It can be overwhelming for white people to acknowledge the tremendous harms their ancestors and this nation inflicted on Native American and African American communities, harms that we continue to inflict. It’s overwhelming to think about how to repair centuries of brutality, trauma and genocide.
White Christian churches have additional layers of responsibility and atonement. Some churches used the Bible to justify slavery or profited from owning slaves or slave labor. Many denominations ran Indian boarding schools, where children were forcibly Christianized and often abused. Some died without seeing their families again.
That’s a lot to take in. The Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, is taking one small, concrete, and practical step towards reparations. As a church, it doesn’t pay property taxes. It estimated what that property tax amount would be, and will donate it each year to Black- and Indigenous-lead organizations. No strings attached.
As the church members wrestled with how to disperse this small reparations fund, it sparked conversations that have been transforming the church and its worship experience.
Sarah (not her real name) was a teenager in Radom, Poland when Germany invaded her country in September, 1939, the start of World War II.
Now a U.S. citizen in her 90s, she remembers living in extreme poverty and constant hunger in the Radom ghetto. Many men were taken away and never seen again. Sarah was forced into slave labor, her brother taken away. She and her mother were sent on a death march to Auschwitz and later Bergen Belsen.
“More than five years in ghettos with poverty and starvation and two death marches, but I survived,” she said. “I don’t know how.”
Part of an occasional series on truth telling and repair
The tragic and horrific Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol offers an important lesson about how strongly we hold to our sacred national stories and myths.
The day of the attack, President-elect Joe Biden said: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have made similar arguments. Implicit in their speeches is this affirmative statement: “We are a good and decent people.”
Some commentators are pushing back, saying the “this-is-not-who-we-are” argument denies of our history and current reality.
Omar Wasow, writing in the Washington Post, said: “A better way to make sense of the news of the past few days — not only the violent occupation in Washington but also the historic Senate victories by Democrats in Georgia — is as a long-run contest between two competing American traditions: one committed to preserving the status quo racial hierarchy and one fighting to advance equality.
We face a crucial choice: Which American tradition do we follow?
At the end of last year, the city of Minneapolis announced a new truth and reconciliation work group made up of City staff, community leaders and experts “to study the meaning of reconciliation and research different models of truth and reconciliation commissions.”
This follows a Minneapolis City Council resolution approved last October establishing a truth and reconciliation process. The goal: Begin implementing specific solutions to specific harms that created and perpetuate racial disparities, with a focus on healing with historically Black American descendants of slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities.
Part of a series highlighting examples of truth telling and repair
In the fear and panic following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing military commanders to designate “exclusion zones” to protect the country. It allowed military commanders to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”
The order didn’t specifically name or target Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans, but that’s how it was implemented. The racism becomes apparent when you learn that 112,000 people of Japanese heritage were interned compared to some 10,000-plus people of German or Italian ancestry. Japan, Germany and Italy all were aligned in the Axis Powers and hostile to the United States.
It took decades, but the United States ultimately created opportunities for former internees to tell their stories. The government issued an apology and made meager financial repairs.
This past September, the Minnesota Council of Churches launched a multi-year effort at truth telling, education, and reparations with Indigenous and African American communities. This blog is part of a series to support that work by looking at past reparations efforts.
The U.S. response to the Japanese internment camps is one example — an imperfect one — of how this country has grappled with reparations for our past injustices. It shows we have the capacity to name and acknowledge racism, listen to stories of those who have been harmed, and make financial repairs. It also clearly shows that reparations such as these can never come close to undoing the damage done.