(An adapted excerpt from “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S)
Dear Church, how the hell did we get here?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the whitest denomination in the United States. Many of our congregations are in decline, and our society is becoming more and more divided. We don’t know what the future holds for this church, so how did we get here? It might be simpler for me to answer how I got here—because the story is just as surprising.
I’m a pastor, but if you looked at my life story, I think we’d both agree I was more likely to end up in prison than the pulpit.
In fact, it’s a miracle I’m still alive. I’m a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and felon.
How the hell did I get here? I got here because I met Jesus when I met you, Church.
Whenever I think of my first experience in the ELCA, I get goosebumps. Rev. Tim Johansen at Temple Lutheran Church in Havertown, Pennsylvania, stood at the Communion table and declared, “This is Jesus’s table; he made no restrictions, and neither do we.” I was smitten immediately. There was no membership meeting, no checking my theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before I approached the table of grace.
I was welcome, and this was revolutionary to me.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked up the aisle. I mean, you loved me, you really loved me. This welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t filled with the fear that I was dragging to the Communion rail everything that I had ever done.
Of course, I still carried those things, but somehow you welcomed me anyway. You showed me that my past didn’t make me unworthy to receive nearness of God in the elements. I could stand before the table of grace a whole person—deeply flawed and still incredibly valued, handmade by a loving God.
You loved me. I loved you.
So how the hell did we get here? How did we become the whitest denomination in America, despite every attempt to be otherwise? Why is the anxiety about the death of the ELCA so palpable you could almost wade through it like the waters of the Jordan?
We stand at the edge of a theological civil war. I don’t say that lightly.
The Christian church in America, in its slow and often lurching way, is taking its cues from its members. Right now, its members are at their most divided in modern political history. Right now, the gospel of Jesus Christ is being called “fake news” by one person, while another calls that same person a Nazi. No one is calling each other sibling.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a church of false unity. And some fundamental truths are worth fighting over.
And here’s perhaps the most important fundamental truth of this era: we must 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. We have lamented this call and drug our feet. We have run the opposite way of Nineveh for far too long. We have negotiated at church council meetings, trying to find a way not to face this. We have thrown sackcloth over our sanctuaries and thrown ashes over the heads of our leaders, crying out to God for another way.
But we are the whitest denomination in the United States; if not us, then who will enter this battle for freedom? If not now, then when? It is our duty and our joy that in this time and this place we join the angels and archangels, the witnesses of the resurrection in their never-ending hymn of justice. The banquet that is about to be laid out by the sovereign God is a feast of equity.
But make no mistake: it will be like the night this same God was arrested. God will take this church, lift it up and give thanks, and then break it. He will turn and face us, saying to those whom we have oppressed, “This is my body, broken for you.” This same God who carried his own lynching tree up Calvary on his back will lift a cup full of the blood of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. Jesus will lift up the cup and say, “This is the new covenant made in the blood of the innocent, spilt by our hands.”
We are the offering to end white supremacy in this nation and church. We can enter this new phase of American theology willingly, or we can fight it every step of the way. Either way, I am convinced the call of the church in the twenty-first century is to be the vanguard on this new battleground.
The reason the ELCA is so white is theological, not sociological. It is not our German, Scandinavian or Norwegian roots. Black peoples have been a part of the Lutheran tradition on this continent since the 1600s. The face of world Lutheranism is one of color. Church, lefse, and hot dishes aren’t the problem. Liturgical worship isn’t the problem. In fact, most seekers respond well to a liturgy that is rooted in Ancient tradition and contextually applied. But we have abandoned the inherent justice and equity that the gospel is rooted in.
Our theology needs to change if we want our polity to change—if we want more people of color in our church. We need to actively do what is called “white folk” work. I have started a new organization called Emmaus Collective to give definitive action steps for churches and mapping those churches that are already deemed safer for persons of color. The map is an online directory of churches that are on the way to, or working on, dismantling white supremacy in their church culture.
No church is ever done with this work or totally safe, but these are churches who are naming and claiming their mission to dismantle white supremacy. They are doing the work. I’m trying to offer Christian communities a starting point and accountability for creating and sustaining anti-racist spaces.
Dismantling white supremacy and the constructs of whiteness is a lifelong journey, so we offer accompaniment on that road. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples broke bread with their new companion and suddenly realized that the resurrected Jesus was among them. He was revealed after walking a long road with them.
That’s exactly what dismantling white supremacy is all about. If we do this work in our congregations, we find that Jesus has been among us all along. We can move the planks from our eye and truly see the beauty, diversity, and full majesty of creation. Until we embrace this work, our congregations will remain whitewashed tombs with merely the ghost of Christianity haunting them.
Resurrection is possible, but it will take all of us rising up.
Excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. by Rev. Lenny Duncan copyright © 2019 Fortress Press.
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