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Episcopal Church awards reparations for ‘restoring Black communities’

Eugene Taylor Sutton is the Maryland diocese's first Black bishop. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

Nearly two years after it established a fund to make reparations for systemic racism and slavery, the Maryland Episcopal Church awarded $180,000 in grant money Thursday to its inaugural class of organizations doing the work of “restoring African American and Black communities.”

The six organizations, awarded $30,000 each, include nonprofits, church-affiliated initiatives and youth centers committed to providing economic, education, housing, and environmental and health-care resources to Black children and families.

The grant winners included the Samaritan Community, St. Luke’s Youth Center (SLYC) and Next One Up, based in Baltimore City; Calvert Concept Charitable Corp., a start-up in Calvert County; I Believe In Me in Frederick; and Anne Arundel Connecting Together in Anne Arundel County.

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Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the first Black bishop in the Maryland diocese, said the Episcopal Church’s racial justice and reparative work in the state started more than 15 years ago, when leaders began documenting how the institution benefited from slavery.

The leaders also studied how the church continued to benefit from systems that oppressed or marginalized Black people even after slavery was abolished.

“That did not sit well with us,” Sutton said during his introductory remarks at Thursday’s awards ceremony. Rather than the church “falling behind,” the bishop said there was a collective sentiment to “take the lead.”

“Let’s put our money where our mouth is,” he said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted at its general convention in 2019 to study the subject of reparations, which included a finding that most, if not all, of its churches built before 1860 included labor or materials crafted by enslaved people.

A year later, the reparations fund was established at its annual convention with $1 million in seed money, which was to be invested back in Maryland communities hindered by slavery’s legacy and ongoing systemic racism. The fund now exceeds $1 million because of additional contributions in the two years since its founding.

“Many people in the United States wonder, why reparations? I did not own slaves, and maybe my family didn’t own slaves, and I love everyone,” Sutton said at the award ceremony. “Today is part of that answer.”

“The legacy of 350-plus years of discrimination against persons of African descent have taken a toll on this nation. And it has affected all of us,” the bishop continued. “None of us may have been guilty, but all of us have a responsibility. Today is an indication of the responsibility we are taking.”

The Diocese of Maryland created a Reparations Task Force to build out the grant program and choose the first class of awardees. The process was open to any organization operating within the geographical region of the Diocese of Maryland — which includes the central, western and southern parts of the state. The Maryland suburbs of D.C. were not eligible because they are part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Representatives from Calvert Concept said the investment from the diocese felt like an “expression of confidence” in their start-up idea to help build generational wealth for Black families through home and business ownership.

Shel Simon, deputy CEO of Next One Up in Baltimore, echoed that sentiment, thanking the church for backing the work his group is doing with young men in the city.

“When I think of the painful history of our country and how often it’s ignored or swept under the rug, it has to be recognized for us to move forward as a community,” he said.

St. Luke’s Youth Center, a collaborative of West Baltimore families, plans to use its grant money to hire an arts and public education coordinator.

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“We will be using the funds to help continue to give voice to the people who have been silenced and not given voice,” said Amanda Talbot, SLYC executive director. “That’s really important to us. Our families and parents have a lot to say.”

Aje Hill, the founder and executive director of I Believe in Me, accepted his organization’s grant money with a speech about the importance of believing. He served eight years in prison for crimes he committed as a “menace to society,” he said, before getting out and realizing he had the power to give back and make amends in Frederick, where he grew up.

“I know what it’s like to be hurting. I know what it’s like to be sad. I know what it’s like to be broken,” Hill said. “We aim to prevent kids from going into that darkness.”

The grant money, he said, will go toward building out after-school programming that provides mentorship, academic tutoring and life skill development.

He said he made the trip to the ceremony from Frederick because he wanted to see the faces of the people who chose his organization for the reparative grant.

“It’s the people that believe in us,” Hill said. “Thank you so much for believing in us.”

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