Churches across America commit to paying millions in racism-linked reparations in bid to ‘reckon with the wrongs and evils of our past’

In the wake of the social justice movement and George Floyd protests, several US religious groups have declared they will devote millions to racism-related reparations, particularly among long-established Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery.

Many of these churches are now weighing how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programs benefiting African Americans.

Among them are the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which acknowledges that its first bishop in 1859 was a slaveholder, and a New York City Episcopal church, which erected a plaque noting the building’s creation in 1810 was made possible by wealth resulting from slavery.

In addition, 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.

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.

Some major denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, have not embraced reparations as official policy.

The Catholic Church has been embroiled by accusations of sex abuse and pedophile activity amongst its priests in recent years, with some dioceses earmarking millions in reparations funds for victims.

Although it hasn’t announced any acts of reparations yet, the Southern Baptist Convention announced in October that its Southern Baptist Theological Seminary school had created a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund for African American students.

In the same breath, however, the school declined to rename campus buildings named for founders with slavery connections – a move which many colleges and universities around the US have been actively making.

The Minnesota Council of Churches’ reparations initiative was announced in October – about five months after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while being taken into police custody.

‘Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in the country – in health, wealth, housing, how police treat folks,’ said the Minnesota Council of Churches’ 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 created in South Africa after the end of apartheid; and it is based in Minneapolis, where the police killing of 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.’

The Minnesota initiative also 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.

Jacobs belongs to a Wisconsin-based Mohican tribe but was born in Minnesota and is well-versed in the latter´s grim history about 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 Minnesota.

The Rev. Stacey Smith, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minnesota and a Council of Churches board member, 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. ‘There has been such a vacuum of missing stories, not only from Black and brown people but our Indigenous people and others as well.’

While some churches began their reparations plans after Floyd’s death and other are preparing them now, several dioceses in the Episcopal Church – including Maryland, Texas, Long Island and New York – had been in the process of launching reparations programs over the past year.

‘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,’ said New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche.

The largest Episcopal pledge has come from the Diocese of Texas, which said in February it would allocate $13million to long-term programs.

These include scholarships for students attending seminaries or historically Black colleges and assistance for historic Black churches.

The Texas Diocese bishop, C. Andrew Doyle, noted the diocese´s first bishop, Alexander Gregg, was a slaveholder and its first church – Christ Episcopal Church in Matagorda, Texas, which was consecrated in 1844 – 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 while unveiling its $1.1million 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.

In the past year, a multiracial committee has been studying possible uses for the reparations funds. Dietsche expects some will help congregations launch their own initiatives, particularly if their churches had historical involvement in slavery.

St. James´ Episcopal Church in Manhattan 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 $1million reparations fund, likely to finance programs supporting Black students, nursing home residents, small-business owners and others.

While Dietsche and Doyle are white, the bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, is the first Black cleric in that post. He has talked with white people who oppose reparations, saying they’re not personally guilty of slaveholding or racism.

‘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 $1million allocation represents about 20 per cent of the diocese´s operating budget.

‘We wanted something that would actually not just be a drop in the bucket,’ 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.’

Source: Daily Mail