By Jennifer Bailey. Chalice Press, 2021. 128 pages. $16.99/hardcover or eBook.
Reverend Jennifer Bailey is the founder and executive director of Faith Matters Network, an organization that brings people and organizations together to create “radically” sustainable forms of relationship and social movement work. Bailey is a Black woman, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a new mother, and a fantastic storyteller. Her new book, To My Beloveds, is a healing balm and a powerful tool for “narrative justice,” or storytelling as an act of social justice.
In Bailey’s words, a series of 16 letters to specific people, one finds comfort and a sense of purpose in what she calls our apocalypse. We are living, and sometimes dying, in a great “unveiling,” which is what the word “apocalypse” literally means in Greek. Bailey soberly tells us that we, as social change agents, have found in this apocalypse that “we cannot program our way out of crisis.”
Instead, through story, we must “recover, repair, and reimagine” by emphasizing the mundane and the intimacy and power of relationship. Bailey calls this “the Spirit of Divine Revelation . . . [which we can] chase . . . yearn for . . . interpret . . . but never really know its true form.”
A domestic understanding of what God might have us do is at the core of Bailey’s theology, which she describes as “Womanist.” “Womanist theology is a form of reflection that places at its center the everyday experiences, moral perspectives, and religious perspectives of Black women.” These experiences, Bailey tells us, can be captured in the “metaphor of the garden” and, to quote Alice Walker, “food and roundness.” The work of Womanism, she says, “is composting work”; though “the land appears barren” as more people are leaving the church than joining it, and fear and instability have many of us “clinging closely to those with whom [we] have much in common . . . Many of the core values traditionally ascribed to religious communities remain, even as the structures that cultivated them transform.” The trick is to intentionally gather the old, tend it, and transform its nutrients into new life.
Bailey emphasizes the value of grief work, both in opposition and in answer to stories of debts we may owe. This grief work applies to both personal and social justice, like much of the book.
When Bailey’s mother dies far too young, Bailey remarks that those who were the least present during her decline became the most “theatrical” in their grief after her death. These mourners, she tells us, were often men: men who didn’t think that she should preach at her mother’s funeral, who wanted to maintain their power over words and perhaps their idea, or story, of Bailey’s debts to their male power, the world’s debts to their power.
Debt served to “chain [Black sharecroppers] . . . to blood-soaked soil” but also the debt of love prevented her despairing mother from dying earlier of suicide when Bailey was five years old, and Bailey chose life, too, at age 14, out of debt to her mother, to the love her mother had for her.
Story is so much more complete than programs and curriculums. Story is who we are, ultimately, and Bailey shows this both in form and content. Some stories are prisons, and others are love. As her mother takes her last breaths, Bailey listens to her heart. Between her mother’s labored final breaths she repeats, “I love you,” because “The nurse told me that hearing was one of the last senses to go.”
Windy Cooler is the co-editor of the news section at Friends Journal. She is an embraced public minister of Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting and a peer-to-peer ministry educator, with a special emphasis on pastoral care in times of crisis. She lives with her husband, Erik, and son, Ob; and has an adult daughter, Maggie.