EPISODE 006: Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, the Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Campus Christian Center and the President of the University Religious Council at the University of Arizona. She received her MDiv at Duke Divinity School, and was ordained an Elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference in 2012. A sought after speaker and writer, Hannah has been recognized as a “Faith Leader to Watch” by the Center for American Progress, received the Prathia Hall Social Justice Award from Women Preach, Inc., and had writings published by Abingdon. She is a proud to have been honored in being made an Honorary Member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. in 2016. Known outside of Arizona as an activist of integrity, she is known locally in the desert simply as that pastor who bakes the good cookies.
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- What are similarities and differences between your story of faith and Hannah Bonner’s?
- Borrowing from Liberation Theology, Hannah describes the work of the Gospel as being willing to lay down our lives for the most oppressed. What does that mean to you?
- Where do you see people taking scripture – and their calling from God – seriously?
- What LGBTQ+ people do you know in your own community? How have you been listening to them, and making space for their voices in leadership? What can you do next?
VIDEO: “Renewal or Ruin?”
BOOK: United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call
BLOG: The Betrayal of Good News: How a 2004 Blueprint created the #GC2019 Endgame – Hacking Christianity
TranscriptMolly: In the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes words that describe the gift of diversity in the body of Christ:
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member, but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.’ That would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I’m not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body, if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? and if the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members of the body, each one of them as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
Welcome to Episode 6 of Where Do We Go From Here, UMC? I’m Reverend Molly Vetter, the senior pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. It’s my joy to welcome you back to this final episode of our first series.
I want to give thanks for your being with us, and also for the support and sharing of a number of partners in this work, including the Association of Retired United Methodist Clergy, who signed on early on to be partners/supporters/generators of this work. I’m grateful for their participation and their sharing.
I also want to give thanks to you for listening and using these interviews as a beginning point for your thought and conversation, to contribute to the ongoing conversation in our diverse and beautiful United Methodist Church.
I designed these interviews to be helping to my local church, where folks wanted to know more about what’s going on in the denomination. But I believe that what’s going on has a lot more to do with how we live our lives every day as local churches, as part of local communities, living out our faith in connection to one another. It’s not just about what happens at the General Conference.
So I’m grateful to each of these voices who have helped us explore a little bit more about some of the complexities of our life together.
I wanted to begin today with these words from Paul because they have been helpful to me, as I think about where we are.
In effect, our general Conference, particularly in our 2019 meeting, which was narrowly focused on issues of human sexuality–our General Conference has focused on passing legislation that seeks to enforce our anti-gay rules. That seeks to convince us that the best way forward as the denomination is in being a Church that devotes its primary focus to throwing people out of the body of Christ–preventing gay clergy from being ordained or continuing in service, to prevent churches from hosting same sex weddings. But I believe the Gospel continues to expand outward, to draw into our community the diversity of people who are already beloved by God, gifted by God for service.
Today. The guest for my interview is the Reverend Hannah Adair Bonner. She has long been a prophetic and faithful voice for the sake of the Gospel, witnessing for justice and inclusion, and working against racism. Whether it be through her long and brave witness at the Waller County Court House where Sandra Bland died in Texas, or near the US-Mexico border in Tucson where she currently serves, it’s all knit together in a fabric of a life that speaks the Gospel.
Hannah’s writing has often inspired and challenged and convicted me about who we’re called to be as the Church. But her personal story is also intertwined with the story of how United Methodism came to be so concerned with issues of human sexuality. There are roots, not only in the broader movement for liberation in our world, but in movements that would seek to dismantle the voice of the US Christian church in Liberal politics.
This is a good time to remind you that we have a podcast website: WhereDoWeGoUMC.com
On our website for today’s episode, you will find links for further reading or investigating about some of the stories we share about today, including our efforts at touching on the histories of conservative organizations that have long sought to dismantle the social witness of the United Methodist Church in U. politics, including the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and Good News.
You can find those links as well as a transcript and discussion questions you can use in your local church on the website.
But now it’s time for a conversation and Ii’m so thrilled that Hannah’s with us. So let’s jump into the interview:
Molly: So, Hannah, I am thrilled to be with you today. You know that I have been a fan for a while. Can I tell the story of how we met?
Hannah: Oh, please do.
Molly: So it’s one of a very small amount of good things that I remember from General Conference in 2019. I ended up on an escalator next to you–this is my memory–which in retrospect was sort of a unfair power move. Because you’re really like stuck on an escalator. I have followed your work for a long while.
I think you first came to my attention when you were camped out at the Waller County courthouse after Sandra Bland’s death, as a witness for her dignity, for justice. Your faithfulness there was really inspiring, and then I waded in to more of your world, and continued to be a fan of your work.
So I introduced myself enthusiastically, trying to like make it cool and not go too Fan Girl, but was glad to meet you face to face, and even more glad to be your actual friend now.
Hannah: You are my actual friend, and I love it
Molly: Oh, good Oh, good! it’s a relief. It’s always a risk when you like go to the one whose work you have admired from for a long while, and I’m glad to be able to talk with you today. I think you have such a very particular, unique, and beautiful part to play in conversations in the church right now.
So you’ve been ordained for 10 years, now…
Hannah: A decade!
Molly: Do you want to tell a little bit about your story?
Hannah: Sure–my background?
Molly: Yeah. yeah. Tell us who who you are, how you came to be the campus pastor in Tucson.
Hannah: Okay, sure. I grew up in United Methodism. I grew up in a church that was very vocally against women as clergy. I grew up hearing that women–you know all the things that Rush Limbaugh would say on the radio about women who would have leadership; that women who were pastors were pretty much the worst thing in the universe that I grew up in.
And so coming out of that, you know, went through the whole process of of having a call and answer the call as a woman coming out of that world. I went to college in the South, coming from Philadelphia went through the process of becoming ordained and serving local congregations, and I had a lot of passion! My heart was really heavy for what I was seeing with young people.
I came into ministry just about the time that Lovett Weems published his book about the you know, coming the coming wave of
Molly: The “death Tsunami!”
Hannah: Yeah, I hesitated to say that phrase, but yes, the “death tsunami.” And so, that was kind of the the context that I was coming into ministry during, and very much was feeling the pressure and very much feeling the sadness of my generation; feeling frustrated and struggling to retain folks, and so I really poured myself into organizing with young people and young clergy, and that kind of shifted the direction of my life in terms of really prioritizing “How do we? How do we retain? How do we support? How do we lift up this generation?”
I have done a lot of things since then. But right now I am the campus minister at the University of Arizona, and that was a really big fast forward. There you go! I just skip a decade, that’s all.
Molly: We may have occasion to go back and get stories as it’s useful.
You very publicly came out as Queer right before general conference in 2019.
Hannah: I did. I think that, having grown up in a world in which, if you can imagine that women who were pastors were heretics, you can imagine how horrendous the attitudes, were towards Queer folks. I grew up hearing about, you know, the sad lives and the punishments of Queer folks on a pretty daily basis.
I grew up going to a church where they would celebrate when we had people who came who had gone through conversion therapy, and people would be like, “Oh, she’s married to a man now.” And so that was the context that I grew up in.
And so I think that, coming into General Conference 2019, it was very important to me that I had done the work of coming to terms with who I am, loving myself and feeling wholly myself. I wanted to be able to know that I had done all that I could do to have any kind of impact upon the world that I came out of. My mother had a vote for General Conference, and I think I needed to know that I did everything that I could to impact how… My ordination candidacy mentor had a vote, my mother had a vote, right, and were WCA folks, and so I think I needed to know that I had done everything that I could. I came out in that season partly for that reason, and partly just because I wanted young queer folks to also see that we’re here, and we’re glorious and we love them, and we love ourselves.
There’s not a tiny ounce of me that’s ashamed of anything about who I am, and so yeah I wanted folks to see that
Molly: When I met you, I don’t think I in any way appreciated the layers of complexity that were a part of your story at that general conference with your mom being there is voting delegate, with your parents being there. You wrote a really like powerful blog piece about it afterwards, that described a little bit about your family’s involvement with Institute for Religion and Democracy, or the IRD.
I wonder if you could say a little bit about your family story with the IRD?
Hannah: Yeah, I think that my family, kind of growing up, we received the Confessing Movement and different kinds of mailings that are a part of that world. Part of part of what the Institute of Religion and Democracy does is to escalate, basically, those different kinds of conversations within different denominations in order to provoke further divides and try to escalate conversations from: “We can agree to disagree,” into: “We can’t,” right?
And so I think my parents were drawn deeper and deeper into that. As their 5 kids were all off to college and off into the world, and going to DC pretty regularly for IRD meetings.
I came home from seminary to find a picture of John Lomperis on our fridge – and so, I think very much he was seen as a family friend, and so that became difficult for me, because I was watching… like I remember, in particular seeing a blog that he had written, in which he mentioned, some of my friends, and was really derisive of women that I really loved and respected dearly. So to come home and find him on my fridge was difficult and kind of living in that knowledge, I was not really able to come to terms myself, with the whole glorious beauty of who I am, right? I wasn’t really out to myself fully and definitely, not out to the world.
Definitely that image of him on my parents fridge, though, put it in the back of my mind that: “Would my parents report me? Would he? What would he do?” You know? In some far reaches of my brain I was trying to process all of this.
Molly: Just to rewind, for anyone who may not know much about the Institute for Religion and Democracy, this is a conservative think tank that was founded in the early 1980’s to advocate in mainline Protestant churches to advance conservative causes. First organizing primarily in resistance to Protestant sympathies for revolutionary movements in Central America that they saw that they labeled as Communism, and wanted to fight against. But then sort of added on other issues around which there was significant enthusiasm.
Partly–well, they would say that they existed to sort of renew some kind of religious I don’t know orthodoxy fervor–but they also had a clear desire to dismantle the power of the church to speak into social issues, for causes that I would see as very close to the heart of the Gospel. The work of social justice and liberation.
Hannah: Yeah, I think there was a lot of fear in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, of Father Stanley Rother of the Women Religious, because these folks had been standing up for the oppressed. I think that there was a fear that religious folks in the United States would begin to stand up for the oppressed in that way. And so that was not a change that folks like the IRD wanted to see happen.
This kind of “religious folks willing to lay down their lives for the most oppressed,” which was rooted in Liberation Theology, which is the belief that God desires us to experience freedom in this life, and not merely in the next.
But that when Christ said that he has come to bring the release to the prisoners, right, that he meant that. So there’s that fear that they addressed by trying to make sure that religious folks in the United States didn’t go that direction, of really being willing to lay down their lives for the oppressed.
Molly: And if folks are interested in learning more about the IRD and its history, there’s at least 3 places that I could recommend a folks to go. There’s a Youtube–I’ll put the links in the description of this podcast there’s a Youtube called “Renewal or Ruin,” there’s a book called United Methodism at Risk, and there’s some helpful blog posts on Hacking Christianity that trace some of this history, if folks want to dive a little deeper into that.
Part of the insidiousness of this moment in the United Methodist Church is these conservative voices, led by well funded and well organized folks like the IRD and Good News, have convinced the Church, have rallied up our discomfort at difference–have rallied up the church to convince us that on a sort of global level the biggest threat to the church is queer people being pastors…
So the focus of all of all this organizing has been further tightening restrictions and mechanisms for expelling people from the Church, which feels so contrary to my understanding in the movement of the Gospel. But it’s really weaponized and harnessed that fear to setup a set of priorities that are convenient for dismantling prophetic voices, but do so on the backs of beloved children of God. So this is not–Sometimes when we approach it, especially from a local congregation, we say, you know, “People interpret the bible differently,” and we act as if what’s really up for discussion is an honest debate about Scripture interpretation, as if we’re standing on a level playing field. But there’s this sort-of deep power structure underneath it. It’s not just a question of different interpretation. It’s a whole orientation of our theology, whether it’s toward liberation, or toward a maintaining and solidifying of power for some against and over others.
Hannah: But I think that what breaks my heart about the whole conversation is that folks who would like to exclude me from the church are the same folks that, when I was emerging, were expecting me to be the face of who they are. When I came out of seminary, when I came out of Duke, and I came back to Eastern Pennsylvania, I was being invited to the evangelical meetings that would become the WCA meetings right? I was expected–there was anticipation, there was excitement about me. That I would be one of these young, fresh, shiny faces of what would become the WCA and the Global Methodists, right? So that was the expectation.
So they clearly thought I was called, not just called but called to be a leader amongst them, right? That I was someone that they wanted to lift up. The hand of God upon me was very obvious to them in their minds. And so it makes me very sad that we get to a point where the conversation becomes people saying, basically, “We need to return to Scriptures. We need to focus back on God. We need to get back to Jesus.” And it’s like: you know me.
You know you know me. You know that there is nothing that is more intertwined into every fiber of my being than the Scriptures that I grew up in memorizing every single day as I went to a fundamentalist Christian school for 12 years. You know that there’s nothing that influences my actions and my choices more than Scripture, because you know me, because you raised me.
It’s like y’all know me. You all know that I sat in front of a jail for 3 months with people coming, saying that they were going to kill me in front of the Waller County Jail in rural Texas and you all were worried about me. You know that I was doing that for the sake of the Gospel, because this young woman was called, and God called me to join her in living that out and making sure that her call wasn’t silenced. You know you know what I would give up for the sake of the Gospel. So it’s very sad to me because that people would make this about, “Oh, we have to go back to Scripture.” As if I am not living into Scripture, as if I do not know Scripture, as if I do not believe Scripture as if it is not a bit part of who I am in a way that’s inseparable.
And so it it ends up feeling to me false and disingenuous. It ends up being confusing because the people that I come from our intelligent people–they’re smart–but that line of thought doesn’t feel logical to me, it doesn’t feel true or logical that that people would say, “We need to get back to Scriptures.” It feels like: Why are you saying that you? You know better. You know better.
Molly: One of the things I especially admire about you, Hannah, is your deep commitment to the Gospel, to living that with such integrity, and being willing to go to places of your own personal risk for the sake of standing up for others, in solidarity with others. And also being willing to stand up to declare the belovedness and blessedness of yourself.
Whether you’re in solidarity with someone who’s life story and experience is different from yours or similar, you have that same conviction, that same ballast, that same direction, and it feels like it comes out of the Gospel. That’s such a gift to me and I want to thank you for that. On behalf of the United Methodist Church, I thank you. (I have no such authority, but here we go…)
Hannah: Thank you. I love me some Jesus, you know. Just truly. And I think I find that to be so consistent–you know. I have a lot of young queer folks that are in my life, and “Oh, they love Jesus,” you know. It’s almost like… How are we still here??! How are we still here? We’re not here because we’re trying to corrupt the church. We’re not here to do damage and to try to lead people astray.
We’re here because we love Jesus, y’all. We queer folks, we’re here because we love Jesus.
But the truth of the matter is, like, when we have conversations with people about calling, that matters. I can’t imagine doing anything else, because this is this is–I am driven.
I do a lot of dramatic things, and y’all, i’m gonna be 40 soon. I’m getting little more wise about the risks that I take, but I’ve done a lot of high risk things and it’s not because I have a desire for that. It’s because I’m driven by a fear of not existing in my calling, and it is strong. It is strong enough that it drove me from a world where I knew that if I answered my call, I knew from the time that I was a little 7 year old girl, sitting next to Miss Beulah in Thornton AME Church and receiving my call.
I knew that if I answered it I would be seen as a heretic, as a witch, as somebody who was evil. Right? Those are the kinds of things that we said about women. And so I knew that I would basically run the risk of losing everything. The school I grew up in, my friends, my church, my parents. I would run the risk of losing losing all of my world.
So, there is no other thing that that I can imagine doing. To have that calling to have people in that world affirm that calling, to have them over time come around to supporting that calling despite the fact that i’m a woman, and then have them vote at General Conference 2019 that I shouldn’t be allowed to do my job, that I shouldn’t be allowed to lift my hands in the epiclesis, and celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst? It’s just confusing. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s confusing I don’t press the logic, as I said, which makes it feel lacking in logic and lacking in authenticity.
Molly: Do you have any advice, guidance, goading, convicting, challenging you’d like to give to a local congregation? How can we be an ally to, to you to the work for the Gospel and justice that you’re a part of?
Hannah: So I think the thing is we always like to kind of focus on the people that we see as, everybody’s paying attention to that thing right? I think the biggest thing that you can do is, how are you treating the queer people around you, physically around you?
Maybe you’re in a context where queer folks in your Conference or your church have really been under fire. Paying attention to that, and to them and what they need. Taking the risks yourself where you need to, and refusing to be silent, even if that doesn’t fit the culture of your church. Find a way to step up without speaking for us.
Dear Lord, please stop speaking for us. Dear Lord, please stop speaking for us.
Don’t worry i’m gonna get to the other side of of things, too. But there’s a quote that comes from folks that are indigenous to Australia organizing that says “Nothing about us without us is for us,” and I think that the thing that we have done throughout the past few decades of really intense struggles, that people have become accustomed to, kind of, “We have to speak for the queer people because they can’t be out and speak for themselves.”
Well, you know, there’s a whole bunch of us that are out now, some that were out then, please let us speak for ourselves.
I find it fascinating. And oftentimes, people will be doing organizing–there are very obvious ways of including us better. So I would say, you know, I kind of have referenced the Conferences where there’s a lot of harm going on, but there’s harm going on everywhere. I promise you there’s not a queer person in this connection that is like, “Oh, no there’s zero harm here.”
There’s harm everywhere, and so paying attention to what that is. And so maybe you’re in a Conference where it is okay to serve openly, the way that I’m serving where I am. Perhaps, though, when you discuss our lives, our futures, our inclusion: do you include us? Do you allow us the space to speak? Do you make statements in support of us that don’t mention us, or that that didn’t consult us?
Whatever’s happening in in in the world, don’t just focus on those of us who are queer that are more seen, or whose trauma is more public. Take that, whatever feelings that you’re feeling, and put that energy into supporting somebody that’s within your reach.
Molly: I think of you as such a master of knowing when to put your body on the line, and when to bake a batch of cookies to send. You do both the fierce “I will take the brunt of the blow for you,” or “I will also feed you nourishing baked goods.”
Hannah: And those cookies will be warm. My students laugh at me because I have this obsession with delivering the cookies when they’re still warm. So I will strategize the baking time and their class schedules and everything. I want the cookies to be warm. I want them to enjoy them to the peak.
Molly: That’s beautiful. Any final things you want to say?
Hannah: Oh, just thanks to you, Molly. This podcast has been a little unfair, because I feel way too safe with you. You’re like one of my safe people. So please go back through and edit generously.
Molly: I will send you a preview before it goes public.
Hannah: Yeah, I i’m much too prone to be too open with you. But yes, thank you for being a safe person for me and for the way that you are dedicated, in the big things and the little things as well. And you’ve been in it for a long time, and I appreciate that for the times when when I was struggling as a young queer person, to be able to come to terms with who I am, and to be able to celebrate myself when I was still growing, you know–not to make you sound too old, Molly…
Molly: I’m like 1 million years old.
Hannah: I’m just a few years younger than you.
Molly: I’m past 40.
Hannah: Just a few years younger. But you were already fighting for space for me before I knew I needed it. Let me put it that way. So thank you. Don’t cut that. You’re not allowed. I love you.
Molly: I love you, too. Thank you for taking this time. I’m really grateful, and grateful for all of who you are.
Hannah: Thank you as well.
Molly: Thank you for being with us for today’s episode. I hope you’ve had to pause to think in some new ways about the even bigger story that we’re a part of. I hope you hear your own call to the work of the Gospel, wherever you are. To the work of standing in solidarity with others, to the work of believing in the power and blessedness of your own life.
I encourage you to seek more ways to live the Gospel faithfully, as we become a church that even more fully lives out the call of the Gospel for inclusion and justice and joy.
This is the final of the 6 episodes in our first series. There may be more. I’m curious to hear if there’s further conversation that you’d want to have. I’m open to where we might go as we continue the work of being faithful together.
Thanks for being with me on the journey. I’m glad to join you in this labor. Blessings, and peace.