Cover Story

The real Justice League

Faith-based Lansing group builds reparations endowment


“This world’s a ship on its passage out; and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow,” Herman Melville wrote in “Moby Dick.”

A growing group of faith leaders in greater Lansing hope to lead the community on the incomplete voyage to racial equity and reconciliation.

The Justice League of Greater Lansing, a nonprofit formed by members of Lansing’s First Presbyterian Church and its pastor, the Rev. Stanley Jenkins, in summer 2021, is well on its way toward building a faith-based reparations endowment program.

“We’re trying to normalize the discussion on reparations,” Jenkins said. “It’s time. It’s been time since the beginning of slavery.”

Beginning with local churches, they are fanning out into the community, preaching the moral imperative and the practical feasibility of building a fund to close the shocking gap in household wealth, income, education and health outcomes that divides the nation by race — the legacy of centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination and systemic racism.

And they are practicing what they preach. First Presbyterian has pledged $100,000 to the League’s reparations fund from its endowment over the next 10 years. Another predominantly white greater Lansing church, Sycamore Creek United Methodist, has pledged 1% of its endowment each year for the next three years. A dozen other churches have met with the Justice League and are pondering whether to follow suit.

“One of our goals is to set a bar, an example,” Jenkins said. “I’m sure the fact that we’ve pledged $100,000 is part of their discussions.” 

An eight-member board of local African-American leaders will manage and distribute the funds, focusing on scholarships, job training and housing assistance.

The Justice League’s plan impressed Pastor Tom Arthur so much that he and his congregation made Sycamore Creek United Methodist the first church outside of First Presbyterian to climb on board.

“Who doesn’t want people to thrive in education, housing and business?” Arthur said. “I love it that they are focusing on that. If you look at the inequities in these areas based on race, it’s horrible.”

The Justice League’s ship is launching into unknown seas. Reparations plans and studies are getting traction in some cities and states across the nation, but they are patchy, limited and rare. Action at the federal level is on hold for the foreseeable future.

But it’s not the first time churches have vaulted into a moral vacuum. Arthur is quick to point out that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor before he was an activist and a civil rights leader.

“Everything he did was always based, very specifically, in the church tradition,” Arthur said. “He was a master at communicating it in a way that built bridges with the wider white majority. So it’d be great — it’s fun to even think about how we can lead in that way.”

The League’s goal is to raise $1 million by the end of 2023.

“A million dollars would be great,” Justice League President Prince Jerold Solace said. “But it’s more about changing people’s notions that this is a possibility, to get those who can commit their time and energy to start investing in what we’re doing.”


Calm spaces

Preachers come in many forms. The founder of the Justice League, First Presbyterian church elder Willye Bryan, has the calm and focused air of a scientist.

She is, in fact, a retired entomologist and researcher with the U.S. Agriculture Department and Michigan State University. Her favorite order of insects is ephemeroptera — mayflies. She’s also First Presbyterian’s point person in a growing movement that is anything but ephemeral.

“We see the huge racial wealth gap,” Bryan said. “We feel it. But we don’t talk about the reasons that happened, and that it can be repaired. That’s the bold step. We don’t want to talk about it like pie in the sky. We want to address it.”

The year-and-a-half-old League has made about 30 presentations on its reparations plan to predominantly white congregations so far.

The League’s pitch relies more on clear, inexorable logic than thunderbolts of sin and guilt.

“There was never a blueprint for African Americans to live outside of slavery,” Solace said. “Yes, there’s a faith behind this, but there’s also a science to human nature, about trying to re-engineer how our nation looks at the legacy of slavery and understands active ways to help repair it.”

The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s charismatic national spokesman on reparations is the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the newly established Center for the Repair of Historic Harm.

Ross-Allam spoke at a unique convocation in Lansing Jan. 28 at Reachout Christian Center, a predominantly Black church on the south side.

Over 100 white clerics and members of Lansing-area Presbyterian churches, and allies from 10 more predominantly white area churches, gathered that afternoon to offer an apology to the African-American community of Lansing “for the sin of slavery and its aftermath.” 

Ross-Allam is determined to set a respectful, purposeful tone in the church’s work on reparations. He called on the church to create “calm spaces” where communities could talk about reparations and bring an end to the nation’s “cycle of outrage.” 

“Our work is not to try to find a way to make people feel guilty, so that out of their guilt and shame, they will engage, all of a sudden, in some feverish activity,” Ross-Allam said in an interview for the online Presbyterian Mission last October. “That cycle ends when people say, ‘It doesn’t matter if I’m personally guilty, but my personal honor and my love for God and my love for humanity will not allow me to see others suffer from legacies that prop me up.’”

First Presbyterian’s Pastor Jenkins loves to watch Bryan win skeptics over at meetings with white churches. The Justice League has also hosted community events at the downtown library and the Socialight Bookstore at the Lansing Mall.

“Sometimes you can see it in the frowns on their faces, or the eyebrows going like this,” Jenkins said, wrinkling his brow. “Willye is very good at connecting the dots, to show that the racial wealth gap is a direct result of slavery and specific policies.”

“I swear that at every presentation, we’ve seen the light go on for someone,” Bryan said. “They’ll come and say, ‘What can I do?’”

At a recent meeting, a church member raised the question of whether reparations would “create dependency” in the Black community.

Before Bryan could respond, another member stepped in with a ready answer.

“We never asked that question about people who received the G.I. Bill,” the member said.

The G.I. Bill, a federal program begun in 1946 to help returning veterans with education and housing, benefited millions of veterans, but its benefits largely bypassed Black Americans, owing largely to discriminatory policies in the banking, real estate, business and insurance sectors.

“Our grandparents could buy a home and pass it on because the G.I. loan allowed that to happen,” Jenkins said. “Where the lights go on is where people realize the G.I. loan wasn’t accessible to Black people.”

“It’s good to see people say, ‘Now I understand. My father got the G.I. Bill and I didn’t realize Black people didn’t get it,’” Bryan said.


‘That’s just crazy’

Sycamore Creek Pastor Arthur said he’s been on a “journey” with the idea of reparations. 

“As a white person, when you first come across the idea of reparations — at least I did — I’m thinking, ‘That’s just crazy,’” Arthur said. “How do you even — how do you figure the mechanics of it? It seems ridiculously impossible.”

Like many Americans, Arthur got a quick and convincing education from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential 2014 article in The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”

In the essay, Coates cogently argued that after 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal” and 35 years of racist housing policy, “until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

The average Black household earns about half as much as the average white household and owns only about 15% to 20% as much wealth, according to an October 2021 report from the Federal Reserve, and the gap has “widened notably over the past few decades.”  The Centers for Disease Control reports a breathtaking range of racial disparities in health outcomes, from life expectancy (four years longer for white people than for Black people) to maternal mortality. (Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.) The difference in standardized test scores between Black and white students, while narrowing, is still equivalent to about two years of schooling, according to a 2022 report from Stanford University.

When Arthur delivers one of his “talk show/TED talk” sermons, he often sums it up with a simple metaphor from Latasha Morrison’s 2019 book, “Be the Bridge.”

Halfway through a football game, the referees confess that they’ve been deliberately calling the plays in favor of one team all along, allowing them to rack up an insurmountable lead. They apologize and vow to call the game fairly from now on.

“The team that’s down 50 to nothing would say, ‘Thank you for admitting it, but what about the score?’” Arthur said. “That seems like a very simple metaphor getting at what this is about. There’s got to be something to fix the score.”


Fire from the Queen

Sometimes, all it takes is a chance encounter to turn aspirations into action.

For the past three years, Sycamore Creek Church has hosted a staged reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” At last year’s performance, Arthur met a dynamic young community leader and longtime Lansing resident, Prince Jerold Solace.

For about 13 years, Solace was coordinator of the Lansing Black College tour, a 25-year-old program that takes Lansing students to historically Black college and university campuses. Solace also led the African-American Employee Research Group at the MSU Federal Credit Union for three years.

“I’ve been volunteering in Lansing since I was 13,” Solace said.

Solace credits his zeal for community service to his mother, known in the family as Queen Darlene Rhodes, a 4’11” “fireball” who raised Prince and his two brothers to do good in the world.

“She understood the reality of raising three Black sons in America,” Solace said. “She often told us that one in three Black men in America are in prison and she didn’t want that for us.”

It was the perfect time for Arthur and Solace to meet. Arthur was planning a sermon on reparations for the next week’s service. Solace had just joined First Presbyterian Church as director of congregational life and outreach and impressed Arthur with the fire he brought to the church’s mission.

At the same time, Sycamore Creek Church was in talks to “adopt” the shrinking Asbury United Methodist Church, across from the Eastwood Town Center.

Unlike Sycamore Creek, a young church established in 2001, Asbury had an endowment.

“This felt like a bit of intergenerational wealth transfer,” Arthur said.

Around the same time, Arthur inherited money after the death of his parents. He and his wife donated part of it to the Black Seminarian Union at their alma mater, Duke Divinity School at Duke University.

“This felt like the same thing,” Arthur said. “Here we are, getting this big inheritance from a church that was basically dying, and we ought to pass some of that on, because that doesn’t happen often in churches that are not white.”

Arthur found it serendipitous that Solace and his colleagues were launching the Justice League at about the same time. Sycamore Creek’s leadership team was receptive to the idea of committing funds to the League.

“There was little to no discussion about whether we should do it,” Arthur said. “It was how much.”

Arthur said he expects the church’s commitment to extend beyond three years and “become more generous” after that.


Consult and console

It’s only fitting that the Justice League’s members have different, and complementary, super-powers. They spend a lot of time marveling over their timely convergence. 

“We consult each other. We console each other, if needed. I don’t know if this is divine intervention or what,” Bryan said.

“I’m pretty sure it is,” Jenkins shot back.

Solace and Bryan characterized Jenkins’ superpower in different ways.

“He has the leverage, the network, the background in the seminary, that adds a tremendous amount of value when we go into predominantly white spaces and have them open up with a theological and spiritual perspective,” Solace said.

“Pastors can preach and go home,” Bryan said, “but Stan put his body in this struggle. He’s the only white minister that goes to the Black ministerial lodge, and they’ve become brothers. He has decided that he will be a part of the healing.”

A native of Illinois, Jenkins moved to New York to attend theological school in the 1980s and ended up leading Presbyterian churches in in the borough of Queens. He found the divide between wealthy, mainly white churches in Manhattan and diverse, middle-income churches in outer boroughs nearly insurmountable.

“It was very discouraging,” Jenkins said.

In 2020, he and Bryan launched a series of meetings with First Presbyterian Lansing church members, “Conversations on Race.”

The germ of the Justice League began to form in February 2021, when the discussion group studied a substantive blueprint for reparations, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century,” by William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen.

The book lays out a comprehensive historical case for reparations, precisely assesses the cost of slavery and the subsequent phases of systemic discrimination against African-Americans and and offers a roadmap for a real-world program.

“What can I do?” was a frequent question in the discussion group. Bryan decided the time was ripe to move things to another level.

“Let’s move on this, let’s see what the community is ready to hear,” she urged Jenkins. The nationwide reckoning on racial justice that swept the nation in summer 2021 made the timing even more propitious.

“I was thinking that we should, and we can, do something,” Bryan said. “We don’t have to be just travelers.”

Not that Bryan has ever been “just a traveler.” In rural Mississippi, where she grew up, she helped build the Freedom Village community in 1970 to house farm workers who were displaced from their homes for registering to vote.

“We built 20 homes for those folks,” Bryan said. 

On a return visit to Freedom Village in 2021, Bryan spotted a group of people in a park, stopped the car, rolled down the window and asked if they knew the name of a man she helped settle there 50 years ago, Clay Miller.

“My name is Clay Miller,” a man said. “Clay Miller Jr.”

“It was fantastic to run into descendants of the people we built those houses for,” Bryan said.  “I’ve been a community activist all my life. The Justice League is kind of a culmination of that drive to see change happen.”

To manage organization and finances, Bryan called upon Solace. The two had known each other from working together on several community projects. The church had a staff vacancy. Solace was looking for a job.

“It was just magic,” Bryan said. “I love Prince and his youth. His approach as a young professional is real encouraging to me. You don’t want to think something will go away when you go away, or when you can’t do it anymore. I feel that we are in good hands.”


National strategy

How far can the Justice League go?

“We’re very intentional about a national strategy,” Jenkins declared. “For reparations to be really effective, it’s got to come from the U.S. government. If we can show that there’s a groundswell of support for that, and spread it out across the country, then it becomes a little bit harder to say that we can’t have reparations at the national level.”

Churches across Michigan, and outside the state, have already contacted the League, to learn more about starting their own reparations projects.

But outside the sanctuary of the church, the landscape is uncertain.

A major breakthrough took place in May 2022, when 16 Black residents of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, each received $25,000 for mortgages, down payments or home repairs, to compensate for discriminatory housing practices Black residents faced between 1919 and 1969. A month later, the town council of Amherst, Massachusetts, approved the creation of a $2 million reparations fund over the next 10 years. The Evanston and Amherst funds will be paid for largely by cannabis tax revenue.

Detroit’s City Council has assembled its first reparations task force in May 2022.

“The grassroots plans that are springing up now, many have different models,” Bryan said. “Our model, the faith-based piece, is different from Evanston’s model.”

“We’re not going to start selling cannabis,” Jenkins added.

The state of California set up the nation’s first state reparations task force in 2020. In summer 2022, the task force’s sweeping, 500-page interim report called for “a detailed program of reparations for African Americans,” but no one knows yet what form that will take.

There is little prospect of action at the federal level anytime soon.

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

In a historic April 2021 vote, the House Judiciary Committee voted to advance a reparations bill to the House floor for a vote, with 215 House members committing to vote “yes.” 

But further action on the bill is unlikely, especially since the House reverted to a Republican majority in 2023.

“John Conyers tried for 30 years,” Bryan said. “We all know that story.” The longtime Detroit congressman, who died in 2019, introduced a reparations bill every year for 30 years, beginning in 1989, to no avail.

“Nobody wants to touch it,” Bryan said. “But the determination we have in this group is palpable. We can do this, we just have to not be afraid.”


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