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Protecting the souls in an African Cemetery

On Monday July 6, I illegally entered a crime scene. If necessary I will do it again. Here is why.

The Macedonia Baptist Church of Bethesda, Md. invited me to participate in an interfaith gathering that day in order to raise a voice against the desecration of the sacred bones of their ancestors. Members of this church are descendants of kidnapped Africans who were violently shipped to America, enslaved, and many girls sexually assaulted with the purpose of producing more human beings to be treated like livestock by the owners of a plantation in Bethesda. These Africans were stripped of their dignity in their life and then again in their death.

After their deaths, many were dumped in mass graves in a parcel of land adjacent to the church that was located directly in front of the sacred ground, which is now known as the Moses African Cemetery. Even though this cemetery was formally created in 1911, the cemetery grounds contained the sacred bones of kidnapped Africans who never became American citizens, those murdered during slavery, and those emancipated after the Civil War.

Much of the cemetery was desecrated and remains were torn apart and intentionally scattered like fertilizer in 1958 with the blessings of the county in order to allow the construction of apartments. But some land remains undeveloped. Two reports commissioned by the county concluded that there was a high probability of finding human remains and funerary objects on adjacent and neighboring parcels. There is very strong evidence based upon the testimony of church elders and archeologists that under this undeveloped land are many bones where these holy souls are interred.

And yet, what I saw when I arrived at the site shook me to my core. I saw bulldozers and tractors working the land and treating the sacred earth as though it was a typical construction site. I immediately felt a flashback to those moments when I saw similar scenes in Poland and Ukraine while visiting the sites of mass graves of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, many of those mass graves continue to be treated today with incredible disrespect. In my mind, I drew a parallel between the martyrs buried in the Moses Cemetery and what I saw on my recent trip to Lviv, Ukraine. In Lviv, I visited a concentration camp called Janovska where 1000,00 Jews were murdered. There are no beautiful monuments at Janovska, just drug users, mounds of trash, and human bones visibly lying above the earth. On that same trip to Ukraine, I also visited the site of a mass grave for Jews who were murdered in Rivne, where I saw the recent work of grave robbers who had plundered the bones from the graves.

And here in posh Bethesda, I was seeing the same type of desecration once again as bulldozers dug through the graves in order to build more storage units.

Seeing those bulldozers plow through the earth I turned to the pastor of the Macedonia Church, Segun Adebayo, and said that we must approach the bulldozers and ask them to stop. The bulldozers were surrounded by a very tall fence but we somehow found an opening and were able to access the site.

We approached the foreman. The foreman yelled at us that we were trespassing on his land. To which Pastor Adebayo asked, “Why is this your land?” The foreman said, “It is our land because we bought it with our money.” The Pastor said, “But we paid for it with our blood.” It is a crime in Maryland to desecrate a dead body. I told the foreman “This site is a crime scene. You are desecrating the bones of holy people.”

Many people probably think, dead is dead. Who cares about their bones! They say “let’s turn our attention to helping the living.”

I agree that our attention needs to be on the living, but at the same time, I deeply believe that the way we treat our past tells us who we are in the present.

Our world has enough storage units. What we need more of is respect for our holy martyrs.

If we will allow the bones of kidnapped Africans who were treated in this barbaric manner to be plowed over without a second thought then we are in a sense committing a spiritual murder of their souls. On the other hand, if we demand that their bones be treated heroically and sensitively then we can elevate their souls and inform our present actions.

While they were alive the world was silent to their plight. In their death, we will not be silent. We will protect the Moses Cemetery.

Since 2004, Shmuel Herzfeld has been the rabbi of Ohev Sholom —The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. He is the author of five books, including “Renewal: Inspirational Lessons of Rosh Hashanah”(Gefen Publishing House, 2015).

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