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Black Pastor Wants His Mostly White Congregation To Understand Racial Justice

NOEL KING, HOST:

A recent poll from NPR and IPSOS found only 30% of white Americans say they've taken action to better understand issues around race. In order to take action, arguably, it helps if white and Black Americans share some of the same spaces. NPR's Tom Gjelten brings us the story of a Black pastor who leads an almost entirely white congregation.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here's an unlikely church pastor combination. There's the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, a mainline Protestant denomination with a membership that's 96% white. And then there's the Black ELCA pastor, Lenny Duncan.

LENNY DUNCAN: (Reading) I'm a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen and felon. How the hell did I get here?

GJELTEN: Duncan, his arms covered in tattoos, stretch piercings in his ears, is reading from his book "Dear Church: A Love Letter From A Black Preacher To The Whitest Denomination In The U.S." He was speaking at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. This was before COVID. His topic - racial prejudice and the church.

DUNCAN: The first thing is, this is not racism 101. So if you don't think that white supremacy is real, if you don't think that white privilege is real, this ain't your night.

(LAUGHTER)

GJELTEN: Duncan joined the ELCA because of the welcome he as a broken man received at an ELCA congregation and because he was attracted by Lutheran theology, which emphasizes God's grace. His favorite Bible text is the story of Jesus' first sermon at his hometown synagogue wherein Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to explain his ministry - the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and liberation for the oppressed. Speaking at Luther Seminary, Duncan said the church has failed in that mission and carries with it 1,800 years of - he uses an expletive. One woman in the audience was not pleased.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When you say 1,800 years of Christianity, it wasn't all bad, OK? So be cautious when you're talking because when you go on the offense, it can be very...

DUNCAN: Ma'am, did you come here to give me a speech?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, sir.

DUNCAN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm just saying my feelings are when you're on the opposite side of the table, it's harder to work together.

GJELTEN: Duncan is comfortable with conflict like this. In that story of Jesus' first sermon, the hometown does not like what he says. At the time of the St. Paul event, Duncan was pastoring a Black Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Soon after that, he heard about a white church in Vancouver, Wash., Messiah Lutheran, that was looking to hire someone who could bring the church to people it had not yet reached. Duncan applied.

HOPE QUINN: We asked if he had any questions for us, and one of his very first questions was, what do I have to do to get fired?

GJELTEN: Hope Quinn was on the hiring committee.

QUINN: That is a question that comes from somebody who is going to ruffle feathers, who is going to make people uncomfortable.

GJELTEN: Duncan got the job. Among those he convinced was Doug Ruecker, a retired insurance executive.

DOUG RUECKER: Quite frankly, there's a few of us, me included, who tend to be more conservative, saying I'm not sure Lenny is the right person for Messiah. I said, he's too radical. He's too far out there. But then when we actually met Lenny and listened to some of his ideas, we found him very engaging and very excited about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

GJELTEN: Vancouver, Wash., is just across the river from Portland, Ore., which has seen nightly protests over racial injustice. Lenny Duncan has been in the middle of it. Ruecker understands what he's up to. To explain how he sees Duncan's work, he uses a fishing analogy.

RUECKER: When I start fishing a new river, the first thing I do is hire a guide who knows that river and take me to the places where he knows there's fish. Lenny is our guide to take us to those places. He's been there. He knows where those people hang out, and he can help us, the church, catch those folks for Christ.

GJELTEN: For Duncan, the fish in that new river are LGBTQ people who feel marginalized, people of color who experience police brutality, the homeless. He'll reach them by standing with them.

DUNCAN: If I go out and I serve with my queer siblings, if I go out to the front lines and say Black lives matter, feed the hungry, dress the naked, stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves, people will see Jesus Christ.

DUNCAN: In the African diaspora, the ancestors or your siblings or your family are incredibly important.

GJELTEN: On a recent Saturday in Vancouver, Duncan presides at a libation ceremony, an old African tradition. He pours water into a potted tree.

DUNCAN: And feel free to call out the name of a loved one who's no longer with us in this world as I pour and say amen and a'xe (ph).

GJELTEN: Duncan himself reads the names of Black and brown people who have been killed by police.

DUNCAN: We pour for our siblings in Christ - George Perry Floyd, Sean Reed.

GJELTEN: Among those attending, Dennis Huff, who heard Duncan on a podcast and joined the new mission congregation Duncan calls the Jubilee Collective.

DENNIS HUFF: The goal is to make a place for people who don't fit in elsewhere. And I've always felt like anytime I would try to fit somewhere, I would start to feel like I didn't fit. So I want to be a part of making a place where anyone can fit.

GJELTEN: As for Doug Ruecker, the retired insurance executive who welcomed Lenny Duncan to Messiah Lutheran despite his own misgivings, the unrest he's witnessed around the country in the last few weeks has convinced him that Duncan brings something essential to the greater Portland area.

RUECKER: Not only does the country need these conversations, the church needs these conversations as well. If we of people of faith, people of the gospel, even though we are way different than each other, if we cannot come together to grow the kingdom, then we are indeed doomed to live in a divided and angry world.

GJELTEN: Ruecker and Lenny Duncan are now in the custom of meeting together once a week to make sure they're still on the same track.

DUNCAN: Doug has different words, but me and Doug are saying the same thing. We want to see a world that actually reflects the world our savior talks about.

GJELTEN: That world where good news comes to the poor and liberation to the oppressed as foreseen by the prophet Isaiah. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "EVERMORE.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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