2019 Focus: From Memory to Action

As part of his sabbatical in the winter and spring of 2018, Rev. Dan Smith received a $15,000 grant from the Louisville Institute. The project, entitled “Remembrance and Reparation at First Church,” dovetails with the ongoing work of the congregation to examine its history of complicity with slavery and to explore the work that others have done to face their histories of racial terror and to repair the destruction left behind.  For background work in 2018, please scroll down.  Most recently, our focus has been on Reparations.

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

Over the course of the past year and a half, First Church has worked 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, most recently 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.

Repairing the Breach: Remembrance and Reparations at First Church, summary of conversation on Sunday, May 5th at 10 am.

Summary of Thoughts Shared in Session I at 10 a.m. on May 5, 2019

Led by Rev. Dan Smith and Dave Kidder


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?

Earlier presentations on Senior Minister Dan Smith's earning from his Spring, 2018 sabbatical: Remembrance and Reparation at First Church:

Part I powerpoint Sabbatical Reflections. from September 16th presentation: FCC 091618 Sabbatical Presentation.pdf

Part 2 powerpoint Remembering Slavery's Living Legacy, from September 23rd presentation: FCC and Slavery 092318 Presentation.pdf

Starting in December 2018, First Church began hosting round table discussions about "Stories Impossible to Tell."  These narratives about enslaved persons were written by James Ramsey, MInisterial Intern at First Church during the Summer of 2018 in consultation with Senior Minister, Rev. Dan Smith.  Click below for links to these narratives:

Other Learning Opportunities

We at First Church will be offering opportunities to move forward together by continuing the discussions we have already begun on facing our history of complicity in Northern slavery.

We have been increasing our knowledge of slavery, racial oppression, and white privilege through:

1) Educational sessions on Northern slavery, helping to set the context for understanding First Church’s own history of slavery in the 1600-1700’s.

  • Summary of Spring 2018 session led by Professor John Stauffer on Slavery in the North  
  • Powerpoint by First Church member Dave Kidder about his search to find the history of individuals who were enslaved while members of First Church from Spring 2018.

2) Recommended Reading and Films(see below)

Congregation’s statement from 2018 Annual Meeting about race and remembrance

The congregation voted unanimously for First Church to “explore a project of public remembrance related to our history of complicity with Northern slavery.”

As we move forward with this public remembrance project, we will continue to ground our conversation in Scripture and theology, seeking God’s grace.  We hope to name this history boldly and speak frankly about issues of injustice, harm, and even the work of repair.  We have been opening discussions with Isaiah 58.

Books Recommended by Dan Smith and the “Beloved Community” Group

Ten Hills Farm - The forgotten History of Slavery in the North by C.S. Manegold.  Beginning with John Winthrop as master of Ten Hills Farm and owner of slaves, the author traces the next 5 family generations of slave owners in the Winthrop family.

New England Bound -Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren. A Pullitizer Finalist.“A bracing and fearless inquiry into the intricate web of slavery and empire into which all New Englanders were bound. Ardently argued, and urgently necessary.” (Jill Lepore, author of New York Burning)

Complicity - How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Hartford Courant journalists Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank. A well-researched book that demythologizes the region of America known for tolerance and liberation, revealing a place where thousands of people were held in bondage and slavery for both economics and a necessary way of life. 

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. The author explores the complex reality of today's racial landscape with answers to questions like “Why am I always being told to ‘check my privilege?’”  “Is police brutality really about race?”  “Why can’t I touch your hair?”  What is intersectionality and why do I need it?”

The Half Has Never Been Told.  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist.  This nonfiction book shapes slave narratives and plantation records into a riveting tale showing how the expansion of slavery after the Revolution helped modernize the young capitalist economy. He argues that forced migration and torture were the foundation for achieving America’s dreams of freedom.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is an award-winning novel that follows a protagonist drawn to activism after she witnesses the police shooting of her unarmed friend.  Although written as a young adult novel, adults in the BBC group found the characters and plot to be engaging and meaningful.


Get in the Way. The son of an Alabama sharecropper, John Lewis has been a member of Congress since 1986. In between he was one of the first to participate in lunch counter sit ins, was a founding member of SNCC, a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a firm believer of nonviolence and is known to day as the conscience of Congress.  Produced by PBS and can be purchased at Shop.PBS.org or rented at local libraries.

Eyes on the Prize.  A 14 part series of the Civil Rights decade from 1954 to 1965, Beginning with the Montgomery Bus boycott and concluding with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Produced by PBS and can be purchased at ShopPBS.org. Is also available at local libraries. Those going on the church’s Civil Rights Tour will be particularly interested in episodes depicting the Montgomery bus boycott, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk is a brilliant and important piece of the underpinnings of Dan’s Sabbatical study on Remembrance and Reparations.

 Slavery by Another Name, is a documentary made from the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon.

13th,  is a documentary that explores the criminalization of African Americans and the prison boom.

I am Not Your Negro, a film biography of James Baldwin, also includes images from film and media of African Americans from the early 20th century through 2014.




Please pray for the victims and their families who were terrorized at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California.

Please attend the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) Healthcare Assembly on May 29 from 7 until pm. The location is TBD, and will be announced soon.

To address institutional racism, please call your state representative and Senator, and ask for abolishment of mandatory minimums in sentencing. Ask them to contact the Joint Committee dealing with this legislation. For more background on this...