How a congregation came to pay reparations

Theft of Black labor and Indigenous land left a debt, both moral and financial, that needs to be repaid

Assembly Mennonite Church members take part in a walking tour of south central Elkhart, also known as the Benham West Neighborhood. — Glenn Gilbert Assembly Mennonite Church members take part in a walking tour of south central Elkhart, also known as the Benham West Neighborhood. — Glenn Gilbert

What comes after the book studies?

For decades, members at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., did what congregations do to be informed participants in God’s liberating justice. We heard sermons, clarified our values, became politically engaged and read a lot of books. Good, essential books.

But after the summer of 2020, after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, we did something new. We formed an Anti-Racism Accountability Group for White people who recognize their tendency to engage antiracism work for a while and then get distracted. We met monthly to share what we did last month and what we intended to do next month. It provided not only accountability but encouragement.

Out of those monthly meetings came the idea to take seriously the centuries-old call for reparations. Reparation of this sort is perhaps best understood as “the deliberate repair of a multigenerational campaign of cultural theft — theft of wealth, theft of truth and theft of power” (see Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson — one of those essential books).

Black Americans have been calling for these reparations for a long time. In 1865, with the end of the Civil War in sight, Rev. Garrison Frazier, speaking on behalf of southern Black leaders, told Gen. William Sherman that newly freed slaves needed land to sustain themselves. Sherman signed an order granting Black families up to 40 acres along the southeastern coast. But eight months later, after President Lincoln’s assassination, newly installed President Johnson reversed Sherman’s order and mandated the land go back to former slaveholders.

In 1915, Callie House, a widow with five children and cofounder of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, sued the U.S. government asserting it owed freed men $68 million for unpaid labor and human rights abuses. The government responded with trumped-up criminal charges and sent her to jail.

In 1989, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving African American member of Congress, introduced legislation to study and develop reparation proposals. His bill, reintroduced in every succeeding Congress, has never reached the House floor for a vote.

It doesn’t take a political science major or a Capitol Hill lobbyist (both of which I’ve been) to know that the federal government is not poised to take significant reparative action any time soon. But what about the church — which, after all, claims to be in the business of salvation, repentance and the restoration of life?

James Foreman, an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, put the church’s moral and spiritual integrity to the test in 1969. He disrupted the worship service at New York City’s Riverside Church to deliver the “Black Manifesto” — a demand to White Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that they begin paying reparations of $500 million — $15 for every black person — “due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted.”

Cyneatha Millsaps and Jason Shenk lead a tour to learn about the harm caused to the African American community through “urban renewal.” — Glenn Gilbert
Cyneatha Millsaps and Jason Shenk lead a tour to learn about the harm caused to the African American community through “urban renewal.” — Glenn Gilbert

For the most part, churches across the U.S. did nothing, other than guard against additional attempts to disrupt their services.

More recently, writers and activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah- Jones and Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass have implored White America to reckon with this debt, which is visible in the lived realities of people today.

And yet many White people don’t see it. For example, a 2019 Yale University study, “The Misperception of Racial Economic Inequality,” found Americans mistakenly believe that for every $100 of wealth held by White Americans, Black households hold about $90 in wealth. The truth is that Black households hold just $10!

“If Black lives are to truly matter in America, [we] must move beyond slogans and symbolism. . . . A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and works to make them right,” writes Hannah-Jones.

Confronting sin through repentance and repair is the Christian mandate. After the Anti-Racism Accountability Group affirmed the suggestion to explore reparations, it became a congregational conversation.

We were not the only congregation nudged by the Spirit in this way. We learned from conversations happening at Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio and Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., and we noted the variety of ways congregations were engaging this call.

We decided to collect payments monthly from our fellow congregants and disburse the money annually. Some of the specifics we agreed to include the following:

— We speak of “payments” rather than donations as a reminder that this is not an act of charity. The violent theft of Black and Indigenous labor, land and freedom for the benefit of White Americans left a debt, both moral and financial, that needs to be paid.

— We chose not to pay this debt through our general budget, where we could easily forget about it. Instead, payments are collected during worship on the first Sunday of every month. A second basket is put on the offering table, and we are instructed that monies put in the basket are “payment on the debt owed locally to Black and Indigenous Peoples for the immeasurable harm of White Supremacy. We do this as an act of restitution and to help us become more of who we are created to be: a community of repentance and repair.”

— We established a Reparations Committee to consult with Black and Indigenous leaders and then make payments to initiatives and organizations led by local Black and Indigenous Peoples that address harm caused by our White supremacist culture and by colonization.

— We focus our payments locally.

— Payments are not earmarked for particular projects; use of the money is decided by recipients. Also, no report or accounting is required. While we want to be open to ongoing relationships with those who receive our payments, that too is not a requirement.

In 2023 we collected $28,107 for this purpose. The bulk of our payments went to a new community center that is revitalizing a local African American neighborhood devastated by past governmental policies of neglect and to the Miami Tribe of Indians, forcefully removed from Indiana in the 19th century yet whose members survived and live in this area and are reclaiming their culture and language.

Our way of engaging the call for reparations is simply one model. It’s imperfect, and it doesn’t by itself fulfill the work we’re called to. But we hope to learn through our experience and from the feedback we receive. We plan to keep reading books and do the other things that foster awareness.

Our dream is to be a part of a movement of churches dismantling the culture and legacy of White supremacy. Rather than make reparation payments alone, we hope to do so alongside other congregations in our county and beyond. This would expand the support for restorative work being led by marginalized communities. It would make a stronger witness to the world that engaging in repentance and repair for the sins of White supremacy is what Christians do.

The reparation movement in churches is not simply a call to pay. Rather — as Kwon and Thompson point out — it is a call to own our responsibility and, even more important, to own our identity as God’s people. Reparations are a tangible way to do that.

Karl Shelly is co-pastor of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

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