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US churches increasingly commit to reparations for 'deep history of racism'

‘We have a great deal to answer for,’ said the Episcopal bishop of New York.

By Associated Press - December 19, 2020
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Clergy marching for racial justice

The Episcopal Diocese of Texas acknowledges that its first bishop in 1859 was a slaveholder. An Episcopal church in New York City erects a plaque noting the building’s creation in 1810 was made possible by wealth resulting from slavery.

And the Minnesota Council of Churches cites a host of injustices — from mid-19th century atrocities against Native Americans to police killings of Black people — in launching a first-of-its kind “truth and reparations” initiative engaging its 25 member denominations.

These efforts reflect a widespread surge of interest among many U.S. religious groups in the area of reparations, particularly among long-established Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery. Many are initiating or considering how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programs benefiting African Americans.

Some major denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, have not embraced reparations as official policy. The Episcopal Church has been the most active major denomination thus far, and others, including the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, are urging congregations to consider similar steps.

The Minnesota Council of Churches initiative was announced in October.

“Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in the country — in health, wealth, housing, how police treat folks,” said the council’s CEO, the Rev. Curtiss DeYoung. “Those disparities all come from a deep history of racism.”

The initiative, envisioned as a 10-year undertaking, is distinctive in several ways. It engages a diverse collection of Christian denominations, including some that are predominantly Black; it will model some of its efforts on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that operated in South Africa after the end of apartheid; and it is based in Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd in May sparked global protests over racial injustice.

“This particular event, because it was right here where we live, was a call to action,” DeYoung said. “The first thing that we did, of course, like everyone else, was get into the streets and march … but there are deep, historic issues that require more than marching.”

Another notable aspect of the Minnesota initiative is that it seeks to address social justice concerns of African Americans and Native Americans in a unified way.

“For so long these have been two separate camps — Indigenous people and African Americans felt they are competing against each other for the same limited resources,” said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, a Native American who is the church council’s director of racial justice.

“By bringing these two communities together, it removes that mindset of, ‘We have to get ours, and that might mean you don’t get yours,'” he said.

Jacobs belongs to a Wisconsin-based Mohican tribe but was born in Minnesota and is well-versed in the grim chapters of the latter’s history regarding Native Americans. He cited the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which ended with the internment of hundreds of Dakota people and the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato — the largest mass execution in U.S. history. After the war, many of the Dakota were expelled from the state.

Jacobs hopes to see churches commit to ongoing financial support for Native Americans to reclaim their culture and languages.

“I want it to be a line in their budget, like they do for building maintenance,” he said. “If all the churches do is take up a special offering, there’s no shift in the power dynamics that created these problems in the first place.”

The Rev. Stacey Smith, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minnesota and a member of the Council of Churches board, said the reparations initiative places the state “at the epicenter of being transformed with racial justice.”

“Truth-telling in our stories is so important,” she said as the project was announced. “There has been such a vacuum of missing stories, not only from Black and brown people but our Indigenous people and others as well.”

In the Episcopal Church, several dioceses — including Maryland, Texas, Long Island, and New York — launched reparations programs in the past 13 months, while others are preparing to do so. The Diocese of Georgia is committing 3% of its unrestricted endowment to help create a center for racial reconciliation.

“Each diocese will make its own decisions how to do this work,” said New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche. “What is common across the whole church is the recognition that it’s time to address and reckon with the wrongs and evils of our past.”

The largest pledge thus far came from the Diocese of Texas, which announced in February that it would allocate $13 million to long-term programs benefiting African Americans. This will include scholarships for students attending seminaries or historically Black colleges and assistance for historic Black churches.

The Texas Diocese bishop, C. Andrew Doyle, noted that slavery played a key role in the diocese’s origins. Its first bishop, Alexander Gregg, was a slaveholder, and its first church, in the town of Matagorda, was built with slave labor.

The Diocese of New York, which serves part of New York City and seven counties to the north, was similarly blunt about its history while unveiling its $1.1 million reparations initiative in November 2019.

Dietsche said the diocese played a “significant, and genuinely evil, part in American slavery” — including some churches’ use of slaves as parish servants. He noted that in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, delegates at the diocese’s convention refused to approve a resolution condemning slavery.

“We have a great deal to answer for,” Dietsche said. “We are complicit.”

Over the past year, a multiracial committee has been studying possible uses for those reparation funds. At one point it convened an online “apology retreat” featuring prayer, meditation, and discussions about combating racism; Dietsche said participation was capped at 1,000 and organizers had to turn some people away.

Specific recommendations for spending the $1.1 million will come later in 2021. But Dietsche expects some funds will help congregations launch their own reparations initiatives, particularly if their churches had historical involvement in slavery.

St. James’ Episcopal Church, in a posh neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, dedicated a plaque a year ago with the inscription, “In solemn remembrance of the enslaved persons whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of St. James’ Church” in 1810.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted in September to create a $1 million reparations fund, likely to finance programs supporting Black students, nursing home residents, small-business owners, and others. The vote at the diocese’s annual convention was 189-31, an outcome preceded by years of research into how it had benefited from slavery and racial inequality.

While Dietsche and Doyle are white, the bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, is the first Black cleric to hold that post. He periodically converses with white people who oppose reparations on the grounds that they are not personally guilty of slaveholding or racism, and should not be asked to pay for those wrongs.

“That is a false conception,” Sutton said. “Reparations is simply, ‘What will this generation do to repair the damage caused by previous generations?’ … We may not all be guilty, but we all have a responsibility.”

Sutton said the $1 million allocation, envisioned as an initial investment in a long-term program, represents about 20% of the diocese’s operating budget.

“We wanted something that would actually not just be a drop in the bucket — it’s going to cost us,” he said. “We’ve done that in recognition of the fact that this church, as well as many other churches and institutions, benefited from theft. We stole from the impoverished, from the African American community.”

Many of the United Methodist Church’s regional conferences are moving in a direction similar to the Episcopalians, considering various steps to benefit people of color. The bishop of the UMC’s Florida Conference, Kenneth Carter, has formed an anti-racism task force and says commitments to financial reparations are likely to follow.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not embraced the term “reparations” in its official policies. The word never appears in a 2018 pastoral letter condemning “the ugly cancer” of racism, though the document encourages support for programs “that help repair the damages caused by racial discrimination.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Black archbishop of Washington, D.C., told the Associated Press in October that initiatives involving financial reparations should be made by individual institutions, not by the U.S. church as a whole. He cited the example of Catholic-affiliated Georgetown University, which last year committed funds to benefit descendants of enslaved people sold in 1838 to pay off debt.

However, there have been calls by some Black Catholics for substantive reparations by the church nationwide, due to its past involvement in slavery and segregation.

Shannen Dee Williams, a Black historian at Villanova University, has proposed several steps the church could take, including issuing formal apologies, investing in Catholic schools serving Black communities, and requiring that the history of Black Catholics be taught in church schools.

“Black Catholic history reminds us that the Church was never an innocent bystander in the histories of colonialism, slavery or segregation,” Williams wrote in an email.


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