by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
In a building that once housed the oldest Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Colorado, a new, dynamic, and diverse congregation with many younger adults is led by a young African-American pastor. The fully inclusive urban ministry of Belong Church emphasizes hearing the stories of members and community partners, engaging in acts of service and generosity, and working for justice in the wider community.
Denver, Colorado, is a city of contrasts. Vibrant urban life, with high-end apartment buildings under construction and new restaurants popping up in continually gentrifying neighborhoods, can be found just 30 minutes from the Rocky Mountains in one direction, and the farming and ranching communities of the eastern plains in the other. The increasingly secular West, with its preference for brunch and hiking over traditional religious services, dwells side by side with both established and new churches of all theological stripes.
In the midst of these juxtapositions, a new United Methodist congregation has put down roots and is transforming the perception of “church” in a historic building and neighborhood. Rev. Jasper Peters is the pastor of Belong Church, which began meeting weekly for worship in 2017. Belong gathers in the neoclassical building in Denver’s uptown neighborhood that was the home of St Paul UMC for 106 years before that congregation closed in 2016. Rev. Peters explores some of the tensions that gave birth to Belong:
“We are in a diverse community led by an ethnic minority pastor, who are meeting and living and thriving in a building that was a Methodist Episcopal Church, South building – the first one in Colorado. That is not the whole story of St Paul UMC, [which] went on to become very progressive… but it is significant that a church founded on exclusion and subjugation of black people, now houses a congregation led by a black man.”
The connectional nature of the United Methodist denomination, and the “trust clause” that states that church buildings are held in trust by the congregation for the sake of the wider regional conference, created an opportunity for this emerging faith community that would not otherwise have been available. “St Paul was no longer sustainable… The habit and trend in Denver was that this church would fold, a developer would buy this corner lot, either tear it down or gut it and turn it into trendy apartments. But the trust clause created just the opportunity to say yes when I came and said, we want to do something new in this downtown or uptown area. As a very young community at the time, 14 people meeting in my living room, it gave us the opportunity to live into something [more immediately]… we moved into an environment that invites and challenges us to grow into it, but also grow into our history.”
The doors on the building are purple, a historic sign of being LGBTQ-inclusive; St Paul was the third Reconciling Congregation in the nation, making a public statement affirming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life and leadership of the church. Today, Belong carries on that heritage of inclusiveness and social witness. Rev. Peters reports that the congregation is 30-40% LGBTQ, and each month, the congregation commits to “One Thing,” one issue or organization or action identified to engage in justice work in the community. The church partners with six or seven organizations over the course of a year, from food pantries that also address the systemic issues relating to hunger and poverty, to the LGBTQ Center or an elementary school in a neighborhood characterized by high ethnic diversity and low income. Church members are encouraged to buy items to donate, make a financial contribution, or volunteer.
Rev. Peters explains, “It’s not just about sending stuff, but we also ask people to open their hearts, to serve one or more of these communities in an intentional way, whether that’s a few times a year or a couple times a month. We’re trying to create rhythms where people put their faith to work, with an outward and tangible expression of what they do. As much as we want to be a vibrant faith community, we don’t want to be insular and focused on ourselves. If people have an extra $100 they could give, we’re asking them not to give [that money] to help us be self-sufficient, but to spend it on rice and beans for others, because we believe that giving to beyond our walls will be what helps us thrive and multiply.”
Community members are also regularly invited to come and speak in worship about the work they do for others, in a segment called “Our Stories” that others would recognize as the classic spiritual practice of Testimony. These stories may come from a volunteer or staff member of a partner organization, such as Casa de Paz, which hosts family members separated from their loved ones in the immigration detention center in Aurora and offers a ministry of support to those released from detention. Sarah Jackson, who founded Casa de Paz after traveling to the US/Mexico border to meet and hear the stories of those separated by immigration detention, has spoken, as well as some of the people served by her ministry. Rev. Peters describes how Sarah once brought a woman whose boyfriend was being detained and was going to a hearing the next day. “She asked for prayers, and said, ‘If you happen to know any immigration attorneys, that would be helpful.’ One of our members is an immigration attorney, and during the greeting, I watched them get up and begin plotting strategy. Church is happening. When we create clear connection between people doing important work and people with a heart for transformation inside the four walls, that’s where we see the potential for new life.”
Rev. Peters sees a meaningful connection between the past strengths – and failures – of Saint Paul UMC, as well as the emergence of what became Belong Church over a few years of stops and starts before launching weekly worship in 2017. “If it wasn’t for the history of what came before, high points and low points, we couldn’t be who we are today, or do what we’re doing today. There’s this analogy I use, that churches, when challenged and in turmoil, we try to close ourselves off, huddle up, fold our arms, protect ourselves. We think that somehow if we protect the right things, we’ll be able to survive or thrive. The reality is that the church is counterintuitive: when it encounters challenge is when it can thrive. We ought to embrace the things that challenge us rather than be insular and protect against them. Our beloved [United Methodist] Church is many things, and I don’t love all the things it is right now, but the ability to be linked and connected in our ministries is a strength. We were able to say that although it’s sad that St Paul’s has reached its ending, our connection allows us to bring forward something new as well… Embracing death allows us to come into greater fullness of life.”
Belong invites people to follow Jesus in experiencing and working for transformation, both in individuals’ lives and in the world. Micah 6:8 serves as a Biblical touchstone for its work: To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Rev. Peters remarks how sometimes it seems peculiar that a United Methodist church has so many members who were once evangelical, who had some experience of church that hurt them or turned them off in the past. “The thing I hear most often is some version of: I had either given up on the church, or I was convinced the church had given up on me. When people come and spend time with us, start to serve with us, there’s this consistent refrain that they feel like the church has been made new for them in this place. The way that I would phrase it, or see it, is that the heart of the church, what the church is supposed to be, has just been opened up to them. The idea behind Belong is simply that for all these people that for one reason or another have been excluded or ostracized or made to believe that they don’t have a place among the people following the ways of Jesus: we are challenging that assertion. That you do belong to God, and we belong to one another. The future of this Jesus work that we all feel called to do, belongs in our hands. I often paraphrase a blessing from St Theresa as our benediction: look at your hands; Jesus Christ has no hands on earth but these, and if there’s work to be done by hands, it’s these. Jesus has no feet but these, no beating heart… it’s a way of giving church back to the people: the work that God is doing in the world depends on you.”