New Jersey Reparations Commission offers a ‘stations of reparations’ liturgy

Posted Mar 29, 2023

[Diocese of New Jersey] The Reparations Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey offered a Stations of Reparations liturgy at St. Peter’s Church, Freehold, on March 25, which brought together more than 80 participants in person and online from around the state and nation to consider the church’s history of oppression of Africans and African Americans, while inviting a response of repentance. In a collaborative historical effort, representatives of five early New Jersey Episcopal congregations described how their founders and clergy participated in the practice of slavery.

The idea for a “stations of reparations” liturgy emerged from the History Working Group of the Reparations Commission as it uncovered the complicity of New Jersey’s colonial-era Anglican congregations in enslavement. A few congregations had already begun researching their ties to slavery, but the broader scope of congregational and institutional involvement began to emerge from recent investigations by historian Jolyon Pruszinski, a Ph.D. lecturer at Princeton University, who started working with the Reparations Commission last September.

The call for reparations is rooted in the concept of making amends for past wrongs. Specifically, it is a call to acknowledge and address historical and ongoing injustices, systemic racism and discrimination. The reparations movement seeks redress for ways in which enslavement and its legacies have excluded Black Americans from full participation in American society and severely restricted their economic, educational, political and social opportunities.

During the service, five congregations shared their history in the liturgy – St. Peter’s Church, Freehold; Trinity Church, Princeton; Christ Church, New Brunswick;  Christ Church, Shrewsbury; and Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral,  Newark. Each congregation named their founders who enslaved laborers in agricultural and mining operations within and outside New Jersey, as well as those clergy who kept slaves in their households or condoned slavery through their teaching and ministry.  Following each witness to the historical record, the assembled congregation joined in a refrain of prayer – “Emmanuel, God-with-us, give us courage to awaken to and repent for our history of enslavement in New Jersey. As we seek to repair and restore our communities, may we trust that you charge us, O God, with co-creating a world that is loving, liberating, and life-giving for all. Amen.”

The Rev. Dirk Reinken, rector at St. Peter’s, Freehold, drew participants’ attention to the room in which they sat. “We know that the Throckmortons, who are memorialized in the window right here, counted in their will no less than seven enslaved individuals,” he said. He added that early New Jersey Anglicans did not merely enslave Black people but actively contributed to the broader system of oppression that worked to keep them enslaved.

Parishioners of Christ Church, Shrewsbury, read the names of the baptized enslaved people preserved in their parish register. Kyra Pruszinski, a researcher at Trinity Church, Princeton, said that the church was established by the Stockton and Potter families, who owned a sugar plantation in Brunswick, Georgia, on which at least 108 Black people were enslaved, as well as the Coleraine Tweedside plantation in Georgia, where at least 423 people were enslaved.

Ann Calloway, the parish historian at Trinity and St. Philips’ Cathedral in Newark, spoke about Colonel Ogden, the founder of Trinity, Newark, noting that enslaved people had harvested wheat in his fields and worked in the mines he owned, all of which made him wealthy. She also noted that the cathedral’s balcony wasn’t built to accommodate extra congregants but as a place for enslaved people to sit. “Each slaveowner owned one of those boxes where his slaves sat. So the church welcomed the slaves and their families, they baptized over 1000 children, but they condoned slavery,” she said.

Jonathan Gloster, a member of the Reparations Commission and a vestry member at Christ Church, New Brunswick, noted that the oldest person buried in the church graveyard is a woman named Dinah, with no surname provided, who died in 1866 at age 106 while enslaved by the Boggs family. Gloster said, “Her life spanned from before the [American] Revolution to the Emancipation Proclamation. Born enslaved and died free.” Gloster said that the legacy of colonial times extended into the 20th century at Christ Church, when Black people still were seated in galleries apart from other churchgoers. “When pew rents were abolished in the early 1920s the decision was made to relocate the organ from the chancel to the gallery, displacing the Black members of the church,” he said. Those displaced members then formed their own parish, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in New Brunswick. The first bishop of the diocese, the Rt. Rev. John Croes, enslaved people during his decades-long service as rector of Christ Church.

The Rev. Joanna P. Hollis, rector of Christ Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey, describes the links between the history and present life of the parish in a March 25 Stations of Reparations service. Photo: Beth Rauen Sciaino

The Rev. Joanna Hollis, the first Black rector of Christ Church, said that every Sunday she stands near the marker indicating that Croes’ grave is under her feet. She added, “I link the far past to the present by virtue of my own enslaved ancestors and pray that I am doing them proud. And I pray that I am doing right by Dinah and by the many enslaved people who were connected with Christ Church. I quite literally am their wildest dream. Yet there is still so much more work to do. So much to atone for. And with God’s help, we can do what needs to be done.”

Afterward, New Jersey Bishop William H. Stokes said the service was “a powerful and poignant experience.” In his blessing he invited those present to the discomfort of “easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships” and to offer anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and to the “foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.”

The core of the stations of reparations service was modeled on the traditional Stations of the Cross, in which a portion of the story of Jesus’ passion is told at each station within a repeating structure of prayer. Each congregation’s “station” included an excerpt from “Dark Testament and Other Poems” by the Rev. Pauli Murray, who was the first Black woman ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church. A July 1 feast day commemorating her was added to The Episcopal Church calendar in 2018.

Other stories discovered through the ongoing Diocese of New Jersey Racial Justice Review not included in the March 25 are available on the project website. The site also provides resources for congregations wanting to research their history, as well as documentation of initial findings, some of which were shared in the service.

A video of the service also is available.