Young girls, South Sudan

Photo: Paul Jeffrey/Life on Earth Pictures

They formed expectations and aspirations to share with the United Nations, through the ongoing Permanent Forum for People of African Descent occurring 16-19 April.

The recommendations centered on what states and other actors can do to redress the historic exploitation and harms that Africans and people of African descent have suffered.

In opening remarks, Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata, World Council of Churches (WCC) director of Public Witness and Diakonia, said that, though the WCC has been accompanying People of African Descent for 75 years, there is still work ahead to end discrimination—both the blatant kind and the less visible kind. 

Let today be an opportunity for us to particularly question the opportunities at our disposal to address the dehumanization that People of African Descent have endured,” he said.

Adele Halliday, Anti-Racism and Equity lead for The United Church of Canada, who moderated the discussion, urged participants, most of whom represented churches or faith-based organizations, to approach the discussions with the full knowledge that faith institutions and actors were complicit in or legitimized racism. 

She also noted that the climate crisis places a disproportionate burden on people of color. “While people around the world may look on this with some indifference, we wonder if maybe this is because of skin pigmentation,” she said. “So where is economic justice in this? Reparations or repairs are not foreign concepts for many faith groups in the world.”

Dr Michael McEachrane, rapporteur of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, acknowledged that, when most people hear about reparations, they automatically think its merely financial compensation. “Its not a matter of financial compensation for past damages,” he said. “To reduce that to a matter of financial compensation—some would want to argue that is more insult.”

He urged participants to address systemic and structural forms of racism and reparations. 

“There is a role to be played for financial compensation—but that is only a small part of the picture,” he said. “The sum of money is not the point. The point is to address the legacies of past injustices in all the areas of society, including even psychological, including even issues of identify and so forth.”

The panel from the WCC pre-session

“Faith Perspectives on Reparations, Sustainable Development, and Economic Justice”, a WCC pre-session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 15 April 2024, Photo: WCC

Justice at the heart

It’s much more than money, agreed Portia CAllen, a WCC guest sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office. “Reparations have a tone of reparatory justice if considered wisely,” she said. 

Bishop Dr Pius Inobuh Bah, Revive Christian Church International, Cameroon and a WCC guest sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office, noted there are many people still hurting from the effects of slavery and colonialism. “Healing is a process, and I think many Africans will never forget what the colonizers did,” he said. “These people were extorted. Its an urgent matter not to be sidelined or to be played with. Even though its hurting, even though its painful, admitting that these things happened is part of the reparations and healing process.”

Rev Dr Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the Center for the Repair of Historic Harms of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA), reflecting on Acts 2 suggested that the result of divine grace is economic or wealth redistribution for a harmonious community in which everyone’s needs are met. “Theologically speaking, when we talk about reparations, we certainly have to talk about healing,” he said. “We have to look at the histories of nations who have done things.”

It also means we have to ask if original sin has run its course as a concept, Ross-Allam suggested. “Are we not pretending to be working on a problem but we dont think the solution is in human hands?” he asked. 

“You dont need theology to do reparations, and thats probably good news,” he added, drawing a wry laugh of agreement from his colleagues. “We need to examine this notion that grace somehow is a reprieve from paying your historical debts.”

Sonita Alleyne OBE, Master of the Jesus College, UK, shared a case which involved moving a contested heritage memorial—a memorial that celebrates, Tobias Rustat, a man who was a donator and benefactor to the college but also was a prolific investor in the slave trade—out of the chapel. 

“It was a court case in which I was one of two or three Black people present,” said Alleyne. “I thought, ‘why, oh, why are we having to beg for equality?’ ” 

Participants at the pre-session

“Faith Perspectives on Reparations, Sustainable Development, and Economic Justice”, a WCC pre-session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 15 April 2024, Photo: WCC

The judge at the start of the case said there would be no words about slavery. “I spoke in my testimony as master of the college—and none of that testimony was included,” she said. “We wanted to have the memorial removed and set in a place of education rather than in a church.”

It was a moment, Alleyne said, when she really felt alone, and now, although she will attend official functions in the chapel, she does not pray there. 

“The judgment was basically saying that we should just get on with it,” she said. “Its not over. I have to go back to see what I can do next. This is a matter which affects all Black people.”

On 17 April, Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, strategist for Pan-African and Orthodox Faith Engagement, Bread for the World (USA), National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA governing board member, and WCC president from North America, addressed the UN Permanent Forum in Geneva, reading from the statement developed by the consultation.

The 15 April consultation was hosted by the World Council of Churches and supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.


Read the full statement 

Learn more about the WCC work on overcoming Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia