Sanctuary

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

Bill McCartney's Promise Keepers vowed to donate $1 million to rebuilding black churches. The Anti-Defamation League, the Colorado Council of Churches and politicians from Governor Roy Romer to Mayor Wellington Webb also pledged their support.

Then a few journalists, including former News writer Michael Fumento, actually reviewed the statistics. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Fumento reported that black-church arsons were actually down until the CDR press conference, after which copycat arsonists spurred on by all the publicity accounted for a quick rise. In fact, white churches were burning at a faster rate than black churches.

But a single burned church--white or black--is still a tragedy, and black congregations remain cautious. Some are still under the misconception that a massive conspiracy exists. One group working on a history of a venerable black church in Denver admits that last year it would have jumped at the chance to publicize its work; now, says a spokeswoman, "because of the 'political climate' of our very beautiful country...we don't want to draw attention to our church at this time."

Meanwhile, the black churches continue to do their work. Agape fits right into the profile of the churches surveyed in the Piton project; most of Robert Woolfolk's congregation is female and low-income. But Agape has already learned how to stretch limited resources by reaching out to foundations for funding and working with other churches in the neighborhood. For example, the Sky's the Limit summer camp, a cooperative effort between urban and suburban churches, not only offers inner-city kids a good time, but also teaches leadership skills to urban teens and young adults who work as counselors. During the school year, Agape's tutoring programs assist about 40 children. Other Agape programs serve between 400 and 500 people a week, including 50 people who visit the outreach center for employment and housing services, as well as counseling on family issues; the church also hands out 125 bags of food and serves up to 150 hot meals each week.

And where a Japanese congregation once rented space to black church groups, Agape now loans its facilities to a Spanish-language congregation, most of whose members are from Mexico and Latin America.

But Agape's outreach doesn't end there. Two years ago it received a grant to hire a youth-services worker. There were several candidates for the job, including a young man who came highly recommended because of his mentoring efforts on behalf of African-American students at the Community College of Denver. His name was Barry Staten.

In his prison cell, Barry woke up from another strange dream. He'd been standing in the sanctuary of a church. A man and a woman stood near the altar smiling at him, welcoming him; behind him, the pews were empty.

Barry didn't know what to make of the dream, but it seemed important. So he wrote it down and even drew a picture of a sanctuary, with its large wooden beams rising to the ceiling.

If Barry had needed any more proof of miracles, it was that he was sentenced to only seven years in prison after the attempted robbery at the Conoco station. The district attorney had tried to slap him with what seemed like every unsolved northwest Denver robbery--some of which he'd actually done, some of which he hadn't. When he went to trial, Barry was looking at up to 65 years in prison.

As happy as he was to be off the streets, he didn't want to spend the rest of his life behind bars. And now, with time off for good behavior, it looked like he'd get out in just four years.

But as his release date grew closer, Barry became increasingly anxious. His son, Galen, was in trouble. When Barry had gone to prison in 1985, a new type of gang was just beginning to flex its muscles in Denver. The gangs called themselves Bloods and Crips. Soon he was seeing members of the gangs arrive in prison with murder and assault raps. They were hard young men who'd just as soon shoot you as look at you--except in prison, they had no guns and were easy prey for old-timers.

The maximum-security prison in Canon City was much worse than Buena Vista. Barry had seen men stabbed to death, and he wasn't too popular himself except with those who turned to him as a minister. The important thing was to show no fear, and as his faith grew stronger, his fear of death faded. With the help of a few Christian guards, who counseled him when he felt weak, he waited impatiently for the day when he would be free to go to his son.

That day was June 27, 1988. Barry went straight to Denver and moved in with the mother of his boy; four months later they were married. By then, he'd learned a lot more about the gangs on this side of the walls.

In the old days, when Barry was a teenager, someone with a street reputation like his would have just stood up to these punk kids. He would have chosen the baddest one, and after he'd whipped him, the others would have run off. But now they were all the baddest one. They ran in packs, attacked as a group. Face one down and another would shoot you in the back. The old rules no longer applied. Hell, you could lose your life just wearing the wrong color of clothing.

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