Exploring Reparations

Overview of the Series on Reparations, May and June, 2019

First Church is working hard  to better understand our slaveholding past and to learn about the living legacy of slavery. Our Road to Freedom pilgrimages and our well-attended “Stories Impossible to Tell” sessions,  held in partnership with First Parish Unitarian Universalist, have engaged us in deepening conversations about past and present-day racial injustice. We are now asking what role can we play in changing the narrative of racial inequality in Cambridge and beyond. As we remember our way into the future, we are reminded of God’s call in Isaiah 58 to be repairers of the breach! We are now asking together:

 • How do we begin to repair what has for so long been broken?

• How do we remember and acknowledge the sins of slavery and institutional racism?

• How can we do our part to heal these ongoing, still bleeding wounds?

• What can we do, as we continue on our journey of facing history and facing ourselves?

• What could personal, congregational, and local community reparations look like?

Reparations can mean many things and tends to provoke a range of reactions. We are eager to demystify the word, to offer biblical and spiritual grounding for it and to introduce the landscape of this increasingly center stage contemporary debate. Presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Marianne Williamson and New York Times columnist David Brooks are all weighing in with support for this growing conversation. Join us as we discuss together whether this is where God may be calling us next with our ongoing remembrance work.

Summary of May 5th, 2019 Session


Rev. Dan Smith raised the question of why the national conversation on reparations has gained visibility now, with presidential candidates taking positions on reparations and a variety of prominent national voices writing and speaking on the topic.   He then asked, “Why is First Church raising this issue now?”  Dan then explained how we have spent the past year looking at our church’s involvement in slavery and all that stemmed from it, and now we are ready not only  to name it and testify about it, but to do something in response.  Today we will look at our personal stories and our collective story at First Church in order to limit the focus and scale of this conversation within the large and wide-ranging national conversation.  Reparations can be a difficult and controversial topic, but if First Church can’t have a personal and local conversation about it, then he doesn’t see how a conversation can take hold nationally.

Dan first asked participants to name the feeling that they had when the word “reparations” is raised.  Answers included:

  • Relief
  • Solidarity
  • Confusion
  • Hope
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Righteous anger
  • Willingness to sacrifice

Dan then asked participants to name a thought that came to mind when hearing the word “reparations.” Answers included:

  • Repair
  • Lighting a match
  • How?
  • To whom?
  • How deep does this go?  How deep do wego?
  • I already know the amount I owe due to my privileges.
  • Who’s on the journey?
  • Is it only monetary?

As a further starting point for conversation, Dan referred to a 2017 The Episcopal Diocese of New York definition:

Reparations is the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is an historical reckoning involving acknowledgement that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice.

Theological and Biblical Backgound 

Interestingly, today is the 50thAnniversary of the Black Manifesto.  Fifty years ago this Sunday, Civil Rights activist James Forman delivered the “Black Manifesto” at the Riverside Church in New York City. He indicted white churches for complicity in American racism, called for a weekend of disruption, and took over the pulpit, calling upon white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations.  A half million of that amount was subsequently raised for black organizations, including $200,000 from Riverside Church.


He then asked participants to read several scriptures relating to reparations including the following, which include passages about ancient tradition of Jubilee.

  • Exodus 12: 33-42
  • Habakkuk 2:9
  • Leviticus 25: 10
  • Deuteronomy 15: 12-15

Dan shared that we often get theolgocal when we discuss racism as a sin.  This gets complicated because we too often think of sin as something done by an individual.  The same is true for racism.  We usually think of it as an act done by an individual.  This formulation of racism allows “good Christians”(like us?) to call out “bad racists” and lulls us into thinking we ourselves are not racists and are not participating daily in a white supremacist system that is in us and all around us.  Instead, when we locate the sin of racism in the collective body of our society, of our church, of ourselves, we can see that we are all a part of institutionalized racism.  And what of First Church?  Our congregation was centrist at best during abolition. Our early ministers were slaveholders. We can look at the racist decisions in our church’s past and ask, “How am I responsible for deeds committed centuries ago?”  Or instead we can ask how are we still entrenched in and benefitting from this system. “How do we collectively take responsibility for resisting this system of racial inequality and changing the narrartive?”  How might reparations grow out of our stories.  Racism hurts us all.  How might reparations help us to live lives that feel more whole and free?

In a recent Spotlight team series, the Boston Globe reported that the average white person in Greater Boston has assets of $237,00 while the average black person has assets of $8.00.  Dan said, “I don’t know about you but that’s not the kind of world I want to live in or raise my children in. How do we make that right?

Summary of May 10th, 2019 Session

Led by Rev. Dan Smith and Dave Kidder, who researched our congregation’s legacy of slavery. 

Dan Smith reviewed the previous session (May 5th) on reparations, saying that people had a variety of different feelings and thoughts about the topic and had explored it with a spirit of openness and a sense of curiosity to learn more.  He had shared the biblical foundations of the idea of reparations and wondered whether reparations could become our work of repair since racial inequities are still very much with us.

This session looked at the national conversation on reparations and then turned back to our discussion of what local and personal efforts might look like.

Overview of National Reparations Conversation

Dave Kidder noted that there has been recent national interest in the idea of reparations starting with Ta Nehisi Coates’ article in the Atlantic in 2014 that generated widespread response.  (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)

Coates takes the view that the country needs the process of discussing our history of slavery, not just payment.  Recently, presidential candidates and columnists like Jeff Jacoby have been weighing in with their opinions.

Other countries have engaged in reparations such as German reparations to Jews for the Holocaust and South African reparations for apartheid.

Reparations in the United States could be considered to be not only for slavery, but also for policies up until the present time that have limited African Americans access in education, health, housing, business loans, participation in the Armed Services, and many other areas.

Pro and Con Arguments Regarding National Reparations

Dave summarized the arguments in favor of reparations as  “History is terrible and reparations are one way to make up for it” and the arguments against it as

“Yes, history is terrible and reparations is a terrible idea.”

Dave then elaborated with this list of the arguments in favor of reparations:

  1. Reparations is a moral imperative.
  2. Truth telling during honest conversation about reparation is an important step in healing the racial breach in America.
  3. There is no one size fits all so there needs to be a diversity of approaches.
  4. Reparation is now a part of our national conversation so we need to deal with it.
  5. There is precedent for reparations.  It has been part of the conversation since slavery.  It started locally with an enslaved person named Belinda at the Royall House in Medford who was granted reparations.  (Medford eventually reneged).  Also, an enslaved person named Cuba, who lived around the corner from First Church and was baptized here, had to appeal to the courts to get her husband’s reparations after he died.   However, in the United States, reparations happened mostly for the benefit of slave owners.
  6. The Japanese who were interred during World War II got reparations, so that is another precedent.
  7. During 2008- 2009, The House of Representatives formally apologized for slavery and this apology explicitly says there will be no reparations.

Dave then listed some of the arguments against reparations:


  1. The country is not in favor of it with one survey showing that 92% of whites and 56% of African Americans are opposed to reparations (defined as a national payment from one group to another).
  2. Reparations is a racist policy.
  3. Reparations are against African American’s best interests because they set one person against another.  The “cure” will be worse than the problem of inequality.
  4. Reparations won’t work logistically.   Black/white is a spectrum in this country.  What percentage black do you have to be to get reparations?  Many descendants of enslaved persons can’t prove it because of record keeping problems since their ancestors were enslaved.   What about the descendants of more recent immigrants from Africa?  What about black people who are wealthy like Oprah Winfrey?
  5. African Americans would have been left behind even if there were not the legacy of slavery because they were entrepreneurial or risk-taking (this is a disparaging, racist viewpoint).

WGBH Basic Back Clip

The group watched a video clip from a local PBS show called Basic Blackon local black leaders discussing their divergent ideas about reparations.  https://www.wgby.org/episode/91890

First Church, Remembrance and Reparations

Dave Kidder spoke about our church’s process of remembrance of our slave-holding past and our complicity in white supremacy throughout our history. He spoke of how the word “remember” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to keep something in mind after having forgotten it.”  Yet, most of us were never taught about the North’s slave-owning and slave-trading past.

Now that we know and remember this legacy of slavery, Dave suggested that we respond to this knowledge in a way that creates a bridge from remembrance to repair of the breach.  To Dave, as a Christian, that bridge is repentance.  We should remember, repent, repair, and reconcile.

Dan Smith noted that he was reluctant to use repent too boldly because there is a toxic mix of shame and religion in this country and he doesn’t want to paralyze people or shut them down if there is a sense of shame.  We have to have room for people to be in all different places on the issue of remembrance and reparations.  People aren’t motivated from shame or guilt but motivated by love.

There was additional discussion after breaking into small discussion groups.  Ideas included the need to do the work collectively so that we build relationships; the building of a covenant to move forward and not leave repentance at the individual level; and the idea that repent has a deeper spiritual meaning about putting on a new self and accepting responsibility as a nation.  It’s not my fault or your fault.

Reparations Pledge

Dan handed out a personal reparation pledge for people to consider. We will be discussing it at our next session at 10 am on June 2nd.   He urged people to notice your feelings, not just your intellectual reaction to it.


Summary of June 2nd, 2019 Session

Led by Rev. Dan Smith and Dave Kidder

Session 3 on reparations began with reading from Isaiah 58:6-12 on being “Repairers of the Breach,” the theme for the series of 10 o’clock hours on reparations.

Summary and Introduction

Rev. Dan Smith summarized first two sessions on reparations, emphasizing that First Church is focusing on personal and local reparations. He explained that today we are going to be discussing a pledge, “For Truth and Reconciliation,” as a tool for our congregation.  It’s an online pledge and allows people to customize the pledge by checking off some or all of twelve statements.  The group paused to read the pledge.


Two examples of the pledge statements are:

  • I pledge to learn more about how structures and institutions built on slave labor continue to disenfranchise people in the African diaspora and devalue Black lives;
  • I pledge to acknowledge and work to heal the moral and material harm of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which continues to manifest harm in Black communities;

Sample Comments on the For Truth and Reparations Pledge

Dan Smith said he would like us to think about the spiritual practice of reparations; what it feels like to have this word or theme inside of us.   What does reparations look like in our own lives, in our souls.   He asked, “What are general reactions to the pledge?  How are you feeling in your gut?

  • Excited, relieved, upset about all the things that have been done to a group of people through no fault of their own and I don’t feel blameless at all and I would like to be relieved by engaging in what this pledge is talking about.
  • None of us is blameless.  I feel overwhelmed.  I can feel so insignificant and what in the world I can do?  How could reparations begin to express the extent of this?
  • It’s exhausting. Making a pledge is serious.  I agree with all [of the pledge statements], but think I could pledge to five, not so many.
  • I didn’t used to get my part in this.
  • It’s like getting ready to run a marathon.  It’s going to require regular attention. We’re all running the same race and we can help one another when we flag.
  • The first 5 pledge statements are personal and I feel relieved that I can do something.   I don’t feel as much connection to the next 7 pledge statements, but maybe if I work on the first 5 then I will be ready for the last 7.
  • This needs staging. An “intro” course and then advanced . You don’t start a marathon with a 26 mile practice.  Do they lay out strategies on their website for how to do this?
  • I like the vastness of these pledges.    Some are more focusing than others.  I’m sure that everyone can find something.
  • I feel important . Last week we walked in the neighborhood and [seeing the homes of slave owners] gave me more of a background of how white people were commanders of this slavery thing.
  • Abby – for me this pledge has been centering for me because there are so many different pieces of this puzzle.  I can sit with any one of them. The heartbreak, excitement about what’s possible, the terror.  I give myself space to hold this both profoundly seriously and also with some lightness about how profound it is and all it’s asking.
  • What’s missing for me is it’s not talking about relationships.  For me, it’s going to be how relationships will facilitate us living out our spiritual journey of reparations.  We personally have some relationships but how will we corporately extend this to black organizations in Cambridge?
  • I am interested in pledging to act and to learning but am more than ready to get down to specifics about taking action.

Where could we imagine that our responses to this Truth and Reparations Pledge will bring us in 3-5 years?

Regarding the pledge, Dan Smith said that he was overwhelmed but also saw a lot of flexibility.  Each person can find out where they are on their spiritual journey and make a small step or a large step.   What if we can get to that finish line of the marathon as one of spoke about? Let’s put ourselves out 3-5 years. What will be different for the better? What will have changed in us individually or as a church for the better?  What if we are at the 24thmile?

  • This allows us to be part of a great sweep of history.  We’re all in it together and with those who preceded us and those who will follow us.
  • I will make the switch from sadness to hope.  I felt small hope with Obama and then after electing a new president, it set off wave after wave of hate.  Not just hopeful as white people but can we begin to feel hopeful together with African Americane or indigenous people.  Is that realistic or the false hope of white people and the false hope of the “American Dream.”
  • When these things [in the pledges] and many more feel integrated for me.  When I have muscle memory and heart instinct for them.
  • When we have stronger relationships among us and with God.  There need to be other people to and to me the heart of the journey is in developing these relationships.

Next Steps

Dan explained that we have received a grant from the Capital Campaign Grant Committee to hire a design consultant to help us with the next stage of the Public Remembrance Project.

Everyone is invited to take the Fellowship of Reconciliation pledge online and then email Peggy Stevens, chair of the Beloved Community group, so we can know how many people have pledged: