Hannah Bonner and What It Means to Be Present

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It was August 10, 2015. Day 27 of the vigil outside the Waller County jail in Hempstead, Texas … the jail where Sandra Bland — a 28-year-old black woman who was about to begin a new job at nearby Prairie View A&M University — was found dead in her jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop.

The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner, a young United Methodist pastor, had been present every day of the vigil, reminding everyone how important it was — and still is — to “say her name.”

But on August 10, Bonner found herself firmly in the national spotlight, when the Waller County sheriff turned to her and asked a pointed question:

“Why don’t you go back to the church of Satan?”

Bonner didn’t run away from the sheriff. She didn’t flinch, despite the death threats pouring in from all across the country on social media.

In fact, not only did Bonner continue to keep vigil over a total of 80 days, she to this day still works for justice for Bland — a woman she never met.

As Bonner wrote on her personal blog later in November, she didn’t really even notice the media attention surrounding sheriff’s comment.

“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,” she wrote. “The reason was that I had more important things to do, to be frank. … 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.”

Bonner has become a prominent voice for justice. She graduated from Duke Divinity School and served churches in Pennsylvania and Maryland before moving to Texas because, according to her, she wasn’t happy in the traditional pulpit.

MORE: Alumna uses her voice, like a trumpet (Duke Magazine)

Her current role is as curator of The Shout, a spoken-word poetry focused arts and justice community whose goal is to put words into action.

And such a voice is critical today. Just a couple of days ago, Bonner found herself again standing for justice at an airport rally against the immigration ban where she stood between a white supremacist and a group of children and women.

The Rev. Andy Oliver, a Fellowship member and pastor in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that he has looked to Bonner as an example on what it means to truly be present.

“She’s taught me a lot through her witness about what it means to be a white ally, fighting racism and white supremacy,” he said.

Hear more from Andy:

Bonner will be one of the many voices we hear from at Awaken 2017, to be held July 24-27 in Little Rock, Ark., as we focus on continuing God’s work in the world today of opening hearts, minds, doors, and lives.

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