from around the globe, when she heard that another AME woman had been taken into custody, that Sandra Bland’s head had been struck against the ground in the shadow of their own steeple.
As the outcry grew, and Sister Jackson prayed in Philadelphia, it was up to Sister Green, at home in Prairie View, to drive to the church on Sunday and open the doors to the entire community.
When she did, the community poured in and sweltered together in the Texas heat permeating the pre-Civil War era building, originally built by enslaved people for the use of the Episcopal Church. I listened as African American leaders called out for justice. Then two white, male pastors were given the pulpit; one spoke about the importance of mental health and the other of teaching people how to speak to the police; both by implication blaming Sandra Bland for her arrest and death.
Then it was my turn. I had been asked to get up and pray because I had been sitting in front of the Waller County Jail where Sandra Bland had died throughout that week, being present with her until her family could come to Texas. As I took the pulpit, I said a word to my white colleagues, as is my habit, about the need to change our narrative and disrupt the comfort of our congregations, and challenged them to change the conditions African Americans face in Waller County.
Then making eye contact with Sandra’s sisters in the front pew, the Spirit disrupted my life as I said without planning, “I’ll do this as long as you need me to”, transforming what had been a week-long commitment into a 2-year journey.
I would sit in front of the Waller County Jail for another 75 days. I would disrupt the comfort of those whose negligence was responsible for Sandra Bland’s death. Yet, most importantly, I would disrupt the comfort of the local congregations who supported the Sheriff even as he told me to go “back to the Church of Satan that you run.”
We would see the road Sandra Bland was arrested on renamed Sandra Bland Parkway. We would see the officer who arrested her fired and charged with perjury. We would see the students at the campus she was driving on empowered and supported by Hope AME. We would see the Sandra Bland Act passed in the State of Texas. We would see a Black deputy take a stand by running for Sheriff himself, though he was not elected.
We like to think that it is the big, grandiose actions that change the world. We forget it is the little things. The simple things. Unlocking a door. Sitting in the dirt. Loving one another.
What is most disruptive – and most impactful — is the spiritual discipline of spontaneity that permits the regular rhythm of our lives, communities, and plans to be disrupted by the lives of others. What, after all, is more disruptive than to make it a practice to both expect and accept the Spirit’s guidance and then actually act upon it.
On July 9th, 2016, almost a year to the day from Sandra Bland’s July 10th, 2015 arrest, I would take the key out of my pocket to unlock the doors of Hope AME for Sister Green’s funeral. I would unlock the door to celebrate a life obedient to the Spirit’s disruption.
On June 28, 2017, just two weeks shy of Sandra Bland’s arrest date two years earlier, criminal charges against her arresting officer were dismissed, with the mandate that he would never again serve in any form of law enforcement, neither under oath nor civilian.
Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Arizona. For the past 3 years, she has served as the Founder and Curator of The Shout, a spoken-word poetry collective based in Houston, Texas. Her first curriculum was published by Abingdon Press in 2016, “The Shout: Finding the Prophetic Voice in Unexpected Places.” Hannah studied at Furman University and Duke Divinity School before being ordained in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, where she served in parish ministry. Recently, Hannah has been recognized as one of the “16 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2016,” inducted as an honorary member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., and given the Prathia Hall Social Justice Award by WomenPreach!, Inc.