Why the ELCA Needs to Start a Reparations Process: Part 3

Why you should defund your denomination. 

Beloved, 

Well, here we are, a week later. I am 100% committed to this endeavor. I am willing to lose everything to hold the ELCA accountable, for once, to Black people. 

ELCA: Keep your well-written apologies and flowery words stuffed into theological statements; they are as irrelevant as Bishop Eaton’s Twitter account, thank you. 

I won’t stop until they meet the demand. 

$32 million in reparations. 

RBG fought until she was 87. That means I owe this church 45 more years of trouble. This will not end until they finally treat white supremacy as the number one threat to the people of God in this republic, and respond in the manner that Black communities, leaders, thinkers, and organizers the world over have agreed on as the starting point. Step one to healing the nation is reparations. The fact that our church has taken the same posture as the US Government—silence—tells you all you need to know.  

By the time this is over, they will know they had a real one in their midst. 

But first, a centering text from Walking in the Snow by Run the Jewels. 

“And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And 'til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, "I can't breathe"
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give's a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you've been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it'll be
I promise I'm honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin' for me
I'm readin' Chomsky, I read Bukowski
I'm layin' low for a week
I said somethin' on behalf of my people
And I popped up in Wikileaks
Thank God that I'm covered, the devil come smothered
And you know the evil don't sleep
Dick Gregory told me a couple of secrets before he laid down in his grave
All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin' but slaves
Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state” 

The Holy Gospel according to Run the Jewels 4. 

You see, I am trying to show you a vision of the future so you can see the peril we are in—and our leaders don’t care. 

Before I tell you today’s story, I want to address a few things that I have seen on social media. First, when I say #defundchurchwide I don’t mean abolish churchwide and fire everyone. This response in unsurprising, since most white folks don’t understand #defundthepolice either. I’m going to explain both. 

When I say #defundthepolice, I am saying policing in America is dangerous for Black and Brown communities and for the police. 

We put police in positions that set them up for failure; we send armed troops to respond to mental health crises, social work situations, homelessness, traffic tickets—why? Because white America doesn’t care what happens to us, as long as they don’t have to see it. We know you don’t care for us. You say you care for the police, yet you set them up for failure and blame Black people until you see video. Then you say #FTP #ACAB. 

But you never address the core causes and or present alternate solutions to blaming either group.

Now, over the last ten years, thanks to cell phones, white people haven’t been able to just put their heads in the sand anymore. The revolution is brought to you by Cricket and MetroPCS. 

We abandoned the covenant with my people because it’s easier than actually transforming this country. So, when we say #defundthepolice, we are saying: Let’s reassess these bloated budgets and put them toward things that prevent systemic calamity and save #BlackLives and yes, as a byproduct, police will be safer. It’s part of the goal; not the center, but it is a result of this policy. 

This is also what I mean when I say #defundchurchwide. I am saying: Let’s reassess the churchwide budget over the next 3 years and divert 32 million to the “Jehu Jones Reparations” endowment. I’m saying, let’s avoid future tragedy and set an example for the rest of the nation. Let’s actually be the church and show the world this can be done. Let’s be the light of the world. 

The Churchwide refuses at every turn. 

Now, I am simply suggesting: Let’s do it without them.

The people of God ought to decide where their mission support goes. 

Don’t get mad at me because I am actually doing the thing that the people think is important to the Kin-dom of God. Why won’t Bishop Eaton just do that? 

Of course, I don’t want everyone Churchwide to lose their jobs. I’m not a monster—that’s your current crop of leaders. The Conference of Bishops and Bishop Eaton are going to fire a ton of folks in November and leave them lying and bleeding on the road to Jericho. 

Then they have the gall to tell me I don’t understand the budget or the finances involved. When you are rumored to be contemplating firing up to 20% of your workforce, you have no authority in this area. Jus’ sayin. 

I went from eating out of trashcans to middle class on my own. I’d trust me with money before Churchwide; mostly because I know that every dime given to me by God ain’t for me. Its only purpose is to put me in a position to use my gifts, power, privilege, and platform like this. Why can’t Churchwide figure that out? 

I don’t even want to be in charge of this fund. At all. As my partners and I explored setting it up this week, we agreed that only Black women in this church can be trusted with this

(More to come later this week or next week. Once the Endowment is set up, trust me, you will know.) 

And my ask? I am asking for 32 million in reparations. The first stated goal of a portion of these funds is to supplement the retirement of our Rostered Leaders. Black elders who, due to redlining, white supremacy, end stage capitalism, the racist structure of this church, and Eaton’s complete failure to execute her office, hundreds will face or are facing retirement in abject poverty. This is a grievous sin before God.

They never had viable calls because we don’t give that to Black folks, just our token light skinned negros. 

You think it’s a coincidence I have proximity to whiteness, my light skin, my compromised position as a felon, and that fact I just happen to have had viable calls? I am the safe one. The snarky one. The popular one. 

What they didn’t realize was that under this light skin pumped the heart of a field nigger. You want me to weep now that the master’s house is on fire? I know some of my people are inside. They probably started the fire. I won’t weep for heroes. This is the great wisdom Black peoples have to teach you.

 You never weep while the master’s house is burning. That ain’t your house, fool. 

Also, I am not talking about the Conference of Bishops, or Bishop Eaton, or the Churchwide offices as specific people. Let me give you another secret, loved one: oppressive institutions are chock-full of good people. Truly. When you get up-close like I have to Churchwide, you realize it’s full of faithful people doing their best to serve God under shitty circumstances. 

That doesn’t change the aggregate effect of this institution in our lives or in #BlackLives.  Systematized evil in the form of white supremacy is a matter of policy at Churchwide.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton is a good person. I have shared table fellowship and broken bread with her many times, and have been very encouraged by her presence. That doesn’t change the fact that she has been compromised by the demon of white supremacy. She has been so perverted by the Churchwide system that she is more interested in preserving the ELCA than justice.

It’s really not that hard, y’all. 

For my part, this isn’t vengeance. This is one man confessing every systemic sin he is a part of in this church and suggesting an alternative course of action. 

I am seeking to truly repent as a church; to change course. Why won’t Bishop Eaton? 

Why is it that the Black queer writer with a Twitter account and an attitude has to say all of this while you accept total silence from her? That’s white people for you. 

Our next story: The Day the ELCA Met Lenny

The day the ELCA met Lenny Duncan is a tragedy being told in one part. It’s a tragedy because, after years 15 of homelessness, being traumatized by the prison industrial complex, both my parents dying 3 months earlier, and a demanding Jesus suddenly entering my life, I was ready to give my life to this church. I was enamored with Bishop Eaton and the churchwide offices the first time I met them. I received a Fund for Leaders scholarship. I happen to think it was a good investment, but I’m sure someone regrets that.

That’s fine, I’ll give it back. It’s blood money. Drop a pin. I’ll meet you wherever.  

Y’all, my first time in the Churchwide offices, I fell in love. Seriously. I loved it because I learned so many truths so quickly.  The first truth was that I wasn’t studying to serve a church, but a corporation. This is the context of my power analysis of this church. As I observed the cubicle farms spread out across the building and the empty, glassy-eyed gaze of workers obviously being abused in the name of Christ, it hit me. This is how end stage capitalism operates, not the Kin-dom of God.  

If you analyze the moves of the ELCA since the Charleston Massacre and compare them to other corporations in America, there is no discernible difference. There is a clear pattern of worrying more about corporate image than about actually making real change. This is the weakness I would later exploit, and will continue too. 

If you look to the ELCA for the marks of a church, or even something that looks like the way a church moves in the world, you will go mad. That’s why Black people seem so angry in this church. 

So many of us came here expecting to experience the Kin-dom of God and instead found another neo-planation with the same clueless masters—”well-meaning” masters who had no conception of the cage we are locked in. It’s enough to drive anyone over the edge. To barely survive the world, and in my case, the streets and prison, and to find the same murderous system in the church is the ultimate betrayal. The final insult. 

On that first visit to Churchwide with my fellow Fund for Leaders scholars, we had breakfast with Bishop Eaton. It was a big deal. There I was, a kid who flipped a GED he got in Montgomery County Prison to a scholarship for an MDiv, eating breakfast with the presiding Bishop of the ELCA. 

I am going to echo some recent thoughts by Michelle Obama. 

I have been in the room where the decisions are made. The powers that be are not smarter than us, they have no plans, and they are mostly as selfish as you think they are. They are just as callous as you fear. The worse part is, most of them aren’t even aware of it. 

At least I know I am incredibly flawed and make decisions out of that awareness. These people move with impunity and no self-awareness, let alone a true sense of community. They just keep sacrificing us to the “greater church”, an idol that makes Moloch jealous. Full of glut and so overfed by the bodies of Black people. Blood dripping from his snow white cheeks as he smiles at us. 

At that breakfast I got into an argument with an Indigenous LGBTQIA+ seminarian who was a former law enforcement officer. She called BLM a terrorist organization, some wild ass Fox news shit over breakfast, and everyone just sat there like that was true, including your great presiding Bishop. On day one I knew what I was hitting for. I never should have left that truth. I have suffered greatly in spirit since. 

So, the first time Bishop Eaton noticed me was when I snapped on a former cop over breakfast. How did she think this was going to go? 

It’s important I noted that officer’s identity, because we actually stayed in touch after all this. We ain’t great friends, but she knows she can call me anytime. She knows I pray for her two little Black boys and that I can’t imagine what this time is like for her. I worry for her partner who I believe is still in law enforcement, and for her two boys. 

Now, watch how the switch up happens. What Churchwide saw at that breakfast was an opportunity to use BIPOC bodies to wipe up the blood just spilled by Dylan Roof. You see, Eaton had to explain to the church how a young man from one of our worst churches could do this. It’s no surprise Dylan came from that church. That was open secret.

I know his confirmation teacher and youth pastor and, other than her—a damn angel, by the way—that poor kid was surrounded by homophobic monsters; two generations of pastors fueled by hatred in a strange father-and-sons unholy trinity. Was it such a surprise they raised a white supremacist there? That their theology was easily able to morph into the manifesto Dylan wrote in prison? On the Churchwide level, there were several people who knew something was amiss with that pastor and his flock for years; they were well aware something was really wrong at that church. That’s why I say we own Dylan Roof. 

Because after 2009, Churchwide was too cowardly to stand up for LGBTQIA+ lives and allowed rogue churches to teach hatred in the name of unity. Black people paid the price in Charleston. Hatred is hatred. Tolerate one and others grow. That’s the story of Dylan Roof: a home-grown, white supremacist, terrorist fed queer-phobia as a child, and we own it. 

Which brings us to the Confronting Racism webcast—the venue through which many folks have met me. Before I share what I think happened that night, I want to share one odd detail that didn’t sit right with me the day of the event.

We rehearsed. There was a rehearsal, and not just a tech one.  They actually posed some of the questions we would be asked and listened closely to how we responded, and after hearing enough, they stopped us, “to keep the natural feel.” 

I have done hundreds of conversations since then on the issues of white supremacy, policing, #Blacklivesmatter, etc. I have never once had to “rehearse”. Not even for major media. Not for a “conversation”.

I was young, foolish, inexperienced, completely embroiled a dangerous power dynamic, but I should have refused to do it. This was my first failure as a leader in the church, and it happened in my first few months of seminary. This was my greatest sin against this church, and I hope you can forgive me. I went along with it because it helped me feel more comfortable navigating this world as a Black queer man with a record. They didn’t try to tell us what to say, but they certainly wanted to make sure we didn’t say anything live without it being framed by the needs of the “greater church”. 

It was a clear attempt to control the narrative and to make sure their BIPOC assets behaved on camera. 

In all the stories I am telling there are actually worse details. Bishop Eaton knows this. She knows it is a sign of my mercy that I don’t tell everything. I am trying to make a point, not destroy what we love. 

That night they pitted a Black judge, a Black former prisoner of war in the so-called war on drugs, and an indigenous law enforcement officer against each other while never once examining the system that would have had the officer arrest me, the judge sentence me, and my life be destroyed. Nor did they listen to all of us as we screamed that this system, which they refused to address, was broken. They did it all because Bishop Eaton refused to own the ramifications of Dylan Roof for this church or this republic. She refused to acknowledge that a large segment of this land wants a white ethno-state, and a much bigger segment will sit idly by while it’s being built because it won’t affect them until its too late to do anything about it. 

2020 *Ahem. Cough.*

(Later this week I will tell you how this extreme tokenization ostracized me at seminary and in the wider church, the lonely life I now lead, and the death threats I still get to this day since then.) 

No one even said #Blacklivesmatter until, I believe, Rozella Haydée White posed the question of that work in a great attempt to redeem the soul of this country on Twitter that night. I was overwhelmed, out of my depth, and afraid. I was a failure. Later that night, as they all celebrated their great victory for racial justice over drinks, I smiled, turned down a dozen drinks the way alcoholics always have to at Churchwide events, and went to my room and wept bitterly. In less than ninety days of seminary, I had seen Babylon. It was my own church, and I was so powerless to stop it.

It was there, late in the night, while desperately wanting one of the drinks I had been offered earlier and doubting everything, that it came to me: my call to pursue ordination. It was at the Marriot, the one where our bloated conference of bishops loves to stay, that my plan was formed. I found my power and my true call from God. I was going to play along as long as possible. I would use whatever platform and power I had post-ordination to hold this church to account for its sin against my people. Every move I have made since in my life, study, writing, activism, spirituality, and career, has been in pursuit of this one goal. 

I was committed to this, even if that meant that I lost everything, because that’s the gift God gave me. 

I have already lost everything. I have slept on your sidewalks, eaten out of your trashcans, been locked in rooms by myself as a child for a year by your prisons. There is nothing a bunch of elderly midwestern Protestants can do to me that this country hasn’t already. 

If I could have done anything different on the webcast, I would have said their names. All of their names. This post is dedicated is to the dozens upon dozens of unarmed Black peoples who have been shot and killed by police since the webcast. May they, and the ancestors, forgive me.

I have the honor of being this church’s obedient servant

Lenny Duncan +