The idea was simple. We asked our church to set up a reparations fund in Reverend Jehu Jones’ name. Rev. Jehu Jones was a Black Lutheran Preacher from 1832-1851 who was never paid.
We asked for $32K in reparations annually: the amount of the salary he was denied, adjusted for inflation. We considered this to be a low-risk and easy ask from a church denomination (ELCA) with millions of members.
But we were told to wait. And wait. And wait. And as Dr. King said, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
So many of the BIPOC faithful come to church expecting to experience the Kin-dom of God, and instead find another neo-plantation with the same clueless masters–well-meaning, but clueless masters–who have no conception of the cage BIPOC 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, only to find the same murderous system in the church, is the ultimate betrayal.
I want to talk to you today about what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) should do in regard to the question of reparations for Black peoples on this continent. I’m willing to bet that if you belong to a mainline denomination, the arguments, topics, challenges, and–frankly–bullshit from your “betters” will sound all too familiar.
But for my part, I prefer to talk about my own backyard. I want you to know this post comes from my deep shame at being a member of the ELCA at this time. This is a post of heartache. The day the mostly-white Evangelical Lutheran Church of America met me, Lenny Duncan, is a tragic memory.
It’s a tragedy because, after years fifteen of homelessness, being traumatized by the prison industrial complex, both my parents dying three months earlier, and a demanding Jesus suddenly entering my life, I was ready to give myself to this church. I didn’t know I was walking into the institution that raised Dylann Roof.
I didn’t know that this Church’s theology was easily able to morph into the manifesto Dylann wrote in prison.
I didn’t know that, as a Black queer seminarian on a fund scholarship, I was supposed to be seen and not heard.
I was too enamored with everything.
I was too excited that I got to meet with the Bishop of the Church; that I was asked to have breakfast and do a webcast in the Church’s top offices in Chicago.
On that first visit to Churchwide offices 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.
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.
Now, before I go on, let me be clear: Bishop 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. But that doesn’t change the fact that she is a white woman in power who has been compromised by the demon of white supremacy. She has been so perverted by the white church system that she is more interested in preserving the institution than justice.
We were gathered at the church’s headquarters for a Confronting Racism webcast, which was to be shown to the whole church. Dylann Roof, a Lutheran teenager, had just murdered nine Black people in a prayer group. This Confronting Racism webcast was nothing more than an attempt by Church leaders to use BIPOC bodies to wipe up the blood just spilled by one of their own.
At our breakfast table was an Indigenous LGBTQIA+ seminarian who was a former law enforcement officer. I listened to her call Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, which is some wild ass Fox news shit to say over breakfast, and everyone just sat there like it was true– including your great presiding Bishop.
So, the first time Bishop Eaton noticed me was when I snapped on a former cop over breakfast. It’s important to note that the officer and I 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.
But for that Church webcast, the powerful leaders pitted us against each other to deflect from the white supremacist murderer the Church had played a part in creating.
The story of Dylann Roof is simple: a home-grown, white supremacist terrorist fed queer-phobia as a child. Our church must own this. That is the story that needed to be told. But it was one they were desperate to avoid.
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 the conversation. 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.
They didn’t tell us what to say, but it was clear that they 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.
I was young, foolish, inexperienced, and completely embroiled in a dangerous power dynamic, but I still should have refused to do it. This was my first failure as a leader in the church, and it happened during my first few months of seminary. This is 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.
That night, on camera, 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. They never once examined the racist criminal justice 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 was broken.
And throughout the whole conversation, Bishop Eaton refused to own the ramifications of Dylann 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 it’s too late to do anything about it.
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 as callous as you fear they could be.
The worst part is, most of them aren’t even aware of it.
Most churches are too cowardly to stand up for LGBTQIA+ lives; they allow 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.
At the end of the film, we called on the ELCA to set up a reparations fund in Jehu Jones’ name: $32K annually; the amount of the salary he was denied, adjusted for inflation. We considered this to be a reasonable request, particularly because Bishop Eaton admitted in the film that we need to do more. The day of the release, my phone started buzzing within minutes of it being posted to social media.
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 sixty minutes of launch, we removed the film, edited the last title screen, and replaced it.
After all, I was just a seminarian and these were my ecclesial betters. It was safe to expect better from them, right?
We were told to wait for the “right time” to have the conversation about reparations.
Well, here we are, at the end of 2020. The country is shattered, and what is my Church leadership’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.
Reparations is an act of repentance. We are done waiting.
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 spirits and does it again. And again. Ask my peers or my elders. We have all been used against each other in heartbreaking ways.
If Bishop Eaton doesn’t have the stomach for this conversation, she should resign, along with 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.
As a matter of fact, we should #DefundChurchwide.
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.
This is also what I mean when I say #DefundChurchwide.
I am saying: Let’s reassess the churchwide budget over the next three 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.
The proper cycle of confession and liberation is as follows:
We will relive the same moment in history over and over again until this is understood.
I truly believe we have an opportunity to reshape the republic in the next few years, and we have that same opportunity here in the church.
The dominoes are starting to fall on the institutional churches.
They are being swallowed by a tidal wave of white supremacy and end stage capitalism, and our leaders are mad at me because I’m telling the people to get to the lifeboats. They can’t imagine a life beyond institutional church, because they can’t imagine a life beyond white supremacy or the current state of the republic.
I’m tired of waiting. I’m done supporting a system that chews up and spits out BIPOC leaders; that tells us to wait for the “right time” for reparations.
So, we started our own reparations fund.
Here is the link to give to the endowment for reparations in the ELCA:
About the ELCA Reparations Fund
Thank you to the board of Black women doing the work behind the scenes to make this real. Honorable mention to the Rev. Priscilla Austin and the good people of Immanuel Lutheran Church for taking this money out of my hands so this process can proceed without my influence.
The leaders who are gathering the board, called the #66thSynod, are the Rev. Angela Shannon of All Saints Lutheran Church in Bowie, MD and the Rev. Dr. Andrea Walker of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.
You can direct all inquiries about future directions and plans for the fund, beyond supplementing the income of retiring ministers of African descent, to the Rev. Shannon at this email and this email only: firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer in her time. Not yours.
The leader who is monitoring the fund itself, i.e. receiving, tracking, and reporting your donations, is the Rev. Priscilla Austin of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seattle Washington.
The goal is $32 million.
If you’re fed up, start a reparations fund in your church.
I have the honor of being this church’s obedient servant,
The Rev. Lenny Duncan he/him