by Kara Westerman
Lydia G. Bonner got an unusual request at the Stop and Shop in Southampton recently, when a friend of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s recognized her and asked her if she would put on her chaplain’s cap to offer her solace while shopping.
“Out here everybody knows everybody,” said Ms. Bonner, and although it was a bit of an awkward location, she proceeded to minister and offer some consolation and prayer. After all, she is a certified faith-based clinical counselor, and a mobile one.
But her life as a chaplain and a counselor is just the tip of the iceberg — Ms. Bonner has also been a soldier, a mother, a radio host, a digital publisher and a protector of children who may be lured into sex trafficking.
“A chaplain is like a reverend, but without a church,” Ms. Bonner told me when I sat down with her to talk. “I can go into hospitals and nursing homes and prisons — people in desperate circumstances — and give them some hope. No matter what faith you are—even if you’re an atheist — it doesn’t matter. I’m there to encourage the individual, no matter what religion or what age. My services are pretty much mobile when I do face-to-face counseling, and I also use all this incredible technology — Zoom, Skype— I communicate with a woman in Germany on Facetime.”
Ms. Bonner was born in 1972 in Manhattan and graduated from Southampton High School in 1990. She has been living in two worlds her whole life, the secular and non-secular, beginning with two years in the United States Army in 1995 as a weapons repair person.
I wondered what part of her history had prepared her for that job, and she told me that she liked going to the gun range and shooting when growing up in Southampton. She reacted to the look on my face with a burst of laughter:
“I know! And I’m such a girlie-girl!”
She is kind of dressed to the nines for our interview, topped off with a black cashmere and pearl-studded hat — she’s just come from an eight-hour shift at her brand new banking job.
This year, she started a brand new chapter in her far-reaching life, with a counseling service called The Prayer Clinic, which offers counseling, mentoring programs, and intercessory prayer, either in person or through virtual technology.
Ms. Bonner inherited a great theological legacy in the genes of her grandfather, one of the pioneers of Pentecostalism, Chief Apostle Bishop William Lee Bonner.
Bishop Bonner built more than 12 churches in his lifetime, starting in Detroit and ending up in Harlem.
For nearly half a century, he was leader of Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, started in 1919 by Robert C. Lawson.
When Lawson died in 1961, Bishop Bonner took over the organization, which included a growing network of sanctuaries, schools and funeral homes, a magazine and a radio station.
“My grandfather was a Bishop in Harlem, and also one of the first civil rights activists back in the days of segregation, so I always grew up around people helping people spiritually and in other ways,” says Ms. Bonner. “It’s all the same thing — counseling service/relationship counseling/prayer clinic — I named it the Prayer Clinic because I think, no matter what, you have to have God in it somewhere, whether you have an emotional issue like depression or you are suicidal. It’s good to talk to someone, but you also need some kind of spiritual healing. We need to pray and ask God to help us, and then we can talk about what it is you need.”
Ms. Bonner has her Bachelor’s degree in Religious Education and is currently working on her Bachelors degree in Theology at Mason Kelly Washington White Religious Training Institute. She became a licensed chaplain in 2015 through the National Chaplain Practitioner Association.
As the Long Island director for the Not On My Watch program, she also helped rescue girls and boys from human and sex trafficking. She spent 18 years as a life coach for special education students in the Southampton public school system.
“I tried to prepare the kids for the real world, to integrate them,” Ms. Bonner told me. “We have a lot of local businesses in Southampton that care about our kids, so they would offer them the opportunities — like a school-to-work program. The autistic kids and Down syndrome kids have a hard time with social skills. I might teach them how to greet people, or what the appropriate emotions are for different situations.”
Ms. Bonner also walked the airwaves for sixteen years, being the first woman of color to have her own radio shows in the Hamptons. She split her time between the religious and the secular on “The Voice Of The Hamptons,” where she interviewed musicians and celebrities, mostly from the hip-hop world. Her warmth and humor, and humble personality make her a her naturally talented interviewer.
Even though she recently put her radio enterprise to bed, Ms. Bonner is blending her skills in technology and faith in her new digital EmPower Magazine: www.empowermagazines.com, where you can see a very sweet and funny short video she made of her rapping for Jesus. She’s also continuing the legacy of her grandfather by creating a website in his honor: www.bishopbonnerministries.org.
With The Prayer Clinic, Ms. Bonner is merging her expertise in technology with her ever-growing clarity about the main passion in her life, which is her church. She is organizing some very sparkly-looking events in the near future, including an All Night Prayer Shut In at The Bronx Refuge Church Of Christ on March 22, and with co-host Lady J., an event called Mannafest Conference to raise awareness and break the stigma of mental illness, on April 6 at The RC Lawson Building on West 124th Street in Harlem.
“I’ve done all-night prayer sit-ins all my life since I was a little girl,” Ms. Bonner told me. “That’s part of our church culture. We just take time out to come together — it’s like a meditation — we thank God for everything and offer prayers up for the less fortunate and for ourselves. We start at midnight. We’ll pray and someone will read scripture and so forth, and we’ll stay until six in the morning, thinking of all the things in the world that we might ask God to help us with — troubled youth, the suicidal, the government shutdown, etc. We’re open to the public and people can just come in off the street in the Bronx, which is a good location for it. For instance, people who are homeless can come in and feel some hope and community.”
At her grandfather’s Home Going Service in 2015, Lydia’s spirit and humor shine out in the personal stories she told about Bishop Bonner and the church, which have the whole congregation laughing with her.
“If we wanted to sneak and watch Soul Train when we were little, we had to wait until him and Nanna went upstairs,” she told the congregation. “You had to be saved living in his house… Now, they ask you if you want to come to the lord, back then they told you you were going to tarry, and you would receive the gift of the holy ghost and the evidence of speaking in tongues!”
She told how her father would take his father Bishop Bonner’s car while he was preaching, and then bring it back just in time for the benediction at the end of the service.
Her most humiliating moment in the church was when Bishop Bonner waited until he was standing up in front of the International Convocation to reprimand her from the stage: “We don’t wear earrings at a Holy Convocation!!”
“I had to sing a solo for my grandfather and I had on big Chandeliers. I was sitting in the front row and he sat right next to me and just looked at me. Wow, I must really be cute cause he’s looking at me like I’m a fox! He never, ever, yelled at me before in his whole life, and I’m like 40 years old! I’m the only one in the whole place with earrings on. I don’t think I wore earrings for three months!”
In in homage to her grandfather on her website, Ms. Bonner says: “The Gospel of Love is our product, and technology is our medium, walking the airways, reaching the World. The Apostolic Legacy of holiness that was left for me to continue is now my lifestyle and Ministry.”
Ms. Bonner is continuing that mission with The Prayer Clinic,.
“I hope this will become my full-time work,” she says. “I’m asking God to make provision — you’ve got to use wisdom. I’m asking God if I’m supposed to start working, or maybe this is just supposed to be a hobby. We’ll see what happens. I’m too old to just jump off the cliff!”
You can reach Lydia Bonner via email: LadyLydiaBonner@gmail.com, on twitter: @VoiceofHamptons, via instagram: @bonnerlydia, her website: www.empowermagazines.com.