One Church's Reparations Story: Property Tax in Columbus, OH

Crossposted with permission from Healing Minnesota Stories Blog

It can be overwhelming for white people to acknowledge the tremendous harms their ancestors and this nation inflicted on Native American and African American communities, harms that we continue to inflict. It’s overwhelming to think about how to repair centuries of brutality, trauma and genocide.

White Christian churches have additional layers of responsibility and atonement. Some churches used the Bible to justify slavery or profited from owning slaves or slave labor. Many denominations ran Indian boarding schools, where children were forcibly Christianized and often abused. Some died without seeing their families again.

That’s a lot to take in. The Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, is taking one small, concrete, and practical step towards reparations. As a church, it doesn’t pay property taxes. It estimated what that property tax amount would be, and will donate it each year to Black- and Indigenous-lead organizations. No strings attached.

As the church members wrestled with how to disperse this small reparations fund, it sparked conversations that have been transforming the church and its worship experience.

Columbus Mennonite Church. Photo: Church website.

The church expects to make its first $5,000 donation later this year, said Bethany Davey, who serves on the church’s Reparations Committee. The church will add $5,000 each year, until it reaches to $20,000 a year.

Starting as a house church in the late 1950s, Columbus Mennonite now has about 175 members on a given Sunday (now on Zoom), and around 300 members total. The church sits in a majority white, middle class neighborhood.

Columbus Mennonite is an active and activist church. During services, they read a Land Acknowledgement Statement, naming the Miami, Osage and Shawnee as the original peoples of this land.

For three years, Columbus Mennonite provided sanctuary to Edith Espinal, a Mexican asylum seeker facing deportation. She went home to her family in February after her attorney reached an agreement with ICE.

Some church members are wrestling with their name “Columbus Mennonite,” Davey said. Even though its a reference to the city of Columbus, it’s still Columbus.

Metropolitan Columbus has 1.6 million residents and big city issues, such as two recent cases where law enforcement officers killed unarmed Black men.

In 2016, Columbus Mennonite began a “Year of Intentionality” around Black Lives Matter, Davey said.

John Martin, a church Leadership Team member, had the idea of using the estimated property taxes payments for reparations. Katie Graber, another Leadership Team member, was part of the team’s decision to create a Reparations Committee, charged with figuring out how to disperse the money.

Then, a powerful thing happened, Davey said. The Reparations Committee’s conversations evolved and deepened. The question became not just about the money and who gets it, but: “What is the long-haul work — the truth telling and soul work — that needs to happen [at the church]?”

The reparations discussions have impacted church services and Sunday School. This year’s Lenten theme is: Repent. Repair. In the children’s classes, they are naming “white supremacy” and “reparations,” Davey said “It gives them a framework for what they already know. They need it explained.”

One church member took on the task of researching Columbus’ city history and teaching others. Davey recalled one particular story that struck her.

She learned that when Black veterans returned to Columbus from World War II, they couldn’t buy homes because of Red Lining and other racial barriers. She knew that her grandfather had gone to college on the G.I. Bill and it probably helped him buy a house when black veterans couldn’t.

The government’s solution was to fund a 146-unit housing subdivision specifically for Black veterans, Davey said.

Then, a little more than a decade later, the government decided to build I-70, and the route chosen took out 60 homes in the subdivision and split the neighborhood.

Dr. Yvonne Zimmerman of Columbus Mennonite Church (above)

Pastor Joel Miller wrote about the church’s work of repair in a recent blog post:

[W]hat responsibility do we hold for past harms that we ourselves did not do, but from which we have benefited?  How, as agents of repair, are we also opening ourselves up to repairing damage to our spirits we didn’t even know was there?

For this Lent, how might God be beckoning us into a posture of repentance and repair that – rather than weighing us down with crushing guilt – frees us in body, mind, and spirit as individuals, family systems, and wider communities?    

Pastor Joel Miller

The Reparations Committee is forwarding its recommendations to the church’s Leadership Team. It recommended splitting the money between two organizations:

  • BQIC, the Black, Queer, and Intersectional Collective, which has a prominent and important voice in local justice issues. It has a mutual aid fund, and is working to abolish the police and prison system.
  • The Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio, which provides health and cultural supports for urban Indians. The Center also is working to purchase land.

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