This is the story of a reparative act by a largely white congregation that decided to give up control of some of its money. The story has many beginnings but no endings. Perhaps much of the Christian life is like this.
The most concrete beginning is from a book group in the congregation (Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.) that read Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians as a small step to address racial justice.
One of Harvey’s key points is the failure of racial reconciliation: “If, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, we are still struggling to realize reconciliation, might it be possible that what Black Christians were saying then (and have continued to say ever since) is something that white Christians still need to hear today?”
The answer — and this is meant as an answer for white people — is a reparative framework.
White people need to learn about the history of Black oppression and white privilege and understand how these are constructed around the concept of race. Then we need to understand the particular and local oppressions and disadvantages people of color have endured and find ways to reconstruct interracial relationships.
Other beginnings of the story happened more than 50 years ago in the United States and the Mennonite Church.
The Black Manifesto of 1969 called for $500 million of reparations, or $15 per Black person in the U.S. The money would go to a Southern Land Bank, four publishing houses and four television networks, a research center and a skills training center. Black people would be in charge of distributing the money.
White denominations responded with outrage at the Manifesto’s revolutionary rhetoric. White Christians felt certain they were already doing all the right things. A few new programs began, but they were typically controlled by white people. The idea that Black people should control the money they were owed due to centuries of exploitation was seen as a plot to remove white people from power.
There is also a Mennonite beginning to this story. During the civil rights era, a group of Mennonite people of color called the church to recognize that Mennonites, as a religious minority, should be in solidarity with racial minorities.
A central figure in this story was John Powell, now a member at Shalom Community Church. He encouraged white Mennonites to give $500,000 a year for six years to a fund that would develop and expand ways of serving the urban poor and minorities.
John made this call at the national Mennonite Church assembly in 1969 in Turner, Ore. Delegates agreed to give at least $6 per member per year. But the church did not keep this promise. Only $160,000 was raised. John endured many harsh comments from white Mennonites.
Two things stood out to us after reading Dear White Christians: 1) White Christians need to work at racial justice in ways we don’t control; and 2) Institutions have delayed and controlled attempts at racial justice.
We longed to lead with action, not needing to get all our words right. We recognized that our desire to say or do exactly the right thing often prevents us from acting.
We proposed giving $30,000 from our church savings to a group John would convene. For one year, we would invite individuals and other congregations to contribute. Accepting donations for a limited time would recognize that this was just one reparative act, not reparations in a more full-throated sense. No one from our congregation, other than John, would control the money.
On Feb. 14, 2021, the congregation agreed to do this. A member offered to match two weeks of individual donations. This raised another $30,000, bringing the total to $90,000 with the match.
I spoke about our reparative act at a meeting of Central District Conference and in a few other contexts. The pandemic likely limited other connections. Donations came in from Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations (Shalom is dually affiliated). These were fewer than I might have hoped for in my larger dreams, but by Feb. 14, 2022, the total was more than $100,000.
John formed a disbursement committee, which he chairs. It includes nonprofit leader and storyteller Michelle Armster, educator and trainer Regina Shands Stoltzfus, business leader Leonard Dow, entrepreneur and organizer Jim Williams and pastor Susan Hart. The committee is finalizing its work. John says, “We are looking to use these funds to engage, with impact, some communities dealing with the legacy of stolen land and stolen people.”
Two friends from another congregation had some questions about our reparative act, and I said they were welcome to donate.
They asked if the money would go to a Mennonite venture or be spent locally in Ann Arbor. I said I didn’t know, as we were giving up control of the money.
They asked if the money would go to a charity or to individuals. I said I didn’t know, as we were giving up control of the money.
They asked if I had a commitment from the disbursement committee to tell me where the money was going. I said I didn’t know, as we were giving up control of the money.
Soon we were all laughing about my repetitive answer.
I realized that giving up control went against our expectations about managing money and that it was joyful to do this.
It’s not simple to raise money for something not defined. But because we know John, it was easy to generate money internally.
What I’ll remember most is the joy. It wasn’t difficult to give from savings we already had. Explaining what it meant to give up control was also joyful.
There is no end to this story. I hope we find other ways to give up control and deepen our work against racism.
Trevor Bechtel is teaching pastor at Shalom Community Church. He is creative director of the Anabaptist Bestiary Project and author of The Gift of Ethics (Cascade, 2014).
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