Xpost: Restorative Actions and the power of a single conversation
(Cross-posted from Healing Minnesota Stories blog)
Part II in a series on Restorative Actions
It all started with a conversation during a two-and-a-half hour car ride in the winter of 2016. Rev. Anthony Jermaine Ross-Allam and Jim Koon were driving to a men’s retreat for members of Oak Grove Presbyterian, a predominantly white church in Bloomington, and talking about things they cared about.
Five years later, as an outgrowth of that conversation, Oak Grove is testing a model for faith communities to surrender wealth in recognition of the historic and ongoing harm done by Christian churches to Indigenous and Afro American communities. Oak Grove itself is surrendering $267,000, or 16 percent of its wealth — in land, property and financial assets.
Organizers hope their model, called Restorative Actions, will catch on with other congregations and secular communities.
In 2016, Ross-Allam, who is African American, was Associate Pastor of Social Justice at Oak Grove Presbyterian. Koon, who is white, is a Ruling Elder in the church.
Ross-Allam and Koon were driving to a three-part church men’s retreat on empathy — empathy in relation to targets of white supremacy, gender nonconforming individuals, and friendship in general. Ross-Allam was leading the retreat.
As Koon recalled, he and Ross-Allam discussed things they were passionate about during the ride. “I probably started with my typical harangue about how America’s economy was not growing as I felt it had the potential to grow,” he said.
Ross-Allam talked about the importance of reparations.
“I didn’t quite know how to react,” Koon recalled.
Koon had never given reparations much thought, he said: “I had it in the mental category as a non starter. It’s so big, what is it even going to look like?”
Ross-Allam remembers the car ride, too – and the mental calculations he went through deciding whether to talk to Koon about reparations at all.
Ross-Allam was raised in southeast Texas by a Seventh Day Adventist family. He was interested in theology and came to Minnesota to study at United Theological Seminary. He was less than two years into his Oak Grove ministry and felt “precariously employed.”
As the Associate Pastor for Social Justice, he was called to preach about the police killings of Jamar Clark in 2015, Philando Castille in 2016, and how African Americans experience policing.
“I had to be strategic about the congregation’s capacity to listen to what I had to say, about what persistent racism says about who they are,” he said.
African Americans tend to be last hired and first fired, he said. “It was always on my mind when I went to the pulpit.”
At the time, Ross-Allam was working in two different worlds, half-time at Oak Grove, half-time as the executive director of Liberty Community Church’s 21st Century Academy and the church’s associate pastor for youth and families.
Liberty is the only Afro American Presbyterian congregation in the region. Rev. Dr.s Ralph and Alika Galloway mentored him and gave him strength as he navigated both jobs, Ross-Allam said. “Alika Galloway was my first teacher in Womanist Theology.”
I had to be strategic about the congregation’s capacity to listen to what I had to say, about what persistent racism says about who they are.
Rev. Anthony Jermaine Ross-Allum
At the time of the car ride, Ross-Allam said he thought he had said all the things there were to say about racism to a white Christian church, things that would both be useful to the church and authentic for him.
He was stressed over constantly having to weigh his words at Oak Grove. He had been in spiritual reflection, prayer, and discernment around his vocation: “What is it worth to me to be doing ministry with white people in Bloomington? Is it worth walking on eggshells – is change possible, or is it just an exercise in futility?”
In no way did he experience overt racism at Oak Grove. “The members are beautiful people,” he said.
“They wrote me beautiful Christmas cards and made me apple crisp. Some of the most senior members of that community made it a point to encourage my work on a consistent basis. It mattered a great deal to me at the time – and it still does. They are experienced in making people from numerous cultures feel welcomed.”
“At the same time, there was something terribly wrong about the relationships between their community and the community that produced me,” he said. “It had to do with money, and more broadly reparation.”
Ross-Allam realized he was going to be spending days in the woods in the snow with mostly white guys from Oak Grove. He decided to be frank with Koon.
“I might as well tell the truth to one person in the congregation, to one white person,” he thought.
He said to Koon: “There doesn’t seem to be much more to say about racism if we both don’t get down to the material facts about what racism is for, what it cost, and what it continues to cost in terms of dollars and cents.”
“I was nonplussed,” Koon said. “I didn’t know what to do with that. But then I couldn’t let it go.”
Ross-Allam would leave Oak Grove for a Ph.D. program in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Koon, the Director of Financial Services and Treasurer for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church USA, (PC(USA)), began Synod-level conversations about tangible acts of repair. (The multi-state Synod covers all of Minnesota.)
Synod Executive Elona Street-Stewart was very supportive, he said. She sponsored dialogues, including a conversation between Synod leaders and Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation.
As the idea progressed, Koon was encouraged to talk to Jay Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk (the Presbyterian term for the denomination’s leader.) That opportunity happened at a Presbyterian Conference in December, 2019.
Nelson was encouraging.
“He challenged us to build it out,” Koon recalled. “You know, try to create something at a grassroots level that might be scalable. He thought it was good for the church, it was what we wanted to do, but wasn’t really something that could come out big until it first came out small.”
Koon started discussing reparations in Oak Grove adult forums, gauging and building congregational support.
Milissa Carter, a member of the church’s Social Justice & Racial Equity Committee team, recalled attending an adult forum where Koon called out the fact that economic justice is racial justice. It motivated her to join the Restorative Actions Core Team, she said.
The 2020 murder of George Floyd catalyzed the church into action, Carter said.
Koon and Carter went before Oak Grove’s Session (the Presbyterian term for church board) several times to explain the idea and report on their progress. The Session approved Restorative Actions.
On Oct. 5, 2020, the Synod of Lakes and Prairies PC(USA) dedicated $351,000 to seed this work. With payments from Oak Grove and individuals, they currently have $800,000 earmarked.
“I had it [reparations] in the mental category as a non starter. It’s so big, what is it even going to look like?
Restorative Actions had a soft national launch at the PC(USA)’s Next Church Gathering in March. Rev. Greg Bentley and Street-Stewart, co-moderators of the PC(USA), led a Decolonizing Wealth workshop. (Both Street-Stewart and Bently are on the Restorative Actions’ Core Team.)
With things moving towards reality, Koon called Ross-Allam at Union Seminary last summer, described Restorative Actions, and asked him to join the Core Team.
Ross-Allam was just finishing a comprehensive exam in the form of a public lecture at Union entitled “Reparations and the U.S. American Evasion of Responsibility,” part of his Ph.D. program. He hadn’t talked to Koon in a while and wasn’t aware of the work happening at Oak Grove.
He remembers being on the phone in Morningside Park, walking in circles in disbelief, as Koon described the work.
“It was a weird moment where you remember what you wanted to happen and that you didn’t think would happen – and it’s happening,” he said. “I never thought this would come to fruition.”
Ross-Allam will be the featured speaker during the 2022 Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend at Westminster, PC(USA). He plans to tie King’s interrupted work towards economic justice to a contemporary theology of repair. He also will speak at Liberty Community Church.