Reflections from Rev. Lenny Duncan
Rev. Lenny Duncan — the author of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. — visited St. Olaf College on February 18 for a series of events discussing his work as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Duncan is the mission developer pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington. In his book and his work, he confronts the church’s complicity in sins such as white supremacy, queerphobia, and economic injustice, and promotes diversity as a tool for revitalizing the church.
While at St. Olaf, Duncan spoke during the morning chapel service, hosted the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion’s Out for Lunch event, and delivered an evening keynote address in Boe Chapel. Here, he shares insights about the church, his role within it, and the diverse experiences of Lutherans today.
You describe your book as a love letter to the Lutheran church. What drew you to the church and what continues to foster your love for it?
I’m drawn to the idea of Jesus, the idea of an itinerant rabbi who traveled around the countryside with the foreign, the oppressed — this brown man who was killed by law enforcement and hung from a tree, but yet somehow overcame all the things that I’ve run across in my life and came back from the dead.
It’s a really weird story. I like it. I really like the fact that people pin their whole lives on that story. And I also think that the church has something to say in this world that’s not harmful, that’s life giving and can be powerful. What keeps me at the church is that I’m just one of those people who feels like I have no other choice. I feel called to the church at a time when most of the country doesn’t.
So I find solace in the church, and without grace, my life doesn’t make sense. Without grace, life is this never-ending series of vicissitudes and troubles and turmoil and tribulations. We’re in a very broken world where it’s very obvious evil is real. But with grace, with the story that the church brings, with the story of salvation, with the story that life can overcome death, that even rebel people of color can come back to life, my life seems to make a lot more sense.
How do you think the Lutheran tradition can and does inform social justice movements?
I think the idea that you don’t have to earn your salvation is a really freeing thing, and that’s key to the Lutheran tradition — that we don’t earn our way into God’s good graces. That was already bought and paid for 2,000 years ago. So that frees me to actually care about the people around me.
I also think that there is a strong tradition in the Lutheran church that we’re the original Protestants — protesters. It’s baked into who we are. The amazing thing is that Lutheranism here at St. Olaf looks very Norwegian and well-put-together, but it looks really different in other places. I’ve served charismatic Lutheran churches where people are more likely to fall out in tongues than they are to talk about Kierkegaard. But yet we’re all Lutheran.
So there’s something about the Lutheran tradition where we can disagree on a great variety of issues, yet still be in community together. I think that’s helpful for social justice. Right now, there is a push for progressive puritanism, where if you don’t know the right words or you don’t know the right things, if you don’t say things perfectly the way they’re supposed to be said, then you’re “canceled,” and we can’t move forward like that. I’m certainly not calling for a centrist position because I’m not a centrist, but I think everyone gets to start where they get to start. Everyone’s journey is holy. And we have to do the hard work of walking people to the places that we find ourselves already.
There’s something about the Lutheran tradition where we can disagree on a great variety of issues, yet still be in community together. I think that’s helpful for social justice.
How do you navigate the tension between honoring the Lutheran tradition and carving out a new space for the church to be more inclusive and diverse?
I don’t want to paint it with a broad brush, but it’s easy when you’re backed up against the wall to want to do something different. I’m called to do what I do, and for me it seems quite natural. I didn’t know I was doing something different until people informed me I was doing something different. I’m coming to these conclusions based off of our confessions, based off of our theology, based off of our hermeneutic, based off of our best teachers, based off of our tradition.
So for me, it seemed like a natural conclusion, or a natural result of everything that I have learned about the Lutheran tradition. It wasn’t until later that people informed me that I was one of the few “me’s” out there.
What do you think white Lutherans need to understand about the experiences of Lutherans of color and the future of the church?
Worldwide, Lutheranism is a movement of color. The global South is where it’s growing the most. Most Lutherans live in the global South, and it’s actually a small minority of Lutherans that are in Europe or in North America. So I have a better understanding of where they sit in the world and where their tradition sits.
As to the American context, there’s a great essay by the Reverend Tiffany Chaney in which she says, “The toughest thing I have ever tried to be in my life is both black and Lutheran.” This is an incredibly hard path and can be life-draining for some of us. And it can feel dangerous in the place that we call our place of faith, our tradition, our home. But black Lutherans have been here, at least in a North American context, since 1837. We know there were more before that, but we had our first pastor in 1837. So we’ve been a part of this thing almost since the very birth of this country. Remember that we’re here, and that particularly black women should be allowed to take lead.
What can an institution like St. Olaf, which is obviously founded in a tradition of white Lutheranism, do to help the efforts of revitalizing and diversifying the Lutheran church?
St. Olaf has the challenge of raising good white Lutherans, and encouraging white folks to do white folk work. There are places that my voice will never be heard. There are people who will never come hear me speak. There are people who will immediately shut down when I open my mouth, and those are the places where you get to pick up the work, you get to say the thing, and you get to walk people forward. The biggest thing is to educate good white folks and send them out into the world to do good white folk work.