The Ninth Step: Being Black in America’s Whitest Church


Lenny Duncan’s improbable preaching career began when he gave a guest sermon on The Ninth Step. Part of The Twelve Steps, used by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Step Nine is “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

The Twelve Steps were familiar to Duncan who is, himself, a recovering alcoholic. This Spring Duncan will graduate from seminary and begin his vocation as a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). “Recovering alcoholic” is probably not what comes to mind when one pictures a Lutheran minister, neither is someone who spent most of his youth either homeless or incarcerated. If that weren’t enough, Duncan is a black man in a church that is 96% white.

Lenny Duncan is the first to admit that his road to ELCA ministry was unlikely. At his first church, Temple Lutheran, he was the only person of color other than a little girl who had been adopted into a white family. The ELCA, which has the dubious honor of being “America’s Whitest Church,” nevertheless became home to him, largely through the efforts of his pastor, Tim Johansen.  "He met me once a week for a year and treated me like a peer and an equal. He never talked down to me, never made fun of my theology. After talking to him enough, I realized what I was thinking and feeling. I ended up joining the Lutheran church." Duncan explained. But Pastor Johansen was not naïve about the obstacles Duncan would face as he pursued ordination in the ELCA. “He was almost painfully aware of how white they were,” Duncan said.

While considered by many to be a fairly progressive church regarding issues of race and equity, the ELCA remains stubbornly white. There has been much talk about the importance of diversity within congregations, a 1993 social statement called for at least 10% of congregants to be African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American by 2003, a goal which the ELCA failed to meet. Even more distressing, an ELCA church was the spiritual home of Dylann Roof, the young white man who entered into a Charleston AME church and shot eight black parishioners and their pastor.

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has done diversity so bad that it’s almost a criminal thing,” Duncan said. “The real problem is that persons of color show up in the ELCA to be assimilated and not to be loved and not to be respected for the gifts that they’re bringing.”

Lenny Duncan has made it his mission to address these problems in the ELCA. He has worked with #decolonizeLutheranism as well as produced a documentary during his time at seminary, “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?” He is currently raising money on Kickstarter for a new documentary, “Young, Gifted, and Black in the ELCA.” In “Do Black Churches Matter” Duncan interviewed many pastors, both white and black, and had the chance to interview Presiding Bishop Eaton, the head of the ELCA. In a frank discussion, Bishop Eaton admitted that Lutherans of color are often seen as an “add-on” or “a way to accessorize the ELCA so that we can seem to be more legitimate.” The Presiding Bishop expressed frustration that the rhetoric of the church and its actions do not always line up.

This problem stretches back generations. The Lutheran Church in America was formed by Scandinavian, German, and Norwegian immigrants. These congregations mixed and reformed into the ELCA but remain culturally rooted in the Northern European-American experience. Think Garrison Keiller. Hot dish. Minnesota. The church’s traditions and liturgy were largely created by Northern European men. It prizes images of a white Jesus. If that seems benign, it takes on more sinister implications when we look at a white Jesus doodled by Dylann Roof in his jail cell.

Where there are multi-racial churches within the ELCA, they are often underfunded and marginalized. “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?” begins with the story of Jehu Jones, the founder of some of the first African-American Lutheran congregations in the United States who, despite repeated requests, was never paid by his synod. It ends with pastors who work long hours in urban missions but are only paid part-time. It is not hard to trace a line from Jones to these modern-day pastors.

When white Lutherans kvetch about the lack of diversity in their churches, Duncan doesn’t beat around the bush on what that would take. “You can't have reconciliation without repentance. Until the ELCA recognizes the way that it's treated persons of color, specifically black folks, and until they realize their style of church is inherently racist and repent from that, until they talk about reparations to the children of pastors who were never paid full salaries, then I don't think there can be reconciliation. If there were real repentance, work, and they were able to sit and listen, then I think The Spirit would move and folks would come." 

It all comes back to amends. The Ninth Step. If the ELCA is serious about defeating racism, about being a church for everyone who believes, Duncan preaches that they should make amends wherever possible. It will mean moving from rhetoric into action. It will mean risking offense to people who are comfortable with the status quo. It will not be easy, but it will be the only way the ELCA can escape being “the whitest church in America.”

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