Lenny Duncan was 13 when he ran away from his parents’ abusive home and was forced onto the streets of West Philadelphia.
“I experienced homelessness until I was 19 years old,” Duncan, now 40, recalls. “I traveled across the country, couch-surfing with friends. I struggled with alcohol abuse. I was incarcerated. My life was rooted in the cracks of society. The last thing you’d expect is that I would go on to become a pastor.”
Duncan, a black man who identifies as queer, was standing in the back of a Grateful Dead concert in 2010 when he finally decided to quit drinking. “You’re getting sober today,” Duncan heard a voice at the show say, and he never turned back.
“For some reason I associated that voice with Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” Duncan says. “I didn’t immediately tell anyone that. I mean, I’ll be honest—it sounds a little unhinged. But I believed the voice. That was grace for me.”
Duncan began visiting various Christian churches with Saturday-night services so his friends wouldn’t suspect that he’d been worshipping on Sundays. He remembers showing up to a different service every week in a T-shirt and a baseball hat, singing and dancing off-key, and putting 10 percent of his earnings into an offering basket.
It wasn’t until Duncan came across a Lutheran church that he finally decided to devote himself to one denomination. “The ELCA was the only church I’d ever been to that was up-front about being queer-affirming,” he says, referring to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “In other churches, there were always rules and restrictions about people’s relationships, or whether they were giving enough. The ELCA told me that nothing would stop me from experiencing God. It was revolutionary.”
After being asked to preach at an ELCA congregation, “the entire game changed for me,” Duncan says. He is now a rostered minister within the denomination, and preaches at Jehu’s Table in Brooklyn, New York.
“I wanted to use my position as a preacher to [lead] the church’s reformation,” Duncan says, “to fight for the Black Lives Matter movement and for the complete acceptance of my queer siblings.”
Duncan’s latest project to transform the ELCA (a denomination with 65 American bishops, only four of whom are people of color) is the release of his new book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. Duncan will visit Kindred Montrose on July 16 to read and sign copies of the book, which is now for sale online.
“Dear Church calls the church to dismantle white supremacy,” Duncan says. “White supremacy has led to all of the other ills in our society, including transphobia, queerphobia, toxic masculinity, and even the current presidential administration. If Christians led the way to stop this, imagine what this would say to the millions of people who have been hurt by the church.”
Duncan originally began writing Dear Church as a personal memoir, but his publishers at Fortress Press suggested he write about where he saw the future of the ELCA going instead. “I was kinda pissed off,” Duncan says. “I already talk a lot of shit on social media, and I constantly push the church to do things it doesn’t want to do. I’m a young minister. If a book like the one they wanted from me got published, I’d likely have no friends left.”
After some back-and-forth emails, Duncan facetiously sent his publishers a sample table of contents for Dear Church, which included chapter titles such as “Dismantling White Supremacy and the Power of the Gospel,” “The Church Is Queer,” and “Resisting White Nationalism Is the Way of Jesus.” Fortress Press greenlighted the project, and Duncan began writing.
“I truly believe that right now, the Christian church in America is in a very dangerous place,” Duncan says, “but it is also a place full of hope. I think the church is ready to have these conversions, so that we can reorient and be more like Jesus.”
Duncan invites OutSmart readers to his July 16 book signing, where he will speak further on how the ECLA should approach white supremacy and other world issues.
“Come to the event,” Duncan says. “Meet me in person, and see if I’m full of it.”
Follow Pastor Duncan on Twitter at @lennyaduncan.
This article appears in the July 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.