The discussion of reparations is slowly moving further and further into mainstream political discussion and pop culture. Faith leaders in Philadelphia hope to keep pushing it along.

Beginning Monday, more than 80 faith leaders and other congregants from Philadelphia will meet for a four-day course studying reparations for African Americans. At Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue on North Broad Street, the interfaith participants will thoroughly examine the historical and conceptual foundations for paying reparations and discuss how to take what they have learned back to their congregations.

The course was created through a collaboration between the Mayor’s Commission on Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs and the Truth Telling Project. It is one part of the city’s Rise Up for Reparations campaign, which aims to engage at least 100 majority-white faith congregations in reparations work.

Lucy Duncan, a Quaker leader and member of the Mayor’s Commission, said that this course is meant to show people that there are realistic ways to compensate Black people for the inhumanity and discrimination they have faced during, and because of, slavery.

“I think that often, when people think of reparations, they think, ‘That’s impossible.’ And what we want to do is really demonstrate that people, with their own resources and their own connections … they can do reparations. That we can make the harms of our history right,” she said.

For the first three days of the course, scholars, activists, and other advocates will teach the concept of reparations. They will share writings and other teachings about the subject, arguing for why they believe this kind of compensation is a moral, spiritual obligation.

And they plan to explore examples where reparations have already been given, such as when the U.S. government paid reparations to Japanese interment camp survivors, as well as to discuss what may be possible in Philadelphia.

On the last day, the participants will practice how to talk about reparations with people in their congregations and communities, including those who might not favor them.

The course leaders encouraged participants to sign up in groups. That way, they would have more support when they return to their congregations, and make the case for reparations and how to give them out or ask for them.

The Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, the director of the Mayor’s Commission, explained that designing the course to include leaders and participants from diverse faith and racial backgrounds was essential.

“One of the reasons that white supremacy persists is that people [stay] in their corners. People [stay] in their silos. So you [rarely] have, for example, white folk talking to Black folk about [reparations]. You [rarely] have Christian communities talking to Jewish communities, and Muslim communities talking to Bahá’í communities,” she said. “We want to … create a space of vulnerability where we can talk to each other and maybe say some hard things to each other and hear some hard things from each other.”

“How do you support your brother who is the oppressor?” said Aziz Nathoo, a Muslim interfaith leader and member of the Mayor’s Commission, about these conversations with white congregants. “You support him by holding his hand and walking him away from the path of oppression.”

Washington-Leapheart explained how faith communities ought to be among the leaders on this issue.

“Religious institutions were complicit in the spread of the sustaining of white supremacy in the United States,” she said. “Even if they weren’t actively involved in white supremacy, many of them were silent in the face [of it]. So we see faith institutions as part of that system that needs to repent and needs to make amends for what has happened and what continues to happen to Black communities.”

“Writing a check is essential, but just writing a check is not enough.”

The faith leaders described how reparations don’t have to necessarily come just in the form of a check from wealthy people or congregations. They suggested how a majority-white congregation could support affordable housing development in their neighborhoods, or adopt a sister majority-Black congregation, or give away land for Black urban farming. Whichever form the reparations come in, the faith leaders said, what is most important is a reckoning with the legacy of slavery and privilege.

“Writing a check is essential, but just writing a check is not enough. People need to do the relational work. They need to do the internal and external work of divesting from white supremacy in order for this to be something that is really deeply meaningful,” Duncan said.

“It [doesn’t] need to be done on an enormous scale, and all of the questions … [don’t] need to be answered, [and] individual communities, individual congregations, [can] take reparations seriously and [can] make them work in their community,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a member of the Mayor’s Commission. “And [if] many communities around the country started doing that, it would grow and there could be living reparations happening in the United States, even if the entire country didn’t engage in this grand debate about whether we should do it.”

Washington-Leapheart made clear that the smaller-scale reparations the course hopes to inspire aren’t meant to replace the wider-reaching reparations that would hopefully be paid by governments and corporations one day. “We do see this as a piece of the larger puzzle. There are systemic issues that must be addressed at the government level. [But] we say to ourselves that we are still responsible [to each other], regardless of what our government is or is not doing.”

Nathoo understands the most common argument against reparations, with some asserting that because they were not the ones to enslave Black people, they shouldn’t have to pay for the crimes of other people.

But he said that mind-set misses the point of reparations. “You are the beneficiary that inherited privileged status. So whether you asked for it or not, you got it,” he said.

“The struggle for reparations is a human and universal call to justice. It’s not charity. It is a bill that is past due. Way past due.”


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