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Sanctuary

For a century this inner-city church has served as a refuge. But its most important mission has always been outside the walls.

Barry woke up in a cold sweat. He kept hearing that ticking sound; he knew it meant time was running out. He started praying that he would be arrested and sent to prison--that seemed to be the only way he could stay true to the word of God. When he was on the streets, he was too weak to listen to anyone but the Devil.

A few days later Barry tried to rob a Conoco station in Five Points. Dead on his feet from a lack of sleep, he almost missed the manager trying to engage the silent alarm.

"What the hell are you doing there?" he screamed, waving the gun in the man's face.

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The man, a recent immigrant from the Caribbean, cried out in terror. "Come on," Barry snarled. "You're going for a drive with me."

Barry was just looking for a getaway driver. But the man thought Barry meant to take him some place to shoot him. "Please," he begged. "I have a daughter. I don't want to die and leave her alone."

Barry was stunned. The man's plea made him think of Galen. It made him think about what he'd done with his life. He left without saying another word.

Barry went to his sister's house and asked to see his mother. "Mom, I feel so dirty," he cried. "I want to be baptized and made clean again."

The next Sunday was Easter. Barry went to the Macedonia Baptist Church and asked to be immersed. The minister dunked him and, as Barry rose from the water to his knees, he felt as if all the sins of his past had been washed away like so much road dust. Then he noticed a familiar sound, the sirens of fire trucks. The church was on fire.

The fire turned out to be electrical. But those who knew Barry's past couldn't help but wonder. Even his mother, who knew he couldn't have set the fire, told him, "There is a lot of evil in you, and I think it followed you to that church."

Barry had to wonder himself. He knew that for all his newfound salvation, he still wouldn't be able to stop from backsliding toward sin. He didn't have the courage to turn himself in, but he prayed he'd be arrested just the same.

His prayers were answered a week later when an anonymous tip about the Conoco job was phoned in to Crimestoppers. Barry was sure his arrest was a sign from God when he saw the officer's name: Bloodworth. Only Jesus's blood was worth salvation for every sinner, he thought. He had never been so happy to see the inside of a jail cell.

In 1968 a group of white folks from Aurora founded an inner-city mission in the heart of Five Points, on Clarkson Street. They called it Agape Christian Church. Whites weren't particularly welcome in the neighborhood in those days, but they held on just the same.

A black man from the Bahamas, Harcourt Saunders, was named Agape's pastor in 1973. Well-educated and articulate, he impressed Robert Woolfolk, then a 27-year-old machine operator at a meat-packing plant, when he talked about how important it was for black Christians to get involved in helping their distressed communities instead of just sitting around praying about it.

Robert wasn't particularly interested in religion. He'd grown away from the church of his youth and saw no real need for it now. He was married, made a good living, drove a new car, owned his own home and was comfortable and content. And although he was concerned about the drugs and crime that were tearing apart Five Points, he wasn't sure what one man could do about it.

Then his wife dragged him to a prayer meeting, where he met Saunders.
Saunders knew a good church man when he saw one. Two years later he arranged for the president of a small Bible college back east to invite the Woolfolks to study for the ministry there. Their friends told them they were crazy to even consider it. You have a good house and a good job, plus the futures of four children to worry about, they said. But the Woolfolks also heard another voice calling.

They quit their jobs and moved their family east, scraping by in a rental apartment with a meager allowance. It was a two-year program, but when they came back to Denver the summer between school years, they discovered that Saunders was going to be the new president of the Bible college, which would leave the Agape congregation without a minister. The congregation asked Robert to stay on as pastor.

In 1980 the Agape Christian Church took out a loan and, with the help of several suburban churches, purchased the buildings at 25th and California. The old church was sorely in need of renovation. The worn wood floors were grimy with dirt; there were holes in some of the stained-glass windows; the steeple looked like it was about to fall down.

The congregation got to work painting, refinishing and scrubbing the brick outside until it shone. A church in Longmont donated new oak doors; the steeple was repaired. When the church looked as good as it was going to get, the congregation built a playground so that neighborhood children would have a safe place to play away from the drug dealers who hung out in the public parks.

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