Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the United States is written by Lenny Duncan, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Duncan was a “free-agent Christian” until he met the ELCA through an open communion table. This revolutionary symbol of grace and welcome later led him to seminary and now guides his ministry at Jehu’s Table in Brooklyn, NY.
Pastor Ingrid Arneson Rasmussen and Pastor Angela Khabeb serve together at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, a congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The following is the conversation they shared after reading Dear Church, an epistle written to the denomination in which they are both ordained.
Ingrid: This book reinforced what has become clearer to me since you and I began serving together as pastors—that is, the two of us live by two different sets of rules in the ELCA. My name is Ingrid Arneson Rasmussen. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I have never been asked how long I’ve been a Lutheran.
Angela: My name is Angela Khabeb, and I’m asked to establish my Lutheran pedigree with such frequency that I’m surprised when it doesn’t happen. Certainly, I’m no stranger to double standards. As an African American woman, I learned from an early age that the world treats different people differently and serving in the whitest denomination in the United States has provided me with yet another list of prejudgments to encounter.
Ingrid: Yes, I’ve witnessed what Duncan calls “a thousand cuts”—those microagressions that, more often than not, go unchecked in Lutheran circles because they are so widely accepted by the dominant culture. You and I bring very different experiences to this book. Social location matters.
Angela: You can say that again. Duncan’s book is an unflinchingly honest call to dismantle white supremacy in the church. While reading it, I found myself revisiting my own trauma. I remembered how I languished for nearly two years without a first call. I remember surviving death threats and even an attempt on my family’s life at our first call. Duncan’s writings gripped me on a deeply personal level. There were times I didn’t think I would make it to the end of the book. It was kind of like the lyrics from that Roberta Flack song, “He was strumming my pain…singing my life with his words. Killing me softly.” I wasn’t quite prepared for the experience. I’m glad I stayed the course.
Ingrid: [Silence.] This book reveals the gravity of the situation in the church.
Angela: Yes it does.
Ingrid: Duncan makes it clear that he thinks that we’re all players in the situation. We’re all part of the systems that perpetuate racism. It’s easy for predominantly white faith communities to stall out in conversations about race when people claim that they, themselves, aren’t racists. But what Duncan helps to clarify is that white supremacy doesn’t rely on active racists to function. We’re all caught up; we’re all complicit. And for those of us who identify as white, we need to live with the discomfort of that reality.
Angela: I was glad that Duncan stressed this reality. Clearly, we are all tangled together in these systematic, generational, racist structures. I have no argument there; however, I had a visceral reaction when I read that “we…have crucified black and brown bodies under the guise of creating a civil society.” I am struggling to step into this “we.”
Ingrid: Let’s ask Duncan to talk more about what he means by “we.” Until then, what do we do now that we’ve read this book? I wonder if it’s time for us to reclaim an apocalyptic imagination—not the doomsday, soothsaying kind of apocalyptic theology that dominates popular culture, but the apocalyptic theology that allows us to look at this moment in history and to call out the forces—like white nationalism and toxic masculinity—that defy God. In Martin Luther’s words, it’s time for us to “call a thing what it is.”
Angela: That’s easy (or at least easier) for you to say. As a white woman, you are afforded just enough privilege to speak truth to and with power and be praised. I speak truth to and with power, and I wonder if I’ll still have a job. In fact, I found myself wondering aloud in the margins of the book how many death threats Duncan has received by just mentioning reparations. I admire his bravery.
Ingrid: Me, too. I kept thinking that this book isn’t meant to be read alone.
Angela: Great point! I’m not sure it’s meant to be read only alone or only once. It’s powerful, raw, and forthright. I’m grateful that I had a chance to read it before our congregation engages it as our Advent book study this year. Reading it first allowed me the opportunity to first look at “the beam in my own eye” so to speak, to examine my own experiences of pain and despair.
Ingrid: For me, the despair arises out of the complexity of the brokenness and the fear that individual actions won’t be able to effect change in the well-oiled machines of white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. The intersectionality of oppression can feel overwhelming.
Angela: So true. I felt myself choosing between the pain in the pages of the book and the pain in my life. It was, at times, daunting to carry both. I’m glad I continued. Duncan encourages those feeling overwhelmed by decades in the struggle when he writes, saying, “Let the rest of us pick up the baton for a while, and you can rest in the Sabbath you have earned.” Dismantling white supremacy is a necessary work, a dangerous work. Truly the church, in particular, the ELCA, is called for such a time as this.
Ingrid: Yes, Duncan insists that “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Everyone who reads this book, whether they think of themselves as an agent of change or not, hears the call to participate in the revolutionary work that Jesus embodied. Dear Church invites our action in the vision that God is bringing to birth–a vision that is surprising, disruptive, loving, and true.
Angela Khabeb and Ingrid Rasmussen serve together as pastors at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.