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Bringing about God’s Jubilee in a hurting world

The co-founders of the Center for Jubilee Practice discuss how churches can enter into difficult conversations around reparations

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ryan Stone via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Rick Ufford-Chase, a ruling elder and the Moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), and the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, who last spring co-founded, along with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and the Presbytery of Utica, co-founded the Center for Jubilee Practice, appeared last week on A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast. The two talked about their work studying, among other things, how churches might facilitate conversations around reparations in light of the wealth gap between Indigenous and African American families and white families in the U.S.

Listen to the podcast here. DeTar Birt and Ufford-Chase are introduced by hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong at the 26:15 mark.

Many people think of reparations as a Boogeyman, DeTar Birt said. “It’s like, ‘Oh no! Somebody is gonna come and take my money and do whatever they want with it,’” she said. “It’s not the Boogeyman. What it is, is a recognition that there are people … African American and Indigenous people in this country, who are either the original inhabitants or the folks who helped build up this country and are responsible for the wealth and the creation of things within it [who] really never got the opportunity to benefit from that … What reparations [are] meant to do is to sort of balance that out a bit by giving the descendants of those people something in return to restore some of that — either something financial, something physical, like land or property, or what have you.”

The Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt

“It’s not just charity. It’s not just a handout. And it’s certainly not like this idea of a stick-up where it’s like, ‘Oh no, white people — we’re taking your stuff,’” DeTar Birt said. Rather, “I think it should be this more relational situation and this recognition that there are people who have not benefitted from this … Should every congregation implement reparations in the same way? No, because every church can’t necessarily participate in the system in the same way. Not everybody has the resources to do that, just like every person is not going to receive reparations in the same way … The way that my people today might ask for reparations is gonna look different than the way that my Native siblings might ask for reparations.”

Ufford-Chase suggested taking a step back to ask a precursor question: Why are we even talking about reparations?

As the son of a retired Presbyterian pastor, a lifelong Presbyterian and a white cisgender man in his late 50s, “I’ve been centered in every possible way,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he lies awake at night “wondering if it’s possible to take enough action to reverse the phenomenal amount of harm that’s been done in the name of Christianity.” The debate over whether to pursue reparations “is a conversation about the soul of the church,” he said, “and if we can’t build the church’s future on taking responsibility for the remarkable harm that we’ve caused, frankly I don’t have much energy for the future of the church.”

He said the work he and DeTar Birt and others are undertaking is “healing and repair work,” which “seems to me to be the critical underpinning for anything we might do from here looking forward.”

Many PC(USA) congregations have not yet begun the conversation, Catoe noted, and “it’s not even on the radar right now.” Instead, many churches and mid councils are instead “having these hard conversations about closing buildings.”

DeTar Birt acknowledged the importance of holding those difficult conversations without one excluding the other. She said part of what she enjoys most about the work she and Ufford-Chase do as part of the Center for Jubilee Practice is “going into communities and learning about their history, and seeing what their legacies have been around certain issues, particularly around things like slavery, things like working with Native Americans … and finding out, was there a positive history? Was there a neutral bystander history? Or was there something more sinister?” That work includes “seeing how your past can be brought into this present, and how that legacy can be used in these conversations that you’re bringing up now about [closing] these buildings and thinking about who you want to be today.”

Rick Ufford-Chase

“Let’s be real,” Ufford-Chase said. “There’s not a church in the country that isn’t built on stolen land. That’s a pretty foundational place to begin. Many, many, many of our churches were built with labor that was indentured or were enslaved or built with dollars that came out of the institution of slavery.”

The conversation around reparations is multi-pronged, Doong said. The first step, as Ufford-Chase and DeTar Birt pointed out, is “just to get folks to recognize their own history.”

“Some people just want to move on,” Doong said. Congregations that don’t explore their history fail to “recognize their complicity.” Doong asked the guests for advice on how churches can best examine their own history.

“Everybody is in a different space,” Ufford-Chase said, adding that if someone had asked him six or seven years ago about reparations, “I was one of those white guys who’d roll my eyes and say, ‘Yeah, cute — great idea, but it’ll never work … I had to be educated. I had to come along.”

“So how did that happen? I read a lot, and I got far deeper into the conversation with colleagues who were Native American and African American. I really tried to understand their perspective, and … what it means to have been the descendants of people who have been actively excluded from participating in any kind of generational creation of wealth.”

“My family does not carry huge wealth, but I know I’ve got a cushion,” Ufford-Chase said. “And that cushion is all about the fact that my family was allowed to … maintain wealth over time and pass it from one generation to the next. So we’ve all got work to do, and I think one of the things that Ashley and I have emphasized is that typically words that polarize — and I include the word ‘reparations’ in this — are not helpful words.”

“Where we want to begin is with experience. Tell me about your own family’s experience. What do you know about where your family came from, or what your church’s history has been? And let’s talk about the experience of folks who don’t carry the same kind of history that you carry.”

In his own case — and he knows this thanks to his grandmother’s genealogical research — Ufford-Chase traces his family’s history in what would become the United States back to a forebear arriving in 1640 “with a land grant in his pocket for land that was being ceded to him.”

“So what does it mean for us to look back at that history and recognize that some of our folks came as a project of conquest, and I count my ancestors among them. Some came as opportunists who saw an opportunity to try and improve their lives and grabbed it. Some came because they were forced out of their own place by war or economic hardship or environmental challenge or whatever it might be and tried to make their own way. And some were enslaved and brought here against their will.”

“Depending on which track you took to make your way into the United States — what became the United States — you’re going to be experiencing the year 2021 very differently.”

DeTar Birt said it’s helpful for immigrants to this country “to know what they are going to be up against” from U.S. institutions including the church. “The church has been horrible at differentiating between cultures, and it has been horrible in understanding the nuances when it comes to racial and ethic and cultural differences,” she said. “There are plenty of people who don’t know the difference between those three words. I think it’s helpful if you are trying to start a church in America to have a basic understanding of some American history and some church history in America, just so you know what you’re dealing with. That’s not fair, but it’s the most realistic answer I can give.”

The more he studies, the more Ufford-Chase says he’s convinced that the biblical concept of Jubilee “is God’s attempt to institutionalize a practice of reparations, with some recognition that if we don’t have such a practice, the world will get itself twisted and out of whack pretty quickly.” It’s “human nature, I suppose at some level,” for “things to become inequitable. I so love the notion that every seven years, we’re supposed to let the land rest from whatever we’ve been doing and forgive debts and release captives and put things back in order.”

“I love the idea that’s foundational in our Scripture,” although as Ufford-Chase points out, the texts are not part of the lectionary.

“There may be some reason for that,” he said. “In a capitalist culture, they may make us squirm a little bit.”

On top of that, “the land and the people on it — none of it belongs to us. We belong to God,” DeTar Birt said. “That’s such a beautiful reminder for me of how we should treat one another and how we should be treating the land. We should be in community with one another, seeing God in each other … So let’s treat it with that respect and kindness, that abundance that we have been given. Every time I hear our name, it just makes me happy.”

In addition to interviewing DeTar Birt and Ufford-Chase, Doong also spoke with Santa himself in a podcast that can be heard here beginning Dec. 23.

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