We humans come from -- and are dependent on -- the land. The Hebrew in Genesis makes it plain: God took a piece from the ADAMAH (Earth), and made from it ADAM (person). Earth is indeed bigger than us, though we're closely related. And the land is in some ways even holier than we are: its extra letter at the end, hey, is the classic 'godly upgrade' (as in Avram becoming Avraham and Sarai becoming Sarah).
We are formed by our own, and our ancestors', attachment to land. The pain of exile is real, especially when the removal is by force or in chains, even when it happened centuries ago. We Jews still remember the exiles of antiquity (in 586 BCE and 70 CE), and never lost our connection with the Holy Land. Chattel slavery (officially) ended on these shores in 1865, yet the Middle Passage still looms large in American life and in African-American consciousness -- and West Africa remains an ongoing cultural touchstone. Even when we choose to move, seeking a better life for our descendants, the land of our ancestors calls to us.
It certainly called to Mona Pierce, newly a hero of mine -- and hopefully, after reading this, of yours too.
I had the recent honor of representing the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) at a historic African-American cemetery outside of Columbus, Georgia, where her ancestors are buried -- a holy site, nearly lost to depredations of racism and time, until she stepped in to save it. In bringing together a diverse coalition to research and restore and protect this hallowed ground, Mona has also helped restore connections: between people and the land; between the living and the dead; between the tainted-by-racism present, and the future Beloved Community toward which we strive.
The stories Mona tells are poignant, and moving -- literally, in that they have moved people to step forward and lend their time and talent to this worthy effort. Please read some of these stories, here, where she's one of three remarkable women recently profiled in the New York Times. Through fortuitous conversations with an elderly relative, a painful trip with her daughters to first see the decrepit and abused state of the cemetery, and the vision and skill to work toward preservation -- Mona and her crew have raised awareness, and taken great strides toward preserving the land. The coalition around her and this sacred site has mapped out some 500 gravesites; made remarkable discoveries of special plantings like yucca, and "experience objects" like pottery, left at these resting places as a link to these families' West African origin; and already found some 1400 descendants of those interred there, connecting them in a growing and living "family tree".
The site is unique, yet also emblematic. Scholars estimate that every county in the American South hosts scores of such burial grounds, already lost, or disappearing as we speak. And like so much in our society, racism lies at the heart of this preventable tragedy. These are on lands owned by White families -- often the direct descendants of the plantation families who once "owned" the Black bodies which worked that very land, and continued to profit from their oppression via sharecropping and Jim Crow.
It's a hard history to confront, and too many have chosen to dodge it -- to keep it buried, so to speak -- by letting the vegetation grow; limiting access; conveniently forgetting or ignoring the presence of those who died enslaved or emancipated or as sharecroppers under Jim Crow; allowing roads and power lines (as at Pierce Chapel) and other development to become the new "facts on the ground."
Protecting these pieces of Earth, and the stories of those who lived and died there, is a necessary step in our slow societal shift out of racism's long shadow.
Kudos to Mona, and the Hamilton Hood Foundation she helped create (named for two ancestral families reposing in the still-being-restored Pierce Chapel African Cemetery), for doing the godly work of "keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust."
Kudos to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for naming Pierce Chapel one of our nation's most Endangered Historic Places, and bringing needed visibility to it and its countless sister sites.
And kudos to the multifaith environmental coalition NRPE, for its trailblazing publication of Stories on the Land: Showcasing Black History on Public Lands, collecting wisdom from religious leaders of color regarding the stories that must be told, and protected, in our collective landscape.
Thanks to all of them, I just got to stand on that sacred spot, and bear witness. Around us were dozens of volunteers, Black and White alike, celebrating the accomplishments thus far, and rededicating to the ongoing work ahead. In this diverse setting, among numerous Black pastors and community leaders, Mona had asked that the opening prayers be given by a rabbi (moi), and a Latter Day Saints elder. It was my singular honor to share the Jewish teaching of hesed shel emet, that nothing is more loving or more true than dignifying those who have died -- especially when the dignity of their living descendants, created equally b'tzelem Elohim ('in the Divine image'), remains on the line in a society where Black Lives (and deaths) are only starting to fully Matter.
"The Environment" isn't just nature -- it's everything around us. We're part of it; and it is part of us. Cultural diversity is worth protecting, alongside bio-diversity: we must save endangered species, just as we must save endangered sites and cultures and peoples. We also cannot address the climate crisis without reconnecting people deeply with the land. For all these reasons NRPE, as a multifaith eco-organization, prioritizes these needed initiatives.
Holy work is being done in southwest Georgia, by Mona and her crew. Similar efforts surely must be undertaken and advanced, somewhere close to you, too. Let's do this work, together.
(The end -- for now!)
(Photos by Edward Lamboy, 11/8/23, with deep appreciation)
PS, it was great to be joined on that day by esteemed Methodist leader Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe -- she and I filmed this four-minute video, to give a sense of the place and the gathering, as experienced by two White religious leaders who showed up in solidarity. Enjoy... [https://youtu.be/pUI9bSeL914]
Hi all! My name is Sydney, and I’ve been the program assistant for COEJL for the past three months. I am a student at Oberlin College, majoring in environmental studies. Working with COEJL this summer, I learned a lot about the field of environmental work, and I wanted to share with you my experience.
As most of you are familiar with COEJL’s recent projects, you know that we focus on an array of issues that touch on many aspects of our society. Due to a broad umbrella focus, at any given moment COEJL is involved in many projects. I learned this on my very first day, when I was briefed and immediately thrown into four different projects. It was at once thrilling and overwhelming. I kept asking myself: how can we work on so many projects at once?
There was the management plan for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to advocate for, in addition to deep research to stay up to date with sanctuary details. COEJL was beginning to plan its environmental justice webinar, scheduled for just two months from when I began. And with the Biden administration working on an infrastructure bill, advocacy and education was on COEJL’s priority list, since infrastructure heavily influences environmental effects and inequalities.
Despite the shock of multitasking that came with the job of program assistant, I quickly settled into the fast-paced COEJL flow. True, we are involved with many projects, but that comes with many partners too. On each of these projects, multiple environmental organizations supported each other in working towards a common goal. I soon met many of COEJL’s partners and accomplished environmentalists, all of whom were welcoming. Everyone was eager to catch me up to speed on a project and begin collaborating to move things forward.
Working together, what I soon learned was COEJL’s most important value, is how we got it done. With Floridian and marine conservation organizations, COEJL participated in a week of action to raise support for a stricter protection plan for the Florida Keys. For our environmental justice webinar, we involved environmentalists across the US, from Congressman Grijalva (Chair of House Committee on Natural Resources) in Arizona to Keith Kinch (General Manager of BlocPower) in New York to Rabbi Bec Richman (Germantown Jewish Centre) in Pennsylvania. Together, they spoke to rabbis across the country urging jewish leaders to include environmental justice issues in their holiday sermons and educate their communities. Various op-eds and articles were written about the infrastructure bill (read them here - link to op-eds webpage). These accomplishments are thanks to collaboration and community; we are so grateful to have had your support through it all.
Three and a half months later, COEJL is equally as immersed in many projects. There is another webinar to plan, high holiday sources to share and teach, the United Nations Climate Change Conference faith statement to prepare for, and many more (stay tuned for more excitement!). However, the swirling project load doesn’t feel so overwhelming anymore. I have gained a grasp on the multifaceted nature of the Jewish environmental work, and know there is a community of environmentalists out, ready to help each other make a difference. As a COEJL supporter, you are a part of our mission - and we love when our supporters get involved in making a change! Please reach out Rabbi Daniel, COEJL’s executive director, to learn more about joining COEJL and helping out on our projects. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I can’t stick around with COEJL any longer, I can’t wait to see what they accomplish next, and how you guys, our supporters, will help further COEJL’s mission to fight for the environment and justice.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, an eco-Jewish teacher-writer-organizer for over three decades, is now COEJL's Rabbinic Consultant. Still working for Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda MD) as well, Fred serves on the national board of Interfaith Power and Light, and remains active in Jewish and multifaith efforts toward justice and sustainability. Please reach out if he or others at COEJL can work with you in some way, raising eco-Jewish awareness and action...