In this episode of Wine, Women, and Revolution, Heather interviews Rev. Blake Spencer about the concept of a “purple church”. Rev. Blake explains that comfort and fear have created an environment that allows racism to foster in white churches. He explains the steps he is taking to lead his church forward on the interplay of racism and morality, and the history that leads him to this discussion. Finally, he talks about what the future can look like once you move past purple.
Blake Spencer 0:00
Intro Leadership is inviting, encouraging and nudging and pushing us to come to terms with the racism that has existed within our own institution.
Heather Warburton 0:18
This is Wine, Women and Revolution with your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio.
Hi, and welcome to Wine Women and Revolution. I’m your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. You can find us online at www.njrevolutionradio.com Follow us on all the social medias and get us wherever you get your podcasts from. Today I have someone rejoining me back for an interview today. I spoke to pastor Blake Spencer, it’s probably been almost a year now since last I talked to you. And we spoke a little bit about transgender rights and the evolution of the church as far as people, transgender LGBT people. So I want to welcome you back to the show. Good to have you back here.
Blake Spencer 1:10
I just want to make the point that your show is wine, where is the wine
Its too early for wine, I guess.
Heather Warburton 1:23
Come to my studio for wine. I actually sitting in his office in the church and havent burst into flames. Laughter
What we’re talking about today, was you posted on your Facebook page. A few weeks ago, I wanted to read your exact posts that started this whole thought process. “The church can no longer ignore racism, the Black Lives Matter kind, Purple Church is an excuse that allows racism.”
Blake Spencer 1:53
I did write that didn’t I?
Heather Warburton 1:54
Yes. And so obviously, obviously not being a religious person. My first question is, what is a purple church?
Blake Spencer 2:02
Purple church. Well, predominantly white. Of course, all of this is, from my perspective, my experience, my opinion. And I’ve been doing it for 31 years. So I have a pretty good perspective. Purple church is, I think, a phenomenon in predominantly white congregations. And we’ll say, oh, we’re a diverse church. And the way we describe our diversity is through our political convictions. Which are mainly Republican and Democrat, which in our country, we’ve attached colors to our, to our politics, with don’t have many green, I guess we do have some green, but we’ve not factored that in so don’t know what that would make us mainly with the purple, and red and blue. And so Democrats and Republicans and so those two colors like purple, and that’s just become kind of this catchphrase.
Heather Warburton 3:22
Was the goal to try to be apolitical?
Blake Spencer 3:27
Heather Warburton 3:28
Was that the stated purpose,
Blake Spencer 3:31
For a lot of reasons, yeah. I mean, that’s basically to basically say, “Be quiet.”
Heather Warburton 3:42
Blake Spencer 3:42
Be very quiet about your political convictions within the church. So it immediately gets attached to the idea of separation of church and state, right.
But it, it’s not reality to say that the church and people in church can be completely disengaged with politics, that’s just not reality. Nor does it have to do with this person called Jesus that we apparently, follow. He was not apolitical.
So and he was, he responded and commented and acted, in many ways, in response to the political situation within religious communities and within the villages and the communities that he worked in. So the church has always had space to offer commentary to work against particular topics that we define as injust. And so that it’s not fair to say that you can’t say anything political.
Heather Warburton 5:13
And I think especially when we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about people acknowledging people’s humanity and right to exist unmolested by a system. I mean, that’s where racism is, now people’s very existence is being called into question and their rights to not be murdered by people. So there’s some morality discussion there to be had, that shouldn’t necessarily be a political discussion. That’s a morality discussion.
Blake Spencer 5:41
Exactly. So a lot of the social topics that have politics connected to them, also have moral, ethical issues, which the church has a lot of room and people of faith, have a calling to care about and to speak about. So I wrote about racism. I was at a national gathering of our denomination. And that was the topic of the day, the Presbyterian Church, USA leadership, and the movement is pretty much inviting, encouraging, and nudging and pushing us to come to terms with the racism that has existed within our own institution. And is the reason why we’ve been a predominantly white denomination for 300 years, you know. And coming to terms with the racism, but it’s not the only topic. So any of the social topics that fit in this category, the racism, sexism, and homophobia, and those are the three that have just rocked, rocked the church to its foundation. We fought each other, we’ve split apart from each other. And this is it’s fed into that purple church phenomenon of just “you need to be quiet”. So purple church would be a gathering of people who were never half and half.
There are some churches that are fortunate to be one color, you know, where you are I would say fortunate, and I’ll explain that later. I’ve served a lot of churches that were purple. And the main message to me as a leader is Be quiet, do not make us uncomfortable, do not speak that from the pulpit or in the halls of this church or and what we always say is, we will be fired. So purple Church has created this kind of intimidating environment that has just virtually made us silent. Pastors are afraid to speak to lose their jobs. And congregants are afraid to speak, just to lose their place in church or their comfort in church. So it’s all been about comfort and be quiet. So for how many years have we gone through this? Through all these years and been fairly silent? We have been abundantly silent on racism.
Heather Warburton 8:54
Yes, there’s been a deafening silence about addressing
Blake Spencer 8:57
Heather Warburton 8:59
In predominantly white churches.
Blake Spencer 9:01
Heather Warburton 9:02
You know, black churches deal with subjects of racism, because they have to. There is no, you know, one’s comfortable there, you know, like the realities of that are hitting them every day. And it’s sort of intentional blind eye, I felt like it has been. So now you’re saying there’s a little bit of opening there.
Blake Spencer 9:21
Well, there’s an opening
Heather Warburton 9:22
A small opening
Blake Spencer 9:24
Our denomination has elected. So we don’t have a pope and we don’t have bishops. But we do have people that serve at the higher levels of our denomination. And we have, in the last five or so years, elected African American leaders in our congregation or our Clerk of our denomination. He’s the one that speaks officially. He’s the one that will send letters to the president or whoever else saying that we are against those camps down on the southern border. We are against, you know, and he writes that so it’s become a topic that we are talking about. And then in pockets of church, it’s still purple church will still kill that conversation pretty quick.
Heather Warburton 10:26
Now, I recall, I don’t remember the exact term. I think before when I was interviewing you said that there is a group that was designed to sort of push the conversation about LGBTQ issues within the church. Do they also, is that group also tasked with pushing the conversation about racial issues or
Blake Spencer 10:43
Racial issues. That’s more like Presbyterians. And we also have another group that’s Covenant Network of Presbyterians. But more like Presbyterians is the one that is an LGBTQI organization serving LGBTQIA folks in the church. And they have been very, very articulate about that racism is part of the LGBTQIA community as well.
Heather Warburton 11:14
Right there are people of color who are LGBT, you cant split your identity.
Blake Spencer 11:19
No. In that aspect, I went just recently went to a national gathering in Baltimore. And so the hot topic or the big topic of the of the moment was racism. And so we’re sitting in a in a assembly hall, smaller group than had been in the past, but pretty much those of us who have gone are kind of they’re preaching to the choir. You know what I mean? We have gone and gone “yeah, we’re, we’re going to embrace this topic of racism”. We understand as white people, the white people that are there, we understand that that has been an issue in the church and we’re willing and ready to begin doing what we need to do. And, but also in that grouping, are Korean Presbyterians, Latino Presbyterians, Black Presbyterians, and our preachers and speakers of that event, were Latino and black. And so I was sitting there going, Yeah, I get I’m, I’m telling my children, I have a black son with, with children. And so I’m a biracial family. And but I’m always still a white man. You know, I never get out of that reality. But I was sitting in the conference and going, Okay, we’re hitting heavy, the racism thing. And However, I’m sitting here with Korean Presbyterians, who are not very receptive to their problems, the sexism and homophobia is pretty rampant in in Latino and Korean communities and homophobia is pretty prevalent in black communities. And I was sitting around, “can we talk about all of the marginalized realities”? Can we do that all at once is that
Heather Warburton 13:26
You were asking people to be intersectional?
Blake Spencer 13:27
Aren’t we evolved enough to talk about all of these things. So I reached out to the African American preacher, she’s from the Atlanta area. After the conference, I’ve texted her or emailed her and we had a conversation on the phone. And in that conversation, I found out that she was also a lesbian. I said, What? I didn’t know that. I mean, why was that not part of this whole thing? Because each of our communities, ethnic communities, we all need to deal with these topics of marginalization. And she spoke and said, Well, I went to speak about racism, not about the LGBTQ reality. And in fact, Blake, as a black woman, on the scale of one to 10 being gay is a 2, being black is a 10. Okay, so as a white LGBTQIA member, you know, a gay man, for me being homosexual, the marginalization the effect is a 10.
Heather Warburton 14:40
Right, from your perspective.
Blake Spencer 14:41
And my being a parent of black children, I’ve encountered racism in a way that I never did as a white man on my own. But what I’ve encountered barely gets to a one. And let me tell you what, that one, that that almost one racism shook me to the core, I can’t imagine what it is to be a 10. So I got what she was saying to me.
And I understand that I get to serve in a community that’s not purple. We’re pretty predominantly progressively liberal. And we’re becoming multi ethnic, and multi racial, as well. And I have a responsibility, I also have kind of a responsibility and a.. What?.. a privilege and a gift to be able to speak. And I only speak here in this little building. I get to speak when other pastors are too afraid to speak, and so my words to go beyond the these walls on Facebook and SoundCloud. And so I thought, well, it’s when I finished talking with the black pastor in Atlanta, I went well, my job is to speak to the predominantly white congregation that I serve. And it is time for us to be uncomfortable about racism, and about how we have allowed it with our silence.
Heather Warburton 16:36
So how are those conversations? You’re you said, you were writing a publication that you’re intending to publish?
Blake Spencer 16:42
Yeah, um, that post I wrote about purple church. Wheeew.
Heather Warburton 16:49
I am guessing it sparked some controversy.
Blake Spencer 16:51
I got some responses from some friends of mine who are pastors who are in purple churches realities, and they took it as a, you know, kind of a punch in their stomach from me. And because I call it an excuse, that we often will call purple church. And that becomes our excuse that we don’t have to, we can’t, we can’t say anything. But it’s pretty, that becomes our own comfort zones. And it becomes an excuse to not ever push the issue. So sometimes we go, Oh, I serve a purple church, oh, that becomes an excuse. It also becomes a way that we can continue to live in our own comfort zone.
I didn’t become a non purple pastor, overnight. So as I looked at it, I realized that it took it took steps, it took risk, I took risks at steps along the way. And as I continued to take another risk, and another risk and another risk have landed in this place, and I helped create a place that allows us to speak more freely about it. So we’re writing, colleague of mine, an elder and I, are writing this article on purple church. And our hope is to say to others who are in shut down silent purple realities that it does take a risk. But you don’t do it all at once you take a step and you keep taking this step. And we really need to do that. That’s part of our calling. So you we started earlier, we had a few words before you pushed the record button, and one of it was about silence. And we have an incredible history. That comes the Reformed Church, we are Presbyterians, but we’re reformed in our theology. So we broke away from the Catholic Church, part of the first wave of reformation. So we call ourselves a Reformed Church. The Reformed Church had a presence was alive in Germany during the time of the Nazi era. And there comes a moment when Hitler and the Nazi regime says, hey, there’s there’s not going to be a separation between church and state, the state’s going to be the head of the church. And then that created a political person. That was the political guy in charge of all the churches, and a lot of the churches in Germany said Okay. All right. We’ll do that.
But there was a group that said, Oh, hell no. And I’m sure they said hell in German. One of those people was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other reformed pastors gathered in the city of Barman, I don’t remember what year and wrote down a statement that said, we will not we will not be part of this church run, state run church, and we will oppose it, we will reject it, we will not follow along. And that’s part of our book of confessions. That’s part of who we are. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one who wrote that if you remain silent, you are now part of the action, you are now part of the injustice, you are now part of the Nazi story. Okay, so then we jump all the way now. And my word we’re looking out into our country into our current political situation and going, there’s a lot that’s looking and sounding a lot like what happened in Germany in the Nazi era. And many churches, many pastors, purple or not, have no problem talking about the immigration issues and the way children are being treated. So the church, purple churches were even talking about that. When you get to the racism thing. And we start to shut down, and many congregations shut down in silence about the homosexual thing as well.
Heather Warburton 21:59
I had heard about great, I can’t remember where I heard it, but it was, you know, what history calls people who joined the Nazi party because of economic reasons, or because of popular ism? And what history calls those people is Nazis? That it doesn’t matter why you joined party, right? Why you went along with it, you’re still a part of the Nazi Party. So, you know, you’re seeing very similar things happening again, you know, what will history say about people who remain silent? While these atrocities are happening?
Blake Spencer 22:32
Exactly. Silence is not an option. And we’ve allowed it to be an option for many, many years. In our predominantly white, a lot of suburban, you know, just be comfortable. And, and so as we were riding with asked, so what are we doing? What is this purple church? What are we really doing? Because the threat is Don’t make me uncomfortable, don’t make me mad, or I will leave this church because you need me. You know, I gotta have an attendance. You love to write down, how many are attending. And you love even more about my money that I give you to use for your pastor salary and for the mission that we do and the work that we do. So you really need me, but don’t make me mad, or I’m leaving. And doesn’t that sound a lot like, what’s happening in Washington with lobbyists. You need you, you vote that way. But I’m not going to give you my money. And I’m going what, what are we doing? We have a lot to say about lobbyists. And that whole thing and why our politicians aren’t, and then it comes trickles down into the church. And we’re doing the same kind of dance.
Heather Warburton 23:56
Yeah, and I think there are some conversations about white fragility to be had there as well, that you know, you very often hear, if you’re trying to do any sort of anti racist work, people will say, well make sure you don’t, you know, make sure you keep a nice tone. And don’t make it too challenging or your allies will leave. Well, then you were never an ally to begin with.
Blake Spencer 24:17
That’s purple!!! You’re being purple.
Heather Warburton 24:23
You know, and it’s a knee jerk white fragility sort of thing. Like, there’s actually white fragility bingo cards, so you can stamp off these same reactions that you hear whenever someone really starts pushing those issues. So I imagine inside of a church, you still have those same white fragility issues?
Blake Spencer 24:42
Absolutely. I think we’re addicted to comfort. Comfort over anything else. And for a lot of reasons, we helped create that in the church. And it hadn’t worked for us. You know, a lot of comfortable churches are dying. And so that’s, you know, here in this church that I serve, we have pushed, and along the way, people have gotten angry, a few have left. Most people that got mad and left. That happened a long time ago. So we only had a few that left for various reasons. But we have, we have been uncomfortable.
And our our discomfort has created a healthier environment. What a surprise, you know, so that’s what’s on the other side of taking a risk is discovering the vitality that comes because all of a sudden, you start engaging with people in a very genuine way. So all of a sudden, people who we talked about this last time, people who have felt like they could never be part of the church again. But though the people I’m talking about have a yearning to be part of the church, but never believe that they could be part of the church or part of a faith community. When churches like the one I’m serving, became uncomfortable enough, we became a safe place for them. Because we met them in a very genuine way. They knew we’ve done the work. So we’ve done the work, we’ve done more of the work on the LGBTQIA front, less of the work on the racism front, the racist part of it. But we’re beginning to speak that. And I mean, I’ve been getting to do that. And I kind of bury the topic, I’ve been pretty like, in your face, and then I come back. And I do a little softer one. But even the softer one does not let go of the fact that what we were taught, as white Americans in this country are just wretchedly wrong. And I live in a historic black community, Whitesborough. And when I started driving around the state or driving around the area, people said, don’t drive through there. That is a dangerous neighborhood, don’t drive through there. And if you do go on 9, and go really fast, you know, so you can get out of there. Well, now I live right in the middle of it. And I would tell you that there was fear.
I’m married to a man and so two white gay men in, live right in the middle of this community. I was a little nervous. I was nervous about how people would respond to our sexual, you know, our sexual orientation. And I was nervous about the white, black, you know, dynamic. And I talked about this last Sunday, there was apprehension on both sides of the fence. Those who live there and us moving there. And I don’t, as I said to people on Sunday, I don’t tell this story, because I’m better than anyone else. I’m not, I was raised in the same racist reality that all of us have been born into. But I tell you, because of what I’ve learned, I’ve lived there long enough to know the rhythm of the life in that neighborhood. I’ve long lived there long enough to have engaged with my neighbors, who were mainly all black and Latino. And there’s really no fear.
Heather Warburton 29:07
Blake Spencer 29:08
There I went, what was I afraid of, you know, we’ve been planting flowers in, and we sit on our porch and people that white America taught me to be afraid of is walking across, you know, that person’s walking across the front of my yard and I and I’m doing, huh, you know, doing the white afraid, bite my lip and going, I wonder? And and then he stops and goes, I really like these flowers. Thank you for planting them. And I went what in the heck, what am I fearing? What? What? Do you see how stupid racism is.
Right. But it’s so culturally indoctrinated. To white people that every time you see a person of color on in popular media and TV and movies, they’re portrayed a certain way. So it’s just that, you know, it’s programmed into you from such an early age. And I think this is a conversation that I try to have with people. Because I’d like to do the calling in instead of calling out you know, of, Okay, you got to this point, you’re product of the culture that you are, now you’re aware of that, what are you going to do with that? Now?
That’s where I am, I acknowledge, it’s taken me years and years and years, it’s taken me being a father of biracial children and grandchildren. And it’s taken me coming out of the closet and dealing with my own marginalized realities. And what am I going to do? Well that’s what I’m doing right now. And I told my mother, that I was speaking to you. Like you say, I come into the church, and it’s not burning up. Your art was in the church, and it didn’t blow up. And she didn’t know it didn’t matter who you were, she heard that her son would be talking on a an internet radio show. Be careful. And I said Mom, I’m going to be careful. No, just be careful. And so I was taking it one way. But she says you just don’t know about who hears it and your own safety. So in the neighborhood, and I said mom, I got this. But I also don’t got this, I can’t live allowing that fear of what people might do to me. That’s the fear that kept me silent. It didn’t work. It’s just not worth it, and I can’t do it.
So the fear in the neighborhood where I live now isn’t the fear of my neighbors anymore. It’s the people who drive through it. I live on highway 9. And they they flow through there to go to the shore. And recreational vehicles and Mercedes Benz and whole communities of motorcycles go through our neighborhood every day. And those big trucks with big wheels jacked up with flags on the back of their bed, and mufflers really loud. And they drive through. Their mufflers are a message, they are a message, and the message is left long after they drive through, we still hear them. And it’s a message of threat. And it’s not only the mufflers, it’s what they yell and what they say. Because we’re at a stoplight so that we can hear. And we have a gay flag that flies and, and they know they’re in a black neighborhood because our white mentality has taught us to know where we are just by looking out the window. And they they yell things. And they hope that we remember those words. And I say we as a gay man. And I say we as a multi ethnic, mainly black, Latino neighborhood. And they’re the ones that create the threat. They’re the ones that created threat going across the front of our church, because we have a rainbow board out front and and it shuts people down. So even in our not purple church. People are afraid no matter what political color you are. Fear wants people to be silent.
Heather Warburton 33:58
Yeah, and I’m thinking there’s the Unitarian Church, out by Stockton that proudly puts out a Black Lives Matter flag or sign. Yeah. And that sign has been vandalized to the point where they have like a stack of signs in the back, that when one gets they just know it’s going to be vandalized and like Okay, time to put up the new sign.
Blake Spencer 34:16
And I know that community and their their pride flag has been the target lately. And I know that community well. And it’s creating fear in that community. And in that very not purple church reality, the fear still is part of that. Fear just doesn’t have a color. That’s another thing that Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, whatever the fear is, whether it’s denial, or whatever it is, it wants to remain silent within you. And if it remain silent, it continues have power over you. But the minute you start speaking it out loud, the pain, the fear, no longer has power over you. And that’s what it means to come out. That’s what it means to address racism. We’ve allowed that fear, to have power over us. And the thing is, when you start speaking, and getting to the other side of the risk of speaking, you discover, you discover a pretty good life.
Heather Warburton 35:34
And those are the times where I wish people could see the body language. When you’re talking about that fear, like what you’re doing with your hands is actually saying fear keeps you small.
Blake Spencer 35:45
Heather Warburton 35:46
Like he’s putting his hands together and making like a little knot with them. And he’s like, and then once you get past that, and like his arms get really big. You’re like the body language is clearly saying, fear keeps you small and your life, it’s so much bigger when you get past it. It’s kind of what the body language is saying, which is another interesting commentary that you didn’t even maybe know you were making.
Blake Spencer 36:09
Well, I do I know. Yeah, I think fear. I mean, fear is just a lie. It’s a lie. And we have, we’ve allowed a lie to exist in our life. And, you know, as much as I detest the current politics, and the current presidency, what I’ve discovered from it is, and I said this not long ago. It’s one of the few times in my life, maybe the only time in my life that I have seen non marginalized people, mainly white folks. And then the cream of the top white men, non marginalized people waking up every day. So I, I’m serving people who really work to look outside their privilege. So they are in that mode. But they wake up every day. And they’re bombarded with the next moment of fear that’s being tweeted or spoken. And it’s beginning to wear them down. They’re there for the first time in their life. They are experiencing what it is like to wake up every day in a marginal situation.
And so they’re not even on the one.
Heather Warburton 37:42
Right, they’re like point 001.
Blake Spencer 37:45
And they’re right for the first time in their life. And they don’t like it, and they’re afraid, and they’re distraught. And I said, Well, that’s what every black person has experienced in our country, and every gay person that is experienced, women, you know, the whole list of all the isms. So welcome. But here’s the deal. It’s not the end, it’s not the end. And so don’t let the fear shut you down. And that’s what I was telling them. A lot of gay folks here and some of our racial ethnic folk here, we have a gift for you. We can show you that you can live past the fear.
Heather Warburton 38:36
I think that’s a great place to end it is that, you know, not letting the fear control you that, okay, you’ve got the fear. Now, you’ve got a great opportunity to move now. It will make you grow,
Blake Spencer 38:48
That was your questions. Whats that gonna make you do.
Heather Warburton 38:49
Blake Spencer 38:50
It’s not to blame. But it’s what are you gonna do?
Heather Warburton 38:53
Yeah, because that fear can also he can shut you down, or it can wake you up.
Blake Spencer 38:57
Its an opportunity to do something.
Heather Warburton 38:59
Yeah. So I think that’s a great place, leaving people. You know, if you’re listening to this, now you have an opportunity.
Blake Spencer 39:02
Its your turn
Heather Warburton 39:07
And if you are a person, a religious person, or a church person, you know, you’ve got this opportunity. You know, Pastor Blake says, You’ve got this opportunity.
Blake Spencer 39:17
Heather Warburton 39:19
And listen to Pastor Blake. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. To my listeners, thank you so much for joining us, we appreciate you more than you could know, we would not be here if it were not for you. We’re here to be a voice for the activist community for the change makers, for people that are making a difference. And that’s why we don’t take any corporate money here on New Jersey revolution radio, we only take donations from the working class from the activists, from people that support making a change in the world. And that’s why we always have to keep asking you if at all possible, go on to our website, www.njrevolutionradio.com, click on that Donate button. Even if it’s only a couple of bucks a month that really helps you know, Brian and I not having to pay for everything out of pocket. And we really appreciate not having to pay for everything out of pocket. But it also enables us to hire people that can report on things for us. People that can go out and live stream events. People that can write columns for us and we really you can help us grow. You can help us cover more things. We appreciate you more than you could possibly know the future is to create go out there and create it.