Two East Lansing churches are working to provide faith-based reparations to the Black Community in Greater Lansing after learning about a project started by a Lansing resident. The idea is for predominantly white churches to create an endowment that Black faith-based organizations can use to distribute funds to Black residents in the area to assist with costs related to education, homeownership, and starting small businesses.
The project began with Willye Bryan, a Lansing resident and member of the First Presbyterian Church of Lansing. Bryan says she had spent her whole life thinking about reparations and what they could look like, and in February 2021 , she decided that this would be the year she would do something about it.
Bryan started presenting the case for faith-based reparations to her church and others in the area to make the case for reparations. After members of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing came to listen to her presentation, parishioners from that church gave a similar presentation at their own church. When Bryan saw the reception from churches in the community, she decided they should work together.
Those interested in this work created a group, which calls itself the Justice League of Greater Lansing Michigan.
The Justice League currently consists of members from All Saints Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church of Lansing, and Edgewood United Church in East Lansing.
In working to write a position piece to educate the community on reparations, Bryan worked with Dustin DuFort Petty and found examples of what they identify as systemic racism in our area.
One of the practices they identified was the use of housing covenants in East Lansing, which prevented selling homes to non-white buyers in some locations. Another instance was the construction of I-496, which decimated a Black neighborhood in Lansing. Petty and Bryan also focused on intimidation tactics used against Black homeowners.
In September, when the City of East Lansing unveiled a historical marker outside the home of Robert L. Green, a national civil rights leader and one of the first Black homeowners in East Lansing, Green spoke about the harassment he himself experienced from a white realtor in the 1960s.
Bryan also recalled while speaking to ELi something she heard while presenting on reparations. A white listener pointed out that they had recently inherited $250,000 from a family home that their family bought in the 1950s for $7,000.
“Now it’s worth $250,000,” Bryan said. “Those are the same homes Black people weren’t allowed to buy.”
These limitations on where Black families could buy have had a long-term economic impact in terms of wealth disparities. Bryan and Petty state in their position paper that, “[R]edlining was a powerful tool to keep Black citizens out of more white, more affluent neighborhoods.” Redlining was the practice of geographically restricting mortgage lending according to racial demographics of different neighborhoods.
In explaining the impact, Bryan and Petty wrote that, “Without federal mortgage backing, Black families were often locked into contracts that were essentially rent-to-own situations. Families could earn no equity until the full amount was paid and there was no security in their living situation.”
Reparations, the Justice League argues, can repair this breach.
Bryan and Petty propose that the most efficient and immediate way to begin solving this problem in Greater Lansing would be in the form of reparations that come directly from churches, specifically from church endowments.
In their position piece, the two define reparations as “the making of amends for a wrong that has been done; repair by paying money, generally help those who have been hurt.” They also point to historical examples of reparations, including the United States federal government paying reparations to Japanese American citizens who were sent to internment camps during World War II.
According to Bryan, churches would live out their creed by providing reparations, and she says they also have the resources to do it. Additionally, she noted, some white churches historically participated in the slave trade, benefiting financially.
During a presentation made to the City’s Human Rights Commission, Petty referred to the Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill (Baltimore, Maryland), whose members voted in January 2021 to allocate $100,000 each year for five years to address social inequity.
According to the Baltimore Sun, slaveholders founded that church in the nineteenth century, and current parishioners want the fund “to address race-based inequalities that took root during slavery and proliferated for generations in the church and in the community at large.”
“Churches have it in their mandate to repair the breach,” Bryan said. “I started floating that idea to predominantly white churches. Many of the churches have large endowments. They have $3 or $4 million endowments that are just sitting there.”
The group in Greater Lansing hopes that once they have received money from churches, they can create a board consisting of African American church members, who will be in charge of allocating and distributing the money.
They are currently planning on distributing the money to Black community members through educational scholarships and loans for small businesses and homeownership.
“It allows for churches to repent and admit and go into reconciliation about how the harm that was done,” said Bryan of the reparations.
This case for reparations is also being pursued by East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission (HRC).
After HRC Commissioner Pat Cannon expressed to the Commission that they should begin discussing the topic, the Commission hosted a Coffee and Conversation session to discuss reparations with the community.
A few months later, HRC Chair Chuck Grigsby heard about the work the Justice League was doing and decided to invite them to present at the Nov. 3 HRC meeting.
“I found through my network of people in the community that there were already people doing some of that work,” Grigsby said. “They had really done some great in-depth conversations about [reparations] to their audience and communities, so I thought it would be a good idea to hear what they had to say, what they’ve been working on and what they’ve been successful with to help us better understand the definitions of what reparations are for different people.”
Petty and Janet Chegwidden of All Saints gave the “Repairing the Breach” presentation to the Commission. (Bryan, who is a Lansing resident, did not attend.)
According to Grigsby, the presentation further cemented the need for reparations in his mind and showed the Commission the alternative, faith-based way to go about them.
“It’s a big conversation, and it really takes a lot of time to sift through how to go about it,” Grigsby said. “I don’t think the hardest part is about being able to work on it—it’s just about how to go about it in a way that is reflective and meaningful.”
Both the Justice League and some HRC commissioners see faith-based reparations as laying the groundwork for the possibility of government-based reparations in the future.
“I think the faith-based groups have a great means to do it in a way that is not politically motivated. It’s just really about doing what they think is right,” Grigsby said. “[They] have a lot more flexibility to get things done now and create a foundational piece for the government to follow suit and support in ways that make sense.”
To begin envisioning what this may look like for the government, the group will be presenting to the East Lansing City Council in 2022. According to Grigsby, that will determine what the government’s role might be moving forward.
Mayor Ron Bacon, East Lansing’s first African American mayor, has also reviewed the presentation and believes that the group’s proposal for faith-based reparations creates a good starting point for the important conversations surrounding reparations.
“I’m excited for the faith-based community to take center stage on this and many other issues,” Bacon said. “I think there’s a common value system that they have that may expedite these conversations along with providing solutions. A lot of change in the U.S. has come from faith-based communities, so it’s an excellent opportunity, and they have my support on this and other issues raised from that space to try to get some action around it.”
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