There is a general rule that I have. If you meet an author you have to buy their book.
Junot Diaz, is a Dominican-American writer, professor, and activist and is best known for his critically acclaimed books, including “Drown,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and “This Is How You Lose Her.” He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Diaz is also a professor of creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After a talk that he gave once in Philadelphia I had the opportunity to talk with him about his craft. The first thing he asked me was, “What are you reading?”
He went on to tell me that writers have to be voracious readers. So today I want to share with you some of the books that I have started, or are in the cue, and are books of authors that I know and have met personally. Instead of reviewing the works I will give some context about how I came to know them and why I think their works are critical for a faith audience.
The first is a book that was published last spring by Kerri Kelly, a renowned yoga teacher, social activist, and entrepreneur based in the United States. She is the founder of the nonprofit organization, CTZNWELL, which aims to create a movement of people who work towards the well-being of their communities and the world at large. She is a descendant of generations of firefighters and first responders and has dedicated her life to kicking down doors and fighting for justice.
She is also a friend. Kerri and I were part of the community of activists-in-residence at Civic Hall, a community center and co-working space based in New York City that was focused on promoting and supporting the use of technology for civic engagement and social impact. It was founded in 2015 by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. Members included nonprofits, civic tech startups, government agencies, and individuals who were passionate about using technology to create social impact. However, Civic Hall closed its doors in early 2021 due to financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kerri moved west soon after and rooted herself in Los Angeles and, nestled in a lovely Topanga Canyon cottage she wrote, “American Detox.”
Critiquing the wellness movement is important when discussing climate change because the wellness industry can promote individualistic solutions to societal problems, which can distract from systemic issues that contribute to climate change. The wellness industry often focuses on personal lifestyle choices, such as healthy eating, exercise, and self-care, as the solution to health problems and environmental issues. While personal lifestyle choices can have an impact, they cannot solve the structural issues that contribute to climate change, such as genocide, colonization, capitalism, and slavery.
The wellness industry can promote a culture of consumption that contributes to toxicity and the degradation of natural systems. Additionally, the wellness industry can exacerbate health inequalities, as healthy food and wellness products are often inaccessible to low-income communities and marginalized groups. Ultimately, addressing climate change requires collective action and systemic change, rather than individualistic solutions promoted by the wellness industry. Kerri Kelly provides a roadmap for people to understand that.
The second book is one that I am deeply honored to be included in. “Black Earth Wisdom: Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists” by Leah Penniman, a farmer, educator, and author based in New York. She is the co-founder and co-director of Soul Fire Farm an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. There are so many incredible nuggets in this book. The essays and conversation are incredible and resonate with my soul but the part that really astonishes me is the opening section: These Roots Run Deep: A Prayer of Homage to Our Earth-Listening Black Elders it is here that the “wisdom” in the title is anchored and rooted and I think this section should be required reading for any and all high school students.
I had the blessing of attending and speaking at the launch event. Coming from downstate New York on a snowy Saturday I went up and over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and through a gentle but persistent snow shower to arrive in Hudson, NY. There, in a historic building on Fifth Street in Hudson, I arrived at the event – in the community room of the local library. (The building had originally been constructed in 1910 as a National Guard Armory and had served as a community center for many years before being renovated to house the library in 1996). It felt like walking into some of the Afro-centric spaces that I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980’s. When Leah took the stage to open the event it was clear that as much as she is a leader in the movement to decolonize soil she is also a faith leader.
The Prayer of Homage begins with these words, “The ibas or mujuba is a prayer of homage that is recited to open morning devotion in traditional Yoruba households, a practice that has spread across the African diaspora. We pour water on the ground as an offering, and turn our hearts toward our ancestors, to our respected elders and teachers, and to the benevolent forces of nature.”
Being at the opening and reading “Black Earth Wisdom” allows an intimate view how people who follow traditional African-rooted traditions (ifa watching her hold the space I felt as though it was as much ceremony as anything else and that as time moves we will come to know Leah Penniman as a faith leader as much as she is know as an environmental leader.
It is important to center traditional African spiritual voices in the conversation around environmentalism for several reasons.
Firstly, traditional African spiritual beliefs are often deeply connected to the natural world and emphasize the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the environment. These beliefs are often based on a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all living beings and the need for balance and sustainability in the natural world. By centering these voices, we can learn from their wisdom and incorporate their insights into our practices.
Secondly, the legacy of colonialism and Western domination has often led to the marginalization of African spiritual beliefs and practices. By centering these voices in the conversation around environmentalism, we can help to reverse this trend and promote greater cultural diversity and inclusion.
Finally, by centering traditional African spiritual voices in the conversation around environmentalism, we can also help to challenge the dominant narrative around environmentalism, which is often focused on technological solutions and Western scientific perspectives. By embracing a more holistic and diverse understanding of the environment, we can develop more effective and sustainable solutions to environmental problems.
Kaitlin B. Curtice is an author, speaker, and Native American activist. She is a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and writes about issues of Indigenous identity, faith, and justice. Curtice is the author of two books: “Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places” and “Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God.” She is also a regular contributor to Sojourners, a progressive Christian publication. Raised in an evangelical Christian home she finds her natural community is in interfaith spaces. Her most recent book came out literally the day we met!
We were on a panel titled “Factoring In Faith” at Aspen Ideas ,Climate. Religious leaders from across faith traditions shared how faith shapes their views of the natural world and motivates their climate work, and explored how different ethics of care can be incorporated into a broader web of climate action and impact. Later we participated in a more blunt, tactical roundtable to discuss ways that communities of faith are part of the problem when it comes to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns, mainly caused by human activities. Speakers included Simran Jeet Singh, Fletcher Harper, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, me and Kaitlin Curtice. It was an honor to be on the panel, and I am very excited to finish her book.
Native American perspectives offer unique insights into issues such as colonialism, racism, environmentalism, and spirituality that are often missing from mainstream discourse. By incorporating these perspectives, we can gain a more nuanced and complete picture of our world.
By centering Native American voices, we can begin to redress the harm that has been done and empower Native Americans to tell their own stories and define their own identities. These perspectives can help us to renegotiate our relationship with the Earth.
Additionally, Native American spiritual traditions offer powerful tools for inspiring collective action and mobilizing communities to work together towards a common goal. Spiritual practices such as prayer, ceremony, and ritual can foster a sense of connection and solidarity among people and empower them to take action to protect the natural world and address climate disruption.
One bonus book…
Recently my mother and I sat down for brunch at Olea in Brooklyn. I was to be leaving town later that evening and she handed me a book and in a very motherly but stern and loving way she said, “Read this on the plane, you can probably finish it by the time you get to California.”
She was sending me a message because the title of the book is: “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey” (who I have not met).
Clearly my mother wants me to read – and to rest – and I encourage you all to do the same.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an Interfaith America Senior Fellow. He serves as a Senior Fellow with New Yorkers for Clean Power, serves on the NYS Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land and is the author of “Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.”