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Virginia Seminary President On Reparations Fund: 'Apology Is Insufficient'


We're going to turn now to the ongoing debate around reparations. In recent years, a number of universities have tried to confront how slavery shaped their institutions. Now Virginia Theological Seminary is doing the same. The seminary, which is just outside Washington, D.C., announced a plan to create a $1.7 million fund for the descendants of the slaves that helped build the school. We wanted to learn more about that plan and what it went into the decision, so we've called on Ian Markham. He's an Episcopal priest and the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. Thank you for joining us.

IAN MARKHAM: I'm delighted to be here.

MCCAMMON: So what led to the creation of this reparations fund?

MARKHAM: So we're on the cusp of our 200th birthday. And as you do the work of thinking about that milestone, you find yourself reflecting on 200 years. And we're very conscious that the story is one full of both grace and sin. And we need to recognize that sin is part of that story. And a huge part of that story are enslaved persons who built many of the key buildings on the campus. And almost all the faculty for decades had enslaved persons working for them. So we felt it was important that you can't mark an anniversary of such significance without really thinking through how we're going to relate to that complex part of our history.

MCCAMMON: And what kind of impact are you hoping that those dollars will have?

MARKHAM: The endowment will generate approximately $70,000, but it'll be an endowment, so in perpetuity, we can do this work over generations to come. And we hope, as a result, we will be building connection. We will be identifying the forebears, people living now who played a significant role. But names have been forgotten, and we've not honored them hitherto. So we hope it's going to be a holistic, relationship building, healing moment, a recognition for the service they've done and the differences they've made.

MCCAMMON: Do you think more seminaries and religious institutions should follow your lead and find a way to pay reparations for their involvement in slavery?

MARKHAM: I think, in the end, no institution of faith can avoid the implication that an apology is insufficient. When you've wronged somebody, you don't just say sorry, but you seek to make some sort of amends. And therefore, yeah, apology is good, promising to be different in the future is good. But you got to do something to rectify the damage you've done in the past. And I think faith-based institutions know that that's true. And you have no choice but to do it.

MCCAMMON: Now data from the Pew Research Center suggests that the Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly white, about 90%, only about 4% black. Do you think this decision will help in any way toward diversifying congregations, and is that a goal?

MARKHAM: Undoubtedly, it's a goal. You know, changing demographics of America is a course that's absolute sure and certain. America is changing, and therefore the Episcopal Church, to survive, has got to be ready and able to change. So yes, a recognition - we're one of the oldest denominations in the United States. We're very fortunate in many, many ways.

But we've fully and totally participated in sinful structures. And I think persons of color recognize that, know that and are interested in how we, as a historic primarily white denomination, respond to the changing demographics of America and come to terms with our past. So yes, we do hope it'll make a difference.

MCCAMMON: That's the Very Reverend Ian Markham. He's an Episcopal priest and the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. Thank you so much.

MARKHAM: It's been an honor to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.