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The PC(USA)’s role in repairing historic harms

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam shares his vision during the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam (Photo by Javier Lopez)

LOUISVILLE — “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” turned its attention last week to the repair of historic harms, including reparations. The guest of the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong was the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, named last year to direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms. Listen to their conversation, which is about 50 minutes, by going here. Ross-Allam comes in during the 20th minute.

There’s no one definition for harm that covers, for example, settler colonialism and white supremacy, according to Ross-Allam. “What we really should be seeking is an opportunity to listen to a community that has been harmed by something specific, and we should be listening to what that community says in order for that harm to be remedied in such a way that there will no longer be a need for reparation.”

Reparations for Afro Americans, the term Ross-Allam used, must be focused on an outcome, such as permanently closing the racial wealth gap. That includes not only stolen ancestral wealth during the period of enslavement, but also the nation’s failure to apply 14th Amendment protections to the descendants of the people who were emancipated without compensation, he said. Also included should be “a number of other harms,” including redlining and “specific practices aimed at disenfranchising Afro Americans at the ballot box” and by the nation’s banking system, he said.

There are other groups, of course, including Japanese Americans unjustly interred during World War II. While Congress authorized payments, “I can’t say myself if Japanese Americans as a group find the reparations they received to be satisfactory,” he said. “But I do know we can point to that as an effort at remedying a wrong done to a distinct group within the family of U.S. American citizens.”

As for “our Indigenous siblings, it is not yet determined what counts as reparations,” Ross-Allam said. “But what’s important — and I hear this from our partners from Indigenous nations — is that it’s very important to realize Indigenous nations are just that: they’re nations. They’re sovereign nations, and they can’t be considered to be a race or ethnic group or a minority group. So what reparations requires for Indigenous nations of course will be determined by Indigenous nations, and it will be determined in a relationship between Indigenous nations in sovereign relationship with the United States as well.”

It’s not difficult to acknowledge, he said, that “a wide range of human beings on this planet have suffered as a result of their exposure to white supremacy. … The important thing to realize is you can’t have reparations if it’s not possible to point to an entity that’s responsible and capable of paying those reparations.”

One rather perverse example: the people of Haiti were forced to pay reparations to France because, as Ross-Allam noted, “in their successful effort to rid themselves of slavery, they deprived French people of future earnings for the practice of slavery.”

Catoe asked about the connection between “what’s happening in the local context” and “the national level of conversation about what it means to do reparations.” He wondered how the two might be connected.

“What you have just named is a really important contemporary challenge and opportunity. I think it’s important we get this right,” Ross-Allam replied, noting the large number of people, congregations and other organizations “throughout the United Sates that are engaging in efforts to repair some aspect of white supremacy.” While many people refer to what they’re doing in their municipality or their state as reparations, “I think it’s very important to be really careful here. I think we have to distinguish very sharply between local acts of repair and reparations.” One reason, he said, is that “there is no sum total of actions” that congregations or even states can undertake “that will ever do what reparations must do.”

Organizing the work of repair

“At the same time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to tell people who have the capacity to do something now to stop doing what they’re doing and instead say, ‘Let’s just wait for the government to do something.’” Ross-Allam said. “The current challenge facing the reparations movement writ large is to find a way to organize all of the repair work that is currently being done in the name of making racism, white supremacy and race ideology a thing of the past. … We’re not in that place right now in our culture, and so it creates an atmosphere where a wide range of politicians can engage in reparations denial based on their assumption that their constituency simply won’t have it; they won’t hear of it.”

“What I want to hear someone say is, ‘We’re simply not going to get anything done if we don’t prioritize reparations in a major way.’”

Ross-Allam said it’s important not to “blur together reparation demands on the bases of some affinity” like skin color or exposure to white supremacy. That “plays into an old trick of white supremacy where you will cause a bunch of so-called minoritized communities to then engage in … ‘Oppression Olympics’ and compete with one another for white philanthropy and the dollars that come from the guilt of white people.” If that takes place, white supremacy gets away with “consolidating the debt and paying pennies on the dollar, leaving the vast majority of people who have reparations demands who need to be heard more or less in the same place or in a much worse situation.”

Asked by Doong about what happens when emotions fade for working for repair, including reparations, Ross-Allam said it’s important to acknowledge emotion “as a very important aspect of social justice work.”

“A lot of us need to hear the truth spoken in an uncompromising way with a lot of prophetic fire in order to wake us up out of whatever dream we were in before we realized how badly the other people on the planet need us to pay attention to what’s actually going on in our collective reality,” he said. “At the same time, I think it’s important we think about the phases of social justice work and organizing more generally.”

“No one can live at a fever pitch,” Ross-Allam said, “much less get meaningful and transformative work done when you are always in the throes of prophetic fire.”

Indeed, “a lot of our moral tradition comes from the Puritan tradition.” Frederick Douglass’ speeches “are classic works of social justice rhetoric … that [are] in part a product of the Puritan tradition. People were accustomed to hearing someone stand behind a pulpit or on a soapbox and denounce the culture for the ways the culture has turned its back on godly ways. Anti-slavery rhetoric and abolitionist rhetoric in particular … was always intended to alarm people about the danger of slavery to the soul of the nation.”

However, after hearing such a speech, “whatever it is that woke you up, whatever it is that opened your eyes to the sufferings of other human beings, it’s necessary to calm down and relax for a period of time so you’re able to figure out who you are, what needs to be repaired, and what role you could possibly play to make sure those repairs take place,” he said. “I think it’s important to have a commitment to adjust your attitude and your rhetoric in such a way that you never reduce the number of people who are willing to work on a problem that needs to be solved. It helps us discipline our rhetoric and it helps us think about what forms of human relationship are necessary to bring more people into the group of human beings who are trying to make white supremacy a thing of the past or rogue capitalism a thing of the past.”

“Are we engaged primarily in a rhetorical campaign where we simply have to satisfy ourselves so we can say at the end of the day that we said the harshest and the sharpest and the most uncompromising thing we could possibly have said, or are we really focused on creating a working environment where the people who have come to work on a problem can bring their best and stay long enough to get the work done?”

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam (Photo by Mohammad Mia)

“I think we have to say it’s OK to be in a cool phase of activism and in a cool phase of organizing,” Ross-Allam said, “because that’s when you realize that this is something that you can do for the long haul.”

While “there is a reason to raise your voice and get up and shout and speak in an uncompromising way” and “I don’t want to denigrate any aspect of that tradition … I do think it’s helpful for people to check themselves and ask, what is my role in any social justice work?”

“Otherwise, I think we run into a problem with self-loathing and self-hatred masquerading as a kind of self-righteousness. There’s something extremely putrid about that, and counterproductive.”

The work of the Center for Repair

At the Center for Repair, “What we really focus on is the process by which we put some of those counterproductive features off to the side,” Ross-Allam said. “We try to create an environment where any person who has something to contribute to repair and reparation will gain the instruction and training they need to become a permanent part of solving these problems.”

It’s “important to realize,” he said, that the problem “can’t be solved simply by wearing ourselves out and engaging in a kind of revolutionary suicide. There are aspects of this work that require cool headedness and even temperedness. That doesn’t mean we reject the other more fervent and emotional aspects of the work. We have to figure out what is the right arrangement” that “helps you keep steady at the work until the work is done.”

Doong asked: What is the church’s role?

“I don’t know if this is the first thing,” Ross-Allam responded. “But the church brings responsibility. European-American Protestantism is responsible for engaging in the slave trade, land theft from Indigenous nations and falsifying Protestant theology in such a way that people were led to believe that slavery was natural in some cases or that servitude of one group of human beings and the masterhood of other human beings was somehow part of divine providence. Later, Protestant theologies in the U.S. were also responsible for giving aid and comfort to people who thought nothing could be done about what happens to the descendants of enslaved people and that it was simply good policy to let nature take its course.”

‘The work of abolition is directly in our wheelhouse’

Protestants also have “a very proud and significant legacy in opposing slavery,” Ross-Allam said. “I think there is an acknowledgement of the church’s abolitionist past that will remind churches there is still work to do now so that the work can finally be finished.”

“At the same time, the church is a moral institution, and the church can hold itself responsible to do the morally correct thing simply because it is the morally correct thing to do,” he said. “If we continue to take ourselves seriously as a series of moral communities, then we will be reminded that finishing the work of abolition is directly in our wheelhouse. … There has to be a moral community that has spiritual discipline somewhere in its DNA to help you understand that your anger, your outrage and your disgust at injustice doesn’t put clothes on anybody’s back and doesn’t put food on anybody’s table and doesn’t return ill-gotten gains to anybody’s bank account. It just doesn’t.”

The spiritual discipline that’s needed is the kind that lets us “push anger aside and say to the anger, ‘Thank you very much. You have helped me understand what needs my attention, and now I need a different set of emotions to help me carry out my responsibilities.’” In theory, he said, churches are in position to do just that.

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

At the end of their conversation — one that Catoe said would continue in future editions of “A Matter of Faith” — Ross-Allam said he wanted to “be sure to name the communities who helped forge my community backbone.”

He credited Emmanuel Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Conroe, Texas, for helping to strengthen “my spiritual imagination and my spiritual backbone.” It was the place, he said, “where the memory of ancestors came alive by listening to the stories of faithful elders expressing the contours of their faith and their experience in the Christian life according to the conditions they were forced to live through in the Jim Crow South and beyond.”

“My experience in the Black church was absolutely fortified and expanded during my period at Kwanzaa Community Church,” which is now Liberty Community Church, a PC(USA) faith community in North Minneapolis. He called the co-pastors there, the Rev. Drs. Ralph and Alika Galloway,  “my spiritual mother and father who guided me through ordination and worked with me as I cofounded the 21st Century [Middle School] Academy in order to serve the community there in North Minneapolis.”

“It’s really important to highlight the work of these communities, because these are communities that keep a legacy alive that stretches back beyond Henry Highland Garnet all the way to Gayraud Wilmore and Katie Cannon to produce leaders who can take civil rights, justice and Christian faith in the U.S. seriously enough to really shine a light into the future that we can all follow,” he said.

Find previous editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here. New editions drop every Thursday.


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