I grew up in the pre-Katrina New Orleans in the 1980s and 90s. The city was impoverished and crime-ridden, but it was home. The diverse cultures that permeated New Orleans, its friendliness and music, were potent enough to make it one of the most amazing places in the world to live. The big downside for a kid like me was the educational system, which had been ranked one of the lowest in the country for decades. The fact that I was able to navigate a failing school system and become a first-generation college graduate was nothing short of miraculous.
Or so it seemed to me until, as an educator, I conducted research on the significance of teachers of color for black students. I now recognize that my success is heavily attributed to the teachers of color who walked the halls of my primary and secondary schools. Yes, I had wonderful white teachers who loved me and supported me, but having teachers who looked like me enhanced my educational experience exponentially.
Shirley Dufour was my second-grade teacher and my first African-American teacher. She was a charismatic, nurturing and extremely knowledgeable educator who commanded the room. She taught us with firm love. She always dressed professionally and spoke so articulately, personifying excellence with every step she made and word she spoke.
I idolized Mrs. Dufour. She looked like me and was able to connect with me in a way my white teachers could not. She set the highest expectations for me and refused to let me settle academically or personally. Her unwavering commitment to the pursuit of excellence is what I wanted to mirror when I became a teacher.
Now, it is my professional purpose to exemplify for my students what Mrs. Dufour modeled for me. When I became a teacher in Dallas ISD in 2006, I knew that I wanted to work at an impoverished school so that I could be for those students what my teachers of color were for me. I always tell my students, “your address doesn’t dictate your success.” They believe that motto so much more when the person saying it looks like them.
In my classroom, my students gain an experience. They are empowered and feel accomplished every day regardless of their academic abilities, because I believe that this dissipates the achievement gap between black students and their peers. Whenever I can, I aim to validate the cultural needs of my students. I affirm the challenges of their environment as I steer them towards opportunities that can eradicate the blatant systemic oppression in their neighborhoods. My experiences as a student of color allow me to provide a unique perspective that only someone like me can give them, and it challenges them to think outside of the box to find solutions and enact change.
Research emphasizes that teachers of color matter for all students, and especially for students of color. It is imperative that we begin to change the narrative of America’s schools; this starts with recruiting, developing and supporting teachers of color so they remain in the classroom. In a just-released report, Teach Plus and The Education Trust lay out the reasons why teachers of color leave the profession. I can relate to many of these, and I know that we must be intentional about creating opportunities for teachers of color to operate with autonomy, authenticity and authority, so that we can address some of the issues that stifle the educational success of students of color across the country.
It is imperative that my students feel like they matter, and that they are accurately represented in their classrooms. I want them to see someone who looks like them, shares similar experiences and provides authentic anecdotes to overcome the challenges they experience. That magnitude of leverage begins with the intentional development and implementation of a pipeline of effective teachers of color.
This article was originally published on TribTalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune.
At some point in life we’ve all made big decisions. Whether it’s the college we attend, the person we marry, the first home or car we purchase, or the city we move to, decisions are a part of our lives. And to some degree, we always feel like we have to make the right decision. But how do we know what the right decision is? What do we do to prepare ourselves for major decisions?
A study conducted some years ago showed that the more choices we’re presented with, the more debilitat¬ing choices can become. Participants were presented with an assortment of 30 items to choose from and an assortment of 6 items to choose from. More people stopped and recognized the display with 30 choices, but a lesser percentage of those people actually made the choice to buy. We can get to a point in our lives where we think through decisions so much that we talk ourselves out of doing the very thing we set out to do in the first place—making a decision. Why? Because we don’t want to “miss God.” But is that how things work? Are we supposed to agonize over the choices we need to make?
One passage of Scripture may be helpful here: “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3, ESV). Commit literally means to roll over into or put your full weight on some¬thing. It’s giving everything. Interesting that Scripture doesn’t say commit your plans to the Lord. But that’s what we do, right? We commit our plans to the Lord, rather than our work. The distinction is huge. There are four things this verse teaches us:
1. There will be times when things do not go as planned.
It’s inevitable. It’s like walking through the store with your wife and a shopping list. As much as you might want to, “Stick to the plan,” she deviates. And you may get upset when she deviates. You want her to follow the list—to the letter. But your wife has the special ability of remembering stuff that you forget. We get mad when God gets away from our list too. We make plans to be married by a certain age. We make plans to retire by a certain age. When something pops up that isn’t on the list, we are furious. God remembers the stuff we forget too.
Maybe we should change our approach. Stop just committing your plans to the Lord and start committing your work to the Lord. Then Scrip¬ture will make more sense when it says, “The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, ESV) or “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33, ESV). It is only by committing your work to Him that He establishes your plan. So stop working on that ten-year plan and start working on committing yourself fully to Him in your work.
2. There will be times when you won’t have peace about the decision you make.
Most times we feel like if we have peace about something, then it must be the right decision to make. I remember one decision I made where I didn’t have peace: the decision to move across the country to attend semi¬nary. I didn’t want to move 3,000 miles from home, but decided to do so anyway. Peace was the last thought on my mind. But, in hindsight, it was one of the best deci¬sions I ever made. If Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals a moment of agonizing conflict over the decision to bear the world’s sin, then surely there will be decisions in your life where you don’t experience peace in the short term.
3. Never think God is not at work, no matter how absent He may seem to be.
Author Tim Keller said, “God’s guidance is more something God does than something God gives.” In other words, God guides you through events and occurrences in your life, ultimately based on the choices you make. So where you find yourself right now is right in the middle of God’s guidance. Stop looking for it. God is doing it in your life right now. We spend so much time seeking God’s guidance, but don’t realize that we’re right slap dab in the middle of it.
4. God expects us to develop wisdom to discern His guidance.
“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her” (from Proverbs 4:7–8, ESV).
Developing wisdom accompanies our spiritual maturity. Another illustration by Tim Keller is key here: How would your parents react if you, an adult, called them to ask permission to go outside? They’d prob¬ably think you were crazy. Why? Because you are mature. As we mature in our faith, God (our Father) wants to trust us more and more to have the wisdom to make good decisions.
So after we pray, get counsel, and ask for His will, we’re ultimately left with the decision to make. In de¬veloping wisdom, we can decide with confidence that He is at work in what we decide. Decisions can be tough. Decisions can be agonizing. Decisions can be filled with uncertainty. If you have a tough decision to make, commit your work to the Lord. You’ll find out over time that in doing so, God will establish your plans.
Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and pray.
I was listening to the discussion at a staff meeting recently when our consultant made this remark about me: “Paul is so quiet. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything, except maybe the person of Jesus.” I smiled, partly because it was funny and partly because on the inside I am like Barney Fife, the nervous deputy on the old Andy Griffith Show. My mind churns with ideas, and my mouth is eager to assist.
So why did I appear so calm that day? Because I was praying, quietly to myself, over and over again: Father, Father, Father. At other times I will pray the name of Jesus or the name Christ. Sometimes I find myself praying a short phrase, such as Come, Spirit.
This is not a mindless chant I practice in order to reach some higher spiritual plane. Just the opposite. I realize I’m on a low spiritual plane, and I am crying out for help like a little child who runs to his mother saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” My heart is hunting for its true home. David captured the feel of the praying soul in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (verse 1, ESV).
Why am I quietly crying out for help? My tendency to interrupt in staff meetings is a “dry and weary land.” When I feel my inner Barney Fife crying out for attention, I pray quietly, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Like Augustine, in his Confessions, my heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God.
I’m at my worst when I’m passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people’s minds . . . and I shut up!
When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. The only way to quiet my soul’s desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.
Interrupting, selling, and boasting are just a few of the things that draw me into continuous prayer, into continual childlike dependence on my Father. Each of us has our own list. We can let it drive us into a praying life.
Poverty of Spirit, Not Discipline
I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, a rut between my soul and God.
Even now I often don’t realize that I am praying. Possibly, it isn’t even me praying, but the Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is not assisting us to pray; he is the one who is actually praying. He is the pray-er.
More specifically, it is the Spirit of his Son praying. The Spirit is bringing the childlike heart of Jesus into my heart and crying, Abba, Father. Jesus’ longing for his Father becomes my longing. My spirit meshes with the Spirit, and I too begin to cry, Father.
When Jesus prayed, most scholars think he regularly addressed his Father as abba. It is similar to our word papa. Their logic goes like this: We know the word abba because it burned itself on the disciples’ minds. They were so stunned–no one had ever spoken to God so intimately before–that when they told the Greek Christians about Jesus, they carried over the Aramaic abba word into the Greek translations of the Bible. This so shocked Paul that he used abba in both Romans and Galatians. Translators have continued the pattern set by the early disciples, and no matter what language Scripture is in, they still use abba.
This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus’ prayer. His first recorded sentence at age 12 is about his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son uttered when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. It was his first word on the cross–“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) — and one of his last — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.
I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayers. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. Paul told us, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.
This is the exact opposite of Eastern mysticism, which is a psychospiritual technique that disengages from relationship and escapes pain by dulling self. Eastern mystics are trying to empty their minds and become one with the nonpersonal “all.” But as Christians we realize we can’t cure ourselves, so we cry out to our Father, our primary relationship.
I was driving to work one day, thinking about all the options for a new three-year plan at work. The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became–I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The scripture “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.
Paul the apostle was constantly aware of his helplessness and the helplessness of the churches he loved — and so he prayed constantly.
Paul’s Example and Teaching
“Unceasing prayer” is Paul’s most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentioned continuous praying, he seldom said it the same way twice (emphasis added throughout):
• Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
• I give thanks to my God always for you. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
• I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
• Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
• We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
• Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
• Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
• Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• We also thank God constantly for this. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
• As we pray most earnestly night and day. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
• We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
• I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)
When Paul told the young churches to pray, he encouraged them in this same pattern of “constant in prayer”:
• Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
• Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Given Paul’s emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.
The Jesus Prayer
The Greek Orthodox Church still uses a simple fifth-century prayer sometimes called the Prayer of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (see the Philokalia, Vol. 4). The Orthodox tradition calls short prayers like this “breath prayers” because they can be spoken in a single breath.
The earliest version of this prayer came from a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who cried out as Jesus was passing by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). If you add Paul’s Philippian hymn, “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11), you’ve got the Jesus Prayer. From the beginning, this prayer was used continuously. When the crowd shushed Bartimaeus, “he cried out all the more” (Luke 18:39). He must have been shouting at the top of his lungs because three of the gospels mention his loud persistence!
My wife, Jill, has her own version of the Jesus Prayer. When we walk the dogs together on Sunday morning, we pass by an incredibly neat house with a well-manicured lawn. It is especially entertaining in the fall, when both the husband and the wife run around with a shoulder-pack leaf blower, chasing individual leaves. With her German heritage, Jill feels the pressure to obsess over neatness. As we walk by this immaculate house, she’ll start praying repeatedly, God, save me from myself. God, save me from myself.
When our kids were teenagers, Jill asked me, “Do you know what our family needs most?” Lots of things came to mind, including a newer car. Her one-word answer took me completely by surprise: “mercy.” We didn’t need to get more organized. We didn’t need more money. We needed mercy. That mindset creates a praying heart.
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time. It’s about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day — and not because we are disciplined. We are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.
“Dear Church” cover and author Rev. Lenny Duncan. Photo courtesy of Fortress Press
The Rev. Lenny Duncan is not your typical Evangelical Lutheran Church in America minister.
Duncan is the black pastor of a mostly Afro-Caribbean congregation in one of the nation’s least diverse denominations. He recently decided to challenge that denomination — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — in a new book titled “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.”
At Jehu’s Table church in Brooklyn, New York, Duncan proclaims his gratitude during Communion for African American role models ranging from transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson to Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X to civil rights minister Martin Luther King Jr.
Duncan, 41, talked to Religion News Service about why he is confronting his 94% white denomination, how churches can overcome the notion that they are dying, and what he has in common with Dylann Roof, a Lutheran man convicted of killing nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to write this book, “Dear Church,” and why did you choose to use the form of a letter to your denomination?
I grew up in an abusive home. And one of the first times I ever tried to defend my mom, I was about five years old and I stood over her body and I tried to block the blows that my father was raining down on her. That’s what “Dear Church” feels like for me. It’s an attempt of self-defense of the church that I love.
When we’re talking about dismantling the structures of systemic racism, there’s repentance and eventually there’s reconciliation, but there has to be reparations in the middle. There have to be constructive, quantifiable actions that show that you’ve turned around. So, while I think it’s a good start, I certainly don’t think the job’s anywhere near done.
The issue of reparations is often tied to money. But you seem to think of them in other terms. What are other ways you think reparations are necessary within your denomination or others?
It is time for all straight white males in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to remove their names from ballots for bishop. It’s the same thing when we come to some of the positions that we see in our churchwide organization — to just self-select their way out. This comes from my experience at seminary and other places. As someone who shows up as a cis male, if I’m quiet long enough typically a female or femme in the room will say the same thing I was gonna say much more succinctly and probably more intelligently than I would.
Are you also talking about the curriculum in seminaries?
Yeah. Most of the time whenever a person of color voice is added to the curriculum — even if we talk about James Cone; lots of times professors suggested I read Dr. Cone’s work — but it’s always the extra book or the recommended reading.
It wasn’t required reading.
Some people are going to think that your ideas are progressive or even radical. Do you think that people, especially white males in your denomination, would actually willingly leave their names off ballots for bishop?
In my book, I don’t rely on the good nature of white folks. What my work offers to them is that the American white Protestant church is obsessed with legacy. If you want your church to survive, if you want your denomination to be relevant in the 21st century, if you actually want a viable Lutheran legacy in the American context, then you’ll take these suggestions. Because my blood hasn’t ever encouraged them. The blood of Trayvon Martin has never encouraged them. The blood of Michael Brown has never encouraged them. The blood of Eric Garner has never encouraged them to change. So now what I’m offering is the death of their own church because this is the direction that the American context is headed, and I’m just trying to point towards that.
The Rev. Lenny Duncan. Courtesy photo
You note that Dylann Roof and you are both part of the ELCA. What does that mean to you and what should the church learn from that?
The reality is that Dylann was only a few decisions away from being me or I was only a few decisions away from being Dylann. Neither of us were nurtured and supported when we were younger, and it’s really by the grace of God that I didn’t end up in a similar situation as Dylann. For me, the struggle has been not to make Dylann Roof into a monster or into a demon or into a boogeyman but as someone who could be sitting in the pews of any ELCA church right now and is just waiting for a good word to push that person in the right direction or a lack thereof, because power abhors a vacuum, and then be pushed in the same direction Dylann was.
I try to parallel our histories in a way that makes it more real for folks so that folks can see that this is important work that should be done now, particularly in areas where there isn’t a lot of diversity, to make sure something like Charleston never happens again.
You talk about the power of symbols and liturgy and say the white garments worn by seminarians and clergy are problematic. Why?
What’s the color for Easter? White. How is Christ depicted in most of our liturgical art that’s inside our sanctuaries? White. This is particularly a problem in the American context because whiteness and white supremacy is so embedded in our culture that we start relating white as good and dark as bad.
You see the story in Advent, this whole idea of darkness to light.
How we tell the story is just as important as the story we’re telling. The tools that we use and the symbols that we use have long-term, often detrimental, effects to the children sitting in our pews. When I was in seminary someone said to me, “I’m not going to let a blip in Christian history ruin white robes for me.” And what I replied to them is, “Your people didn’t get their a– kicked by that blip in Christian history. So it’s easy for you to get past it.”
You described yourself and the church as queer, but you say less than 10% of ELCA congregations have labeled themselves as LGBTQ-affirming. Do you foresee any change in this issue that has divided the ELCA and many other denominations?
I think more and more people are starting to realize that queer Christians have been a part of the Christian experience since the very beginning. Often, we will hear people talk about (the biblical story of) the Ethiopian eunuch. The truth is, queer folks are in every church and every denomination and there’s no avoiding it. So the real issue is, is your God big enough, is your Jesus big enough? Is your church big enough to open up the gates of grace wider for other people?
There are instances where church sanctuaries can hold 300 but only have 20 in the pews each week, you noted. But you also say at one point in your book that the church is not dying. Why do you think that it’s not dying?
I think we need to rethink church and we need to rethink the way that we count membership. I might have, like, 40, 50 people in my church on a Sunday. But there’s 200 people who are engaged in our community in various ways.
For me it’s about who is encountering Jesus and having their life transformed and how a whole community is being transformed by a Jesus who is trying to liberate them from their circumstances, either spiritually, physically, economically, socially. A lot of times, even at 4,000 people inside a building, that doesn’t mean any of that s— is happening.
When billionaire Robert E. Smith decided to pay off the student loans of the graduating class of 2019 at Morehouse College, he suggested that others follow his lead.
“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith declared in his commencement speech.
But is there even enough black private wealth in the United States to pay off all black student loan debt?
As a scholar in social transformation and African American studies, I’m intrigued by this question. It provides an opportunity to examine black wealth, higher education and the possibilities for alleviating debt, which in turn opens the door to new economic opportunities.
That’s a lot of money, and he’s done it before. Before his gift to Morehouse, Smith donated $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater, in part to support African American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.
Other black celebrities have also stepped up to fund education. Powerhouse couple Beyonce and Jay Z gave more than $1 million in scholarships to students who lived in cities they were touring in 2018.
Rapper Nicki Minaj gave 37 “Student of the Game” scholarships. LeBron James, through his foundation, promised to pay for 2,300 students to attend the University of Akron – at an estimated price tag of $100 million. Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $400 million to educational causes.
Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, described how charitable organizations had “a keen sense of the responsibility” to secure economic and educational resources, “lifting as we climb” up the ladder of social mobility. This ethic of giving was also present among the early black economic elite such as Thomy Lafon, Madame C.J. Walker and James Forten.
But how much of it goes to higher education? African Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum report donating 17% to education – both K-12 and post-secondary institutions and scholarship funds. That adds up to about $1.8 billion donated annually.
Among black high net worth households – those with a net worth of more than $1 million (not counting the value of their primary home) or with an annual household income of $200,000 – 49% report giving to higher education. This is significant since across all racial groups, the share of dollars donated by high net worth individuals to higher education was only 4%.
Black student loan debt
Student loan debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2019, making it the second-highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt. Over 44 million borrowers owe roughly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.
Looking at 2016 data, 86.4% of blacks completing a bachelor’s degree had some form of student loan debt, and the average amount borrowed was $34,010. If we multiply the total number of blacks that graduated with some form of debt – roughly 168,000 – by the average amount borrowed per individual, the average cumulative debt for this one graduating class was roughly $5.7 billion. This includes graduates from all colleges – public as well as private – but not community colleges.
Of course, looking at it at the most basic level, the collective wealth among America’s black billionaires – which totals $13.4 billion with the recent addition of Jay-Z – can easily subsidize the debt of a single graduating class.
And while a more sophisticated calculation is undoubtedly warranted, a rough estimate shows that the $5.7 billion in black student debt could be covered by America’s black millionaire households if each one chose to devote $6,500 toward eliminating the overall debt.
Of course, the debt load for black students goes far beyond one graduating class. The majority of blacks in the labor force that hold a bachelor’s degree or higher have some form of student loan debt. This means that the figures for the entire black population with outstanding student loan debt across generations are significantly higher than $5.7 billion.
Robert Smith’s gift to the class of 2019 at Morehouse provoked an interesting discussion about whether black philanthropy can alleviate black student loan debt. However, one-off philanthropic efforts that help a small group of beneficiaries can’t compete with the kind of large-scale change needed to alter the course of an entire community.