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]
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...