If you ever wondered how fresh-faced optimism could work in lockstep with inescapable grief, Jennifer Bailey’s phenomenal book is your answer. In To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope (Chalice Press: 2021), Bailey outlines a process for the practice of radical hope in the face of devastating grief, troubled times, and ongoing racial oppression. She does this through a series of tightly constructed yet tenderly worded essays as letters written to the reader. While those readers being addressed are, of course, anyone who picks up the book, those who may most intimately relate to her message are the bereaved, people of color and their allies, activists, and faith leaders who will at times find themselves covered under any or all of those labels.
Her letters are written in the tone of Bailey being “a companion on the way” and offering food for the journey to justice and Beloved Community. Artfully rearranged as a cohesive collection, a good number of these essays come from previously published articles or speeches given by Bailey in differing contexts, with the consistency being found in the womanist identity and emotional honesty of the author herself. This book is rooted and grounded in the wisdom of African American foremothers and moves into the forward trajectory of the pain, dreams, and victories of those working to make healing and equality a lived reality for all. Well-researched without being overly academic and rich in story without being wholly self-referential, this epistolary collection is a quick and rich read. However, due to her unwavering honesty and depth in sharing stories of grief and trauma, this can be an emotionally dense read for anyone currently in crisis.
The letter I found most fascinating (and useful for preaching) was the one entitled “Composting Religion,” which explored the construction of new paradigms for social justice movements married to the good news of the gospel. Her writing here deftly explores questions around establishing movements of communal love and shared power in ways that are uplifting rather than destructive and isolating for those doing the work, offering new ideas for how such work can be described (say, in a sermon) and lived (which includes those preaching the sermon). And while she has other chapters/letters that include questions for the reader, this is the one I found to call for the most examination and learning around new perspectives on justice work in light of the message of the church. Because of this, I almost wished this chapter came last, nearer the Postscript, which also contained questions and invitations to re-imagine how a person or group might do the work of love in the now and engage hope for the future. As a latter-born member of the Boomer generation, I already had to do my work in terms of finding my way in the Millennial language and landscape of Bailey’s ideas. I find nothing wrong with either, but I confess I did have to do a little generational translation and skipping around in the book. But outside of this small matter, as an African American woman and Episcopal priest, I found the book to be a solid “must read” for anyone who wants to do prophetic work in the pulpit in ways that will sustain the spiritual and emotional longevity of preacher and congregation.
To be clear, there is nothing in this book that specifically addresses preaching per se, but if one is preaching the gospel, then issues of love, power, and justice will be addressed, and Bailey’s words offer fuel for doing so in ways that sustain those who speak and those who listen with an ear for action. Bailey’s work is most definitely delivered in the spirit of these words by Dr. Cornel West…. “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.”
Bailey’s work offers a near-perfect road map to walking forward in hope without denying trouble and grief in the process.
Reviewed by the Rev. Nikki Mathis, rector of St. Gregory the Great, Athens, Georgia, and a faculty member for the Preaching Excellence Program.