Lucy Duncan, a member of Philadelphia's Commission for Interfaith Affairs and a fellow with the Truth Telling Project, leads a discussion on reparations at Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Jordan Levy / Billy Penn)

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Sustained conversations about reparations for slavery in the United States have a tendency to bring forward a wide range of anxieties. Things get even stickier when the discussion includes the complicity of one’s faith tradition in slavery and anti-Blackness.

About 100 members of various faith communities in Philly spent four days on exactly that topic last week, as part of an intensive course run by the Mayor’s Commission on Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs and The Truth Telling Project.

The program is part of the commission’s ongoing “Rise Up for Reparations” campaign, which kicked off via a revival last June.

“White supremacy had to be theologically sanctioned in order to be successful,” Reverend Naomi Washington Leapheart, Philly’s director for faith-based and interfaith affairs, told Billy Penn. “[So] the way forward, the way through to something other than a white supremacist infrastructure is theological — that’s what I believe.”

Congregants from the Unitarian Society of Germantown, Tabernacle United Church, Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, and more were in attendance at the meetings. The audience was mostly older and mostly white; most Black participants came from majority-white congregations.

The event was funded by antiracist organization White Men for Racial Justice. Over plenty of coffee and catered Honeysuckle Provisions, scholars, activists, and theologians participated in the historical and spiritual education sessions at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.

They shared thoughts on how reparations could and should come to Philly, and what route could make it a reality.

Federally-led steps towards reparations face long odds. Sixty-two percent of respondents in a 2021 poll said African Americans shouldn’t receive reparations, with the primary reason cited being the belief that descendants of enslaved people don’t deserve them. In a 2022 survey from Pew, however, 77% percent of Black Americans said they do believe reparations are warranted.

For these reasons and more, reparative initiatives past and present have often occurred in a local context.

Green Street Friends Meeting in Germantown, a Quaker group, launched a $500,000 reparations campaign in its neighborhood last year. Lucy Duncan, a Green Street member who’s also on the Commission for Interfaith Affairs and a fellow with the Truth Telling Project, said these conversations and initiatives need to go beyond acts of charity.

What’s needed is a culture with “a real commitment to move beyond the myths, lies, and denial that upholds a lot of the systems of capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism,” Duncan said, “without editing and without obfuscating that full truth.”

Addressing poverty ‘in a way that acknowledges the root’

Pursuing faith-informed reparations work was one of the initial goals of Philly’s Commission on Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs, set up in 2019 as part of the Office of Public Engagement.

“From the very beginning, reparations was on the agenda,” said Duncan, of Green Street and the commission on interfaith affairs.

It’s an aspect of one of the commission’s critical aims: reducing poverty in Philadelphia.

Part of the commission’s official mission is encouraging “residents’ contributions to the quality of civic life.” The language of healing which permeated the week of workshops demonstrated officials’ view that the notion of “civic life” is in need of physical and spiritual repair.

“Reparations address poverty in a way that acknowledges the root, that admits that but for these decisions that were made by ancestors, folks today would be experiencing life very differently in a material sense,” said Washington Leapheart, the city’s faith-based and interfaith affairs director.

To get that message across, participants in last week’s seminars read and discussed a range of works, from an essay on the psychological case for reparations to womanist theology to an episode of FX’s “Atlanta” to Philadelphia’s extant — and unenforced — law on slavery disclosure requirements for businesses working with the city.

Participants were encouraged to meditate on the week outside of sessions, as the program included homework and journaling prompts.

One portion that exemplified how the practical dimensions of reparations are tied to spiritual ones discussed genealogical work.

Reparations4Slavery, an organization dedicated to finding direct links between descendents of enslaved people and slaveholders in America, described how people on both sides of the equation have worked to track down familial ties to through U.S. chattel slavery, in an effort to make some sort of amends.

Discussion then moved to how Jesus’s ancestry was traced in the text of Gospels, and how the exclusion of his matrilineal line erased a history of womens’ subjugation in the Old Testament.

The point of discussing these twinned silences of the past was to demonstrate the deep, deliberate historical reconsideration that the organizers see as implicit in reparations work. Talk of Jesus’s ancestry also tied the conversation to an important point for the week overall — clerical and congregational complicity in chattel slavery.

Another crucial sticking point was the Doctrine of Discovery, the series of Papal Bulls that framed the religious and legal case for colonization — a conversation that isn’t just pie in the sky.

“I feel like there’s a specific role that faith-based communities can play, which would be directly making redress to the Doctrine of Discovery,” Rashaun Williams, an organizer with the Philly chapter of The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) who co-led a presentation at one session, told Billy Penn.

Examining and rejecting the legal and political impacts and afterlives of these clerical declarations plays into N’COBRA’s goals, which call for wide redistributions of property and a rethinking of the common notion of “productive” land tenure.

The discussion mostly revolved around Christian traditions, but people of many faiths were in attendance, including a party who worship at Mishkan Shalom. Philadephians involved with the Ubuntu Freedom prison ministry group, Muslims, and people of the Baháʼí religion also listened into and participated in proceedings.

“While every party is not necessarily guilty, every party is responsible,” said Washington Leapheart. “We are responsible for the world that we’ve inherited, and the world that we pass down.”

At times, conversation was ripe with the tension, fear, and anxiety so characteristic of discussions about what America’s legacy of chattel slavery should mean for the country today.

The overriding goal was to push on the pressure points — which included a note about the strict focus on reparations for slavery and not issues affecting Indigenous people — and work through the hard questions and implications of seeking reparations today.

Putting plans into action, and sparking conversation

Reparations can’t come to pass, per the event’s facilitators, without forging new ties between congregations and their surrounding communities — the connection to the commission’s mission-oriented focus on “civic life” — that work across the racial and class lines that often manifest in Philly.

Such relationships are critical, per Washington Leapheart, so there can be a genuine comfort with partaking in Black-led reparations efforts.

On the final day, workshop attendees began drafting plans to bring back to their congregations, with the aim of concrete action coming into being over the next 12 to 18 months.

An early glimpse at one action plan, from congregants of Germantown’s St. Vincent de Paul, includes a disavowal of the Doctrine of Discovery and starting church-wide discussions as to how a full acknowledgement of Catholic complicity ought to shape future work in the neighborhood.

“What if we had 100 Green Streets in the city?” wondered Duncan, the Quaker who has first hand experience with turning these kinds of conversations into material change. “How could that inspire wealth redistribution through the faith community and also narrative change through the civic community?”

Facilitators hope the seeds planted by the Rise Up for Reparations workshop — which they hope to facilitate again next year — will blossom into a citywide culture of reparations.

That includes pressuring mayoral candidates to enforce slavery disclosure laws, encouraging other congregations to join the movement, and foregrounding activists for reparations already working in Philly.

Reparations, per Washington Leapheart, is as far from being solely a metaphysical or moral question as it is from being a crude payoff to Black communities, for whom the impact of slavery is more than material.

“Will reparations make black folk rich? No, that’s never that’s never been the goal — that’s been a perversion of the narrative of reparations,” said Washington Leapheart.

“But will this be meaningful economically to the people who receive reparations? Absolutely.”

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Jordan Levy

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...