Two and a half years ago, Episcopal Bishop of New York Andrew M.L. Dietsche reminded a group of clergy of the ugly history of their diocese.
Not only was slavery deeply embedded in the life and economy of colonial New York, but Episcopal churches across the state often participated in it. Church founders, churchgoers and even churches themselves had enslaved people. The abolitionist Sojourner Truth had once been enslaved by a church in the diocese.
“The Diocese of New York played a significant, and genuinely evil, part in American slavery,” Dietsche said during his November 2019 address. “We must make, where we can, repair.”
After his speech at the diocese’s annual convention, the clergy unanimously voted to set aside $1.1 million of the diocese’s endowment for a reparations fund, marking the beginning of what the diocese referred to as “The Year of Reparation.”
The year has become years. Churches across the state have been engaging in a variety of activities to attempt to make amends for this past: putting up plaques acknowledging that their wealth was created by enslaved labor, staging plays about the role their congregation had in the slave trade, and committing parts of their endowments to reparations funds.
This comes more than a decade after a 2006 resolution by the General Convention in which the national leadership of the Episcopal Church — which is 90 percent white — called on churches to study how they benefited from slavery. Since then, Episcopal dioceses in Georgia, Texas, Maryland and Virginia have begun similar programs.
Other predominantly white denominations, including the Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, also passed resolutions (in 2004 and 2019, respectively) to study the denominations’ role in slavery and have begun the process of determining how to make reparations.
Together with the United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches — as well as Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference — Black leadership in these denominations have formed a faith-based coalition to lobby for HR 40, federal legislation that would create a commission to study how the United States could make reparations for slavery and its aftermath.
They’ve also been holding monthly webinars and creating educational resources for their congregations.
“We want to have grounded learning, both biblically and theologically, around why reparations are due,” the Rev. Velda Love, minister for racial justice at the United Church of Christ, said. “It is not just writing a check from churches.”
These efforts are thought to constitute the most sustained church activism since Black churches were on the front lines of the civil rights movement.
“Our faith requires us to do something,” the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, minister for economic justice at the United Church of Christ, said. “This is what God calls us to do.”
How churches benefited from slavery
Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, voted in 2019 to create a reparations program as a way of atoning for its sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838. Since then, Virginia Theological Seminary, Union Presbyterian Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary have followed suit.
While Baptists in the South played the most vocal role in defending the institution of slavery before the Civil War, other denominations — including the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church — and other religious educational institutions all benefited from enslaved labor in some way. Whether it was members of the clergy or the churches themselves owning enslaved people, or the churches receiving taxes from congregants in the form of tobacco farmed by enslaved people, the wealth of the churches was deeply intertwined with the slave trade.
Well into the 20th century, churches and their clergy also played an active role in advocating policies of segregation and redlining.
“Every time you open a book, you find another story,” said the Rev. Grey Maggiano, the rector of the Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which began a reparations process last year.
Memorial Episcopal Church is one of a dozen churches across the country that have begun their own reparations programs, independent of the organizing happening at a national level.
Memorial Episcopal was built in the early 1860s with profits from Hampton Plantation, where hundreds of enslaved people worked at the founding rector’s family estate.
One of the parish’s deacons, Natalie Conway, discovered that her great-great-grandmother, Hattie Cromwell, was enslaved at Hampton Plantation by the church's founding rectors.
“It hits you between the eyes,” Conway said. “Somebody actually took the shackles and put them on my great-great-grandmother and -grandfather, and the children were taken away. How do you do that? It becomes so hurtful personally. And even now, it’s still hard to fathom.”
Conway said she considered leaving Memorial Episcopal Church.
“I said, ‘God, what am I supposed to do now?’ And God said, ‘Why do you think you’re at Memorial?’” she recalled.
Since it began a reparations process, Memorial Episcopal Church has taken down the plaques memorializing the church’s founders. The congregation also set up a $500,000 reparations fund and formed a reparations committee to determine where the money will go.
“This is a chance to do what we were charged with in our baptismal covenant,” Conway, who attends the reparations committee meetings, said. “To respect the dignity of all people.”
‘No salvation without reparations’
For centuries, the Bible and other Christian teachings have been used to justify slavery and imperialism.
“The name of God was abused and misused,” the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, co-director for racial justice at the Minnesota Council of Churches, said, “within the Indigenous community and within the Black community.”
The Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century Christian text, was used to legitimize imperialism and the treatment of Indigenous people.
From 1869 and into the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools run by Christian denominations to assimilate them into white Christian culture using techniques that often constituted torture and neglect.
The Minnesota Council of Churches is a coalition of 27 denominations across the state, representing a membership of over 1 million people. In 2020, it launched a reparations program that focuses on the history of Native American boarding schools as well as anti-Black violence in the state.
“We want predominantly white congregations and historically white churches to wrestle with their own history and their own complicity,” Jacobs said.
When speaking to congregations across the state, Jacobs makes the case that “there is no salvation without reparations,” referencing the biblical story of Zacchaeus that often comes up when faith leaders discuss reparations.
According to the Book of Luke, Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector in Jericho, was widely regarded as a sinner. When Jesus asked to stay at his house, Zacchaeus told Jesus he would give half of his possessions to the poor and “if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay them back fourfold.” Because of this, Jesus promised him salvation.
The commandment to “love thy neighbor,” the call from the Prophet Isaiah to “repair the breach” and the message from the Sermon on the Mount to “make peace with your brother” are also foundational messages in reparations-focused liturgies, educational resources and sermons.
Denomination-specific teachings — such as the Belhar Confession in the Presbyterian church, a prayer originally written by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa as a stance against apartheid that’s been adopted into the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, and the three-legged stool in the Episcopal Church, a metaphor for the foundations of the Episcopal faith: scripture, tradition and reason — have been adapted to make the case for reparations.
By invoking these teachings, Christians are making the case that reparations are a way to live out their faith.
Repairing the breach
It’s not the first time reparations have been brought up in the context of churches. More than 50 years ago, in 1969, prominent civil rights activist James Forman disrupted a Sunday service at Riverside Church on New York City’s Upper West Side and demanded $500 million in reparations from white churches and Jewish synagogues across the country.
But white churches have historically looked away from these demands. Jennifer Harvey, professor of religion at Drake University and author of the 2014 book “Dear White Christians,” said white churches have long preferred a strategy of “reconciliation” when talking about racial justice.
“We see white moral failure again and again,” Harvey said, pointing out that the common response to demands for reparations have been “rejection and avoidance.”
But with this new movement to embrace reparations, white churches are going down a new path.
In 2020, Willye Bryan, a retired entomologist and member of the First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan, had been hearing news about churches closing down and wondered what was happening to their multimillion-dollar endowments.
“That wealth, in many instances, started during slavery,” Bryan said. “In many instances, the wealth is accumulated because they had free labor or because they could sell human beings and acquire wealth.”
“So I’m thinking, you know, now is the perfect time that these churches can start thinking about living into the promise of Christianity,” she said.
She founded the Justice League of Greater Lansing, which called on churches to give a portion of their endowment to a communal reparations fund. That fund would then be overseen by the Black-led Justice League and distributed in the form of grants and scholarships.
Bryan invokes Forman to remind congregations that “this is not new,” she said. “Our goal is to have the white houses of worship actually respond to the message.”
“Not push it away, not give it any pushback, not protest at all, but respond to being the repairers,” Bryan said, referring to the line in the Bible by the Prophet Isaiah about “repairing the breach.”
“That’s how I think it will work,” she said. “I think it works as people live into being the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.”