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In some churches, talk of reparation draws a hearing

By Jesse James Deconto/Religion News Service
On November 22, 2015

Jennifer Harvey travels the nation to talk about reparation to White Christians.
Credit: drew.edu

(RNS) – A White scholar is touring churches across the nation in an effort to convince Christians it’s time to start talking about reparations for the descendants of slaves.

What divides the races in America is not the failure to embrace differences, but the failure of White Americans to repent and repair the sins of the past, said Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey.

Her 2014 book, “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation,” has led to speaking engagements at United Church of Christ gatherings, Presbyterian assemblies and college campuses.

The book “touched a nerve with a lot of religious leaders who care about this particular issue and who want to be prophetic in this moment,” said the Rev. Cameron Trimble, executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal.

“Jennifer is inviting a conversation that needs to be had among White people. In all of our mainline traditions, we have deeply institutionalized racism. We have to willingly give up power in order to equal the playing field,” said Trimble, whose center has published a video interview and study guide to promote Harvey’s book to its 13,000 affiliated congregations in nine different denominations.

On Nov. 7, Harvey discussed the topic of reparations with members of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. More than 20 churches in the diocese have investigated their connections to slavery and produced “Trail of Souls,” an online historical tour, as an act of truth telling and confession.

“If we’re not reconciled with our history, then we can’t understand what the repair is that’s needed,” said the Rev. Angela Shepherd, the diocesan canon for mission.

According to her, it’s too late for the U.S. to consider any kind of direct reimbursement. However, she welcomed Harvey’s stoking the reparations movement in churches. She hopes Harvey’s visit, along with the Baltimore protests in the spring, will help to motivate people in her diocese to support a bill first introduced by Michigan Congressman John Conyers’ in 1989 to create a federal commission to study reparations.

Harvey’s push for reparations comes on the heels of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”

Coates traced some of the systemic injustices to “redlining,” the denial of home mortgages to Black Americans, driving them toward predatory lenders outside the banking system.

Harvey said this history, beginning in slavery and Jim Crow and continuing with poor, underfunded pubic schools for minority children, has stalled well-intentioned efforts at reconciliation since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. This history also explains the energy around the Black Lives Matter response to recent acts of police brutality.

Though she grew up attending predominately Black schools in Denver, it wasn’t until she met Black students at Union Theological Seminary that Harvey said she began to understand how being White gave her societal power that they didn’t have.

Harvey said demands for reparations drove White Christians out of the civil rights movement. They held onto King’s vision of the “beloved community” and kept talking about reconciliation, but never made the sort of recompense that’s needed.

Harvey has spent her career writing on White supremacy and the contemporary reparations movement. She supports Conyers’ congressional bill and is trying to kindle the conversation in religious communities.

Harvey resists specifying what form reparations might take, saying that should come from the wounded parties. She points to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which calls for cash, land, economic development, scholarships and policy changes ensuring equitable treatment in criminal justice, health care and financial systems.

She also suggests environmental reparations for Native American land that was taken and exploited, citizenship for underpaid immigrant workers, and political remedies for the mass incarceration of Black Americans.

“People who’ve been there, who lived through the civil rights movement, can look back and say, ‘Yes, our churches are just as segregated as they were before,’” said Michael DePue, director of Christian education at Chapel in the Pines, a White Presbyterian congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “It’s been 40 or 50 years, and the things that the civil rights movement set out to do, they haven’t come to pass.”

Trimble agreed.

“There’s an awareness among progressive Christians that if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten,” said Trimble. “The challenge that remains before us is, will it move beyond talk? What we do very well in church is talk a thing to death.”

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