Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?

A documentary film by Lenny Duncan, ANKOS films, and Tangled Blue

So, I’m doing a film. It’s really that simple, asking a simple question. Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA? What does that even mean? The only answer I can give is to ask another question. What is the answer that immediately comes to mind when I ask, do black churches matter in the ELCA?

It might be a yes. Possibly with a caveat. Or a resounding no. Well, that will affect how you see this film.

So, this idea started as an independent study here at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. Like my exorcism work last year, it evolved. I was going to write a very sterile paper where I matched up the ELCA’s social statements, resolutions, and constitution with what we did with our money that year. The theological thinking behind it was going to be simple. Are we going to do what we say by matching it to the history of what we have done? I would seek publication in some academic journal. It would have been powerful in its intent.

Follow the money.

It wasn’t until I started chasing the story down (in the undercroft of the seminary, in arguably the most complete Lutheran Archive in North America) that I started to realize what it needed was impact. It also was too important of a story to be stuck in the echo chamber which is theological academia. Edit: White Academia. Edit: White cis het Academia.

This would be the death of this story. Why is that? Because the systems that are in place, that are being analyzed in this work, would unconsciously fall into the same demonic patterns it always does. This work would be outright rejected, picked apart by some academic desperate to prove the church bears no responsibility, or it would land with a feather fall and not a seismic boom.

So, as I scrambled to get camera equipment, to record some interviews for ease of later access to my research, it hit me like a thunderbolt. A Movie. A documentary. This would be an easy media format to access for churches, synod assemblies and people just interested. I could put it in several pieces on YouTube for ease of consumption.

I contacted the incomparable Jason Chesnut at Ankos Films, for help. I bought a starter DSLR camera. I reached out to the composers in residence here, Tangle Blue, for some royalty free tunes and beats. It came together so easily the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is all over it.

But what is the story? What is the story this film will tell you?

I’m about halfway through shooting so I can share with you the story so far.

It’s about a church, and white Protestantism and it’s almost monolithic collapsing in of itself. It’s about a system that got so use to being at the very center of a democracy and society, and is no longer in that privileged position. It’s about the way its treated it’s Black pastors and churches. It’s going to point to the fact that while we scream for diversity in the ELCA we have some systemic inequities in the way we launch, nurture, and treat these ministries. Its focus will be Philadelphia and it’s history (mostly). How at one point baptized membership here was 58% Black Lutheran.

It’s about a seminarian who spent 2 years studying the confessions, our social statements, and this church before joining. It’s about what I found when I arrived. It’s about being a Black Lutheran from one persons limited perspective.

What it isn’t is a complete history of the prophetic witness of my elders who have labored long and wearily in this field. But it will point to the fields of littered bodies I found when I arrived, and it will honor the efforts of those who came before me. This will be limited by my newness to this church.

My hope is to gain access to a deep sense of lament and well of ancestral power I am just learning to tap into.

It is about a church that has less resources. Less relevance. An uncertain future. Death nipping at it’s heels as it races towards resurrection.

It’s about a church whose only chance for survival is to turn to the prophetic witness of Black Lutheranism, and the leaders and peoples it has treated as second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

It’s about suffering servants, elders of the diaspora, and communities squeezed by empire being the literal incarnation of Jesus.

It’s about whether or not a church can actually listen to what it’s savior is saying.

It’s about, “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?”