Episcopalians Consider Giving Reparations to Black Members
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press
Saturday, June 3, 2006; B09
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.
This year, the Church of England-- the root of the Anglican Communion of which the Episcopal Church is a part-- voted to acknowledge its complicity in the slave trade. In 2001, the Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) admitted that its apathy prolonged the suffering of enslaved blacks.
The Southern Baptists, born of the Baptist split over slavery, apologized more than 10 years ago for condoning racism for much of its history.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which divided over slavery in 1861 and reunited only in 1983, has supported the study of reparations within the church and has backed a federal reparations bill.
The Episcopal Church's apology is important for the message it will send, said the Rev. Kwasi Thornell, a black priest from Silver Spring and a member of the National Concerns Committee.
"It's not going to change the world, but I think it's an important step that we recognize how we've been involved in a sinful action," Thornell said. "For me as an African American priest, it would mean a lot for me to hear."
While the church has been slower to apologize than other denominations, it has worked hard to educate members about racism in recent years, said the Rev. Ed Rodman, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
Those efforts and a growing understanding that northerners, as well as southerners, benefited from slavery has brought the ideas of an apology and reparations to the forefront today.
Helping fuel that understanding is a documentary film, "Traces of the Trade," by independent filmmaker Katrina Browne. The film tells the story of Browne's Rhode Island ancestors, the DeWolfs, the largest slave-trading family in the United States and prominent Episcopalians. Browne expects to show the film at the church's convention.
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