Commentary: Reparations and the master thief

`The West Virginia Reparations Fund is not the end-all of reparations, but it is a beginning.

By the Reverend Jeff Allen 

A  little over a year ago, the United Methodist Foundation of West Virginia established what is believed to be the first reparations fund in West Virginia. As described in an article from the Foundation announcing its creation, the fund has the two-fold purpose of beginning the work of “repairing the damage inflicted by slavery, segregation, and racism as experienced by the African American Community in West Virginia” and to “provide a model for congregations, communities, businesses, and the state itself to establish reparation funds and supply a means for individuals, congregations, and others to support reparations to the African American community in our state.” Proceeds from the West Virginia Reparations Fund will used for projects relating to reparations to the African American community as identified by a steering committee comprised of representatives of African American organizations and individuals.

`The West Virginia Reparations Fund is not the end-all of reparations, but it is a beginning. It’s an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and institutions to take a look at how they both contributed to and benefited from racism in our country. `

An important aspect of the West Virginia Reparations Fund is that it’s not charity; it’s reparation. In charity, the donor makes the decision as to where the money going and how it’s to be used. Reparation is different. Reparation is in some sense restoration. When the United Methodist Foundation started the Reparation Fund, the donor who first contributed to the Fund relinquished control of how the money would be spent. Control of the funds now belongs to representatives of the African American community to spend as they see fit. Why? Because the donor recognized that it wasn’t her or his money to begin with. A story helps to illustrate the point:

There was once a thief who stole from families in a particular neighborhood. The thief raided family after family for a very long time. One day, the thief discerned that a time of reckoning was at hand and loaded up their ill-gotten gain. As the police were closing in, the thief ran down a street in another neighborhood and started tossing bags of money up on those porches as he passed by. 

The next morning, those families came out on their porches and discovered the money. Rather than asking, “whose money is this?” The families took the money inside. Some used the money to pay off their mortgages; others sent their children to college to become doctors and lawyers; and still others started business. Meanwhile, the families who were robbed lost their houses because they couldn’t pay the mortgage, couldn’t send their kids to school, and couldn’t start businesses. Generation after generation, one set of families parlayed the money they found on their porches that day into more wealth while the other families suffered the consequences of the original theft.

Reparations is about returning wealth to its rightful owners with interest. It’s about making people whole for the damage that we as a nation have done, without which reconciliation is problematic. It’s about understanding our history, loving our sisters and brothers, and taking a step towards the Beloved Community. As the original donor noted, quoting the Reverend Doctor Howard Thurman, “there can never be a substitute for taking personal responsibility for social change.” 

Asked about the motivation for establishing the fund, the donor also stated, “I do not believe our country can heal from the wounds of slavery until we acknowledge the damage done by slavery and our responsibility to make amends for that harm. It’s not about being a ‘white hero’ or even an ally, it’s about recognizing that our country through wage theft, segregation, and denial of opportunity systematically took wealth from our sisters and brothers who are African American and that there is a moral responsibility to return that wealth to its rightful owners.” 

There are many ways for the white community to support the West Virginia Reparations Fund including annual gifts during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Black History Month, Juneteenth celebrations; bequests; dedicating a percentage of a congregation’s or organization’s budget or an individual’s income to the fund. For instance, one supporter has made an ongoing commitment to send 2.5% of their income to the Fund.

For more information on the West Virginia Reparations Fund, please contract Rev. Jeff Taylor ( or Ms. Kim Matthews ( at the United Methodist Foundation or by calling the Foundation at (304) 342-2113.

The Reverend Jeff Allen is a United Methodist minister and the Executive Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.
The views expressed in the article are the opinion of the author.

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