True Blue

True Blue

When the ECC launched a new office of compassion, mercy, and justice, some were skeptical. But with perseverance and quiet determination Debbie Blue emerged as the leader the church needed.

By Bob Smietana

May 2015

It was the summer of 1980, not long after Blue and her three children had relocated from Chicago South’s Side to the small suburb of Calumet Park. They’d been driving back and forth to the church in their old neighborhood, but they were ready for a change. So Blue, then a thirty-year-old divorced, single mother, and her mom, Mattie Brown, got in a car on a Sunday morning and went looking for a church.

They stopped first at a Lutheran church, but that didn’t feel right. They also tried a Baptist congregation, but it felt too much like the church they’d left behind. And a stop at a Catholic church ended when it turned out they’d shown up for a Spanish-speaking mass.

On the drive home, Blue and her mom passed by a church they hadn’t noticed before. Her mother wanted to give it a try. Blue was hesitant, but her mother insisted.

So they eased into the back row of Community Covenant Church just as then-pastor Matt Zatkalik was starting his sermon for the handful of white worshipers. He gave Blue and her mother a quick nod, acknowledging their presence.

After the sermon, things got dicey.

“I remember that this handful of people stood up, and they were all white, and they turned around and looked at us,” Blue says. “I just thought, I was right. They’re going to put us out.

blued-portrait-webWhen she was six or seven, Blue and her family moved from the Henry Horner Homes, the public housing project on Chicago’s West Side, and started migrating to the city’s South Side. They relocated every six months or so because they encountered resistance—sometimes open hostility—from their white neighbors. At one point, she and her siblings were playing on a ball field behind the Catholic church at the end of their block, and a priest chased them off, threatening to call the police.

That morning at Community Covenant, she feared they were about to be run out of the church as well. “Instead, these people came back to us and embraced us with the love of Christ,” says Blue. “We had never, ever experienced anything like that before.”

The next day, Zatkalik showed up at Blue’s home. “What do you need in order to stay at the church?” he asked. It was a simple act of kindness that has stuck with Blue for years.

At that point, Community Covenant was struggling, and the church was unsure what the future held. They wanted to serve their community, which was changing demographically. Then, the church called Don Davenport, an associate minister at nearby Oakdale Covenant Church, as their pastor. Before long, the church was on its way to become a newly thriving community of faith.

That first Sunday at the church changed Blue’s life, and started a journey that would transform a struggling single mom into a national Christian voice for justice—taking her from Calumet Park to far reaches of the globe as executive minister of compassion, mercy, and justice for the Evangelical Covenant Church.

It’s late February in Memphis and Blue, who turns sixty-five this year, is in her element. She and a group of forty other pilgrims on a Sankofa journey—a pilgrimage of prayer and conversation to national civil rights sites—are scattered around the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Right now the group is in what Blue calls “the chaos”—a mix of confusion, sadness, anger, guilt, regret, and hope—that accompanies discussions about race in America. Most people want to either avoid the chaos or rush through it. Blue wants the pilgrims to linger there. It’s a key step in moving from being strangers involved in superficial conversations about race to becoming a beloved community committed to joining God’s mission of reconciliation.

The pilgrims have been on the road for three days on a whirlwind tour. They’ve been to 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where commissioner Bull Connor once turned fire hoses and police dogs loose on civil rights protesters. They’ve walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, visited the Perkins Center in Jackson, Mississippi, and have finally arrived at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. They are tired, their defenses are down, yet they are ready to hear from one another and from the Holy Spirit.

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Blue leads a busload of Covenanters on a Sankofa journey to national civil rights sites.

“It’s a place where it is safe to be vulnerable,” says Ivory Doublette of Community Covenant Church in Minneapolis. She traveled here with her friend Sarah Swanson, whose husband, Luke, is pastor of the church.

Visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church—where four young black girls were murdered in a bombing on September 15, 1963—was particularly powerful for the two friends. Doublette, who grew up in a black Baptist church, says she felt an affinity with the young girls. “That would have been me if I lived in that place and time,” she says.

Swanson says she came on Sankofa wanting to learn. She and her husband serve a diverse congregation in a mostly African American neighborhood. As a church leader, she wants to be a voice for the community, but felt she didn’t know enough about the history of civil rights. The trip has given the two a chance to talk about some uncomfortable issues of race—and about their own experiences. Last year, their church was set on fire by arsonists on the last day of vacation Bible school, and racist graffiti was spray-painted on the building.

“Church is supposed to be a place that feels safe—and there was a sense that that had been violated,” says Swanson. “I do think some people were scared to come back when we re-opened the building.” Among them was Doublette—who said she feared another attack.

Those kinds of deep conversations are needed, says Blue. The scars of the past—and the difficulties of the present—can’t be healed quickly. People need to process and have real conversation, while listening to the Holy Spirit. “That’s what happens on Sankofa,” she says.

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Debbie listens as civil rights activist John M. Perkins (right) talks about his work and God’s justice to Sankofa participants gathered at the Spencer Perkins Center in Jackson, Mississippi. She is standing with his son John P. Perkins.

With a mix of gentle prodding and a relentless focus on discipleship, Blue has developed a knack for helping people through hard conversations. She’s been creating spaces for people to hear from God ever since her early days at Community Covenant.

Not long after he arrived at the church, former pastor Don Davenport started holding Wednesday Bible studies for new members. Attendance was required, says Blue. And that was a good thing in her eyes.

She and some of the other new members were good “church people,” she says. “We’d show up on Sunday mornings like clockwork and sing in the choir. But many of us had never really been challenged to grow in our faith. I’d never even heard of Christian education before.” Much of her formation came from Davenport’s teaching and preaching. Wednesday nights became a crash course in spiritual formation where Blue learned about the Bible, theology, and her own spiritual gifts. She also got the chance to put those gifts into practice.

Most of the new members were young parents like Blue, who came to church with their children. The kids would hang out in the basement and make a ruckus while their parents were in Bible study. One night some of the parents said, “Somebody needs to be down there with those kids.”

That somebody turned out to be Blue. She volunteered to hang out with the kids while their parents studied the Bible. “I was thinking we would switch off,” she says.

Instead, she found herself in charge of a growing group of students that became known as the God Squad, leading Bible studies and youth retreats. “That was the place where God really started helping me to grow,” says Blue. “I had to learn about discipleship in order to lead the kids on a weekly basis. I absolutely loved it.”

Those early days at church weren’t always easy. At the time, Blue was working full-time at a major hospital as a unit secretary, while also working on a bioengineering degree at the University of Illinois–Chicago. She’d started work on her degree in 1978, knowing that she needed a better job to take care of her family. At first she considered nursing, but then she fell in love with calculus, drawn to the elegance of mathematics. “I had to take a calculus class, and this professor’s lectures just blew me away,” she says. “I hated when the classes ended.”

“She’s such a geek when it comes to math,” says her daughter, Deani Jordan.

At the time, the hospital had just expanded its biomedical engineering department to include clinical engineers, which would bring the technical expertise of engineers into medical settings. It felt like a perfect fit for Blue, given her hospital experience.

Getting her degree was a long haul, says Blue. “I squeezed a four-year degree into ten years,” she says with a smile.

Soon after graduation, she found a job posting at the hospital for a clinical engineer. The timing was perfect, she thought. She had her degree, plus fifteen years’ experience at the hospital. “I thought God must have opened the door right on time,” she says.

But she never received a response to her application. That prompted a trip to human resources, where the staff were dumbfounded that Blue hadn’t been contacted. She was then invited to interview, but she felt that her training and experience were dismissed because she was an African American woman. Although she was eventually hired as an engineer, she never felt welcome.

She asked God, “Why did you open this door if it’s like this?” She prayed every day on her way to the office, but the environment was always a struggle.

That season, however, proved invaluable for Blue’s spiritual growth. She’d read the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians for years. And she knew Matthew 5:44 by heart: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (KJV). Now she had to learn how to live it.

She pasted those two Scripture passages inside her drawer at work and read them every morning. “Love your enemies, bless them—those were okay,” she says. “But the ‘do good’ was the action. I couldn’t manifest that.” The first step was learning to really love her colleagues, and not simply pretend to be nice to them. “I came to see it as God using them as my sandpaper—to get some rough edges off of me,” she says. “The majority of the people I worked with made it known that they were not Christians. So how could I be Christ in that context?”

As her engineering career advanced, Blue stayed involved in youth ministry at Community Covenant. She was taking advanced degree classes with the idea of teaching math, but she heard God saying something else: “I want you to teach, but that’s not the subject matter.” Instead, she felt a clear call to go to seminary. So she earned her master’s degree in Christian education, assuming the training would aid in her work with the young people.

At that point, she thought her life was set. A self-described “steady Eddie,” Blue is a creature of habit, preferring the familiar to the unknown. Most Sundays, she can be found in the same pew she first sat down in thirty-five years ago.

“I was planning to hang out at the hospital until I retired,” she said. “I thought I’d stay a few more years and then ride off into the sunset.”

God, it turns out, had other plans.

One day, Blue got a call from Evelyn Johnson, then executive director of the Department of Christian Education and Discipleship, with an invitation to dinner. Blue knew of Johnson, but she didn’t know her well. She accepted the invitation, and over dinner Johnson and her colleague, Alan Forsman, asked Blue if she’d be willing to join the staff at Covenant Offices.

Being called to a leadership role in a predominantly white denomination didn’t make sense to her. Neither did leaving behind the certainty of her hospital job. Her family thought she should dismiss the offer. Her father told her she’d worked too hard to earn her engineering degree to walk away. Yet she sensed God speaking to her in this new opportunity.

“It seemed evident that everything God had allowed me in my life had prepared me for this call,” she says. “And in my mind and my heart, I had always been packed up and ready to leave bioengineering.”

So she said yes. She started out as associate director of consulting and training; later she became director of adult ministries. One of her first tasks was to fine-tune the Sankofa program. Sankofa was the brainchild of Harold Spooner and Jim Lundeen, who worked on compassion, mercy, and justice projects for Covenant Ministries of Benevolence.

Spooner says the basic format of Sankofa was in place at the time, but it wasn’t having a lasting effect. Participants were confronted with America’s legacy of racism, but they had no framework to help them think through their responses. “Jim and I were basically beating people over the head,” he says.

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At Magic City Grill in Birmingham, a favorite gathering spot for civil rights leaders in the sixties, Debbie greets Jean, who participated in protests as a teenager.

Blue’s background in Christian formation was crucial to Sankofa’s success. More than 1,000 people have taken part in Sanfoka journeys since they started in 1999, and a number of other denominations and Christian schools have developed programs of their own, based on Blue’s work. Dozens of churches have also taken part in the Invitation to Racial Righteousness, a weekend experience focused on racial reconciliation.

In 2007, Blue was called to be the first leader of the newly created Department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice, now known as Love Mercy and Do Justice.

The idea for the new department had been in the works for years, says Glenn Palmberg, former president of the Evangelical Covenant Church. From its earliest days of building hospitals, starting homes for the elderly and orphans, and sending out missionary doctors and teachers, the Covenant Church has always focused on mercy and compassion as part of Christian discipleship.

But at times that history had been lost. Little attention had been paid to the Bible’s teaching about justice. Few Covenanters were talking about racial reconciliation, despite the church’s growing diversity. The new department, Palmberg says, could help remind Covenanters of their past and shape the church’s future ministry. He and other leaders were able to pull together just enough funding to get the department off the ground.

All they needed was a leader—like Blue.

“She’s got an activist sense of prophetic calling and is committed to speaking for justice,” says Palmberg. “At that same time, she excels at spiritual formation—and she wants to bring everyone along with her. We needed someone who would lead the church, not divide it.”

That approach to ministry is summed up in an African proverb that Blue loves to quote: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Still the work wasn’t easy. The department had no staff, no formal budget, no programs at the start.

Blue later learned that Palmberg’s assistant, Chrissy Palmerlee, went to the president asking, “Who is going to work with her? I could help.” Soon she was splitting her time between the president’s office and the new department, before finally becoming the office’s second full-time employee. “Now she’s much more than a support person, she’s a ministry partner,” Blue says.

Two years ago Cecilia Williams, then associate pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, joined the staff as director of ministry initiatives. “Debbie has been the conductor on the train—and she’s also been out in front of the train laying the tracks,” says Williams, who is the nominee to succeed Blue when she concludes her service this summer.

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Cecilia Williams (right) is the nominee to succeed Debbie Blue as executive minister of love mercy and do justice.

Blue’s leadership on racial reconciliation has been essential for the Covenant, especially in an increasingly diverse nation. When she first arrived at Community Covenant Church in 1980, about four out of five Americans were white. Today, more than a third of all Americans, and half of children under five, are African American, Hispanic, Asian American, or other people of color. By 2043, no group will have a majority in the U.S., according to projections from the Census Bureau. In short, the church of the near future will be multiethnic and diverse.

Yet most churches remain segregated. More than eight in ten congregations are made up of one predominant racial group, according to data from the National Congregations Study and Nashville-based LifeWay Research. And few churchgoers want that to change. About two-thirds of American churchgoers (67 percent) say their church has done enough to become racially diverse, according to LifeWay Research.

Through programs like Sankofa, the Invitation to Racial Righteousness, and the conference-led Journey to Mosaic, as well as conversations on the complex issue of mass incarceration in the U.S., Covenanters have begun to take on the hard work of racial reconciliation and are further along the journey than many other denominations. That work will continue under Williams’s leadership. Williams says Blue taught her that social justice can be a spiritual pilgrimage and an act of discipleship. As an African American woman, Williams has had to fight for her place in the church and in the world. “There’s this notion that you’ve got to kick the door in,” she says. “You can’t go quietly.”

Blue taught her the power of quiet determination and perseverance. “You can make such a difference by showing up, being faithful to your call, and moving the needle for Jesus every day,” Williams says. “You don’t have to kick the door in. The work of social justice can really be a spiritual pilgrimage.”

Blue has also shown that kindness is not weakness. “Don’t mistake her niceness for weakness,” says Darrell Griffin, pastor of Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago. “She really is a very strong person—and operates off of her conviction.”

Griffin says that Blue prefers to work in the background rather than in the spotlight. Salt, he says, is the perfect metaphor for her work. “When you add salt to a dish, it disappears,” he says. “But it changes everything and it lingers on, even if you can’t see it.”

Williams agrees. Blue, who also served on the board of Bread for the World and is respected by many outside the Covenant, is a model of a servant leader. “Many people seek greatness,” Williams says. “Debbie has been lifted to it.”

Blue shrugs off such praise. She can’t see what all the fuss is about. She’s just doing what she’s always done: trying to serve God the best she can, wherever she can.

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This summer, she will conclude her term of service. She’s looking forward to spending more time with her eight grandkids. She might even go to Disney World. But she’s not retiring. “I’m moving on to my next assignment,” she says. 

About the Author

Bob Smietana is a veteran religion writer and former Companion staffer. He is senior news editor at Christianity Today, working from Nashville. He spends his time rooting for the Red Sox, hanging out with his three great kids and lovely wife, Kathy, and trying to stay out of trouble.

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