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Discussing The Black Church in Colorado and beyond

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DENVER — The Black church has been a topic of great discussion at Rocky Mountain Public Media in recent weeks. The history of the Black church in America goes back 400 years. During the hundreds of years of American slavery, church was often the only way that African Americans could gather, and it quickly became the center of community life. In anticipation of Henry Louis Gates’ special, “The Black Church,” two of our volunteer radio hosts recently interviewed several community leaders to discuss the Black church in Denver and beyond. 

Kyle Speller, affectionately known as “PK,” is host of “Gospel Jams” on THE DROP, and Deborah Walker is the host of “The Gospel Train” on KUVO. Both radio shows air every Sunday morning. PK grew up going to New Hope Baptist Church in Denver and is the Public Address Announcer and team Chaplain for the Denver Nuggets, as well as the Associate Pastor at Emmanuel Christian Center in Montbello. Deborah is an influential leader in the gospel industry, and regularly works behind the scenes with artists, producers, promoters and music label executives to stimulate the development of gospel music and its growing markets.

Jonathan Wynn is the Chaplain for the Detroit Pistons. He’s also very involved with youth (he has 20 grandchildren) and he is a school consultant on school culture and climate. He describes himself as a “worship leader for the community.”  He’s a “son of the civil rights movement” – he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and his father and grandfather were activists and community organizers, and the church was right across the street. He moved to Detroit during high school and church continued to be a key influence in his life. Wynn says “the power of the Black church is still there,” even though attendance has been down in all churches. He says that power can be seen in the church’s role in disseminating information. According to Wynn, the church is how information is shared within communities, and what is beneath the mobilization to social action that is being seen across the country. He feels that COVID-19 has been a “wakeup call” as the church had to go “back to fundamentals” online – which is all about relationships. The pandemic, he adds, has leveled the playing field in that “small churches don’t feel inferior to the megachurches because everyone’s on Zoom now!” 

“The Black Church” premieres February 16 at 8 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS. In a two-part special, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the roots of African American religion beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the extraordinary ways enslaved Africans preserved and adapted faith practices from the brutality of slavery to emancipation.

Dr. Roger Holland II is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Denver, focusing on the intersection of African American Music and Religion. He is also the Director of The Spirituals Project, an educational performing group. Holland also works the Director of Music at Zion Baptist Church, the oldest Black Baptist Church in Denver and the Rocky Mountain Region. He says that “Black church is the oldest institution to survive slavery, perhaps the only Black institution to survive. It’s the bedrock of the Black community and is responsible for many of our institutions: schools, banks... and our first lawyers, doctors, and politicians.” He explains that many artists, musicians and performers got their start in the Black church and that its music influenced secular music. Holland says that those churches that already embraced digital technologies were quick to adapt when COVID hit.

Jordan Simpkins, aka “J River”, is an Associate Minister and the Minister of Music at Emmanuel Christian Center. He is a Christian hip-hop artist and rapper who encourages folks to “choose the good things” in life. He says that he doesn’t “force Jesus down people’s throats” and that the Black church is needed as a place for likeminded people to gather. 

Simpkins added that children especially need positive male and female role models, and that church can provide that positive environment. Simpkins explained that large gospel choirs are rare now and that they require “special care and attention," largely because of the pandemic. In his church, “The Praise Team has taken off—10 members who can sing well and hold a note.”

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