The Presbyterian Synod in Eagan has allocated $450,000 to trusts that will benefit African American and Indigenous communities. Following its lead, a Presbyterian church in Bloomington has designated $267,000. And in Minneapolis, a Lutheran church wrote a $250,000 check to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to help Native people recover their rightful homelands.
While national debates about reparations continue to swirl, some Minnesota churches have opted to stop talking and open their checkbooks.
"The name of God was taken in vain and abused to build white supremacy," said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs. "We have to make that right."
Jacobs, along with the Rev. Pam Ngunjiri, leads the Truth and Reparations initiative at the Minnesota Council of Churches. It was born in 2020 to build racial equity across the council's 27 member denominations and 1 million members. It's part of a groundswell of local efforts aimed at mobilizing Christians to redress inequity through education, truth-telling and reparations.
"We have quite a history in the Presbyterian church and it's not a pretty one with regard to our relationship with Afro American and Indigenous folks," said the Rev. Sarah Moore-Nokes, a Presbyterian minister and administrative volunteer at Restorative Actions. "We need to be leading the charge to reconcile — to make right — the wrongs we have done that we have not yet addressed."
Restorative Actions, a grassroots coalition of Presbyterian leaders, invites institutions and individuals to surrender some of their accumulated wealth to counter the racial wealth gap.
"We're trying to create a witness and a statement in our churches," said Jim Koon, director of financial services at the Eagan-based Synod of Lakes and Prairies and Restorative Actions volunteer. "This represents wealth that doesn't belong to us. We don't control it. We surrender it and give up full agency to the groups that know best what needs to be done."
Of course, many churches have long histories of charitable giving, but reparations, its proponents say, are different.
"Reparations require risk and vulnerability on the part of white people. It requires a releasing of power and a transferring of power to Black and Indigenous people and communities," said Jacobs. "You can give all you want out of your [charity] fund, and still maintain your position of power. But reparations cannot have that imbalance."
A call to repair
Throughout U.S. history, the Bible and other Christian texts have been used to support slavery, theft and violence. In fact, the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century Christian text, has been foundational to the justification of European colonization and subjugation in the "New World" and Africa.
Jacobs is calling on Minnesota churches to read their sacred stories again through a fresh lens.
"This is the central call of the gospel: To repair the harm," said Jacobs. "If you want to argue that you don't owe reparations because you didn't directly steal land and you didn't directly own slaves, well, look, the story of the good Samaritan was that how we are to live in the world is to bind wounds we did not inflict and pay a debt that we did not incur."
At Our Saviour's Lutheran in Minneapolis, church leaders use the biblical story of Zacchaeus as an anchor for its reparations.
In the Book of Luke, Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector. When he meets Jesus, he declares that he will give half of what he owns to the poor and repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. Jesus responds, "Today salvation has come to this house."
"I read that story and I hear joy," said Pastor Martha Schwehn Bardwell of Our Saviour's. "I hear a surge of the spirit in Zacchaeus being like, 'I am present with the living God and I'm going to give away half of my wealth.' "
In its 2022 budget, Our Saviour's included $9,000 for reparations. This year, it increased the amount to $12,000 and is discussing how to leverage its property and church foundation to repair harm in the surrounding Phillips community, perhaps in the form of affordable housing.
Discussions are ongoing, but Bardwell said the effort has already helped the congregation connect with the neighborhood. "We're building relationships and listening to be responsive to the needs and dreams of our neighbors," she said.
Relationships also are at the heart of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church's reparations work. When the Minneapolis church received an unexpected profit from a property sale, it gave $250,000 to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.
"We have the moral mandate to move forward in creative ways that actually work toward repairing relationships alongside redistributing wealth," said church council president Allison Johnson Heist. "This is not only about issuing funds, but it's about being in the work and struggle together."
A step of faith
Despite the local support for reparations, not all Minnesota churches have broached the topic. And some that have are hampered by internal disagreements and declining church membership and resources.
In response, organizations like Sacred Reckonings and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light are offering training programs and reparations "learning labs" to help congregations build capacity and networks of support.
As the nation continues to grapple with the issue of reparations, many faith-based groups see their work as public witness for a growing movement, one that they hope will impact national policies.
"If the church is what we want it to be, it needs to do this," said Koon. "It's right. And it's necessary. And if it's right and it's necessary, here's where faith comes in: It must be possible."