Nobody ever expects The Grateful Dead. I mean, I guess there’s that lyric in Chinatown Shuffle, “Get it right, do it nice/But if you make a mistake you’re gonna pay for it twice.”
That song ends with the absolute opposite of grace, “If you fall in my direction/don’t expect no help at all.”
So count me (pleasantly) surprised to find Pastor Duncan one-third of the way into his new memoir, United States of Grace, dancing his heart out on a Grateful Dead tour. It’s a sort of homecoming for him.
How he ends up here, having started where he starts, I refuse to tell. You’ll need to read the book.
As Duncan contends, there’s nothing really like a Grateful Dead concert. “A caravan of misfits whose only uniting theme is a band most people don’t think is touring anymore.” Fair enough, I myself was caught by surprise when the guy next door to me had a large collection of bootleg Grateful Dead tapes, and that was back in 1991.
But for those of us who have at least seen photos of the tours, Lenny’s next point is important. “These are explicitly white spaces—I was often the only Black person around this scene.” This may give you a sense why Duncan has been able, more than many others, to navigate the explicitly white space of “the whitest denomination in the United States.”
When Lenny Duncan went on tour a few years back at the release of his first book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. I expect he mostly knew what he was about. Perhaps he didn’t anticipate how thoroughly dispiriting that tour would turn out to be.
I mean, he wanted to love on his church in spite of itself, and was willing to work with a church that has by and large understood self-flagellation to serve as replacement for actual reparations.
Our church knows how to signal diversity, and will welcome someone who writes and speaks as well as Lenny does… but we’ll also chew him up and spit him out if he challenges us to do more than just whip ourselves with his book.
Which is why although he discovered readiness for change in many local settings, he did not find that readiness in the denomination as a whole to which he wrote.
Like ask us to commit to actual reparations as a denomination, something he did in a series of Substack posts last year and be met in the ELCA by a vast, clamorous and hope-enervating silence.
I’ve sat in a room full of theologians and heard Lenny Duncan proclaim his complete lack of interest in reading dead white theologians. I’ve come to appreciate this pastor/prophet in his contrarian spirit, because although sometimes (often) I have to get over my fragile responses, there is something generative there, the hope of resurrection because of actual death.
What I discovered in this memoir, however, was much more than the yin-yang of a human who is sometimes fierce and sometimes gracious. Instead, I discovered someone who knows and lives repentance and reparations.
I’ve seen this in action. Lenny Duncan, more than many public figures I know, is willing to completely own up when he has wronged someone, and then repair what is broken.
He’s also willing to challenge people and communities and even friends more than most.
“What’s the spirituality that undergirds this way of being in the world? We wound, often deeply, those around us, and even if we are aware and repentant, it doesn’t change one thing. You have broken something. This relationship is shattered. It is lying there, and the cracks that have occurred are irreparable. That’s who you are to some people out there.
But in my case, I have done an inordinate amount of this sort of damage in people’s lives. I was starting to realize that if there was a cosmic ledger balance, it was never going to be nil. On this day, on this train to Delaware County from my apartment in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, although I was utterly convinced of the graciousness of the Divine, I also knew I could spend my whole life giving back to the world, and it wouldn’t be enough.
I had become convinced in the way only grace could ever convince anyone. I had become convinced that no matter what, I needed to spend the rest of my life pouring it out for others.”
Reading Duncan’s books is also like this. There’s a constant kind of push-pull, and remarkably Duncan is aware of (and willing to admit) this:
The fact that I am a storyteller is the garnish, if you will, or the plating. I struggle between frantically trying to capture the very essence of every moment of my life in a way that will make sense to the world and the realization that my story is just that—my story—and I can serve it out however I want. The latter because I just have developed a sense of utter defiance as a writer. I never want to give you what you want, how you want it. That feels like a trap of the industry at best and a prison at worse. The former because I still believe in the power of us seeing each other in our utter humanness. I still believe that sharing our stories can somehow bring us closer to tasting the divine.
Yes, share our stories. But then also, alert the reader of some of their more sublimated motivations for reading such stories, so when the stories are engaged, they are engaged not out of voyeurism, but out of sacrificial love:
What does any of this have to do with prison? Relax, dear reader, you will get your poverty porn of me melting in a cell all by myself, but let me paint the entire scene for you first. It’s important that you see the disparate and innocent threads that were eventually woven together to become a noose around my neck. It will help you develop the ability to notice it in your own community and life. I’m trying to share with you the ingredients of the recipe that led me as a young kid to try the last American adventure: hitchhiking.
This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this entire book, it’s evocation of the last American adventure: hitchhiking. I mean, I love Jack Kerouac’s On the Road like nobody’s business, but it’s also so distant in some ways it doesn’t evoke identification. We might idealize Kerouac, but most of us don’t want to live like that.
Some of us wish we could write like that.
But what Duncan does in this book is bring together some disparate forms of spiritual writing that rarely if ever all make it into the same volume: the spirituality of the road, the spirituality of a pastor in formation, and the spirituality of an addict in recovery, with all the family and personal trauma that often attends such addiction.
All of this results in a rather unique “voice.” I’m not even sure what to call the genre of work Duncan is writing. Is it memoir? Epistle? Spoken word performance?
Whatever it is, it brings the author’s voice close enough to the reader as to get under the skin. It might just be another last great American literary form: the jeremiad. But can a jeremiad be injected with a little grace?
People treat the “margins” as joyless places bereft of anything of value. In fact, talk about the “margins” is one of the most racist narratives among progressives. I, for one, have grown to loathe the term, even though I use it from time to time to code switch. It’s not the “margins” to me, asshole; it’s my world, it’s my moral center, it’s where I reside. When you talk about my whole culture being on the periphery in one breath and then pantomime it at home, well, it’s infuriating. How can we be on the margins, and yet every song you sing, every artist you like, all the fashion you steal is Black? That liberal-racist narrative doesn’t capture entire cultures that are mighty fortresses of liberation. They are birthed and grown in these places that most folks use as tools of oppression—pimps selling my helplessness to you for the sake of their woke heroes’ accolades and reputations.
I’m going to share with you the secret. What I mean is there is a death pact between our political structure and our economic overlords, and they will take us all with them with little to no forethought. COVID-19 has simply revealed not only the largely unrealized depths of depravity to which they are willing to go but also the thing that keeps me going most days. The great hope that COVID-19 has revealed in the midst of the charnel-house response from a White House—which has never been whiter—is just how completely vulnerable they are. That’s where God is in the midst of this. That’s where the Holy One known as I am resides currently in our country. God is the cracks, flaws, and splintering pillars of a system that can’t support its own bloated weight.
God is the cracks, flaws, and splinters. I guess the problem with the original jeremiads, of which there are multitude, was their focus on moralism. We know who is causing the cracks, flaws, and splinters, and shame on them. Aren’t they trash?
What Duncan does in United States of Grace is shift the current ever so slightly that everything is different, because the cracks, flaws and splinters are God.
What was that Paul said in 1st Corinthians? The weakness of God is stronger than human strength? Or 2nd Corinthians? My power is made perfect in weakness?
That, or something like it, is what Lenny Duncan is up to in this memoir… and since it’s a trilogy, we can fully anticipate he is just getting warmed up.