102 Lenny Duncan
“I run into someone in Boulder, and they’re like you want to do some speed? And I was like, “hell, yeah.” And I do some speed, and I just fall off the map…. I didn’t see my daughter for 13 years after that.”
Lenny now lives in Vancouver, Washington where he is doing the crazy thing of starting a new church. His book, Dear Church, a Love Letter From A Black Preacher to The Whitest Denomination in America, is alternately tender and scathing and non-stop truth-filled.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): When I was 24 years old and my guitar player boyfriend who I was irrationally in love with came home from tour to inform me I had been replaced with a girl he met that weekend in Seattle, it was like someone had taken a meat tenderizer to me.
The story I had told myself is that if such a cool, handsome guy wanted to be with me, it must mean that I am lovable, it must mean that I have purpose and a future that I am desirable and worth something. These attributes were conferred to me through the relationship and so when I was replaced, it felt like they were transferred to someone else—or that’s what I told myself.
So, when I cried my 24 year old self to sleep, thinking my worth and lovability and purpose had left with the guitar player, I had no idea that the story was still being written.
I did not know that in the Fall of 2016, when I was 47 years old, that I would be on an airplane bound for Boston with a man I had been dating for 6 weeks, and that he would lean over kiss my cheek and softly ask “Nadia, when did you forgive me?”
And I would answer, “when I realized that so much of my suffering from our break up was a result, not of your actions, but of the story I was telling myself about your actions.”
The guitar player is still handsome but he doesn’t play much anymore—he’s a single dad and a software engineer and a magnificent human. He is as much of a different person now as I am. And we are happily in love again. And even so—who knows how this chapter might end.
All of that is to say, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, and what we deserve, and what the events of our lives mean and then we commit this all to memory and repeat it to ourselves and to others over and over as if it’s fact. We assume there is a period where really, quite often, there is actually a comma.*
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. Today, I talk to someone who ran away at 13, got arrested, hurt everyone they loved, and yet, whose story unfolded in beautiful and surprising ways.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is Lenny Duncan. Lenny is the author of an amazing book called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America. Welcome, Lenny! What brings you into The Confessional today?
Lenny Duncan (LD): So there was a lot of physical abuse in my home and there was a lot of emotional abuse, and my parents were really strung out. I mean, you know, like shooting dope every day, shooting a lot of dope, like a bundle of dope every day. And I’d experienced a lot of violence, a lot of physical violence, a lot of watching my mom be beaten till she can’t walk, you know, and this was like a weekly occurrence.
And so when I was about 13, I just this notion came to me that I’d be better off on my own. And I think it was a God given notion, I don’t think it was, you know, I really think it was God speaking to me.
NBW: That’s amazing. You never hear people say that. People are like, oh, this is a horrible, like misguided, you’re going to destroy yourself thing. So it’s interesting for you to say it that way.
LD: No, It was because. So, you know, and look, at first I had some tough times. You know, I had to be a sex worker at one point to survive, you know, 13 years old.
I also, you know, ran into some kids who said, you know, “you don’t have to do this, hop in our van,” and I ended up on the Grateful Dead tour or in the Phish tour and in the festival scene. And that’s why I like such a love for that.
So when people meet me, I’m always talking about black liberation and black culture and then they see me at like ten Phish shows in a row. They’re like, one of these things is not like the other, right?
NBW: I love that.
LD: And that’s just because that scene embraced me. And when you were 13 years old in the 90s, there were very few safer places to go if you were on your own than the Grateful Dead tour.
NBW: Alright, so you find your home on the road and you have this vagabond experience. But I know you well enough to know that you eventually found your way back to Philadelphia, right?
LD: Yes, I was about 19 years old, and I had just come back. My mom was willing to have me home, and look, she wanted me home from the day I left. What mother doesn’t?
NBW: Oh, my gosh.
LD: And I’m working at a gas station on Haverford Avenue. By the time I was done with it, they called it the grass station.
NBW: Why would that be, Lenny Duncan? [laughs]
LD: So it’s like one of those classic East Coast gas stations where you can’t, you know, like everything comes through a metal drawer. You know what I mean? Late at night, except it’s like that 24/7. And I was like selling 20 bags out of it, you know, pot and hanging out.
And there was a church across the street. And I saw this kinda, I knew they were church girls, but they dressed like hippies and they were cute. And I noticed one of them because like, I don’t know about you, but I just have this instinct, I always know the one, the one who strays from the flock, right? And this one would go smoke cigarettes by herself. And then my friends introduced me to her and we started dating.
NBW: Describe this girl.
LD: She has brown hair, she’s short, and was very introverted. She was the first introverted person I was ever attracted to. And what I didn’t realize is that she had a gentleness to her, and a way of moving about the world that I didn’t have because the way I was raised versus the way she was raised.
NBW: How was she raised?
LD: She was raised in a very loving home. I mean, listen, they fucked up a hundred times, but the intention was always love.
And um you know, we start sleeping together, and I’m into her. But I also don’t have the capacity to love anyone.
NBW: What do you mean by that?
LD: Like, I think what I’m doing is love, but it’s not.
I thought love was sleeping together and making promises I couldn’t keep. But I’m not going to pull it off because the shoe is gonna drop and I’m going to drink myself almost into a coma or I’m going to drug myself into another universe and I’m going to ruin everything that we’ve built together.
NBW: Alright, so you love this girl as best you can.
LD: Yeah. Best I can
NBW: …in the way that you can when you’re 19. And she’s a nice Christian white girl from the suburbs. And then what happened?
LD: She gets pregnant and she’s in the kind of household where there’s not even a discussion on whether or not we’re keeping the child.
LD: And I just do what I always do at that point.
I wanted to be a father in the way that my father never could, maybe part of it was I was afraid that the same abusive patterns I would repeat. You know, that I knew I was 70% likely to be like my father… so there was that fear.
But I just didn’t show up, you know, I just, I made promises my ass couldn’t cash. And by this point, I’m getting the idea that I’m that kind of person. I get arrested for selling LSD at the folk festival, you know, because I was gonna get money to put up, right, to help with this kid.
And so how I found out that I had a girl, I was on the top bunk of my jail cell and in Montgomery County, and they slid a letter under the door like 3:00 in the morning, which was really unusual. Usually like mail call was earlier. I jumped down to see what it is and you know, it’s for me and I never get mail.
I always wonder where my mom’s head was at these moments, right, because she couldn’t even afford to send me money while I was in jail so I could eat, yet she took like three hours to write a letter and which was hard for her… and make a card? So she drew like all these stars and ribbons like, she like definitely genders it, “It’s a girl!” you know, bright pink.
But she’s trying to share her joy that she has a grandchild, as she’s writing to her son who’s in jail, about a kid that the mother says he’s not allowed to see. So, how do you find joy in those moments?
So what I remember is how the handwriting was like in this perfect cursive, and how when I opened the letter there were sparkles on it, and the way it glinted off the low light they always keep you in jail—the lights are never always out. And looking at the really floralish, “it’s a girl” that takes up half the page, and her name is Jenna. Because I didn’t get to name my daughter.
NBW: Oh man.
LD: Right? And like the promises that you make to God in those moments.
NBW: So, okay, you’re in that moment and like you’re looking at this cheery as fuck card, and the name you didn’t get to choose, and all the sparkles off the low light in the jail.
What were you thinking?
LD: I was thinking that I had completely become everything I promised I wouldn’t be when I left home at 13. That, all the things that I left home to avoid, all the patterns I was trying to break, I had become those—in a very real way. And it didn’t matter that I wasn’t physically abusive or emotionally abusive, I was still abusive. I still wasn’t showing up, I was still, you know,
NBW: Hurting people you love.
LD: Hurting people I love.
You know, and that’s a form of abuse, I think. Not being present for people who really need this is a form of spiritual and emotional abuse. So I was still, you know, in that moment thinking about how I completely failed everything I wanted to do in life.
I got out of jail and I tried to get my shit together, I moved back in with my parents. I get a little job. You know, I think I got a job at a trash company.
Me and Bree sort of reconcile and she ends up moving in with me in this little apartment.
NBW: With your parents?
LD: With my parents.
So now I’ve got this 17 year old girl from the suburbs in my neighborhood living in the same apartment that my parents could never get out of, stealing diapers and formula.
I mean, it’s bad, Nadia. It’s bad.
So we start talking about like, what can we do that’s different? And so I decided I’m going to go to Denver because I’ve had good times in Denver and in Boulder in particular. And I want to move back to Colorado and I’m going to take them with me.
LD: But, like at my core, I knew that this was a way out and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And the scariest thing, the scariest thing for me at the time, is that I was starting to be okay with not being able to pull anything off in my life.
NBW: That’s a dangerous point, Lenny.
LD: I know.
LD: I was okay with it. I was okay. Like, knowing that I would fail, knowing that I wouldn’t show up. Those are secret moments, right? Those are moments you have right before your head hits the pillow.
NBW: Totally, my sort of thing around that was, I became genuinely okay with the idea that I wouldn’t live to 30. Like it didn’t, it didn’t bother me, it wasn’t something I was fighting. I was like, no, there’s nothing I can do about that, and I was okay with that. You know?
LD: Yeah. I um, I was surprised to be alive at 19. And I’m surprised to be in the situation I was in.
NBW: But at the same time, you had a big plan, right? You were going to go to Boulder and set up a new life, Bree and Jenna would follow at some point. That was the plan, but what actually happened?
LD: I go to Eleventh and Filbert, which is where the Greyhound station is, and I get on the bus and I’m sitting in the back row where I always sit. You know, where you get that nice smell of like, you know, freshly cleaned greyhound toilet, which smells like freedom to me at that age, right? It just does, because it means I’m getting out of whatever current jackpot I put myself in. Then I head out here, I work with my friend Jim for a while, I live in his place. I’m communicating with Bree. I’m trying.
And you know, someone just walks up to me one day while I’m hanging out in Boulder, and they’re like “you want to do some speed?” And I was like, “hell, yeah.” And I do some speed and I just fall off the map. And, um, I didn’t see my daughter for 13 years after that.
NBW: So, Lenny, when you left Bree and baby Jenna in Philadelphia and you went to Colorado, and you didn’t see your daughter for 13 years, what was transpiring in your life over that period of time?
LD: What would happen from 19 to almost 30 years old would be a descent into some of the darkest and ugliest places of alcoholism and addiction and the prison industrial complex.
And so, I have this act of providence happen in my life where a voice deep down inside me tells me I’m getting sober today. And I that was like, what? And I did.
I’m in a 12 step program. And, you know, the funny thing about the 12 steps is, uh, when you get to step nine, which is making amends wherever possible–not whenever, because whenever is never. Wherever. You know, the funny thing about that is, that no matter how many times you go through the steps, that daughter you’ve never met really is there.
LD: And finally, my second or third year sober, I had a sponsor who said, you know, we get to that point and, you know, my sponsor said, you need to write down all the ways that you’ve harmed everyone that you’ve ever harmed and keep them on index cards in your wallet, [laughs] you know to carry them around with you. And Bree’s was the one I had to use two index cards, both sides really small writing, all the ways that I had harmed her.
You know, like I said things to her like, hey, I probably made it hard for you to love anyone else because I stole your idea of trust. I was your first real love and I got you pregnant and I just left.
And so at the end of those, if you get a good sponsor I think, they’ll have you ask a question at the end: “Is there any way I’ve harmed you that I’m unaware of?” Right. Which is usually where the magic happens. A family member’s like, “in 1974 Thanksgiving dinner, you…” You know, you’re like, holy shit! You had no idea you did that to them. But Bree’s the only person who said to me ever, “I think you covered it.”
And I said, “well, what should I do? How can I make this right?” She says, “call me once a month so I know you’re not dead,” and hangs up.
And I did it. And then we start talking once a week. And then we became really good friends over the course of about six months to a year, me and Bree.
And then finally, she says, do you want to meet your daughter? You know, and I met this incredible 13 and a half old girl. All this spit, fire, and spunk and, all the things, right. And we’re so alike and we’ve never met. That’s the incredible thing. We were so alike. I mean, she’s 21 now and she would say, I’m nothing like you.
NBW: Of course, she’s contractually obligated as a 21-year-old to say that.
LD: Right, they will put her out the club if she…
LD: We’re hanging out and in the course of that, Bree falls in love with me as I’m being a father to Jenna. And at first, I was very resistant to it, because it was the first time I had ever showed up in my life with a pure motive. I just wanted to be Jenna’s father and knew that I was behind the 8 ball and will probably just end up being her friend, and was okay with that. Yeah, you know what I mean? Like I was okay with, you know what if this kid just calls me friend.
So it was the first time I’d ever done that and I was afraid of messing with the, I don’t know, the divine pH balance, only being like, oh, I don’t want to add too much. But of course, you know, I want to be with this woman, right, who is now a woman. And I’m learning what it means to be a man in a world where there are no good examples of masculinity. So I’m trying to figure that out, right? And we start dating, and, uh we fall in love. We got married on April Fool’s Day.
NBW: And how old is Jenna at that point?
LD: Jenna is sixteen.
NBW: Was she at the wedding?
NBW: What did she do?
LD: She stood with her mom.
NBW: Wow, that is just an unbelievable story. That is just… it is incredible. It is incredible.
NBW: I was just watching The Newsroom, that Aaron Sorkin HBO series,
LD: Yeah, I love that show.
NBW: One of the characters said, asked somebody else, “do you believe in God?” and he said, “yeah.” She goes, “I do too.” And she goes, “I think that, we know we’ve violated a law of God when we can’t put it back together.”
NBW: Like when you cannot, there is no possible way to fix it. And so whenever I see examples of you would think you can’t put it back together, and yet there is restoration. And it’s not to the original pure state before it was broken, obviously, but like, it’s [laughs] and look, I’m a reluctant hopeful person, like I’m reluctant to be hopeful. But I still am, like my cynicism does not yet outweigh my hopefulness, they’re in a pretty tight race, but sometimes when I hear stories of restoration, like some kind of reconciliation, I just, I fucking live for that. Like, I’m desperate for it because everything I see in the world cannot be an occasion for despair.
LD: Yeah. And it’s a messy restoration, right? Like I don’t want people to hear, I don’t want people to hear the story.
NBW: Oh it’s perfect!
LD: Yeah. No, it’s messy… Do me and Bree have tough days where we feel like sometimes we’re living into this thing that everyone loves about this story, and she just wants me to stop pissing next to the toilet? And I just want her to, like, not be as fearful about certain things, which is her thing…
NBW: Well, in other words, you’re married?
NBW: OK. So like fair enough, right?
LD: Do you know what I mean?
NBW: But also, look, restoration is not the same as saying I have now undone the harm. You didn’t undo shit. None of those moments where you really should have been present in that child’s life are now sort of undone by the fact that you eventually were.
LD: No, can I tell you when I knew Jenna trusted me?
LD: We were a year and a half into living as a family. And uh, she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to be doing. I called her out on it, and man, she let me fucking have it. She said: “You ruined my fucking life. You destroyed everything. I’ve never had a family, I’ve never felt loved, I’ve never felt like I had any worth. You stole everything from me.” And she screamed it, Nadia, three inches from my face. And I walked outside and I got on the phone with my friend and we weeped tears of joy because we knew she trusted me enough to let me have it, which means she knew I wasn’t leaving.
LD: Do you know what I mean? Because up until that point, “I don’t want to say the thing that makes him leave or makes things harder for him and mom.” Up until that point. It was a lot of that stuff. But in that moment, she fucking took me to task, and it was the first time I felt like a father. So she thinks I’m outside crying because I’m sad, and I’m like so happy that she trusts me.
NBW: Totally, oh my gosh.
LD: And she, to this day, will take occasion to let me have it.
LD: And know that I’m in it with her.
NBW: You’re not going somewhere.
LD: Yeah, I’m in it with her.
NBW: So Lenny, um. I don’t even know what to say other than I’m so glad you’re willing to tell the whole story, you know, and to be honest about the super shitty parts, but also to be honest about the oddly hopeful parts.
Thank you so much.
NBW: A blessing For Lenny:
Lenny, I wish I could write cheery as fuck cards and slip them under your door.
Little handwritten, glitter-laden blessings you can open up while you’re in a room of your own that has a light switch. So that every time you felt like shit you could open one up and be reminded that your greatest fear did not come true.
Cards that say things like: “Congratulations, Lenny, you didn’t turn into your father.”
It would be creepy were I to stand outside your door and do this, so instead, I have sent you a small gift to keep on your desk. It is a small, lighted Greyhound Bus Station sign meant for a model train set. I couldn’t find an air freshener with the freshly cleaned bus toilet scent, so the sign will have to do.
May it remind you of true freedom, and in the words of the Grateful Dead, that, Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
And again, congratulations, friend.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional, I speak with someone about the crime that landed him in San Quentin for 17 years.
Chris Schuhmacher: And it just, it just put this destructive force in the world that you know, I just wish that, uh, that I just wish that I wasn’t that person that this, that caused this.
NBW: In the meantime, enjoy this message a fellow listener left for us on my confessional hotline, for a community segment I call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Patrick: Hey Nadia, this is Patrick from St. Anselmo, CA. So I spent the summer in Haiti when I was in college and got used to the food down there, then came home, flew into the Atlanta airport, got some Zaxby’s right before they were closing. I was staying with some relatives my first night back before my parents could come pick me up. After getting used to 10 weeks of Haitian food, I was not prepared for the extent of what some Zaxby’s fried chicken, french fries and sweet tea would do to my stomach. And was sleeping in my cousin’s bed, and woke up thinking I needed to pass gas… it was not gas, it was diarrhea. And, woke up the next morning and had shit the bed, and I blamed my cousin’s dog on it, that my cousin’s dog had crapped the bed, and not me. And my cousin believed me! That’s my confession for tonight.
Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message about an embarrassing moment, and I might play it on the show.
The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media, with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our theme music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.
* This comes from a powerful line I’ve heard often from Black preachers, “Never put period where God has placed a comma,” but I could not find the original attribution.