The Rev. Lenny Duncan took a long, winding path to finding his calling as a theologian. He’s an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and pastor of the Jubilee Collective, an LGBTQ+ affirming congregation in Vancouver, Washington. He’s also a queer Black man who spent his youth living on the road, following the Grateful Dead; occasionally selling drugs or doing sex work to get by.
He tells his story in his new book, “United States of Grace: A Memoir of Homelessness, Addiction, Incarceration and Hope.” In it, he rhapsodizes about his love of America, calling it “a passionate, up-all-night-texting love affair. Kissing-when-no-one-is-looking-because-it-feels-so-new love. Like sweaty-palm-hand-holding-down-the-streets-of-Brooklyn kind of love.”
He also warns: “I will be telling you about a world that has done nothing but reject, try to kill, or push aside everything I am.”
That contradiction — of an America that he loves, and one that wants to punish him for being Black, or queer — is at the center of his writings, his preaching, and his activism. He recently talked with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni about his vision of a Jesus Christ who stands up against the state, about pushing the city of Ridgefield, Washington, to recognize Pride month, about on finding hope in fellow human beings.
John Notarianni: I’d love for you to read a passage from your earlier book “Dear Church, a Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” This is from an essay where you’re talking about the church’s relationship to politics. I’ll let you set it up more if you like.
Lenny Duncan: Yeah, Dear Church was written in 2017 after I spent most of 2015 and 2016 trying to convince people that Trump had a real chance of winning:
“Christianity at its core is subversive, but radical evil wants complacency, not subversion. It wants us all comfortable, unchallenged and staring at the stained-glass windows of our church from the inside, while someone who is suffering is staring up at those same windows from the outside. Radical evil wants walls up around our hearts, around our congregations’ lives and around this country. Division is how evil operates. We have all become intractable.”
Notarianni: There’s so much in that quote that feels exciting to me: about the radical nature of Christianity, potentially, but also how it’s different from the way that the church tends to operate today. How is Christianity subversive?
Duncan: It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling, right? And who has the power to tell the stories. You could talk about a God who lent himself over to the authorities with full knowledge of what would happen to him because of your sin, right? Because of what you did, John.
Or, you can tell the story of God who had a street parade where he marched into the temple on the largest festival day, robbed the bank, threw all the money down onto the streets for the poor, then was lynched by law enforcement and hung from a tree by the empire for everyone to see. And I think that’s the real story: the subversive story of Jesus Christ.
Notarianni: Tell me about the story that you’re telling right now, with the Jubilee Collective in Vancouver.
Duncan: What we’re doing is trying to build a community based around three simple ideas: What if Jesus is just as anti-racist as us? Just, what if?
What if our LGBTQ+ siblings are tired of ‘welcome’ and are ready for radical affirmation? So, what does that mean: that means we center their leadership.
And the third thing is: we try to be Christians that Jesus would actually want to hang out with. We’re not a “safe space.” We’re an anti-racist one. We’re full of people who are going to screw up and we’re trying to make sure that our queer, trans and two-spirited siblings know that they are a reflection of God — because they are.
Notarianni: You’ve been working on an effort to get the city of Ridgefield, Washington, to recognize Pride month, and it was kind of a battle, I understand. But just this week, you found out that the proposal was approved. Tell me about what went into making that happen.
Duncan: Since coming to Vancouver, Washington, I was invited by Jasmine Tolbert, the Vancouver NAACP president, to be the second vice president. Some citizens in Ridgefield reached out to us and said that they had been trying to get Pride recognized in time for June, and to get the mayor and the city council to make a proclamation. What happened, for these folks, is that only an organization can make this request. So they asked us to make a request and I wrote a letter as the NAACP’s second vice president. If you don’t mind, I’d like to read a little bit of it.
Notarianni: Yes, please do.
Duncan: “We at the Vancouver NAACP, which serves all of Clark County in Southwest Washington, know that LGBTQ+ community members are not just their sexuality or gender identity, or the way that shows up in the world. They are veterans who served this country at its darkest moment. They are police officers, teachers, service industry workers, daycare workers, nurses, nonprofit workers. Local blue collar workers and everyday citizens of Clark County who continue to do the work towards the betterment of the community. Some of them are members of faith communities whose beliefs would be surprisingly similar to their most ardent opponents.
“On a personal note, I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community. We have come a long way from the days of reparative therapy camps when I was a kid, where they would chemically castrate my friends for their impure thoughts, or when it was legal to kill one of us because you’re revolted by one of us, like Matthew Shepard. I remember the hysteria and fear then. I’m an American citizen who still believes in the dreams of this republic, even though I’ve never truly had the rights and privileges of one of its citizens.
“Yet here I am, over 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, a pastor and a seminary professor. I spend much of my life in the way I imagine many of you do: caring for neighbors, trying to make the world a little bit better. This isn’t about politics. This is about recognizing humanity in one another and, perhaps, moving us towards a more perfect union.
“This is the essence of the American dream.”
Notarianni: After sharing that much vulnerability … when you found out that the proclamation had been approved, what did it feel like to have that identity validated?
Duncan: I mean, it was pretty great. But I know it’s just one small victory, and that I’ll be testifying about sex education in Clark County later this month because that same area doesn’t want their kids to learn about their own gender identities, and doesn’t don’t want little boys to learn about consent.
I mean, my God: even if you’re not even LGBTQ+ affirming, you do know that most assigned-female-at-birth, or fem/female bodied people experience sexual assault. Almost 50% experience sexual violence in college. And it’s not those women’s fault. It’s the way we’re raising up so-called men.
It’s strange times, it really is. We’re trying to rewrite history, and then we’re also trying to turn the dial back a little bit about sexual mores that have actually made the world better.
Notarianni: You’ve been connected to the protest movement as well: you served on a council of BIPOC faith leaders for Black Lives here in the Pacific Northwest; you’ve done work as a chaplain for racial justice protesters over the last year. How do you think the ministry intersects with activism?
Duncan: I mean, the biggest thing for me is that again, going back to that different narrative of Christ: if I worship a God who was murdered by law enforcement, I should be pretty suspicious of the systems of law enforcement, right?
I want to be clear here: Policing in America is dangerous for black and brown bodies. As a byproduct of that, it’s also dangerous for police: if you really cared about these guys, you would improve the community conditions of the places where they are 12 hours a day — which, also happens to be my community.
You would invest in them. You would raise the conditions on the ground. You would not put a guy who’s already had to answer four random calls, who’s armed with a gun, who’s already had a rough PTSD run in a particular neighborhood, into a situation where he’s bound to fail.
Notarianni: Do you feel differently about the Pacific Northwest after the year that we’ve had? With the protests, the violence, with the presence of white supremacist groups in the area where you are trying to run your ministry?
Duncan: The first time I came to the Pacific Northwest, I was in Portland standing outside Pioneer Square. I was ‘spare-changing’ to get something to eat. A cop grabbed me by my neck, slammed me against the wall, found small roach of pot in my pocket and arrested me.
I agreed to a felony probation just to get out of jail because I couldn’t afford bail, and that warrant chased me for 15 years. It didn’t allow me to go to school. It tortured me, in fact.
The next time I came was February 1st of 2020, and the next time I was standing in front of the Justice Center, it was May 29th. Do you know what I mean?
Like, that’s the Pacific Northwest that I’ve known. You would think that that would paint not a great picture. But what I got to watch was: I watched moms, and taxicab drivers, and 7-11 workers show up to say that Black lives matter. And then they got shot at, so they came back the next day and they had helmets on.
By the time I got there — and I’ve just got to tell you this story — the tear gassing was pretty regular. I’ve got to be honest with you, it took me almost a week to respond. But by the time I got out there … and this is what I think the Pacific Northwest is:
I met a Rabbi that day and he took me up to the fence so I could pray for some of the people ... I get up there and we’re about to be gassed. And this Rabbi hands me his gas mask so I don’t … to protect a Black body.
This Jewish man was willingly being gassed by a substance that the Geneva Convention says we can’t use in war, but we use at home on our own people. And he hands a Black man a gas mask. Because he’s out there to say Black lives matter.
I saw the best of you. I saw you rise up. I saw when white supremacists wanted to make it about war and blood and soil, you made it about education, counter systems, mutual aid and love.
Notarianni: In your book “United States of Grace,” you say: “Once you start looking for hope, you find out that it’s everywhere.” It sounds like that’s the case.
Duncan: Yeah. Like, I don’t know what victory looks like, or liberation, or a more perfect union for all. But I can tell you what it’s not: it’s not what we’ve been living. And the more people start talking about that, and the more we get together, and the more we start building together — not dependent on the state, not dependent on politicians, but real mutual circles of trust built upon one another — when you invest in the people, that’s where hope is. Hope is in us.
Listen to Rev. Lenny Duncan’s conversation with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni using the audio player at the top of the story.