Reparations Task Force Begins Work in the North Georgia Conference
Formed in response to thoughtful discussion at Annual Conference 2022,
the Task Force will bring a report to the 2023 Annual Conference session
Many people remember learning the story of Zacchaeus through the popular children’s song. It is a song with many meanings, including Christ’s encompassing and redeeming love, and the great lengths that Zacchaeus went to see Jesus.
Rev. Vance P. Ross, the pastor of historic Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta and chair of the Conference Commission on Religion and Race (CCORR), sees the story of Zacchaeus as a story of biblical reparations. “He gave half his possessions and restored those he defrauded,” Ross explains.
Ross made a passionate speech at the 2022 session of the North Georgia Annual Conference about the injustices faced by people of color and, yet, they remain in The United Methodist Church.
The members of the Annual Conference responded with a lengthy conversation on the floor of the Conference, ultimately asking Conference leadership boards to consider Ross’s words as related to the closing of Red Oak UMC, a Black church in the South West District.
Following that vote, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson addressed the Conference:
In the teaching office of the bishop, I am just going to offer two other thoughts. Is the best way to make reparations to do it like this in a single-mannered way, which looks to the past? Or is it better to use reparations money to serve people into the future or to open new Black churches and new Hispanic churches or to open new multicultural churches like we saw modeled yesterday?
You see the complexities of these issues. I will say, if we are going to repent, part of the repentance needs to be for our focus on planting churches in affluent white areas. And that we have failed to recognize and put our resources into the predominantly Hispanic, Black, and other areas of North Georgia. And we have not done a good job of acknowledging that. I think we need a wholescale response. And to do it one church at a time or one item at a time will limit, I think, our vision and our effectiveness.
This is a great discussion. You don’t know how much good this does my heart. It is a historic moment in the North Georgia Annual Conference that we are having these discussions. And I don’t think anything is closer to the heart of God than human beings saying, “You know what? We messed up and we can do better." I am so delighted at you for having this discussion and for bearing your heart and for saying this is hard work, but it’s got to be done. And this is Godly work. So, thank you.
That last spirited day of Annual Conference led to the formation of a reparations work group. The group of 16 members include lay and clergy. The first meeting was held at Central United Methodist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, on Friday, September 23,
and Saturday, September 24,
2022. For the next seven months, the group will meet with the goal of presenting a proposal and recommendations to the 2023 session of the North Georgia Annual Conference.
Convening the taskforce is the Rev. Brian Tillman, Director of Inclusion and Advocacy for the North Georgia Conference. Tillman believes this work is important because “reparations is not just words in a document. There is real work to be done. This reparations work is the Conference making good on the things it has said and written about what it believes. To be clear, the aim of reparation is not justice. Justice is not the goal. Community is the goal, and we cannot have community without first attending to the injustices that remain and that are in our power to heal.” Tillman has a deep commitment to this work. He has previously served as the chair of the CCORR where he has employed his Racial Healing Framework to bring about change in North Georgia.
Guiding the work of the task force is the Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung. He has authored several books, and is one of four co-authors of United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race
and co-authored Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism
with Rev. Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak, a South African clergy person who was instrumental in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and repatriation work.
“I could not think of anyone better to help us,” said Tillman. “His character, skill set, his gifts, and experience provide us with the type of facilitation that will be needed to help our Conference be a model for others to follow.”
A leader in the area of racial justice and reconciliation, DeYoung serves as the CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches. In this capacity, DeYoung has helped shape the churches’ response to the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death led to a national outcry about racial injustice. “The death of George Floyd reignited my passion for this work,” DeYoung said.
DeYoung brings a wealth of experience to this project. He has served as executive director of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago and Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in Saint Paul. In addition, he has lectured around the world addressing the issues of racial healing, racial justice, and reconciliation.
“I was certainly drawn to this work by reading the scriptures and life experience. A very formative part of that is my time at Howard University School of Divinity,” DeYoung adds. “Howard really shaped my understanding of racism and how it works in society and the church’s response.”
“I hope that there can be a reduction of harm, the discovery of the truth, and a more reconciled interaction as a result of the group’s work,” DeYoung said.
The group of 16 represents a wide range of members of the annual conference plus several resource persons including Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, a former professor at Candler School of Theology. Burkholder gave a detailed presentation on the history of racism in The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies. She reminded the group that Methodists have had a long struggle with racism in the church and in the community.
While telling the stories of those who supported injustices like slavery, lynchings and segregation, Burkholder lifted the stories of freedom fighters like Jassie Daniels, Dorothy Rogers Tilly, and the Rev. Will W. Alexander. Even with the thoroughness of her presentation, Burkholder told the group, “There is more history to recover,” she said. “We must ask different questions.”
The seven-month process expects to yield a report to the annual conference with several recommendations. The larger group will work in four “work-groups.” One will explore the history of racism in North Georgia. A second will work to define reparations and study the theology of reparations. A third will work to identify models of reparations in other conferences, denominations, and organizations. A fourth will work to vet the recommendations for appropriateness and efficacy in the culture of the conference.
“It is a lifetime journey,” DeYoung said. “We must choose daily to be in this work.”
The Task Force Members:
Pamela Perkins Carn
Dr. Robert Foster
Rev. Woojin Kang
Rev. Yvette Massey
Rev. Ash McEuen
Rev. Nathalie Nelson Parker
Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts
Rev. Juan Quintanilla
Rev. Donald Reed
Rev. Dr. Vance P. Ross
Rev. Dalton Rushing
Rev. Jasmine Smothers
Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, Research
Rev. Dr. Susan Landry, Cabinet Representative
Rev. Brian Tillman, Conference Staff
Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung
—Submitted by Rori Blakeney, Rev. Brian Tillman, Sybil Davidson