Why the ELCA Needs to Start a Reparations Process: Part 1

Why you should defund your denomination

I want to talk to you today about what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should do in regard to the question of reparations for Black peoples on this continent. I’m willing to bet if you belong to a mainline denomination, the arguments, topics, challenges, and bullshit from your “betters” will sound all too familiar. 

But for my part, much like in Dear Church, I prefer to talk about my own backyard. I want you to know this post comes from my deep shame at being a member of the ELCA at this time. This is a post of heartache. I believe we have failed humanity at a critical time in history. 

This post addresses I think are the limited next steps that are left for us. It’s my last attempt to reason with my church as I have been guided, led, and called to relinquish that role in this church after 2020. I don’t know what that means, but I know that, other than what I’m about to describe to you, I have little to no interest further in the ELCA and it’s goings-on. I have a community, Jubilee Collective, to serve, and while this post may threaten our funding, I’d rather lose a part of my salary than live as a slave. I’d rather die free.

But first, a grounding passage from Dear Church. You see, these thoughts didn’t come out of nowhere. 

“Church, it is our calling to lead the way in this work. As the whitest denomination in the America, we can publicly claim our complicity in white supremacy. Not a few statements here and there addressing white supremacy’s consequences, like mass incarceration. I mean to fully repent of the systemic sin of white supremacy and not move immediately to calls for reconciliation because we get uncomfortable. This is what reparations can look like. Of course, financial reparations are needed as well. But we must begin by repenting and turning away from the root of the problem.” – Dear Church: Repentance, Reparations, Reconciliation

In this chapter I tie reparations to the act of repentance.  It is an attempt to call us to a spiritual position of reparations. I had hoped we would start the conversation; prepare the way like John the Baptist among mainline denominations. On the Dear Church book tour, I often avoided questions regarding denominational financial reparations like I did in the passage above. 

The time for that has passed. 

The ELCA needs to start the process of financial reparations to the Black Peoples of this continent. Now. 

If Bishop Eaton doesn’t have the stomach for this conversation, she should resign, along with every member of the Conference of Bishops, the Churchwide offices and units, the office of Secretary, and every other representative of this so called “third” expression of our church who gets in our way.  

As a matter of fact, we should #Defundchurchwide. More on that later.

You may be thinking, “But Lenny, have you tried talking to these folks about this? They seem like good enough people.” 

Other than writing a whole damn book about it and travelling to every region of the ELCA discussing it hundreds of times in 2019? In a word, yes. 

This all started with a movie I did a while back with Rev. Jason Chesnut of Ankosfilms  called “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?”

It was for an independent study in seminary, and Jason saved my ass by doing some filming. We filmed the first part and it went Lutheran-viral, meaning it made some minor waves in our tradition. It was formatted in two parts and people were pumped for the follow up. Six days before launch of the second part, we got a call from Bishop Eaton’s office. She wanted to be in it. 

Y’all, I was in seminary and this was a big win for me. They asked me to write a blog post about my work and I agreed. They “brought me in”. This has been a repeated pattern for me with this church: I speak truth, they try to calm me down and assuage me.

Soon it will destroy me. Watch. 

Anyway, the presiding Bishop wanted to be in my film! I knew it was because the ELCA empire was threatened by the subject; I knew I couldn’t ask the real questions.  Team, I knew all the things. But at the time, I thought it was a sign that this church and its leaders were willing to listen. 

To learn.

I was wrong. So bitterly wrong. 

When we got the call, we stopped production. Mind you, Jason is a real-life film producer, director, cinematographer, and freelancer. This was utter bullshit for his world, but he recognized the significance of this, and he was morbidly curious as to what would she say in light of our investigation. At the beginning of the film, we discover Jehu Jones, the first Black North American Lutheran minister was never fucking paid. Ever. 

We got the interview, set up a remote shoot in three locations, edited it, and uploaded it. 

At the end of the film, we called on the ELCA to set up a reparations fund in Jehu Jones’ name: 32K annually; the amount of the salary he was denied, adjusted for inflation. Jason and I considered this to be a low-risk and easy ask from this church, particularly because Bishop Eaton admits in the film that we need to do more.

The day of the release, my phone starts buzzing within minutes of it being posted to social media. 

This next part involves Black peoples in this church, so I won’t name names or point fingers. I know how white supremacy pits us against each other. I have forgiven all involved, yet I rage on behalf of the messenger they sent that day, who is a dear friend—someone who wasn’t even involved. It was craven. 

They have my number. They are welcome to call me or as the kids say, drop a pin, and we can chat in person. 

I was asked for several reasons to remove the last title screen asking for reparations. I was told that there were “internal discussions” on this subject. I assumed, naively, that perhaps my betters were already on it. So within 60 minutes of launch, we removed the film, edited the last title screen, and replaced it. Most people didn’t even notice, except the first 70 or so viewers.

After all, I was just a seminarian and these were my ecclesial betters. 

It was safe to expect better from them, right?  

Here we are in 2020. The country is shattered and where is the ELCA’s response? 

It is as anemic as the life of our churches. It is a deadened thing that is a macabre menagerie of demonic systemic racism. An unholy parody of church life. 

I was used by a system that eats young Black leaders and pits us against our own people, then waits for a fresh crop to arise. Slaughters their spirits and does it again. And again. Ask my peers or my elders. We have all been used against each other in heartbreaking ways. 

From now on, I will no longer do anything on behalf of the Churchwide organization. Until the ELCA starts a serious conversation around reparations in America, I will no longer publicly support the Churchwide offices, its units, our presiding Bishop, or the Office of Secretary, and I urge you not to either. 

We must divest all energy from the Churchwide endeavor until they reflect the needs of humanity at this critical point in history. Right now, that means Black liberation. Black liberation is collective liberation. 

If the ELCA powers that be don’t listen to us as the people of God, I think it’s time we have a serious conversation about #defundingchurchwide and doing this work ourselves. 

Our leaders in this church have failed us, me included. This nation is on the brink and we still can’t recognize evil and respond? It’s time we held this church to account. 

Don’t believe me?  

Ask them what happened to the first Black pastor in our tradition here. Ask them what they did to our first Black woman Bishop.*

I have the honor to be this church’s obedient servant.

Lenny Duncan + 

*Edit- The First Black woman installed, not elected. That distinction belongs to another. But liturgically that makes the original line “correct” with a distinction added for clarity.