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More US churches commit to racism-linked reparations

Published:Sunday | December 13, 2020 | 11:20 AMAssociated Press
In this November 24, 2019 photo, Rev. Brenda Husson, rector of St. James' Episcopal Church in New York's Upper East Side neighbourhood, prays over a plaque noting the building's creation in 1810 was made possible by wealth resulting from slavery. Standing near her are senior warden Jennifer Charrington and the Rev. Ryan C. Fleenor (AP photo).

(AP)- The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has acknowledged that its first bishop in 1859 was a slaveholder. An Episcopal church erects a plaque noting the building's creation in New York City 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 US religious groups in the area of reparations, particularly among long-established Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery. Many are weighing how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programmes 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 created 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.”

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 US-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 US 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 epicentre 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.”

Other churches launch reparation initiatives

In the Episcopal Church, several dioceses — including Maryland, Texas, Long Island and New York — launched reparations programmes in the past 13 months, and others are preparing them. 

“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 $13 million to long-term programmes. 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, in Matagorda, was built with slave labour.

The Diocese of New York, which serves part of New York City and seven counties to the north, was similarly blunt while unveiling its $1.1 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.

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 labour 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 programmes 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 slave holding 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 $1 million 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."

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