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PC(USA) pastors and other leaders offer a public apology that was centuries in the making


During a service in Lansing, Michigan, an evangelist who picked cotton as a child explains what the apology means to her

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Evangelist Annie C. Foreman of Reachout Christian Center Church, at right, spoke movingly last month during a service of apology for the sin of slavery and its aftermath. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Late last month dozens of white clergy from churches and mid councils, elected officials and other leaders in Lansing, Michigan, gathered at the Reachout Christian Center Church to apologize to the African American community for slavery and its aftermath. Among the participants was the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms.

Ross-Allam said that the service included a litany of repentance read by the white people who were present. For him, a powerful response to the apology came from Evangelist Annie C. Foreman of Reachout Christian Center Church, who spoke of having to pick cotton beginning at age 3. A few years later, she recalled looking heavenward and telling the Almighty, “Lord, there’s got to be a better life. I cannot live like this the rest of my life.” Sharecropping “was all my parents knew, and that’s what they did,” she said. “We didn’t go to school every day. When we went to school was when it rained.”

At the end of the year, her family would be paid in cash, the money coming to the workers inside a brown paper bag and without a receipt. One year, her father came home and told his wife, “Honey, we didn’t clear anything this year.”

“My mother said, ‘How are we going to live?’” Foreman said. Her mother put her coat on, grabbed her purse and paid a visit to the man. “When she came back, she brought home some money,” Foreman said. She then told her husband, “You’ve got to do something.” When he told her he didn’t know anything else but sharecropping, she told him, “You know how to clean, don’t you? You go up to Lansing [where some family members had already moved] and get a job as a janitor.” He did, and then a few months later returned to move the rest of the family to Lansing. “My father was afraid because he didn’t know anything else, but he listened to my mother,” Foreman said.

“I want you to know we really appreciate [your apology],” Foreman told the crowd. “You didn’t have to do it, but you did, and I want you to know I thank you all, every one of you who came up here and said you’re sorry. It wasn’t you who did this to us. It was your forefathers. But you had the courage and the decency to get up and say, ‘We’re sorry for what we did,’ and I thank God for you.”


“It was more important for me to take in the experience through her,” Ross-Allam said, “than it was for me to hear people say those words on the stage. I was overwhelmed by someone picking cotton as a three-year-old girl. She thought she would never hear that [apology] in a church.”

The Rev. Stan Jenkins

The Rev. Stan Jenkins, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, called the ceremony “a long overdue apology to the African American community of our city for the sin of slavery and its aftermath. The apology came from the national body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

“It was a deeply humbling and moving experience which was graciously received — and indicative of our conviction that if racism and white supremacy are to be addressed in our country, it has to start with white people because it is a white people problem. If there is going to be any change, we have to tell the truth about our history and take responsibility,” Jenkins said. “It’s a small, but important, step toward a new beginning.”

After the ceremony, the Justice League of Greater Lansing offered a brief presentation on its reparations endowment program. The organization has its roots in First Presbyterian Church, which has pledged $100,000 toward the Justice League of Greater Lansing’s goal of raising $1 million by the end of the year from white people to help start and fund Black businesses, mortgages, and education.

“It feels like something significant is happening in the city of Lansing,” Jenkins said.

Sen. Sarah Anthony represents Lansing in the Michigan Senate. (Contributed photo)

Political leaders also expressed their appreciation for the apology.

“We don’t have to talk about the hearts and minds and the conditions of the country. We can just literally start putting some numbers together and writing bills and getting them drafted, and then starting to lobby for these things in the halls of power,” Michigan State Senator Sarah Anthony, who represents Lansing, said during the ceremony.  “So, I had physically and mentally and emotionally just said, folks will never change, that our hearts will never be clay enough, be soft enough to actually own this stain and the legacy that it’s had on myself, on our families, and on generations to come. And then today happens … I didn’t know what to expect, but I am leaving a different person.”

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam directs the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms. (Contributed photo)

In his own remarks as part of the ceremony, Ross-Allam connected the apology to the PC(USA)’s commitment to the Matthew 25 invitation.

“Today’s living example of commitment to the Gospel is part of the reason why I could barely contain my excitement when Elder Willye Bryan (of the Justice League of Greater Lansing) reached out to me to announce what First Presbyterian and the Justice League is doing here in Lansing. The Center for the Repair of Historic Harms … and our entire denomination is inspired, encouraged, and emboldened to continue to wake up to the possibilities God has in store for the world by the faithful example being set here today.”

Service participants offer a closing prayer. (Contributed photo)

To those wondering if a majority white denomination such as the PC(USA) believes that words of apology, however sincere, are “sufficient to pave our path together into a viable future,” Ross-Allam said “I am happy to let you know that the answer to your righteous question is a resounding ‘No!’”

“It is through the commissioning and the mission of the Center for the Repair of Historic Harms that the PC(USA) announces to the world that God so loves, that an apology without a commitment to reparations, just like an emancipation without compensation, is an insult to God and an affront to the human family that God loves without reservation and without partiality.”

The PC(USA) “intends to bear fruit worthy of repentance” through a two-part commitment, Ross-Allam said. The first is the current investigation of the historic harms committed within the denomination “to our own members and partners.”

Some of those who gathered for a service of apology held Jan. 28 at Reachout Christian Center Church in Lansing, Michigan. (Contributed photo)

At the same time, it’s “doing all that we can to collaborate with local and national organizations like the Justice League of Greater Lansing in order to communicate a message through our faithful actions to the federal government that the PC(USA) stands with the Afro-American people of the United States in the demand for full reparations legislation,” Ross-Allam said, “that will close the racial wealth gap and prevent to the greatest extent possible future repetition of the social, political and economic relations born of chattel slavery and the legacies of Jim Crow ideologies and practices.”

“Please know that we are encouraged by your faithfulness here today and that we are inspired and determined to extend ourselves to you in support of your ongoing ministry of reconciliation and full-spectrum repair,” Ross-Allam said.

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