By: Dori Baker
March 22, 2016
“Shout it aloud. Do not hold back” Isaiah 58:1
What does the church look like when people lead by listening—not within our own walls, but in unexpected places?
I recently spent time with The Rev. Hannah Bonner, a white woman who ministers through a predominately African American church in downtown Houston and was a featured leader at a recent FTE Regional Discernment Retreat.
When Hannah got to Houston two years ago, instead of wondering how to get young adults to start attending church, she started hanging out in the places young adults congregate. She asked:
These questions led her to the vibrant spoken word scene, where Hannah started listening. She befriended the artists whose social critique resounded with her theology. Over time, Hannah and the poets organized weekly small group meetings called “whispers” and monthly spoken word performances called “The Shout,” which sometimes result in actions in the community, called “echoes.”
The way Hannah tells it, spoken word poets in The Shout community like Dream, Nyne, Corrina and The Fluent One are more than just poets, they are prophets—speaking out loud words that are meant to create change. Their genre resembles the biblical prophets such as Jeremiah or Isaiah, whose oral performances were intended to reform the way God’s people worshipped and treated one another.
Frustrations surface in spoken word: stories of humans suffering in the face of poverty, racial profiling, discrimination, and other struggles emerge. Wearing her clergy collar to these performances and inviting her church members along, Hannah embodies a reminder that God stands with the community, feeling their anger in the midst of injustice. The church is not distant from those who suffer – indeed God is present in their midst.
Hannah’s story strikes me as an innovative model of liberatory theology at work today. Relationships form slowly over meals and shared work. When disruptions occur in the fabric of life, those sacred spaces become crucibles to plan actions of protest, hope, and healing. Listening leads to reflection, and action leads to more listening.
A disruption occurred last July 13. On that day, Sandra Bland, an African-American woman and a friend of many of the Houston spoken word artists, died in her jail cell, apparently of suicide. Before the video showing the white police officer verbally and physically mistreating Sandra gained national attention, the Shout community and Hannah were on-site, organizing what turned out to be an 80-day protest at the Waller County Jail and ongoing advocacy for justice in the case.
A few weeks ago, FTE coincidentally hosted a retreat just twenty miles away from that jail. Before heading to the airport, I stood with Hannah and a handful of my colleagues at a roadside memorial marking the place where Sandra was stopped for failure to use a turn signal. Hannah noted two new teddy bears and straightened an overturned vase of flowers. We sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
I experienced then a moment’s in-breaking, a glimpse into the very hard and necessary work the church must lead if we are to dismantle the ongoing effects of our nation’s thick legacy of racial inequity. It happens like this: one young pastor leading by listening, one newborn community getting to know one another’s lives and struggles, one vigil, one protest at a time—amplifying one another’s voices and refusing to walk away from the extreme discrepancies faced by brothers and sisters of color. The takeaway for me is this: everywhere and everyday it is my work as a white Christian leader to find new ways to listen, befriend, and give my sustained attention to the experiences of brown and black people. Hannah and The Shout community provide a model we all can learn from.
Caption: Hannah (pictured above) has turned The Shout into a video-based curriculum which engages individual perspectives (whispers), group response (shouts) and community actions (echoes). It has six sessions, each focused on a question rooted in the directives of Isaiah 58. She will be a featured leader at the Christian Leadership Forum in Atlanta June 2-4,