- Trinity Voices
An update from the Task Force on Justice and Reparations
An update from the Task Force on Justice and Reparations
June 8, 2021
Dear Trinity Church and friends,
Greetings of this cautiously hopeful season! With pandemic restrictions ending, spring skipping into summer, and the cloud of caution and worry that has obscured the way forward lifting, the brightened promise of the future commends itself to us, and there is real and overdue joy in that. It is understandably harder to take time now to look backward, to ponder anew what the past, especially this nation’s tragic racial past, demands of us as a community.
It was much easier to feel that imperative a year ago May 25, when the world witnessed George Floyd’s suffering and murder. His was not the first killing of a Black person by police that year nor would he be the last. The hard truth about the killings of 2020 was how unremarkable they were in the context of history, part of a brutal, glaring thread in American life that stretches back to colonial days, the era of Boston’s founding as a thriving maritime city and Trinity’s emergence as one of its first and leading parish communities.
Still, the universal, unbearable witness to George Floyd’s last breaths marked a crossroads in our life together. It was a moment when history asked us to set our hearts and lives to its arc, and, borrowing the words of Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker and the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to bend the moral universe toward justice.
And so, your parish leaders reflected, prayed, and in this very week last year, acted. As Morgan detailed in a message to the parish last fall, he, with my counsel as Senior Warden, convened the Task Force on Justice and Reparations to begin identifying the repentances required to fulfill Trinity’s potential as a powerful force for Gospel good. He also charged us to examine our outward-facing countenance – our matchless sanctuary – to learn what we could about how our privileged beginnings were interlaced with the slave trade on which so much of the mercantile wealth of eighteenth-century Boston was built.
Led by co-convenors Constance Perry and Steve Hendrickson, the Task Force comprises participants from many layers of leadership and outlook in our community. It was a group built to ready our parish for bold action. Its work, informed by that of Trinity's pathbreaking Anti-Racism Team, remains mid-stream – it will culminate in a report to the Vestry in the fall and then the 2022 Annual Parish Meeting – but much has been learned and the shape of what we must do as a Parish begins to grow clear.
Some early findings fairly shout:
. The foundational wealth that helped Trinity thrive – beginning with the acquisition of land on Summer Street in 1728 – came largely from the industries that made Boston the largest and richest city in colonial America: from the transatlantic slave trade; from the distilling of rum from sugar cultivated by hands of slaves; and from the mills of New England that relied on cotton harvested by slaves.
. The early leadership and membership of our parish included many slave owners, and people whose wealth depended upon the slave economy. One telling snapshot: every member of the 1740 Vestry was either a slave owner or appears to have benefitted financially from the slave trade.
. Slavery in Massachusetts was abolished in 1783. Even so, members of Trinity Church continued to profit from the transatlantic slave trade, as well as from their investments in cotton, sugar, and other industries in the South, all of which relied upon slave labor.
. The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed the Summer Street church, yet by then a vision was already being realized to create a new church in the Back Bay, a church meant to be welcoming to all. Despite the aspiration, first-hand documents penned by people of color tell their experiences of inhospitality.
Alongside this difficult history, there are also uplifting stories to document and share, including the ways Trinity battled racism in the struggles for justice during the last two centuries.
. In the nineteenth century, Trinity invested in education efforts taking place in Southern states. The church hosted conferences and fundraising events for schools like Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Hampton Institute in Virginia. The Rev. Elijah Winchester Donald, successor to the Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks, developed a close friendship with Tuskegee’s Booker T. Washington that resulted in significant collaboration. Trinity’s parish leadership established the “Trinity Church Oratorical Prize” at Tuskegee, which Trinity funded until the 1920s or ‘30s.
. In the twentieth century, Trinity continued its investments in education as a means for effecting lasting change. In the 1950s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, the Rev. Sam Tyler collaborated with Otto and Muriel Snowden of Freedom House in Roxbury. Trinity shared human and financial resources to fund the program, “New Experiences for Children,” a concept borne of the Snowdens’ passion to provide children with enriching opportunities.
Trinity Church was not always on the frontlines of justice as we could and should have been, and we now endeavor to transform Trinity’s episodic commitments to anti-racism into a daily devotion that will endure beyond our lifetimes. Until the world has been righted as God intends, this devotion cannot be delegated to a few, but must be shared by every member of our congregation.
The Task Force, with crucial assistance from newly appointed parish Historian Cynthia Staples, has looked hard at the stained glass, statuary, and iconography of our worship space. There is much research still to be done, but what is immediately obvious is what isn’t to be seen: non-white faces in stained glass or murals, even though our Biblical forebears were almost certainly not fair-skinned. There are also no statues or other forms of recognition of the people of color who have informed our spiritual history, and there are no attributed artists of color. Could there be? Of course. Think Simon of Cyrene, the Black man who stepped in to bear Jesus's cross. Or Dr. King himself, who is honored as a saint by our Church. Though the absences grieve our hearts, so, too, do the possibilities inspire the same.
The Task Force on Justice and Reparations will sunset this fall, and the fruit of its efforts will be manifold in its summons to our parish. Reparations in some form will surely be required, though we will want to examine first what we aim to repair and who should benefit. While writing a check is alone not a sufficient answer to this moral call, a financial commitment – a large and sacrificial financial commitment – will surely be part of it. Reparation will also come in the form of repentance and the building of new relationships in the city and beyond.
These are great demands, but necessary and righteous ones. And while we who comprise the Trinity Church of this moment will not complete this work, we must commence it – continually, lovingly, honestly, and with the good heart and consequence that Christ hopes for us and for the whole world.
With gratitude and blessings,
The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
On behalf of the Task Force on Justice and Reparations:
Constance Perry and Steve Hendrickson
The Rev. Tom Kennedy