Kelly Powers and Sammy Gibbons, USA Today, June 19, 2022
St. James’ Episcopal Church in Hyde Park was built by slave owners.
Some of those slaves are buried behind the church.
“While we don’t know where most of those people who had been slaves were buried, we did know where at least one of them and his family were buried,” said Rev. Charles Kramer. “It was within 100 feet, maybe 50 feet, of the guy who owned them.”
Kramer, who retired as the rector of the church, is on the Episcopal Diocese of New York Reparations Commission, a role he stumbled into after learning about the graves.
A concept proving viscous in public policy, nearly stagnant at the federal level, is gaining momentum at the altar.
Major faith institutions are addressing reparations in the United States, often ahead of any states where they congregate. The efforts serve as direct attempts at reconciliation for their own involvement in another institution that dawned centuries ago: slavery.
New Jersey’s Princeton Theological Seminary vowed more than $27 million. Virginia Theological Seminary, $1.7 million. Catholic Georgetown University, $400,000 a year. Episcopal dioceses of New York, Long Island, Texas and Maryland had all launched reparations programs by 2020, while others remain in the works. Texas committed $13 million, Maryland and New York each about $1 million. The list continues.
“Are they setting the tone?” posed Rayshawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “In short, I think the answer is yes.”
A surge of theological interest is being led largely by long-established Protestant churches. The Episcopal Church has been the most active denomination, while others, like the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Presbyterian arms, lean in similar directions.
Reparations have come either monetarily or symbolically, like the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia’s “Repairers of the Breach” speaker series or Georgia’s diocesan commitment to help create a racial reconciliation center.
“They are able to move a lot more quickly in the private space than they can in the public space,” said Ray, a professor and executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland. “I also think religious organizations and institutions are viewing themselves as playing a role in helping to heal Americans.”
Individual churches, interfaith efforts and more can be traced across the country, while some umbrellas like the Roman Catholic Church or Southern Baptist Convention have largely not approached reparations — with certain notable exceptions.
Other denominations have expressed support for a federal program or issued formal apologies.
Across the pulpit, though, recent polling data shows Americans are generally opposed to reparations in the form of payments. Polls in 2021 suggested 62% were opposed and 38% supported. But support has grown from 19% in 1997.
Large price tags grab the spotlight, from payments and scholarship funds to community grants or avenues still left undetermined.
Yet in most cases, years of research inform these decisions to make amends.
The Episcopal Diocese of Texas acknowledged that its first bishop was a slaveholder. An Episcopal church in New York City erected a plaque cementing that the building’s construction was made possible by slavery. The Minnesota Council of Churches launched a first-of-its-kind “truth and reparations” initiative across 25 member denominations.
The Rev. Canon Christine McCloud said her Maryland work is fueled by similar truth.
Her position as canon for the mission now revolves around reparations. She wants to see more parishes join the call from a diocese with roots as old as the first English settlements on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.
The priest feels these efforts could pose a viable framework.
“I really truly believe,” she said from her Baltimore-area study, “if our faith communities cannot get this right, I do not have a reasonable hope or expectation that we can get it right out in the world.”
McCloud thinks about her sons.
The ranking faith leader and Black mother of two is a long way from her start in the Diocese of Newark. Selected by her bishop to help guide the Maryland diocese in diversity and inclusion efforts by 2018, she now deals deeply in reparation work.
Even fueled by the concept of leaving something better behind — it doesn’t get any easier.
“Let me be clear,” McCloud said. “It’s not easy as a person of color, whether I’m a clergy person or not, to go into a predominantly white congregation and have a conversation about reparations.”
The diocese made history in 2019. After much debate at its 235th diocesan convention, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton called for a vote on the “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation.” And to some surprise, “All opposed?” was answered with near complete silence.
By the next year, the ayes also committed to creating a $1 million seed fund.
Not every congregation had buy-in. McCloud travels to parishes across the diocese’s 10-county reach, with about 100 to choose from in the state. The faith community is roughly 90% white.
“People would rather eat glass than talk about two topics: reparations and racism,” McCloud said simply. “Grown men will go running, screaming from a room rather than have a conversation around it — which points to how important it is for us to have it.”
This February, the first grant applications opened for any organization within the region with “proven history of doing the work of restoring African American and Black communities.” As of early June, the diocese’s reparations task force has already awarded $175,000 in grants to six community groups in its first distributions.
These milestones have in many ways grown from seeds planted decades earlier.
Several resolutions marked early motion for reconciliation in the Episcopal Church by the early 2000s, and dioceses like New York and Newark set on similar paths. The Free State’s diocese began a program called Trail of Souls to mark 150 years since slavery’s abolition. That effort led to nearly 30 congregations joining a call to examine their history.
“The Episcopal Church benefited greatly from the act of slavery,” McCloud said. “We need to remember that as a faith institution. And because of that, we really are called to take the lead in doing this work.”
The same call echoes along the East Coast.
In 2019, though, the Episcopal Diocese of New York committed $1.1 million from its endowment to fund the committee’s efforts. That same year, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island — covering the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens along with Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island — dedicated about half a million.
Now, it’s up to the reparations committees to decide how to distribute that money.
No conversation about religion and reparations should ignore the Catholic Church’s role, according to Black Catholic historian Shannen Dee Williams.
“It’s interesting how as institutions begin to grapple with foundations and colonialism and slavery, that the Catholic Church is still, in many regards, behind its Protestant counterparts,” said Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “Despite the fact that the church has played such a seminal role in these institutions.”
Leaders of the Jesuit conference of priests, a prominent order of Catholic priests, vowed in 2021 to raise $100 million to benefit the descendants of the enslaved people. The still-unfolding effort is the largest to be connected to the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2018, the Catholic sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart — who owned about 150 people in Louisiana and Missouri — created a reparations fund to finance scholarships for African Americans to attend their school.
Largely, though, the church remains among the holdouts.
“We have not even begun to really scratch the surface of the depths of the moral depravity required of individuals, of religious orders of men and women, who owned people, who traded in human flesh,” Williams said.
In New York, the Reparations Committee is preparing a diocesan retreat to propose such recommendations — with hopes that suggestions will be endorsed at its next convention.
Maryland leadership believes the ongoing grant model can help in strengthening Black communities throughout the state.