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Interfaith leaders kick off a movement for reparations in Philadelphia

Local people of faith came together this week at the Friends Center to examine “spiritual repair and redress for intergenerational harms arising from slavery and its afterlives.”

Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart, director for the Mayor's Commission on faith-based and interfaith affairs, speaks during Rise Up for Reparations.
Reverend Naomi Washington-Leapheart, director for the Mayor's Commission on faith-based and interfaith affairs, speaks during Rise Up for Reparations.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

With song, poetry, and readings from religious texts, Philadelphians from a variety of faiths — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim — came together Monday to call for reparations for descendants of Black people enslaved in the United States.

Billed as “Rise Up for Reparations” and a “Juneteenth Multi-Faith Revival,” the gathering was cosponsored by the Mayor’s Commission for Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs, in coalition with POWER Interfaith, the Truth Telling Project, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

“We are daily becoming reparations people,” said the Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, the director of the mayor’s commission. “We are here to kick off a faith-based moral movement for reparations, right here in the city of Philadelphia.”

The gathering on the official Juneteenth holiday on Monday was not a debate over whether reparations for past centuries of enslavement are possible today. It was a call to worship and a space for testimonies for people of various faiths, or from social justice organizations, to declare why reparations are justified.

The mayor’s office called Monday’s revival an opportunity for people to examine reparations as a “deep faith commitment requiring spiritual repair and redress for intergenerational harms arising from slavery and its afterlives.“

Lucy Duncan, a member of the Green Street Friends Meeting Reparations Committee, said the purpose of the gathering was to ask white people, especially, to go back to their white congregations and urge them to consider embracing reparations for Black people.

“I think it’s important for white people to do genealogical research and understand the level of complicity they have had either individually or collectively in [racial disparities],” Duncan said after the meeting.

She said that complicity in racism goes beyond tracing one’s legacy to enslavement; it also has to do with accepting benefits from government policies around the GI Bill, in which not all Black veterans benefited in the way that white veterans did, and around redlining, an institutional policy of denying loans and insurance to residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods.

“All of that, whether it’s a good mortgage deal, or land grants for white immigrants, is built-in complicity,” said Duncan, who is also a cochair of the Mayor’s Commission on Faith-based Initiatives and Affairs.

“About the Quaker legacy of this city, there are a lot of myths going around and I want to tell the truth,” she added.

On Monday, Duncan recounted that William Penn brought 12 enslaved Black people to Philadelphia from Barbados and that the Quakers were instrumental in building the Walnut Street Prison, from which solitary confinement was developed as a punitive tool.

“Quakers were the original colonizers of this land, perpetrating the theft of land from the Lenni-Lenape, [and] escaping persecution in England and establishing a state built from trauma to enact trauma on so many.”

“We have to do more than monetary reparations. We need health care, we need better schools.”

Jared Jackson

Jared Jackson, a Black Jewish man and executive director of Jews in All Hues, told the crowd that he has experienced both racism and anti-Semitism.

“We have to do more than monetary reparations,” he said. ”We need health care, we need better schools.”

Washington-Leapheart began the revival service by telling the audience of about 150 people about what she had inherited from her family: her short height and brown skin color.

But she said she also inherited some things from her family they had not intended to share.

“Did you know that trauma runs in your blood?” she asked. “That trauma runs in households, in neighborhoods, among peoples.”

“I have also inherited a history, a story,” Washington-Leapheart added, “and that story contains some trauma, the trauma from slavery and its many, many afterlives.”

Washington-Leapheart described how scientists monitored the effects of trauma from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on pregnant people, discovering they had lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that, among other benefits, can help the body respond to stress and reduce inflammation.

Later, after birth, the babies also had lower levels of cortisol in their saliva; they generally were born early, and were smaller than babies born to those who had not experienced trauma, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“The residue [of slavery] still runs in my veins. So reparations are needed.”

Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart

However, interventions can reverse the damage that began in the womb for those babies, she said.

“The residue [of slavery] still runs in my veins. So reparations are needed,” Washington-Leapheart said.

Rabbi Mira Wasserman, the director of the Center for Jewish Ethics, at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, talked about how her family arrived in the United States more than 100 years ago, as part of a great wave of immigrations.

“For my great-grandparents, America was a dream fulfilled, a refuge from the persecution, poverty, and prejudices of Europe,” she said.

They were eager to make it in America, and for many, that meant “embracing capitalism, and for others, it meant embracing Christmas trees.”

“It meant becoming white and turning away from how the Jewish American dream was intertwined with the nightmare of systemic racism,” she said.

“My family’s privilege was built on top of the privation and persecution of Black people. The very people who had built this American refuge.”

The Rev. Susan Richardson, associate rector of Christ Church, said it was wrong for white Christians to dismiss their own privileges.

“Let us see privileges we have taken for granted as rights that should be shared.”

Rev. Susan Richardson

“Let us see privileges we have taken for granted as rights that should be shared,” she said. “It’s a privilege to not be viewed as a threat by your own government and its agents.”

Richardson also said these are human rights: “quality health care and education ... access to an affordable house, and the human right of going shopping at the neighborhood grocery store on a Saturday afternoon to get Sunday dinner, the human right of going to Bible study in your local church without having your life threatened.”

She pointed out that Jesus was a “dark-skinned Jewish man who probably did not have straight hair.” His death on the cross at the hand of the Roman Empire for being “an inconvenience” was caused not by blood loss but slowly by asphyxiation, because he couldn’t lift his body to breathe. She said he was saying, in effect, “I can’t breathe.”

There was, also, testimony from Hassan Bennett, the Philadelphia man who served 13 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Bennett described how he fought for his innocence and represented himself during his last trial, after which he was acquitted. The event also included a discussion about a reparations program that Green Street Friends began in Germantown for Black homeowners, and there was poetry from Cydney Brown, Philadelphia’s 2020 youth poet laureate.

Robert Bell, of West Philadelphia, attended the revival. He said he had long been an advocate of reparations. “We need a national reparations movement,” he said.

Richardson, of Christ Church, ended her testimony by asking God “to bless us to be wholly foolish enough to believe we can make a difference in this world, to do what others claim cannot be done.”

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