I have been spending a good deal of time lately with my great-grandfather Walter who died when I was 2. I have been in conversation with him about my money story.
Not because Walter left a personal fortune that I have inherited; he didn’t. But Walter, an Episcopal priest like me, increased by his efforts the wealth of the Church, and I, as both a priest and the son of a priest, have benefitted from that wealth all of my life. And now I want to redistribute that wealth as an act of reparations in the name of Jesus.
Walter was not a nice person, at least according to family memory, but he was a very successful priest by the standards of the time. In his day he oversaw the founding of a new church and a seminary in Colorado, and he served as Rector and Dean well into his 90’s.
From my perspective, Walter’s “success” is troubling. He served in parishes that were built as components of settlements on occupied land that had newly been seized by the US Army from the Ute people, as well as the Arapaho and Cheyenne.
The Episcopal Church in that place and time actively participated in the deliberate spread of a distinctly Anglo culture in lands being seized by the US. To this day, the church buildings in which Walter served contain memorials to the family members of wealthy donors, but we suppress the memory of how directly connected that wealth was and is to the historic exploitation of expropriated land.
I am spending this time with my great-grandfather because I want him to know that I am actively working to undo his “success.” The Episcopal Church has accumulated wealth through a centuries-long collusion with a national polity and economy based on slavery and genocide. It is not wealth that rightly belongs to us, and our stewardship of it has not been just. I want to redistribute that wealth. And I want his help.
I dare to call on him for assistance because, thanks to him and many other others through the generations of my family, I have heard the gospel. Whatever the very real evils of the Church’s collusion in the imperial projects of Britain and the US, this earthen vessel the Church has carried an eternal treasure. And in the name of this treasure — the gospel of Jesus Christ — I am working along with many, many others to disperse the wealth of the church in a way that will assist Native and African American people to overcome the injustices that they continue to endure.
Walter may have been the arrogant and selfish jerk that my family remembers him to have been, but I choose to believe that he was — and is — also a servant of the gospel. I have read accounts of the gratitude of parishioners for his faithful pastoral visits over decades of service to their congregations. I have spoken with an Episcopalian from Colorado who knew of “the Dean” by reputation as a great and admirable man. I believe that he faithfully asked for God’s guidance, and I believe that the Spirit’s transforming work did not end with his mortal life.
We pray in the Church for those who have died, “that they may go from strength to strength in God’s perfect service.” We say that the fellowship of the saints — that is, the eternal fellowship of all those who have ever invited Christ’s transforming presence into their lives — gathers with us whenever we gather at the communion table. And from ancient times in our formal litanies, we have asked our forebears in the faith to pray for us.
Holy Walter, you bastard, pray for me. Pray that I, as a student of the gospel you preached, will succeed in undoing the unjust work that you and I have helped to do. And when I and others are successful in this, we will dance together at the Lord’s table.
I expect that many of your ancestors may be there, as well. Will you join them?