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Continuing their covenant to combat racism and confront the truth about their own past histories, two local churches will take the lead at noon on June 20 in a discussion of reparations from the perspectives of Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
The covenant between Lake Street Church and Second Baptist Church was forged decades ago to combat racism and confront the sister-church relationship and Lake Street Church’s past as First Baptist Church, from which Second Baptist Church separated more than a century ago.
Michael Woolf, Senior Minister at Lake Street Church, and Dr. Michael Nabors, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church, have invited Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, National Educator with Avodah, and Duncan Ryuken Williams, Professor and Director, USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, to join them in a panel discussion about reparations from a faith-based perspective.
Dr. Nabors said he and Reverend Woolf had been talking about reparations for several weeks, “and I think that culminated in this interfaith discussion on reparations, which I’m going to claim might be the first interface in the United States of America.”
“We’ve had discussions; independent faiths and denominations have had their own discussions. But I think the idea of sitting down three of the world’s major religions and having scholars come together to discuss what reparations looks like, especially in Evanston – I think that’s, that’s new. And so it’s exciting. And we were happy to be a part of it,” he added.
Commitment to multi-faith conversations is an important part of Lake Street Church, said Rev. Woolf, “because if a lot of the frameworks that we use in our parlance and how we talk about things in America are Christian – I mean, they have a Christian genealogy of the terms. And that only gets us so far. So other traditions have different ways of thinking about things and talking about things … [and] putting together those conversations and hearing those different frameworks, those different metaphors, is really important to help build the resources for thinking about repair and reparations for Black residents of Evanston. A lot of times we make advances through metaphor and through symbol and through thinking about things that way.”
Learning From Sacred Texts
The concept of restoring or repairing is not a new one in any of the faiths represented on the June 20 panel. For example, said Rev. Woolf, Professor Williams will speak from a Buddhist perspective about reparations for the victims who were interned in Japanese internment camps. “Karma is a different sort of framework for thinking about our past wrongs and how they go on and live into the present.”
Whereas much of Protestant Christianity considers issues from an individual point of view, Professor Williams’s presentation on karma will look interconnectivity and how wrongs of the past can still live in the present, Rev. Woolf said.
There is a way of reading the Exodus story and of thinking about reparations the Israelites received when they left Egypt – a subject Rabbi Bernstein will address. Rev. Woolf said, “They [the Israelites] receive reparations. People melt down their gold; they give their treasure on the departure.”
The Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years, according to the Book of Leviticus, was a year of emancipation and restoration – emancipation of Hebrew slaves and restoration of alienated lands to their former owners.
Dr. Nabors said, “The year of jubilee was that every 50 years, the communities that were Jewish had the responsibility of forgiving their neighbors and forgiving everyone that had accumulated over the years. … There was a fresh start that prevented “that generational curse – that that often exists now in terms of one generation being born into poverty, and then another generation inheriting that and not being able to get out of it.”
Reparations, Repair and Healing
The words “reparations” and “repair” come from the same root. To Rev. Woolf, they have different meanings. “Reparations,” he said, “is a term I have come to associate with a very particular set of proposals for the Black community, both nationwide, and here in Evanston.”
But there are psycho-spiritual parts of that repair that is not going to be accomplished by reparations, he said, which have to be accomplished “by truth telling, by repair of society, which, of course means talking about the wrongs, they’re done. Yes, monetary compensation but it’s also spiritual discipline.”
Dr. Nabors equates the two terms. “Reparations is, by definition, an initiative to repair damage that was done specifically as a result of, of racism against Black people. … One interesting thing about Evanston, and I think it is one of the reasons why I love it, is they are striving to be the Beloved Community. They are usually very transparent about how messy things work.”
In “The Fire Next Time,” said Rev. Woolf, James Baldwin “writes so eloquently also about the damage that’s done to white folks when they participate in racism. … In progressive communities, when you talk about something like Original Sin, what I take that to mean is that we are bound up and born into systems of sins that we didn’t create, but that we nevertheless participate in and benefit from.”
Dr. Nabors said, “There’s no question that the white community has to try to heal from the damage it helped inflict. … I think that many people that are against reparations and especially the white community feels like ‘Well, you know, it’s just the handout. I didn’t have anything to do with what happened so many years ago.’
“It’s a good teaching opportunity to say, ‘Well, no, you, you may not individually hold any racist tendencies in your heart at all. You may not be a racist, but you are a part of a system that continues to, to exert discrimination against people of color, because of a, b, and c.’
“Then you start talking about it. Some people may not want to hear it. But you start talking about institutional racism, systemic racism that exists in different organizations and companies and the like.”
The psycho-spiritual damage of racism and white supremacy is important for wholeness, said Rev. Woolf, because psycho-spiritual damage cuts both ways. White people should not be the focus of reparations, but acknowledging that there is work to be done is an “an issue of wholeness and what it means to have a just society what means to live in a modern democracy, that provides foundations for all people to flourish – I think those are all really central questions.”
Dr. Nabors pointed to inequities that exist nationally and locally – in housing, wealth and education – the academic achievement gap. The wealth gap between white and Black families may be more pronounced in Evanston than in other communities, he added.
“How can we begin to address it? It’s cathartic for the community that helps to increase and deepen relationships between Black and white people, it seems to me, because it is white people taking ownership, not of personal racism, but being a part of a system where they really do have advantages over Black and Brown people,” said Dr. Nabors.
The Need for Conversation
One of the ways that churches create reparations is to highlight how to have conversations about reparations from a faith-based perspective, both pastors said.
“Part of that is just taking a risk,” said Rev. Woolf. “And we want to help people feel more comfortable in their risk-taking by situating this as a conversation that’s being had, and also by saying, ‘Your faith tradition has something to say about that. And to be big, to be bold, to dig deep into the well of your faith, and to see what it has to say about this really important issue – that’s really a challenge. But it’s also something that I really feel is quite important. … And that might lead you to some difficult conversations: What ways have churches been collaborators with white supremacy, been racist, been white supremacists? Have they benefited from racism and white supremacist society?”
The ongoing question, said Rev. Woolf, is, “How can churches be a part of that repair?”
Dr. Nabors sees the panel discussion as an opportunity to expand Second Baptist Church’s solidarity circles, where Black and white people of talk frankly about race and racism.
“I think in these small group circles we will be able to find tremendous and amazing opportunities to move our community closer to the Beloved Community, because we’ll be breaking down walls that are built on stereotypes and building on all of these things. And we will be able to break those walls down by producing friendships.”
The link for the conversation, scheduled for noon on June 20, is here (https://tinyurl.com/RepConvo).