Announcing a Pilgrim Reparations Project: “In My Neighborhood”

This fall, as we honor the church’s 100th anniversary, we invite Pilgrims to contribute to a fund for reparations, directed specifically to respond to inequities in homeownership for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) families. The name “In My Neighborhood” expresses the hope that this work is grounded in a welcoming, accountable spirit that counteracts the too frequent “NIMBY” (“Not in my backyard”) response to social change.


What are “reparations,” how does this action honor Pilgrim’s anniversary, who and what are we asking reparations for, and why are asking for them now?


What are “reparations”?

Although the concept has been around since Reconstruction, the word “reparations” re-entered the national conversation with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, “The Case for Reparations,” in the Atlantic magazine in June 2014. In all the furor generated by Coates’s article, little of it centers on the quotation that opens the piece, from Deuteronomy:


If any Hebrews—be they women or men are sold to you and they serve six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, don’t send them away empty-handed. Give to them liberally from your flock, and from your threshing floor, and your wine press. Give to them as YHWH, your God, has given to you. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, and YHWH, your God, has bought your freedom. And so it is that I give you this commandment today. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Inclusive Bible)


Christians are familiar with the Biblical commandment to do works of charity. The great commandment, as Jesus delivers it, is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and one of the ways that we manifest that love is by giving to those in need. “[G]ive, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). We may be less familiar with any “commandment” to make reparations to neighbors that we have wronged, especially economically, but that concept too—as the passage from Deuteronomy shows—is Biblical. The difference is that charity is given unprompted—“cheerfully,” as 2 Corinthians (9:7) has it, out of mercy—while reparations is given in recompense, out of justice. Facing an historical wrong, the case for reparations compels us to atone and act to repair the breach.


So what is the historical wrong that Pilgrims are being called, by this opportunity, to redress?


Nellie and William Francis’ attempt to integrate Mac-Groveland

In 1924, the Black couple Nellie Griswold Francis and William Francis moved from the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul to 2092 Sargent Avenue, in the developing residential neighborhood of Macalester-Groveland. William was a prominent attorney and civil rights advocate, and Nellie was the principal author of the anti-lynching bill that passed the Minnesota legislature and became law in 1921 (Green 137). With racial prejudice on the rise in 1920s America, and with their new neighborhood segregated white through practice and, in some areas, racial covenants, the newly arrived Francises were greeted with threatening phone calls and letters, loud demonstrations, and—on two occasions—crosses burned in front of their home (Heidenreich 5). When William was appointed ambassador to Liberia in 1927, he and Nellie sold their house and never again lived in St. Paul.


Given the religious homogeneity of the neighborhood, it is likely that many, if not all, of the neighbors who harassed the Francises were Christians. Conversely, we have not found any expressions of support for them among the neighborhood’s many Christian institutions, including Pilgrim Lutheran Church, founded in 1921, and a mere 0. 4 miles from the Francis’ home.


Some may argue that the harassment of the Francises, incidents that happened 100 years ago and that no living member of the Pilgrim congregation had anything to do with, are odd things on which to center a reparations project. Why are we being called to atone for and redress a wrong that we ourselves did not commit? The argument against reparations for slavery makes much the same point. Why are we—not the direct descendants of slaveholders—called to recompense the descendants of slaves?


Such arguments miss the cost of the discrimination that the story of the Francises reveals. From the “Mapping Prejudice” project at the University of Minnesota and the “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor” project at St. Catherine University, the Pilgrim Advocates for Racial Equity (ARE) team has learned how the stubborn persistence of housing segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul has stunted the economic progress of the BIPOC community. Home ownership is a primary means for accumulating and passing down wealth. Denying that opportunity to some has created the wealth gaps that plague our society today. Throughout its 100-year history, Pilgrim Lutheran Church has prospered as an overwhelmingly white congregation in a historically white neighborhood. It is possible that no member of the Pilgrim congregation, present or past, may have harmed the Francises directly. The congregation, however, has benefitted from the systems that excluded them. The congregation has also benefitted from the generosity of congregants who named Pilgrim in their wills as the beneficiary of the proceeds of the sale of their home after their death. These funds make up the majority of the endowment that supports Pilgrim’s ongoing fiscal needs.


What shall we do?

The drive for reparations begins with those who wish to repair the breech acknowledging and apologizing for the personal and impersonal, systematic wrongs done by them or in their name.


According to the “Reparations Now Toolkit” of the “Movement for Black Lives,” reparations must include “compensation to a specific, defined group of individuals harmed by a violation” [and] “action to stop the systems, institutions, and practices causing the harm,” by making “changes to laws, institutions, and systems aimed at ensuring that harm will not happen again” (32).


ARE proposes that Pilgrim begin the process of making reparations for its tacit participation in the system of housing segregation by committing to a collaborative relationship with Model Cities, a St. Paul-based non-profit, including a financial contribution.


Why Model Cities?

According to Edgar Villanueva, a leading advocate of reparations and “decolonizing wealth,” a model of giving rooted in reparations (rather than charity) “trusts and supports the leadership of those most impacted by historical and systematic racism.” In the organization’s own words, “Model Cities’ roots date back to the 1960s era of community empowerment. It was created in 1967 by members of St. James AME Church to remedy health access issues among low-income residents of St. Paul’s Summit-University community.” Today, it “stabilize[s] and develop[s] families and communities” through work that includes emergency housing for the homeless, affordable rental housing and home ownership services for low-income families. This work is concentrated on BIPOC communities.


Model Cities is also a partner in the City of St. Paul’s Families First Housing Pilot, which “provides Saint Paul families a $300 monthly rent supplement and ongoing supportive services for three years,” and which is part of the city’s broader efforts to “produce, preserve, and protect housing affordability for Saint Paul residents.” Since the city itself does not accept donations, the only way to financially support the city’s efforts is by donating to one of its nonprofit partners. Support for Model Cities also accords with our support as an ISAIAH congregation for rent stabilization in St. Paul.


How are we honoring Pilgrim’s anniversary in this action?

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of Pilgrim Lutheran Church. Celebration is certainly in order! Throughout the fall, a variety of events and causes will mark the occasion and solicit the attention of friends and neighbors. We will be widening the church’s welcome through an ice-cream social and the installation of a public art project. We will be recounting the highlights of our church’s history through a hymn commissioned and composed for the occasion. Our celebration will culminate with an anniversary liturgy led by Bishop Patricia Lull on November 21.


Even as we celebrate, we will continue the sort of self-critical analysis that this “home for hungry minds and souls” prides itself on. Pilgrim’s context in 2021 is that of two concurrent pandemics. COVID-19 locked down the whole world between February 2020 and June 2021. This viral pandemic broke open our denial about the capacity and responsibility that we have to protect each other’s health and well-being. The other “pandemic,” the systematic choking of Black America by white supremacy in the United States over hundreds of years, was epitomized by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020.


We who claim the Gospel as our guide are called to atone for our complicity in this suffering. The Gospel, preached by Pilgrim for 100 years, gives all of us the seeds of love for neighbor. In the new century of Pilgrim’s life together in this place, let us plant these seeds in the fertile ground of atonement and work to heal our individual and communal life of racism.


We know that we are asking Pilgrims to consider reparations while other causes are also soliciting their attention, including a pie sale to benefit Project Home, the renewal of Luganga scholarship commitments, and the annual stewardship campaign. We sustain the church and give charitably out of our income, the money that we earn from day to day. Many of us also have inherited or accumulated wealth as a direct result of our own or our forebears’ home ownership. In this project we are asking each other to consider sharing some of what we have received, so that other families can use this in their own creation of generational wealth.


Luther’s Small Catechism explains the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” like this: “We should fear and love God, so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them in any dishonest way, but help them to improve and protect their goods and means of making a living.” If we recognize that a harm has been done to our neighbors by “stealing” their opportunity for home ownership, then—according to Luther’s interpretation of the commandment--we are obligated not just to remove those obstacles, but to help our neighbor “improve and protect” their economic prospects. Coinciding with Pilgrim’s 100th anniversary, a gift to Model Cities through this fund for reparations will both honor Pilgrim and strengthen the community that we have been a part of for 100 years.


In My Neighborhood Fall 2021 calendar

September 2021 Pilgrim newsletter has full description of the project


September 12 2021 Forum will provide information about The Francis family and Model Cities and offer time for discussion about reparations philosophy and other housing work going on in in St. Paul


September 12 2021 Ice Cream Social will include a table staffed by ARE members who will provide written information about the project and engage visitors in discussion about it as they express interest.


September 19 2021 Leif McLellan will preach on the topic of reparations and land redemption in the Old Testament.


October 16 2021 We have a block of tickets reserved for “Not in Our Neighborhood” at 2pm at the MN History Theater (30 10th St E, St. Paul). The show tells the story of the Francis family’s experience in the Groveland neighborhood. Please contact Katia McDonough (katiamcd@icloud.com) or Melanie Ruda (mcruda@mac.com) if you are interested in attending this performance with other Pilgrims.


Tickets are in the center section of the main floor and cost $25.00 each.


September 1-November 1 2021 Pilgrims are invited to contribute to the “in My Neighborhood” fund. See details below.


November 21, 2021 A check, representing the entirety of the fund will be presented to a representative of Model Cities at the Pilgrim Anniversary worship service.


How can you contribute?

  • Donate online beginning September 1, 2021. Click the Donate button on the Pilgrim website and enter the amount of your donation in the “In My Neighborhood” category.

  • Write a check to Pilgrim Lutheran St. Paul. Please write “In My Neighborhood” in the memo line. Drop it in the collection basket or mail it to the church

  • Donate funds from your charitable foundation, IRA, or appreciated stock.  Contact Cathy Salin if you have questions about how to do this.

Pilgrim giving statements will reflect contributions to this project, which are tax deductible.


DRAFT racism acknowledgment statement

(We will continue to evolve this statement with community input during the course of the Fall 2021 In My Neighborhood project. By December 2021 ARE will finalize the statement and submit it to the Pilgrim Vestry for approval.)


We white citizens and congregants have been complicit in the systematic exclusion of Black, Indigenous, Immigrant and other People of Color from full participation in and benefit from the common good. We lament the suffering caused by our racism. We endeavor to live more fully a Gospel commitment to love our neighbors as ourselves by listening well, changing our hearts and partnering with our neighbors in building an antiracist community of justice where all may thrive.


Works Cited