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 specifically should do in regard to the question of reparations for Black peoples on this continent. But I’m willing to bet, if you belong to a mainline denomination, the arguments, topics, challenges, and bullshit from your “betters” will all sound too familiar. 

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

This post is about what I think are the very few next steps that are left for us. It’s my last attempt to reason with my church. I have been guided, led, and called to no longer do that as my primary role in this church after 2020. I don’t know what that means, but I know other than the effort I’m going to describe to you I have little to no interest in the ELCA and it’s going on’s. I have a community to serve,  Jubilee Collective, and this post may threaten our funding. But 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.” 

I don’t want you to think this came 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 conversations, prepare the way, like John the Baptist,  among mainline denominations. On the Dear Church book tour, I would often avoid questions of denominational financial reparations. Like I do 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. Her and 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.  

And we should #Defundchurchwide. But more on that later.

But you may say “Lenny have you tried talking to these folks? I mean they seem like “good” people when I see them.” 

Other than writing a whole damn book about it and travelling in 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. I also have his permission to tell this story.  We filmed the first part and it went like “Lutheran” viral. Meaning it made some minor waves in our tradition, but it was a in two parts and people were pumped for the follow up. Six days before launch of our second part we get a call from Bishop Eaton’s office, she wants to be in it. 

Y’all I’m in seminary and this is a big win for me. They ask me to write a blog post about my work and I agree. They “bring me in”. This has been a constant process for me with this church. 

I speak truth, they try to calm me down and assuage me. Soon it will be destroy me. Watch. 

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

To listen. 

I was wrong. So bitterly wrong. 

So, we stopped production, mind you Jason is a real-life film producer, director, cinematographer, and freelancer. This is utter bullshit for his world, but he recognizes the significance of this, and he is just as morbidly curious what could 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, we set up a remote shot in three locations, edited it, and uploaded it. 

At the end of the film we call on the ELCA to set up a reparations fund in Jehu Jones name. 32K annually the amount of his salary he was denied adjusted for inflation. What Jason and I considered to be a low risk and easy ask from this church. Particularly because Bishop Eaton admits in the film 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 and I forgive all involved and rage for the messenger who is a dear friend they sent that day. Someone who wasn’t even involved. It was craven. 

They have my number. They are welcome to call me or when this is all over as the kids say, “drop a pin” and we can chat in person. 

But 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 remove the film, edit the last title screen, and replace it. Most people didnt even notice except the first 70 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. 

And for my part 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 spirit 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, it’s units, or our Presiding Bishop, or the Office of Secretary and I urge you too. 

We need to first 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. 

Next if the ELCA doesn’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 dinstinction belongs to another. But liturgically that makes the original line “correct” with a distinction added for clarity.