Jeania Ree V. Moore is a United Methodist deacon who writes theological aesthetics, practices the arts, and works in faith-based social justice in Washington, D.C.
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Born Again Through Tactile Memory
LAST SUMMER, I started composting. What began as an economical exercise focused on reduction became, over time, a relationship based on generosity and gift. When COVID-19 interrupted my weekly routine of dropping off food scraps, I realized with a jolt that composting felt less like an act of frugality and more like bringing tribute. Unexpectedly, through composting, I had entered into relationship with the earth—and this was a recovery of something long forgotten. As Robin Wall Kimmerer urges us to remember inBraiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, we exist in reciprocity with the more-than-human world.
This remembrance parallels a tactile memory I experienced last winter while running my hands through a bowl of dried black-eyed peas. The feel of the beans, almost like coins, merged with images of large, elementary numerals in my head and movement, like an abacus, from one side to another—a flash so quick and wordless I could not be sure. When it happened again a few months later, I remembered: This is how I learned to count. My grandmother—a foundational figure alive for my first 18 years—taught me to count with beans.
Misreading Octavia E. Butler's Survival Lessons
IN MARCH , I made my first, and hopefully last, “panic-buy” of the pandemic: three survivalist books that look more like they belong in a nuclear bunker than on my bookshelves amid the theology, poetry, and knitting patterns. My purchases were, however, inspired by my reading Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, classics by the science fiction literary giant Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006).
In these novels, Lauren Olamina—a young, disabled black girl—survives the apocalypse and helps rebuild society with her knowledge of edible wild plants, her sheer will and bravery, and her newfound religion, Earthseed. Lauren’s ability to adapt, to change, is her route through unimaginable suffering and the bedrock of her faith.
Originally published in 1993 and 1998, respectively, Butler’s Parable books were reissued last year, highlighting their current resonance. Sower introduces us to the United States in 2024, a dystopia ravaged by global warming, capitalism, and violence. Slavery, misogyny—the witch-burning kind—homelessness, and addiction are rampant. Lauren’s community is secure as long as the walls that surround it stand; as she rightly senses, walls are wont to crumble. She launches a backup plan that offers a hard hope within relentless loss. Talents continues Lauren’s, and her daughter Asha’s, journeys over the coming decades as the U.S. faces rising terrorist Christian nationalism and the election of an ultraconservative president who wants to “make America great again.”
Finding Hope In ‘The New Dark Ages’
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I almost did not finish writing the sermon I was scheduled to preach at a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day Social Justice Shabbat service. Usually, I am able to bring sermons to a close without problem; this time, I struggled. Really struggled. Instead of focusing thematically on racism, poverty, war, or any number of issues King spoke out against, I had decided to preach on fear. I felt called to name fear as the root issue beneath so many others, something we struggle with individually and collectively. Fear of scarcity, fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”: the immigrant, the unarmed black person, the queer, the Sikh, the Muslim, the Jew, or the white person now encountering you in your queer, black, immigrant, brown, Muslim, Sikh, or Jewish body.
I found that once I started being honest about the fears we hold and the fears we face, I could barely turn the corner, in a manner of speaking, toward hope.
Eventually, I was able to theologically pivot my sermon and conclude positively. However, that experience of being spiritually stumped with writer’s block said more to me than any happy ending ever will. Rather than yielding answers, my sermon gave me questions, which continue to resonate in the midst of a global pandemic.
What Does Contemporary Lenten Fasting Look Like?
Today, the Reclaiming Jesus elders are again calling us to liberation in public witness, but through means other than a rousing church service and candlelit procession to the White House. This time, the journey moves through time (40+ days) rather than space, and the destination is not the presidential residence but something a bit closer to home, if more difficult to reach: our own souls.
Why Fasting Is Actually About Liberation
FOR MUCH OF my life I thought of Lent primarily as a season of personal piety, a self-contained period of reflection on individual sin and repentance. This penitential practice was limited in both scope and duration: It had little to do with others apart from me and God, and its impact did not extend beyond Easter. I approached a central component of Lent—the fast—like a trial, a test of willpower that pitted God against some “thing” I had given up, often a food (usually cheese or dessert). Much to my chagrin, in this personal test of will, God did not always win out. Overall, I was grateful and relieved each year when Lent ended.
Two years ago, things changed. As a dairy and meat aficionado who unexpectedly found herself a convert to vegetarianism and pondering veganism, I suddenly had a new relationship with chosen fasts. (The cause: Eating Animals, a book on factory farms written by Jonathan Safran Foer, collaborating with Jewish ethicist Aaron Gross. Read at your own dietary risk.) Vegetarianism helped me engage fasting as something internally motivated by ethical and spiritual concerns, rather than externally imposed. Participating in my church’s annual Daniel Fast later that year deepened this new experiential understanding. Based on Daniel 1 and featuring weekly 12-hour periods with no food, this fast helped me experience how fasting is not about willpower, but surrender. It taught me about hubris, humility, and moment-by-moment reliance upon God, which often involved other people.
Night At the Museum
TO ENTER THE main history galleries of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), you have to descend. A glass elevator carries you down through six centuries of history, dates written on walls like exposed strata in the earth. The past, we are reminded, lies not behind us but beneath us.
The weight of your passage and what lies ahead does not hit you until you step out of the elevator and emerge to the 1400s. You have arrived in a trans-Atlantic world as yet unmade, a geography not yet drawn by greed, suffering, and death. You will return to the surface and the present slowly, and only by walking the mile-and-a-half-long exhibition corridor on a winding route through slavery to an unsecured freedom.
No matter how many times I take this journey, it never becomes familiar.
The emotional shock of history is too great, contained in the thousands of everyday items on display: tiny, child-sized shackles; pieces of an excavated slave ship; an entire slave cabin, transplanted from South Carolina; a small silver box that held one man’s treasured possession, his free papers; Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl, given to her by Queen Victoria. Emmett Till’s casket.
NMAAHC, or the “Blacksonian,” as I like to call it, makes explicit what is sometimes only gestured to by other institutions: the sacredness of history.
Gun Violence Leaves Me Wordless
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I have spoken out more times than I can count under the literal and metaphorical banner of “Silence Is Violence,” my voice growing louder and louder in the past several years.
Yet recently, on one matter, I found myself having fewer words, not more. Gun violence rendered me mute.
The death counts that rise in real time. The fact that before we have comprehended one shooting, another has occurred. The relativizing of value and shifting calculus of loss we have begun to accommodate this “new normal.” The reality—contrary to what one would think based on media attention and political rhetoric—that mass shootings account for less than 2 percent of U.S. gun violence (suicides, by contrast, account for nearly 66 percent).
50 Takes on the American Experience
THE WORD THAT comes to mind when considering American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time is gift. Edited by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, this anthology of poems from 50 living American poets addresses the nation with generosity. In her introduction, Smith describes American Journal as “an offering” for us to expand, renew, or establish our relationship with poetry and each other. She writes that she loves poems because they invite her to “sit still, listen deeply, and imagine putting [herself] in someone else’s unfamiliar shoes.”
American Journal presents 50 different takes on the American experience: a school field trip (“The Field Trip,” by Ellen Bryant Voigt); war (“Personal Effects,” by Solmaz Sharif); the shouldering of inequity on young, brilliant lives (“Mighty Pawns,” by Major Jackson); addiction (“My Brother at 3 AM,” by Natalie Diaz); work (“Minimum Wage,” by Matthew Dickman); language (“Music from Childhood,” by John Yau); and hope (“For the Last American Buffalo,” by Steve Scafidi).
When Racism Pits Animal Justice Against Black Humanity
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the worst environmental justice disasters in modern U.S. history. It was also one of the first times that I, then a teenager, consciously connected animal justice and racial justice. Kanye West’s declaration “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is often remembered as the statement on racism in Katrina, but another expression that needed no words circulated among black people in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath: a picture of pets being evacuated on an air-conditioned bus.
While black people were abandoned, dead, and dying on rooftops, corpses floating bloated in flooded streets, people’s pets were evacuated to safety.
Black people have long understood as racist the disparate treatment of nonhuman animals and black people. In 1855, Frederick Douglass wrote that “The bond-woman lives as a slave, and is left to die as a beast; often with fewer attentions than are paid to a favorite horse.
My Year of Reading X
SUMMER SIGNALS FREEDOM. If you are anything like me, two words in particular shimmer with the season’s promise of boundlessness: Summer reading.
At the beginning of Black History Month back in February, however, I decided to restrict my reading for this year. Some friends and I embarked on what I christened a “Year of Reading X”—a year of reading only, or mostly, books by black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and other authors of color.
While recent discussions around the whiteness of the publishing industry and Western canon have motivated many to make racially aware reading commitments, exclusively reading black authors or authors of color is not novel. People of color have long been aware of the whiteness of the conventional literary world and have negotiated it accordingly, finding and creating our own spaces. What sparks my year of reading, then?
Why We Love (and Hate) to Be Counted
ON APRIL 1, 2020, the United States will hold its 24th national census, taking demographic stock of its population, some 330 million people in more than 140 million households. The census is one of the greatest equalizing forces in society, with a goal of counting each person living in the U.S. to apportion political representation through state and congressional redistricting and to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to states, counties, and communities. The census reflects the changing face of a nation.
Accordingly, the 2020 census will see several firsts: the first to ask about same-sex marriage, the first using an online method as the primary mode of response, and the first to request specific details on ethnic origins within racial categories such as “White” and “Black.”
Many embrace the census for the opportunity it presents to redefine our national portrait. Many fear and distrust it for the same reason.
The Trump administration has proposed reintroducing a question on citizenship status that has not been on the census since 1950. Its possible inclusion has raised outcry and constitutional challenges from multiple quarters claiming that a citizenship question could lead to significant underreporting from documented and undocumented immigrant communities. Although the U.S. Census Bureau promises that all census data is confidential and protected by law, many fear data could be shared with other government agencies to target immigrants, punish “sanctuary cities,” and more.
The New Transatlantic Slave Trade
THE YEAR 2019 marks 400 years since a boat carrying “20 and odd” enslaved Africans landed at Point Comfort in colonial Virginia. To commemorate this and other historic 1619 events, Virginia will host “American Evolution,” a yearlong celebration in which these events have been transmuted into national values. The arrival of enslaved Africans on American shores has become “diversity.”
Yet, last summer a West African immigrant was deported back to Africa to face slavery, in a transatlantic reversal of journeys that underscores the persistence of immorality in this involuntary passage.
On Aug. 22, Seyni Diagne, a 64-year-old immigrant battling kidney cancer and hepatitis B, was deported from Dulles International Airport in Virginia to his home country of Mauritania after 17 years in the U.S. There he faces enslavement through forced labor. Mauritania has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, impacting more than 40,000 black Mauritanians.
The day following Diagne’s deportation was the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The Commonwealth of Virginia chose to mark it by recognizing the first Africans in English North America.