(RNS) — A professor and students at Harvard Kennedy School are joining forces with prominent Christian and Jewish organizations to develop a faith-based blueprint to advance the possibility of reparations for African Americans.
The National Council of Churches and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have become a client of several students in the school’s “Creating Justice in Real Time” course and hope by the end of the semester to create new ways — such as resources for congregations and proposed legislation for Congress — to move conversations into action.
“We’re trying to build a grassroots, congregation-level strategy to take up the whole matter of federal reparations and ultimately establish a commission and ultimately push for legislation that addresses America’s profound racial wealth gap,” said the Rev. Cornell William Brooks, a former president of the NAACP and a professor at the Kennedy School, Harvard’s school of public policy and government.
Brooks, who also is a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, leads a collaborative at Harvard that he describes as “a think-and-do tank” that involves college and graduate students of divinity, business and law, working with political leaders and social justice organizations. The African Methodist Episcopal minister said this semester marks the first time the collaborative has signed a memorandum of understanding with religious organizations that are expected to implement what they and the students develop as soon as 2024.
“This is not a mere research paper,” he said. “How do you get the academic research out of the journals, into people’s hands, into their heads, and into legislation?”
More than half a century after “the Black Manifesto” demanded $500 million in reparations from white churches and synagogues for the mistreatment of African Americans, religious institutions and denominations have helped lead the way amid continuing national debate. In recent years, Virginia Theological Seminary began paying descendants of African Americans “whose labor built and sustained” it. In January, Reconstructionist Jews called for reparations to descendants of slaves and Indigenous peoples for harms caused by slavery, colonization and white supremacist policies.
The Rev. Stephen A. Green, the NCC’s civic engagement and outreach consultant, said the ecumenical council is working on a draft of a letter it hopes to send to President Joe Biden seeking his signature on an executive order to create a commission to study reparations. Congressional legislation for such a step, proposed for decades on Capitol Hill, has yet to pass.
“Because we don’t see a pathway in the Congress under this session, because of divided government,” Green said, “we would like to see the president establish this via executive order.”
Green, a former NAACP youth director and the current pastor of St. Luke AME Church in Harlem, New York, said he hopes religious leaders will work with the students to learn best practices about reparations from a task force created in California and an initiative in Evanston, Illinois.
Yolanda Savage-Narva said a reparations task force of the Religious Action Center, which is the advocacy arm of the Union of Reform Judaism, has begun creating resources on the history of reparations as well as possible advocacy steps to share with their congregations. They expect to receive feedback from Kennedy School students about it.
“We’re following their lead,” said Savage-Narva, the URJ’s official addressing racial equity, diversity and inclusion. “We’re approaching this from this very specific point of view about b’tselem elohim, that people are made in the image of God, and I think that drives both organizations to support this work and to support the students in their pursuit.”
Phil Scholer, a Georgetown University graduate, is a divinity school student who will be assisting the NCC and RAC, drawing on his work with others at his Catholic alma mater, to continue to seek payment to descendants of enslaved people who were sold to pay the debts of the Washington institution.
Scholer said it is fitting to work with the religious groups at Harvard — which, like Georgetown, has issued a report in recent years about its ties to slavery — “because a lot of the moral argument for reparations comes out of religion.” He pointed to the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Isaiah, where that prophet preached about doing good and correcting oppression.
“From that we have arguments of what is the moral responsibility for the U.S. government and for institutions like Georgetown and Harvard to address oppression of the past and finally pay their fair share,” Scholer said.
At the first online meeting with Green and Savage-Narva earlier this month, he heard their desire to involve a broad range of people, from students to descendants and people of different ages and faiths, “not just acknowledging this history but actually making some substantive change.”
Green said it is an appropriate time, after the recent deaths of Tyre Nichols and other Black people in police custody, to consider reparations.
“We realize that reparative justice is a pathway to truly close the gaps that continue to exist in the United States of America as relates to race and to reckon with our original sin of racism,” he said. “We’re hoping that as the nation moves to its 250th year of its inception in 2026 that by that time we will have implemented a reparative justice program in this nation.”