Episcopalians Consider Giving Reparations to Black Members
Saturday, June 3, 2006
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Episcopal Church is poised to apologize for failing to oppose slavery, but making up for its 19th-century inaction won't come without 21st-century controversy.
At its national convention beginning June 13, the church is expected to approve a resolution expressing regret for supporting slavery and segregation. But the debate likely will get more heated when a second resolution comes up, calling for a study of possible reparations for black Episcopalians.
The church, already divided on the issue of gays' role in the church, is struggling over whether reparations would be a meaningful gesture 141 years after the Civil War ended.
"A lot of times you say, 'I'm not a racist, I didn't have slaves, no one in my family had slaves, I could not possibly be complicit in this,' " said Sharon Denton, a member of the church's National Concerns Committee, which deals with domestic ministry and mission issues.
"But if you start digging back in the history of things, you find out there were a lot of things that come to you that were built on slave-holding and the slave trade," said Denton, a member of an all-white parish in Salina, Kans.
The Rev. Harold T. Lewis, a black priest and rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, called the idea of reparations outrageous and impractical.
"The better thing to do is to talk about how we can work to eradicate racism and how we can fight to eliminate economic disparities regardless of racism," said Lewis, the denomination's former longtime staff officer for black ministries.
The church declined to embrace a resolution three years ago backing federal legislation to create a national reparations task force. This year's resolution is more focused on the church, calling for a study of how it benefited economically from slavery and how that benefit could be shared with black Episcopalians, about 5 percent of its 2.2 million members.
But the resolution does not give specifics, and both supporters and detractors say reparations could mean anything from cash payments to college scholarships.
Previous attempts to deal with the issue have proved difficult. In 1969, the church's General Convention-- or legislative body-- approved a $200,000 grant to the National Committee of Black Churchmen in response to calls for reparations from activist James Forman. But the move created a significant backlash among parishioners.
Southern Episcopalians temporarily formed their own branch during the Civil War but were quietly marked absent during the northern denomination's 1862 convention and then welcomed back into the fold when the war ended.
Other denominations have since apologized for their support of slavery.