By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was a cold, gray morning. A Sunday--they never have funerals on Sunday.
The Reverend Gregory Spencer, Fort Worth's renowned preacher, undertaker, and entrepreneur, opened the back door of his Eastwood mortuary, which doubles as his home.
And as he looked outside, he found himself staring straight into the barrel of a gun.
"Hey, Spencer," the man behind the handgun said. "If you scream, I'll kill you right now."
Spencer got a glimpse of a black face--he didn't know who it was--before his attacker grabbed him and spun him around roughly. He shoved Spencer into his tiny living quarters inside the mortuary, and ordered him to lie on the fold-out couch he uses as a bed.
As Spencer crawled onto the bed, the gunman muttered, "You are going to learn not to fuck with people."
Then the undertaker heard a second male voice: "Go ahead and kill him."
While his face was pressed against the couch, Spencer felt the men tie his hands behind his back, bind his legs--and push a pillow against the back of his head.
Then he heard a series of gunshots.
And after the blasts, finally, a man's voice again: "Case closed."
Then he was alone.
When two of Spencer's employees found him around 8:45 a.m. on January 29, 1995, the undertaker was lying in his room, his feet tied with one of his own silk neckties, and his wrists bound with the cord of a glue gun.
He was hollering at the top of his lungs, even though someone had tied a blue shirt around his face.
"I've been shot!" Spencer bellowed through the shirt. "I've been shot!"
The Fort Worth police officers who responded to the employees' 911 call did, in fact, find a pillow riddled with bullet holes and a couple of spent casings lying about the room, but surprisingly--no, miraculously--no wounds on Spencer.
When they approached the 38-year-old undertaker, Spencer was unable to talk, his body quaking with horror.
"It was the most terrifying moment of my life," Spencer would later recall. "I thought I was as good as dead."
As he gained his composure, Spencer told police that he'd just called his two employees to meet him at the funeral home for morning chores. He'd opened the back door to put some things in his car when he was attacked.
Officers duly noted all the crime scene details on the police report, as well as an observation: that one of the employees who called police "did not appear to be distraught over this situation."
Later, a visibly shaken Spencer would stand before his congregation at the Church of Philadelphia in Fort Worth and comment on the harrowing incident. A miracle had occurred, he said. God had spared his life.
And it wasn't the first time he believed somebody had tried to kill him. On December 15, 1994, Spencer complained to police that someone had fired a shot through a window into the same back room where he'd been bound and gagged in January.
Someone, evidently, wanted him dead.
"Let the Lord handle it," he told his flock that day, and still advises them. "It's in the Lord's hands."
Spencer's strange encounter with death has been the hottest subject of gossip among church folk since the preacher began speaking about it publicly early this year. That's because there is perhaps no better-known man in Fort Worth's immense black churchgoing community than the Rev. Gregory Spencer. He'll tell you that himself; no one has ever called him humble.
"If me and Emmitt Smith were in the same grocery store," he says, "the little kids would recognize me before they would recognize him."
And they probably would, because Spencer is Fort Worth's most successful undertaker, a position that in the black community has always carried with it an ample measure of prominence and prestige.
And as prominence goes, Spencer has got more than most. His funeral home is easily the grandest and busiest among Fort Worth's black communities. The large, red-brick mortuary on Miller Avenue is filled with antiques and exquisite reproductions, and flanked by a fleet of pristine, white stretch limousines.
In 1994 alone, Spencer performed 550 funerals--way beyond his closest competitors.
He is also one of the city's most charismatic preachers, with a reputation that extends outside of Fort Worth and even Texas. His non-denominational Church of Philadelphia is growing rapidly; its congregation is dynamic, young, and stylish. Some 400 people attend the church on a typical Sunday, and new converts are added every week.
He's also an extremely successful businessman who, in 1980, at the age of 23, founded his own funeral home. Today he performs about half of all the black funerals in Fort Worth, leaving the other, older African-American funeral homes scrambling for the remnants of the body business.
And he knows his market intimately, having grown up in the old, black, working-class Como neighborhood of Fort Worth. Como people speak with admiration and affection about Spencer, who's known to cut a good deal on a funeral for his old neighborhood friends--or extend credit to those who have none.
Widows love Gregory Spencer. So do the widowers. Even gangsters admire and respect him. He participates in and organizes numerous community events--he could be his own booster club. He's not shy about publicity, and he's livin' large these days, albeit in his own, peculiar way.