Watson: Deeper than charity

Jun 5, 2017 by

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Reparations is a chilling word to most white people. An aggressive, accusatory word that will have many people skipping over this column before they finish the first paragraph. I invite you to stay with me. As a white person, I’ve struggled with the idea of reparations, but there is one way it makes sense to me.

Hillary Watson


Two stories explain why.

The first is about a predominately black neighborhood in a city that, in the last seven years or so, has seen young liberal white people move in — first the social service agencies; then good-hearted college graduates who work in them; then drifting young adults; then whole families, until they push up housing prices and drive out the residents. You know this story.

Is it Grant Park in Atlanta? The Central District in Seattle? U Street in Washington, D.C.? South Shore on Chicago’s South Side? All of them and more. Those are just the cities where I’ve lived and seen it happen.

The second story is about two organizations that provide arts resources in the same community. One is a grassroots, racially diverse organization. Run by working-class activists, it received support from a predominately white, well-meaning organization run by educated leaders with business backgrounds. Trying to support it, the white organization hired the most talented person of color, trying to offer her support and a wider net, while pushing her to match their image of an artist of color and asking her to take on the burden of educating the white organization about its racial missteps. She quit within a year. It set back the partnership and slowed effectiveness in the community.

In both stories, well-meaning white people try to come alongside communities of color. This is what we’ve been trained to do. It’s the core of Mennonite service philosophy: walk alongside people in need. It’s why Mennonite missionaries went abroad, why the SALT service program exists, why most Mennonite Voluntary Service units are in urban neighborhoods.

We want to walk alongside people in pain. We believe it is our gospel mission. But walking alongside is more ambivalent and bittersweet than we thought. It’s full of unintended consequences. Most gentrification begins with people who want to walk alongside.

This is where reparations begin to make sense. White people have tried to repair slavery and racism with well-meaning actions that complicate as much as they help. Sometimes, communities of color don’t need white support or service workers. They just need resources to do it themselves, without taking on the burden of white guilt and complications of race relations. Like Paul haranguing the Corinthian church for donations, sometimes quiet support is more useful than presence.

What is the difference between reparations and charity? Charity is giving to those who have need. Reparations are giving to those who have need, recognizing that need is heightened by racism. Mennonite colleges have scholarships for students of color, named after or donated by white Mennonites. This is an act of reparation.

Healing the wounds of racism is about showing up, but also more. It’s about directing our finances to communities that have been systematically deprived of them.

It’s an uncomfortable proposition for white Mennonites. I believe it’s uncomfortable because it requires us to confess our sins, both personal and communal. It’s uncomfortable because we want to be the hands and feet of the church body. But sometimes, we are the ears and appendix.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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