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Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is hosting a national conversation on repairing the nation’s racial divide

Seminary President the Rev. Paul Roberts says foundation funding will help get the conversation started on Jan. 19

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is relying on the calling of Isaiah 58:12 — “… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” — as it begins convening a national conversation on what the seminary calls in a news release “the interest and capacity of diverse organizations in developing sustainable approaches to reparations” and repair.

“If racism is the opposite of what God intended for humanity, then the work of repair — which includes reparations — must become a more intentional part of the way forward,” said the Rev. Paul Roberts, JCSTS president, who spoke last week to Presbyterian News Service. With grants totaling $90,000 from foundations including the Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation, “JCSTS is now positioned to do something we’ve longed for: to help leverage the moral authority of the Black church in fostering public interest in repairing the historic breach of racial discrimination in this country.”

Conversation tables will take place in Atlanta and Los Angeles and in cities in between, Roberts said. The first conversation designed to gauge interest among Black church leaders and their allies is Jan. 19 in Atlanta.

As the conversations are set to convene, “We are thinking about the work of repair even before we utter the word ‘reparations,’ which can be a lightning rod,” Roberts said. At JCSTS, a historically Black seminary based in Atlanta but serving an online community, the conversation has been going on for about 18 months among the seminary’s executive leadership team and the board of trustees, Roberts said. “We have arrived at this notion there is something we can contribute to the conversation about repair, restorative justice and reparations,” Roberts said.

The Rev. Paul Roberts leads Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary.

According to Roberts, JCSTS has been “inspired” by the Restorative Actions model put forward by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. “We are grateful for that vision, the courage and forethought that has gone into making that a reality,” Roberts said. He said he’s spoken with the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, about the PMA’s vision, including its fledgling Center for Repair of Historical Harms.

“We have decided there is more than enough work to go around,” Roberts said. “We are being very collaborative and walking alongside” the new Center. “What we want to do is set a table — a metaphorical table — and physical tables in key cities around the country” where “we’ll gather leaders of significant institutions who represent some of the faith traditions important to Black folks around the country.”

The key question to be addressed, Roberts said, is, “Do you think there is a readiness on the part of historic African American institutions to engage together in a national repair and reparations effort?”

“That’s the seminal question,” Roberts said. “In our [grant] proposal we tried to be concise. We don’t want to insert ourselves or interrupt the work that’s already being done. But as a theological institution rooted in Reformed theology with a significant track record in justice discussions, we feel it is incumbent upon us to structure a massive conversation around the topic.”

The timetable for the first phase of work calls for conversations to wrap up by the end of May, with reports due to the grant funders by the end of August.

“We hope the data indicates a readiness on the part of particularly the African American faith community to move forward in a strategic comprehensive effort to do a faith-based reparations initiative,” Roberts said. If that’s the case, the second phase would “begin to talk about the technical aspects of a national faith-based reparations effort. That is when we would align even more closely with what the Presbyterian Mission Agency is doing and what the Synod of Lakes and Prairies is doing.”

For now, the initial phase “is about information and relationship-building,” Roberts said. “Phase 2 would be much more about mechanics, and a lot of talk about how to fund a reparations effort.”

Roberts also affirmed the research provided by the Presbyterian Foundation, which he serves as a trustee. Through the work of the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, “the Foundation has done research on the wealth and property transfer happening before our very eyes,” Roberts said. Lindner “has generated an amazing set of reports that indicate we are right now in the midst of a massive transfer of resources. The Foundation is interested in how resources are actually transferred, and for what purpose and mission.”

The Presbyterian Foundation “was very open to allow JCSTS to study the data,” Roberts said, “and has been a marvelous conversation partner discussing ways that wealth transfer can have an impact on our country.”

While the initial conversations “are likely” to be predominantly with the African American community, it won’t be exclusively, according to Roberts.

“The way we see systemic repair involves everyone. It’s not only people of color who have been wounded. A breach is a breach, and systemic breaches affect everyone,” Roberts said. “Right from the get-go we are thinking of the entirety of American society, even those not aware of the negative ways they have been impacted by these systemic breaches.”

“The urgency of our work in Phase 1,” Roberts said, “is to gather Black folks and allies to talk this through.”

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