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.
Deborah Walker and Kyle "PK" Speller
Deborah Walker talks with Kyle "PK" Speller about Black Church.
“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.
Deborah Walker discusses Black Church with Dr. Holland II
Deborah Walker discusses Black Church with Dr. Holland II
Dr. Michael Anthony Williams, a Senior Pastor at Christian Fellowship Church, says that the Black church has affected his life “100%! And I’m still in the church 51 years later.” Williams grew up in Park Hill, and says that church recognized his gifts at an early age. At nine years old he began playing piano for the youth choir and by 16 he was recording songs for King Baptist Church. By 21, he was the Minister of Music. He credits the church for keeping him “off the streets” and offering valuable ways for him to spend his time. He says that music and choir in church is both a “necessity and a luxury.” He says that the Black church has always been a pillar in the community and still is today.
Deborah Walker discusses Black Church with Dr. Williams
Deborah Walker (KUVO's The Gospel Train) talks with Dr. Michael Anthony Williams.
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.”
PK talks with JRiver
PK talks with Jordan Simpkins, aka JRiver, about Black Church.
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!”
Alvin Simpkins, the Pastor at Emmanuel Christian Center, was raised by his grandmother in the church. He credits the church for saving his life. Over the past few decades he’s seen “church attendance fall, and that’s left a void of support for some families, leaving children to fall prey to gangs, drugs, and negative lifestyles.” But, he agrees that the power of the church is still there – especially politically. He says that he constantly gets calls from political candidates looking for votes, and that Black churches are powerful in that way. He says that “church is essential” and that it has provided basic needs to many during the pandemic. Simpkins hopes to see “everyone come back to the church.”
In discussing “youth today,” Dr. Williams says that, “they’re 100% real and 0% hypocritical. They don’t play church. They’re in it for real.”
Dr. Holland II says it would be “a misnomer to say that the youth, en masse, have left the church.” He thinks that churches that embrace “where we are in modern times” are more successful engaging young people, and references Kirk Franklin, a contemporary, hip-hop, and gospel artist. J River shared that pre-COVID, Emmanuel Christian Center hosted Hip Hop Services on Friday nights and they attracted and engaged a young audience. He says that the pandemic has been especially challenging for young people, but he enthusiastically believes that “we were born for such a time as this.”
"The Black Church" broadcast schedule on Rocky Mountain PBS: