An Interview with Reverend Lenny Duncan

Reverend Duncan’s new book “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.”
Reverend Lenny Duncan is the pastor of Jehu’s Table, a dynamic and inclusive Lutheran (ELCA) church in Brooklyn, New York. It is a community based on grace, justice, and inclusion, which are the themes of Duncan’s searing new book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (Fortress Press, 2019). “We must,” he writes, “dismantle, destroy, and bury white supremacy. In this nation. In our pews. In our liturgies. As a church, as a people, and as Christians, this is our call in the twenty-first century. There is no way around it.”

An Interview with Reverend Lenny DuncanReverend Duncan credits his relationship with Jesus as the way he turned around his life “a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and felon.” His remarkable transformation from a lost soul to a pastor is a visible sign of redemption to his community. Duncan pleads for revolutionary change and radical justice within his own faith tradition and the broader society. His plea is urgent in our fractured country right now. Dear Church should be read not only by Christians, but by all Americans of conscience and good will.

Reverend Lenny Duncan discusses his new book in this interview.

Thank you for your powerful new book. How did your personal journey in life prepare and inspire you to write it?

Growing up black in this country is an experience that one cannot walk away from. The world and this country tend to inform you of your blackness in often violent and death-dealing ways. You add to that my other intersecting identities, such as being formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, queer, in long term recovery from alcoholism, and I have often felt like I was on the outside looking in at the church. In fact, the world of the church and the Gospel was hardly encountered by me as I fell further and further in-between the cracks of our society. Dear Church is a response to that experience in a lot of ways. I believe the foundational text for the church in the 21st century is Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV). We are to be the ones who proclaim good news to the oppressed. If the church wants to have a viable witness in the future, it must be the one leading the way in the healing and the restoration of the world.

Could you describe your ministry as pastor of Jehu’s Table in Brooklyn?

Jehu’s Table is a church plant of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We are rooted in the Black Lutheran experience and have taken an unapologetic stance toward radical welcome. Meaning we are LGBTQIA or Queer Affirming. We believe the Gospel is inherently political. That its transformative and life giving. That one doesn’t encounter the resurrected Christ without walking away changed. That lifting up the name of Jesus is not something to be ashamed of. That we are rooted in liberation in Christ and liberation for our neighbor. We believe our space is meant for the entire community and that’s why in partnership with the Metropolitan NY Synod we are tearing down our building and putting up over a hundred units of affordable housing with a community center and space for nonprofits organizations. 100% affordable housing. We want the building to be a reflection of the needs of the community. In the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn there is no greater need than affordable housing. What is the church’s answer to the growing wealth inequality in the nation, the gentrification crisis caused by capitalism, and its effects on the poor and marginalized? If Jesus had a special dispensation for the poor, then shouldn’t his church reflect that in every action it takes? We are trying to find these answers in an ever increasingly diverse faith landscape while staying true to the core values that the Christian church has been gathering around for over 1800 years. So, we are place when one come as they are, fully who they are, and experience the nearness of God. No bait and switch, just the Gospel.

What is the “Emmaus Collective” and how is it addressing the problem of white supremacy within Christian communities?

Emmaus Collective is a gathering of Christian communities that are ecumenical in nature and are committed to dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism in the pews and the world at large. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall sway to, racism and systemic racism is a scourge on the world. It is antithetical to the Gospel and the subtle ways one interacts with it on daily basis often perpetuates a system of oppression that is in effect radical evil. What is the Collective? It’s a map of our online directory of churches that are on the way to, or working on, dismantling white supremacy in their church culture. We are not saying they are done or totally safe. We are saying these are churches who are naming and claiming that they are doing the work. We offer Christian communities a starting point, and accountability to creating and sustaining anti-racist spaces. Dismantling white supremacy and the constructs of “whiteness” is a life long journey. So, we offer accompaniment on that road. It is quantifiable and measurable racial justice work for communities that don’t feel equipped to do it. We create a cohort of churches that work together without asking Persons of Color to carry the emotional or spiritual labor for white communities which is often the model. Instead, we give you the tools to do what is often called “white folk work.”

“We must dismantle, destroy, and bury white supremacy. In our pews. In our liturgies. As a church, as a people, and as Christians, this is our call in the twenty-first century. There is no way around it.”

How is the Christian Church infected by “toxic masculinity” and heteronormative patriarchy? And, what can be done about it?

The real question is how, isn’t it? Let’s be honest with each other: Men have most often been the primary culprits in every major scandal the church has become enmeshed in since the founding of the church. There is also a real lack of what I call authentic manhood in Dear Church. I don’t think the church has a real answer for this and we often believe that misogyny and dominance is somehow a replacement for thinking-feeling men, who understand the autonomy of woman and femmes, consent culture, or recognize the incredible well of leadership and spirituality woman have. Let’s even look at the story of Easter, central to our faith. While the men scattered, the woman stayed. They awaited the dawn the day after the sabbath to anoint and prepare the body of Jesus. They are the first to hear the incredible news that death was defeated, sin was shattered, the cosmos was irrevocably changed. In the time of the trip from the tomb to where the men were hiding, Mary was the entire embodiment of the church on earth. She is the first to preach Christ crucified and resurrected. The first preacher in the new age was a woman. Yet there are whole denominations who hold the Epistles in such a higher place than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while refusing take the full breadth of the witness of the Epistles and lean on cherry- picked verses, that women aren’t allowed to serve. It is beyond me how we go from Mary’s desperate sprint to tell the disciples the Good News to pulpits that a woman can never climb. So, yes there is a ton of unlearning that has to take place in the church. The idea that a man takes the lead, the woman stays at home or just submissive, and her value and worth is found in birthing children, isn’t an invention of scripture, or a directive. It is an imperative of capitalism. One must take the entire Gospel narrative into account and the full breadth of the Epistles.

Why do you think “this is the greatest time to be a Christian in five hundred years?”

I think the Christian church is poised to be what it always has been: The greatest social movement in human history. We are no longer in the center of American society and this is the best thing to ever happen to us. There is an incredible amount of diversity in theology, thought, and praxis. When we are attached to societal norms and the arbitrators of society’s behavior, we wither and die. But when we are a counter cultural movement that speaks a word that runs upstream to the direction of any given society, we grow in leaps and bounds. America is on the precipice, and, to be honest, this is a good thing too. The church has survived the rise and fall of Empires over the last two thousand years and we will survive the rise and fall of this country. We cannot legislate the Gospel and we should in fact resist any urge to do so. We should be holding the world to account armed with love and waging peace on all we encounter. We should be life-giving and not death-dealing, and never tied to any leader or ruler. This is why its exciting because there is a reformation brewing in the church, and once the Spirit has her way with us, who knows what we will look like.

How can Christians help America to become a more just, equal, and inclusive country?

We have to take the bit in the mouth and lead the way. We can be the bridge-builders and the providers of the space for the tough conversations. In my book, I get into specifics, but the reality is that the church needs to be the stage that is more conducive to the power of Grace flowing through the community. I don’t create grace, but can help set conditions that are more likely for it to happen. We have to be the ones leading the way and on the cutting edge of these discussions. We also have to be seen outside our cloistered sanctuaries fearlessly declaring that #blacklivesmatter. That the criminal justice system seems to be unequally applied. That communities of color often take the brunt of capitalism’s most vulgar displays. We just have to be the damn church and not worry about attendance and tithes and just see what happens. I think this generation will surprise you.

Are you hopeful about the future of American society?

As a Christian, I am person who lives in the liminal space between the promise of the resurrection and the final hope. I am hopeful in God’s future. But America is in a dangerous place, and I’m not too hopeful in a society’s future that refuses to recognize and reconcile its past or present. We have never been a Christian Country and the founding fathers understanding of scripture would scandalize any modern evangelical. We were founded on the genocide of an entire group of people and the enslavement of another. Rapid expansion and imperialism were the orders of the day. I don’t remember Jesus talking about any of that, but I am young in my ministry. I am hopeful the church will go on. I am hopeful for the communities and peoples of this nation. The jury is still out on this society.

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