The Rev. Lenny Duncan has impeccable timing considering current events.
In December, he was appointed to Messiah Lutheran Church to be its mission development pastor. In February, he moved from the New York City borough of Brooklyn to Vancouver, bringing with him a vision to open an anti-racist and LGBTQIA-affirming church in downtown Vancouver.
This was all before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and churches stopped gathering in person. And it was before George Floyd, a Black man, died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes, and people rallied for Black lives.
Duncan wants to create space for people like himself. The 42-year-old is a Black, queer man in one of the whitest Christian denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He wrote a book — aptly titled “Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.”– about his experience and changes he wants to see happen. His writings and sermons are said to run toward liberation theology, a religious movement emphasizing liberation from injustice.
This new church in Vancouver, called Jubilee Collective, intends to be a local manifestation of what he’s been preaching about for years.
“When I say it’s going to be a specifically anti-racist space, that shouldn’t be a mind-blowing idea,” Duncan said. “We’re going to specifically look at systems of oppression through a scriptural lens and see what Jesus has to say about it. Spoiler alert: Jesus is not a fan of them.”
A couple of years ago, Messiah Lutheran floated the idea of buying property for its north county campus but kept facing roadblocks. After much talking and praying, church leaders decided to shift gears in an unusual way. They put out a request for proposals, explaining what Vancouver and the congregation looked like and asking what a mission developer would do with an opportunity at Messiah Lutheran.
Duncan’s proposal didn’t seem to fit, but it caught the search team’s attention, said the Rev. Kathleen Braafladt, pastor at Messiah in Hazel Dell. They liked his fresh approach to the gospel and how he created space for people who felt displaced or unwelcomed by the church. After all, they wanted to do something different, and Duncan was different.
“It just became more and more clear this is exactly the person who needs to be here to set up future ministries,” Braafladt said.
She agrees that the timing is remarkable.
“This was God’s doing,” she said.
Need to do the work
Though Jubilee Collective doesn’t have a physical location — Messiah hopes to rent space or partner with faith communities downtown or nearby — it’s trying to spread the word about its mission.
Duncan doesn’t see his ideas as radical, especially now as calls for racial reconciliation, reparations and repentance are becoming more mainstream. And, he believes scripture agrees with him.
“I believe that there will be no Christian witness in America in the 21st century in 50 years or less if we don’t dismantle white supremacy,” Duncan said.
He’s spoken nationally about the need for churches to do this work and start difficult conversations, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it may revitalize dwindling congregations that are overwhelmingly old and white. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is 96 percent white in a country that is about 60 percent white.
“It’s time for white folk to do white folk work and start dismantling white supremacy in their pews and in their communities,” Duncan said, adding that activists and Black Lives Matter are not going to be invited to speak at small country churches. “But my peers are.”
One challenge, he said, is there doesn’t seem to be a mainstream theological framework around systemic racism, at least not in the Lutheran tradition.
“People aren’t naming that racism is a sin. Systemic racism is a sin,” Duncan said. “People who are public servants who sacrifice their safety need to be honored for that, but also something is wrong in policing in America. Jesus declares Black lives matter. There shouldn’t be any debate over this.”
Racial equity plan
Duncan is the board chaplain for ReconcilingWorks, a group within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that’s worked toward queer inclusion in the church since 1974 and now is developing a racial equity plan.
The Columbian spoke with Duncan on June 17, the fifth anniversary of the church shooting where Dylann Roof gunned down nine Black people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
In Duncan’s book, he talks about how he and Roof are both Lutherans whose lives took incredibly different tracks. While the Travyon Martin case led Roof to type ‘black on White crime’ into Google, it prompted Duncan to learn more about Black Lives Matter.
The reality is, young people like Roof are sitting in pews and becoming radicalized online where they’re told there is a war against whiteness, Duncan said. He believes it’s the church’s responsibility to not pretend that people like Roof aren’t going to church.
“A few different life choices I could have been Dylann. I think it’s important for us to wrestle with that,” Duncan said. He struggles with a church where queer kids are afraid to attend but racists aren’t.
“I am very concerned about the soul of America and the heart sickness of America.”
In a recorded service on June 7, Duncan said sometimes Christians need to look at the cold facts of history and biblical parallels to what’s happening today. He’s long lost faith in his prayers stopping police from killing Black people.
“It appears to me sometimes my white siblings just can’t hear the god of Israel — not until it’s too late,” he said before the pulpit at Messiah Lutheran.
Pew Research Center conducted a survey before the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests. According to the survey, 62 percent of Black adults say it’s important for houses of worship to address “political topics such as immigration and race relations.” Twenty-three percent of Black respondents said covering these topics is essential. By contrast, 36 percent of white American say this is important and 8 percent say it’s essential. Another 42 percent of white Americans say these themes should not be discussed in sermons.
It can be difficult for white Christians to realize they’re “trapped in a cycle of sin,” Duncan said. “They can’t see the bars of their cage. As a Black queer man in America, the bars of my cage were very apparent to me very early on.”
Growing up, he knew police would treat him differently, and he knew he couldn’t tell anyone he liked both girls and boys. If people haven’t experienced something like that, they may not understand it or empathize with it. Being white doesn’t mean a person hasn’t had a hard life, he said, it just means hardship hasn’t happened because of their race.
“Understanding some of that stuff is the call of the church right now, and some churches just aren’t going to get it,” Duncan said.
Duncan said his particular call is to plant churches based in the all-inclusive vision of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community. King famously referred to 11 a.m. Sunday morning as “the most segregated hour in Christian America.”
For now, Duncan is talking and preaching in a virtual space while building Jubilee Collective, and he’s working on a memoir titled “United States of Grace.” Messiah Lutheran Church is being extra cautious and sticking to online-only gatherings.
“America is not going to be the same when we come out of quarantine,” he said. “People are not going to put up with overt or even subversive white supremacy, I think, publicly anymore and the church has something to say over that space.”