By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
It was a hot July morning, and the Reverend Robert Woolfolk mopped at the sweat that beaded on his dark brown face with a white handkerchief. With his other hand, he grasped the thick rope that hung from the ceiling just inside the oak doors of the church and pulled.
At first nothing much happened. His hand and the rope simply rose slowly back toward the ceiling, as though in a tug-of-war with God. Then, from the high steeple that pointed like a finger out of the red brick sanctuary, a bell tolled, as it has for more than a hundred years.
From the northwest corner of 25th and California, the sound rolled out across the Five Points neighborhood, an area teetering between surrender and revival, past carefully renovated homes that stand next to dilapidated Victorian houses of peeling paint and boarded-up windows. The bell called out to the winos swapping lies beneath the trees in Sonny Lawson Park and to the knots of young black men watching the streets for signs of danger and to the young girls who carried babies on their hips.
It's Sunday, the bell said. Come, join us. Within these walls you may find peace. But few heeded the call. Those who did were mostly women and children, often grandmothers watching over their grandchildren.
Woolfolk finished ringing the bell and stepped inside the sanctuary to begin the worship service at Agape Christian Church. He was always a little nervous at this moment. Representing the Lord was a big responsibility, and he wanted to say the right things.
He looked out into the church. It was a beautiful old building. Cracks showed in the structure, but the century-old polished wood beams from Germany still arched to the paneled ceiling. The pine floors had been refinished and the places worn beyond repair by the passing of thousands of feet covered with new burgundy carpet. The air was cool and filled with soft, golden light coming through the stained-glass windows once destroyed by a mob.
Above the pulpit a banner proclaimed, "Perfect love casts out all fear"; another on the wall urged the congregation to "Love one another." Both admonitions would challenge the patience of Job in a neighborhood under siege from gangs, dope and despair.
"Agape is Greek for 'God's love for man,'" Woolfolk explained. He smiled and moved through those gathered in the aisle, waiting to take their seats in the original carved-oak pews. "Welcome, brother." "Welcome, sister." "Glad you could be with us this morning." "Praise the Lord." By the time he reached the pulpit, there were about forty people in the congregation, only four of them men under forty.
The sanctuary was less than half full. But filling the pews every Sunday is less important to Woolfolk than the real work the church does the rest of the week.
Agape is a poor church that serves poor people, most of whom don't attend the worship services. It has no choir, just a few female worshipers who offer a special song each week and a congregation that on cue from Woolfolk jumps into Songs of Zion like the Second Coming was right around the corner. The background music is provided by a formerly homeless man whom the church rescued from the streets and sent to community college to study composition.
The collection plate takes in a fraction of the money collected at the city's larger black churches, like Zion Baptist, Macedonia Baptist and A.M.E Shorter, which number their congregations in the thousands. Yet pound for pound, penny for penny, none of those churches can claim to do more for the black community than Agape. There's the employment service run out of the former parsonage next door, now renamed the Community Outreach Center. The food bank on Fridays; the hot meals on Saturday. The tutoring programs for the young. Heath services for the elderly. Drug and alcohol counseling for the desperate.
This Sunday Woolfolk handed out donation envelopes for those wishing to help rebuild black churches burned in the South. "We are Christians only," he said, "but we are not the only Christians." Agape's good works, though, are most needed closer to home.
The pastor had only to look at the fresh-scrubbed faces of the twenty or so children in the pews, then tick off the reasons their parents were not in attendance, to know that was true. Drugs. Murder. Poverty. Prison. He didn't need a foundation-sponsored survey to tell him that eight out of every ten children who attended his church on Sunday or visited one of the church-sponsored programs during the week didn't have fathers in their homes.
It was his mission, one for which he had given up a comfortable middle-class existence, to retrofit these children with values they didn't get at home, and to give them an alternative to dead-end streets. Much of his hope of accomplishing this rested on the shoulders of the few young men in the congregation. Especially one who now, part-way through that morning's service, knelt to receive Woolfolk's blessing at the prayer railing in front of the altar, surrounded by children he had brought in from the neighborhood.
Barry Staten, a forty-year-old ex-convict, was now the church's youth leadership program director. If there was a true tug-of-war at Agape, it was the pastor and God on one side pulling against the devils that had tormented Barry since childhood. There was so much promise in Barry; in his heart, Woolfolk knew, were all the possibilities for these kids' futures--if he could just defeat his own past.
But guiding Barry was like holding on to the strings of a kite. Sometimes he flew so high, only to plunge back toward earth with frightening speed. In fact, Barry had just returned to the church from a five-week hiatus after walking away from his responsibilities physically and emotionally spent.
The pastor still didn't know if Barry would make it. But he hoped so. The children loved Barry and needed him.
Kneeling next to Barry at the railing that morning was an eight-year-old boy whose five-year-old sister had been raped, stabbed to death and thrown into a dumpster by a friend of the youngsters' crack-addicted parents. If children like this little boy were to have any chance, Barry, or someone very much like him, would have to be there to pull him away from the streets.
Woolfolk placed his hand on Barry's bowed, braided head. "We pray for Barry, Lord. Keep him steadfast," the pastor shouted.
"Thank you, Jesus," a tiny old woman in the back row cried, her eyes squeezed tight, her arms outstretched in supplication.
"Help him fight the good fight."
The woman began to clap. "That's right, brother."
"Lead him to do your will," Woolfolk beseeched, "as he works to save our youth from the gangs, and help him reach out to the babies who are having babies."
Tears were now rolling down the old woman's cheeks. "Thank you, Lord!" she yelled. "Thank you, Jesus!"
"Amen," said Barry, as he draped his arm protectively around the little boy's shoulders.
In 1866 three German immigrants living in Denver--Conrad Frick, Henry Reitze and Friederich Gamer--wrote to the Reverend Philip Kuhl in Warrenton, Missouri, asking that a German-speaking preacher be sent to the wild and woolly frontier town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Nothing happened for several years. But then, in October 1872, the hierarchy of the German Methodist church based in Nebraska appointed Kuhl himself to establish a mission in Denver. A few weeks later the pastor and his family arrived to no church, no parsonage, no membership, no salary. What they found was a city whose dirt streets were still traveled by "wild" Indians, wayward miners, gun-toting card sharks, whores... and a handful of "loyal and determined" German Methodists, eager to hear the word of God preached in the language of the fatherland. Together these immigrants and Kuhl formed the First German Methodist Society of Denver.
"Methodist was the church of the American frontier," says Paul Millette, the librarian at the Iliff School of Theology on the University of Denver campus. "They were usually the first clergy to arrive in any settlement as the frontier expanded westward.
"As each ethnic wave came to this country and then moved west, it was often the only church they found. The Methodists were also aggressive evangelists in Europe at the time, so even though most Germans were Lutheran or Catholic, there were also Germans who already belonged to the church...just as there were Italian Methodists, Swedish Methodists, even Japanese Methodists."
The first minister of record in Colorado was a Methodist Episcopal lay preacher who conducted services in 1859 in a double log cabin owned by two gamblers. "During the religious services at one end of the cabin, gambling was going on unabated at the other end," wrote a member of that small congregation.
Millette pulls a large, worn book from a box: the original records of those first German Methodists in Denver. In it are the names of the congregants, many of whom would go on to establish some of Denver's most prominent families. There is also the mundane reporting of church events--baptisms, weddings, funerals--all written in German, plus a few business documents recorded in English.
The Methodists, a denomination developed in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, were smart in their evangelizing. They recognized that people were more comfortable adapting to new theology if it was presented in their own language and by ministers from the same culture. Methodist churches were often organized by nationality, and even by race in the case of the African Methodist Episcopal churches (such as the Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, founded in Denver in 1868, the second-oldest black church in Denver after Zion Baptist, which was established in 1865).
The immigrant church in America was much more than a place to go for spiritual communion. It was the contact point for all sorts of services--from employment to shelter to social centers. These churches kept native languages and cultural heritages alive as each succeeding generation merged further into the general population.
The German Methodists in Denver were an industrious lot. Mostly blue-collar workers, within a year of Kuhl's arrival they had pooled enough money to purchase two lots on the corner of Arapahoe and 18th streets, where they built a small church and parsonage. By 1884 the congregation had grown to 89 members. Needing more room, they voted to sell their church--which they did for $25,000--and built a new structure on the northwest corner of 25th and California.
The Victorian structure of red brick and pitched roofs was completed in 1887. Ornately carved and polished wooden beams were imported from Germany and installed to lead the congregation's eyes ever upward toward heaven. Fine leaded stained-glass windows were also brought in from the Old Country. Above the main entrances to the church, a narrow steeple pointed skyward, housing a bell cast in Philadelphia whose sound carried through the neighborhood blossoming around it. Next door to the church was built a small parsonage with a pleasant porch from which the pastor's family could watch the comings and goings along California Street.
For its first twenty years at that location, the membership of the church kept growing. But as Denver expanded and families moved to promising outlying areas, other German Methodist churches were established close to their new homes, pulling the congregation in all directions.
By 1910, when the new pastor, William Rudolph Velte, arrived with his wife, Anna, and two small children--Willis, five, and Marguerite, two--attendance was already on the downswing. Born in Germany in 1877, Velte had been sent to the United States when he was twelve to live with an uncle after his mother died. Friendly and outgoing, he wanted to be a minister from an early age. But he was poor and had to work hard in order to attend Central Wesleyan College, a Methodist school in Warrenton, Missouri. He arrived there at the turn of the century with only one pair of pants, which had come from a missionary barrel. It was there that he met Anna Bower, whom he married in 1903.
"Yee gawds!" Marguerite laughs as she rummages through old photo albums at her home on University Boulevard. "Here's one of the congregation," says the 88-year-old pastor's daughter, pointing to a black-and-white photograph. In it, women in big floppy hats and long dresses buttoned to the neck stand next to somber-looking men in dark coats and bowlers; the children look uncomfortably stiff in their Sunday best.
Marguerite shakes her head as she points to a little blonde girl. "Yee gawds! That's me." She turns the page. Now the men are smiling, posing in their hiking clothes--some even in lederhosen and alpine caps--on the final approach to the summit of Longs Peak. "My father climbed many of the 14,000-foot mountains in the state...Pikes Peak seven times," she confides. "He thought it was a sin to reach the top by any other way. He really loved the mountains."
The church's new pastor was well-liked by all who met him. William Velte never turned anyone in need away from his door. If someone was hungry, he saw that he was fed; if homeless, he found him a place to stay; if troubled, he invited him into the sanctuary of the church.
The pastor's wife was equally beloved. Anna Velte played piano in the church, a grand monster of a piano, and sang beautifully. She had studied music in college and passed on her love of it to her daughter, whom she had named for one of the characters in the opera Faust.
Although Marguerite's memories of her early days at the church have faded over the years, she remembers that each Christmas, two large, decorated trees were erected outside the doors to the church, each with a man on guard to make sure the candles didn't light the branches on fire. There were trips to the mountains and happy summer days playing with the Italian, German and Jewish children who lived near the parsonage. But most of all, she remembers her mother playing the piano.
But there were unhappy times, too. Anna Velte had dangerously high blood pressure. Lacking any effective treatment, she would be laid up for weeks at a time. The condition grew progressively worse as the years passed. The only remedy the doctors could suggest was to drain her blood under the mistaken notion that it would help relieve the pain.
"My father...my father," Marguerite stammers, covering her eyes as she cries, "would take her blood and give it to the chickens in the backyard." Marguerite would flee to the empty sanctuary to pray for God to help her mother.
During his tenure at First German, Velte rode a bicycle or a streetcar every day to the Iliff School of Theology, from which he graduated with a master's degree in 1915. Proud of his heritage, he offered these remarks for the commencement brochure: "Deutschland, Deutschland, Yber alles."
Soon war was raging in Europe, but Marguerite's father remained stubbornly loyal to his native land. It cost him friendships outside the church and well-deserved respect in the community. In 1918 William Velte was transferred to a church in St. Louis. It was larger, with a more well-heeled congregation and a big parsonage, and it was considered a step up. But Anna Velte could not stand the heat and humidity of the Missouri summers, so in 1922 the family returned to the church at the corner of 25th and California.
Within the year, William Velte gave up his ministry in order to devote himself more fully to his ailing wife. He took a day job at Denver Terra Cotta Company, which was owned by two friends of German heritage, and took care of his family in the evening. But Anna soon died of a stroke. Heartbroken, the Veltes clung to each other. "My father would not remarry while we were still in the house, even though all the ladies were after him," says Marguerite, who later married Aldo Behrensmeyer. ("We pronounced it 'Burnsmeyer' because that sounded less German," she says.)
Marguerite's father eventually became the pastor of another church and remarried, moving into a house next door to where Marguerite now lives. He died February 19, 1958; it was Ash Wednesday. At his funeral, fellow minister Harry Huntington said of his friend and colleague: "He was more than a preacher; he was a minister to his people, sharing in their joys and sorrows...His only son is a minister. I can think of no greater tribute to the integrity and sincerity of a minister than that his own son should follow in his footsteps...Well done, thou good and faithful servant!"
At the Iliff library, Millette pulls a squash-yellow brochure from a box that holds memorabilia from the First German Methodist Church. Printed in English in the mid-1930s, it laments how the church was under pressure from outside, pressure "felt by all foreign-speaking groups and organizations...except, perhaps, Catholics.
"No one was to blame, but in the natural order of things, the young people wanted to be LIKE their neighbors. They refused to be DIFFERENT. At least they wanted to be the SAME all the time and not on weekdays only. So they naturally drifted into the English-speaking churches."
First German had continued to lose membership. Finally, all the German churches were consolidated into one United Methodist church with first part-time and ultimately full-time use of the English language at all services. "Now the children of the parsonage are scattered far and wide," the brochure reads. "The future of the church is a grave problem.
"But whatever the outcome, nothing can mar the past or blot it out. Nor can any power destroy its influence. These will live forever."
Marguerite visited the old church several years ago as a guest of Robert Woolfolk. She was thrilled to see the old steeple, renovated and rising high above tall trees that had been mere saplings when she first played around them. "I think it's wonderful that the old parsonage is being used for their community projects," she says. "My mother and father would have liked that.
"Otherwise, I was surprised at how much the church looked just like when we left...except for the piano...it was gone." Marguerite pauses and passes a hand across her eyes. "Yee gawds, that was a beautiful piano."
Ten-year-old Barry Staten was playing baseball on the asphalt playground at Sacred Heart Catholic School when he spotted the older boy with the Molotov cocktail. He'd seen some of the local teenagers fooling around with gasoline bombs and, of course, the television news reports of race riots. It all looked exciting. Besides, what else was there for a boy to do on a hot summer afternoon in 1966 in the Five Points neighborhood?
"Hey, can I have that?" he yelled, trotting over to where the older boy stood next to the school. The boy looked Barry over, as though appraising whether the chubby brown kid could be trusted. Then he handed the bomb to Barry.
The next thing Barry knew, the older boy was lighting the rag wick that hung from the neck of the gasoline-filled bottle. Suddenly things were no longer fun. Barry thought the bottle might blow up in his hand, so he tossed it down a school stairwell and ran like hell.
He ran straight across the alley and through his back door. Only then did he turn and see the billowing clouds of black smoke. The fire trucks arrived and put out the fire. Fortunately, there wasn't much damage; otherwise things might have gone much worse for him.
As it was, one of his baseball buddies told on Barry, and it wasn't long before the fire marshal and the police were at the door. "It wasn't me, it was him," Barry cried, accusing his accuser. He wasn't half so worried about the authorities as what his father would do when he heard.
Chester Staten was a stern man who didn't put up with any guff from his son. He wasn't much for church--the family went only on Easter Sundays--but he believed wholeheartedly in the biblical expression Spare not the rod. Many times he'd given Barry such a whipping that Barry's mother had called the police to stop him.
It didn't take much to set the old man off. If he told Barry to be home at 6 p.m., getting home at 6:02 was not good enough. And try as he might, Barry was always late. Then he'd stand outside the house, where no one could see him, and watch the family as they ate dinner and turned in. Sometimes he'd stay out all night and wait for his father to leave in the morning. But then his father would just give it to him when he got home that night.
So Barry was desperate when he denied throwing the bomb; no telling what his father would do. But this time Chester stuck by his son, telling the police that Barry didn't know anything about "making no Molotov cocktails." Barry's mother wasn't so sure, but after the judge let him off with a warning, she just lectured him not to hang out with certain boys who were bound to come to no good.
He heard her. But he didn't listen.
It wasn't that Barry was a bad kid. He didn't want to hurt anybody or anything, even a school. And he certainly didn't want to upset his mother. The Staten family didn't have it so bad compared to some of the others in the neighborhood. They'd moved from Kansas City, Kansas, when Barry was about eight. His father had landed a good job as a mechanic, and they lived in a nice house with enough to eat and decent clothes. And as long as Barry did what he was told, his father was a pretty good guy. Honest and hardworking, he spent his free time with his children, playing baseball, taking them fishing or just telling stories.
After the bomb episode, Barry tried to be good. He started a little business selling packets of flower seeds he'd ordered from the backs of comic books. He was smart enough to figure out that most black people in the neighborhood were poor, but he'd noticed that the Japanese who lived around the old church at 25th and California kept their yards nice and seemed to have plenty of money. So that's where he went.
Barry was doing okay, but it wasn't long before his whole world turned topsy-turvy again. One day at the garage some guy made a racist remark, and Barry's father let him have it with a wrench. When the police came looking for Chester Staten, he was already on his way back to Kansas City.
For reasons Barry never understood, his parents made no effort to bring the family back together. While his dad stayed in Kansas City, his mother went on welfare, and she and Barry and the rest of the family moved into the projects near 25th and Arapahoe. Without his father around, Barry was soon running wild. Things had changed, and he didn't know why. They were suddenly poor, and there was never much to eat. He used to like school, but now he played hooky all the time; for one thing, physical education was the first class of the day, and it was hard to jump up and down with nothing in his belly until hot lunch.
Burning things was about the only thing that seemed to make him feel better...at least for a little while. He still avoided hurting other people, but there wasn't a dumpster in Five Points that was safe. The funny thing was, Barry wasn't the only one doing it. In those days, like inner-city neighborhoods across the country, Five Points was a racial tinderbox just waiting to explode.
Barry's mother didn't know what to do with him. He was getting a reputation as a firebug; no sooner would something start smoking than the authorities would be around looking for her son, whether he'd set the fire or not. He was running with older boys, the kind who were always up to some kind of trouble, and she couldn't stop him.
Finally, she'd had it with her oldest boy, and she called Chester Staten in Kansas City. "Get him out of here in three days," she said, "or I'm puttin' him on the streets."
Two days later Barry's father arrived. He hadn't seen the man in two years, and when he heard his mother repeat the threat about tossing him out, he felt cold. It was like he didn't even have a mother anymore.
He'd been living with his dad and grandfather for about six months when his father went on a trip. His dad told him to stay with grandpa, but Barry's grandfather said he was okay and that Barry should go down to the boys' club. An hour later another kid came running into the gym and said there was a dead man on Barry's porch. Barry ran home, arriving just in time to see his grandfather's body loaded into the coroner's wagon.
Barry sat shivering alone in the house all night. The next morning he called his mother, who brought him back to Denver.
Barry was soon inseparable from his two best friends, Ricky and Tommy. People referred to them as the Three Stooges. The boys had graduated from starting fires to panhandling on the streets of downtown Denver. At the end of the day, they'd pool their money and buy a steak to share at a greasy spoon.
They didn't see anything wrong with hustling to eat. The boys knew that when they got home, there wouldn't be much in the refrigerator. And it wasn't as if the white men in the business suits would go broke over a few lousy quarters. Downtown was only a half-dozen blocks from Five Points, but once the boys crossed Broadway, they might as well have been in another world.
The Three Stooges were hanging out one day in May 1970 when Barry ran into his house to get a drink of water. He noticed his sisters and brother huddled in the living room, crying.
Suddenly he wanted very much to escape; he reached for the door handle just as his mother came up behind him. "Hey," she called softly after Barry, "your dad's dead."
The news hit him like a bolt of lightning, but Barry didn't stop. He walked out into the bright sun and stood blinking on the porch. He couldn't say that he'd loved his father; he'd been hit too hard, too often. It would be fifteen years, during which Barry became a father with a son of his own, before he would recognize what his father's death meant to him and be able to weep for the loss.
But on the day he heard the news, Barry buried the hurt and ran after his friends.
Before long the Three Stooges had graduated to burglary. To compensate for any guilty consciences, the boys played Robin Hood. If they took a crate of salmon or cases of candy bars from a boxcar on Blake Street, half the neighborhood would be eating fish and chocolate the next day.
As his criminal activities increased, Barry felt torn between two worlds as distinct as downtown Denver and Five Points. At times he wondered where life was taking him, frightened that his current course was certain to lead to death or prison. Scared, he prayed to a God he wasn't sure he believed in. Other days, though, he saw that it was the tough guys, the guys with money and guns and reputations, who got respect. They didn't seem scared of anything--except maybe each other. Barry decided to be just like them.
He was off to a good start. At fifteen, Barry had been in and out of juvenile detention dozens of times. The cops would catch him, and as soon as the guards turned their backs, he'd be off and running back to the streets. Forty-three escapes--it had to be some kind of record.
Then one day in 1972, he heard that some teenage boys from a rival block had been messing with some of the local girls. For Barry, it was an opportunity to earn a rep. As night fell, he took a five-gallon can of gasoline over to a dance hall at 30th and Stout, where the rival teenagers were partying in an upstairs room. Quickly he poured the gasoline partway up the stairs, then lit a match and tossed it on the fuel. He was running out the door as the flames shot through the wooden structure.
That night, Barry was lucky. The teens in the dance hall were able to escape through an upstairs window; miraculously, no one was killed or seriously hurt--including Barry's sister who, unknown to him, had been among those partying in the room.
Barry was awakened by a flashlight in his eyes: the police. By the time he saw the judge, he'd had time to think about what could have happened that night, how close he'd come to killing someone and ruining his own life in the process. "You better lock me up tight, or I'll run," he told the judge.
The judge obliged Barry by sentencing him to two years at the Lookout Mountain state reformatory. When he finally arrived there, he was given a number that would follow him for the rest of his life. Number 74623. 74 was for 1974. He was the 623rd prisoner that year.
In 1935 the German Methodists offered the building at 25th and California to another immigrant congregation in need of larger facilities: the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church.
The first Japanese Methodist mission in Denver had been formed just after the turn of the century by lay preacher Hamanosuke Shigeta, a restaurateur by trade, according to Andrew Cleary, who wrote a history of his church, Simpson United Methodist, in 1984. With an estimated 600 Japanese living in the city, Shigeta began by opening a Christian boardinghouse for "Japanese strangers," which soon developed into a house of worship.
The struggling Japanese congregation, which at one point numbered only three adults and ten children, bounced from location to location until it finally moved into a large house at 2801 Curtis Street in 1920. Services were held in the front two rooms--a living room and dining room--while the rest of the home served as the parsonage.
Fifteen years later the rapidly expanding congregation needed more space and agreed to purchase the church building at 25th and California. The Japanese were led into their new church by Reverend Seijiro Uemura, a short, portly pastor who'd arrived in Denver in 1929 with his wife and children, who by the time of the move numbered eight. Like William Velte before him, Uemura was a much-loved minister.
"He was a gregarious man," says his daughter, Maggie Cleary, who was eleven when the family moved to Denver from Portland. "A happy person, who read a lot...almost bookwormish, but he also loved being around people."
Some of Maggie's earliest memories are of accompanying her father to the rough waterfront of Portland, where he would stand on a box preaching. "I mostly just sat and watched," she recalls. "I could do that for hours. I loved him very much."
Her mother, Hana, was a "picture bride" from Japan. Well-educated in the arts at a school run by French-Canadian missionaries, she proved an enormous asset to her husband's services. Although based at the Denver church, the pastor's mission extended to Japanese communities from Wyoming to Nebraska to southern Colorado and included truck farmers and railroad workers.
The children had no trouble assimilating into the local schools. "I think people respected the Japanese because they were honest and hardworking," Maggie says. The only untoward incident she can recall involved white antagonism toward a mixed-race couple; the distraught young woman eventually committed suicide. Young Maggie swore she would avoid similar difficulties. "Then I went and married an Irish man I met in the service," she laughs.
By the late 1930s there were an estimated 2,500 Japanese-Americans living in Colorado. "About half were constituents of Dad's church, though of course they were scattered all over the place," says Joseph Uemura, who was three when the family came to Colorado.
Joseph, a retired professor of philosophy now living in Minnesota, notes that in those days, the church was called the Japanese Methodist Church and Institute. "Institute because it offered language classes--English and Japanese, citizenship classes, and classes in Japanese culture, such as calligraphy," he explains.
"As with most immigrant churches, Dad's church perpetuated the shift toward assimilation while helping the immigrants hold on to their culture. The Japanese Christian church also served as a referral center for available social services, as well as lawyers and doctors who could be trusted by immigrant families."
Meanwhile, the traditional church of the Japanese--Buddhist--remained isolated from the community at large, mainly, Joseph says, because its clergy spoke only Japanese and were not set up to help immigrants adjust to their new land.
The Japanese Christian church, on the other hand, was often the contact point with the larger community. What most whites knew of the Japanese in America came through exchanges between churches. So services at the Japanese Methodist Church were held in Japanese and English, in part to be more inviting to outsiders.
The church at 25th and California pulled Japanese families into an already ethnically diverse neighborhood. "There was a grocery store across the street run by a Jewish couple," Joseph recalls. "There were Scot immigrants on one side and Irish on the other, and Hispanics--they were just called 'Spanish' in those days--across from our backyard. And, of course, Germans still lived in the area. I had a lot of diverse pals, including black friends I played basketball with at the Glenarm Y. Their neighborhood was only two blocks from mine."
The church hosted more than worship services. In the mid- to late 1930s a group of elderly white people known as the Townsend Club met there once a week. "I remember heating the church so that they could sit around and play bingo and checkers," Joseph says. "But the main reason they met was to plan their strategy for getting Congress to pass the Social Security Act."
And every summer Pastor Uemura rented the large sanctuary and two adjacent storage and office buildings to smaller black churches in the area for their unity conferences. "I remember that, because I would spend two weeks cleaning up the church so that it looked great when they arrived," Joseph recalls. He didn't mind the extra time spent in the sanctuary. It was peaceful, and he liked looking at the stained-glass windows. "One had the 'eye of God,'" he remembers, "which was particularly impressive to a young boy."
But the peace and harmony at 25th and California was shattered on December 7, 1941. Like the German-Americans who'd occupied the church two dozen years earlier, Japanese-Americans were now looked upon as possible enemies.
A few weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan, the Uemura family peered fearfully from the parsonage as a mob gathered on the streets outside the church. Anti-Japanese agitators stirred up the crowd until someone picked up a rock and hurled it at the beautiful windows. Soon more rocks were flying, and then more, until nothing remained of the stained glass.
Pulling his family away, Uemura tried to calm them with the words of Jesus as he hung on the cross: "They know not what they do." He also invoked an old Japanese saying, Shi-kataganai, which translates loosely to 'There's nothing we can do about it, so accept it and go on.'
There was certainly nothing Uemura could do about the riot that night. But the next day he took his case to the ministers of Denver's other Methodist churches. A decision was reached to rename the church in order to avoid further antagonizing the populace; it became the California Street Methodist Church. But the ministers didn't stop there. They brought the incident to the attention of the Colorado Council of Churches, whose leaders went back to their own congregations and asked for money to replace the shattered windows of the Japanese church.
The replacement glass was not as fine as the original windows from Germany. "But as a fifteen-year-old boy who had been badly frightened, I thought it was a wonderful gesture," Joseph says.
After that, the neighborhood was relatively peaceful. Joseph's friends of all races stuck by him, and the children stayed in school. Worship services continued, and the black churches still rented the sanctuary for their big meetings. But the greatest challenge lay ahead.
In the spring of 1942, Japanese-Americans within 500 miles of either coast, areas known as War Zone I, were told they would have to leave their homes and businesses and move to a War Zone II or be forced into relocation camps. The pretext for the order was that Japanese-Americans, born in this country or not, could not be trusted. They had two months to leave voluntarily or be removed by the military.
Realizing that thousands of families would soon be on the move with no place to go, Reverend Uemura went to Governor William Carr and asked that Japanese-American evacuees be allowed to move to Colorado. "I remember Dad coming home several times after meeting with [Attorney General Charles Clayton] Morrissey," says Joseph, "until one night he said, 'They're going to let them come.'"
Many of the evacuees were Christians who headed for the only Japanese church in the area. Most were families with no more possessions than what they could carry in a vehicle or on their backs. To handle the influx, the buildings behind the church were converted into dormitories, and at the height of the evacuation, families ate and slept in the sanctuary.
The entire congregation pitched in. Some took families into their homes. Others offered jobs. The truck farmers brought their produce to the church to help feed the refugees.
By mid-1942 the flood of displaced families had slowed to a constant trickle. But the pastor had a new cause. Japanese-American students who had been attending college in War Zone I areas had been forced to give up their studies, and many of them had ended up in relocation camps. A whole generation was stagnating. Uemura went back to the governor and this time persuaded him to encourage the students to come to Colorado, where many resumed their studies at the University of Denver. Now the church dormitories were filled with young men, a few women and their books.
Although run ragged by the refugees, Uemura had not forgotten the rest of his far-flung congregation. But here he faced another problem. Japanese-Americans were restricted to their communities. Even if he could overcome the difficulties of gas rationing, a Japanese minister was not free to travel about. Uemura paid another call on Carr. His people were isolated and afraid, he told the governor, and there had been attacks against Japanese-Americans in distant communities. They needed a minister to bring them words of hope.
Again the leaders of Colorado came through. Uemura was given a special pass and extra gas rations so he could travel from Hanna, Wyoming, to Sterling, Nebraska, to Rocky Ford--and points in between. And somehow, he still got back in time for Sunday services at 25th and California.
But the work was taking its toll on the pastor. Sometimes all he had time for was his mission, a bite to eat and a few hours' sleep while his beloved books gathered dust on the shelves. His children helped all they could: cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, tending to the sick when a doctor was not available.
Then personal tragedy struck. In 1943 one of Joseph's older sisters came down with spinal meningitis and died. Her death devastated the family, but it seemed to hit Seijiro Uemura particularly hard.
"I think he blamed himself," Joseph says. "He thought he gave her too much work, that she was too tired and that's why she got sick. He tried to take it like he took everything else, stoic. 'We have work to do,' Shi-kataganai, and all that, but he seemed more worn and frail after she died."
The war ended but Uemura's obligations continued. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese had been displaced from their homes and sent to relocation camps, while their businesses were co-opted. Their former communities did not welcome their return.
So Uemura went one more time to Governor Carr. Please, he asked, let these good Americans know they will be welcome in Colorado. Carr agreed, and the politician's compassion earned him a place in the hearts of the Japanese community, which erected a monument to him that stands in Sakura Square. But Carr's decision was unpopular with the rest of the population and is thought to have cost him the next election.
The governor's proclamation offering Colorado as a place of refuge brought a new flood of families to Denver, many of whom settled near the church at 25th and California--which meant more work for the Uemura family.
Some historians would later contend that Carr and his attorney general simply read the state constitution and saw no legal reason to block the influx of Japanese during and after the war. But those who knew best realized that much of the credit for persuading the two men to take their brave stance should go to a short, hardworking pastor who loved people and books.
"And dad was always supported in his efforts by the Council of Churches, even when it was sometimes unpopular with their own congregations," Joseph says. "The council has never received proper credit for that."
In 1947 Seijiro Uemura asked to be transferred to a smaller church in California. He was 67 years old. A heart attack the year before had slowed him, but mostly he was worn out by his efforts for his people and by the death of his daughter. Younger Japanese associate pastors had arrived at the church at 25th and California and were eager to take over. Uemura, they whispered, was no longer energetic enough to lead a congregation swollen by the end of the war.
Uemura passed away on December 7, 1957, six months after his wife died. Although Joseph had started following in his father's footsteps, actually becoming a minister part-time, when he was offered a scholarship to study philosophy at Columbia University, he left the Iliff School of Theology, where he was studying for his doctorate.
Maggie married her Irishman and remained a member of the church.
In 1960, looking for a larger facility, the congregation decided to merge with Simpson Methodist Church, which had been founded in 1882 and was one of the oldest continuing Methodist churches in Colorado. Struggling with "white flight" from the interracial neighborhood around the church at 34th and High, Simpson had a large building but only a few dozen members at services and, finally, no minister. The two congregations struck a deal to join under the Simpson United Methodist Church banner.
Two years later the building at 25th and California was sold to a poor black church: the Union Gospel Mission.
In 1967 the Simpson congregation, now predominantly Japanese, built a new church in Arvada. The building is Japanese in architecture and landscaping style. But when the congregation was asked to choose a new name, they voted to retain Simpson United Methodist.
On Sunday mornings Simpson conducts two services simultaneously. One is in English, the other in Japanese.
Barry Staten was released from the state reformatory on June 12, 1975. On August 12 of the following year, his son, Galen, was born. Barry had met his girlfriend through her brother, Ricky, one of the Three Stooges. She'd hated Barry when they were growing up, but now they were in love.
The new father held his tiny son and studied his face for his own features. Whatever else he had done wrong, this was a good thing. He couldn't remember when he'd been so happy. All he wanted was to be a good father. So he started to work, mostly in the kitchens of downtown restaurants, and stayed off the streets.
But the relationship with his girlfriend was stormy. They were in love one minute and at each other's throats the next. Two years after his son was born, Barry was sitting in a car with Ricky and Ricky's brother. They were all three drunk, and the two brothers started yelling at Barry for fighting with their sister.
"Hey, that's between her and me," he retorted. "She's the mother of my child, and it's none of your business."
The argument escalated until the two brothers began beating Barry. He escaped out the driver's side door, pulling the older brother with him. When Barry started punching him, Ricky ran around from the passenger side and pulled Barry off his sibling.
The two brothers were working Barry over when the older one suddenly became violently ill from all the alcohol he'd consumed and collapsed. Knowing he couldn't handle Barry by himself, Ricky took off running. But Barry caught him and cold-cocked him in mid-stride.
A week later, Barry was at his girlfriend's mother's house visiting Galen. He wasn't worried about the brothers; he figured they'd all gotten their licks in and the fight was behind them. But when word had gotten out on the streets about how Barry had bested him, Ricky's reputation had also taken a beating. There was only one way to get it back. In the yard, Ricky confronted Barry with a .22-caliber pistol. Barry stood his ground. Ricky fired a shot at his feet.
Barry turned to leave, but hell if he was going to run. Another bullet zipped into the ground. Then another and another. Barry was counting the shots as he walked as calmly as fear would allow. The gun was a six-shooter. Two left, he told himself. The fifth shot went buzzing by his ear.
Barry ran. As he hopped the fence, he felt a burning in his back. Thinking he'd scraped himself, he kept running down the sidewalk. Then he heard a young boy cry, "He's hit! He's hit!"
Surprised, Barry turned. "What?"
"You shot," the boy said.
Barry looked down. No blood. Then his felt his back and looked at his hand. It was bright red. Damn, he'd been shot--by his old friend, his son's uncle.
After that, Barry tried to stay out of trouble. Although he rarely kept a job more than a few months, he didn't do much worse than smoke marijuana. He saw his son when he could. His girlfriend's parents didn't approve of him, but they couldn't stop him. Galen was a chubby toddler, just like Barry had been, with soft brown eyes that lit up when his father brought him something, like the new little cowboy boots on which he'd spent his last dime. But the visits were always too short.
In 1980 Barry was working as a janitor at a health-care center when the manager accused him of stealing a fellow employee's television. The manager said he was going to withhold $160 from Barry's $200 paycheck to pay for it.
Barry denied stealing the television, but the manager didn't believe him. Enraged, he went home and got a kitchen knife, then returned to the center. He kept the knife hidden beneath his coat, except for the wooden handle that he hoped the manager would think was a gun. He demanded his pay.
The manager told him his check wasn't there. So angry he couldn't think straight, Barry demanded all the cash the center had on hand. The manager handed over $800. As Barry ran from the office, the knife fell out of his coat. Looking back, he saw a woman in the hallway pick it up. At that moment his head cleared, and he knew he was in trouble.
And indeed he was. Barry was arrested, convicted of robbery and sentenced to forty months in the medium-security prison in Buena Vista.
In 1982 Barry was sitting in his cell at a halfway house, thirty days removed from freedom, when he started listening to a conversation in the cell next door. From the sounds of it, an evangelist was visiting another prisoner. As the preacher talked, Barry found himself growing more interested. The preacher began citing certain passages in the Bible; Barry picked up a copy that had been left in his cell and began fumbling at the pages so that he could read along. The other prisoner didn't seem terribly interested in what his visitor had to say. But as the man started to leave, Barry called to him. "I want some of what you were trying to give him," he said.
The minister stopped and assessed the young black man. He smiled. "Tomorrow we'll be having a fellowship meeting in the day room," he told Barry. "If you show up, I'll see what we can do to get it for you."
The next evening Barry went to the meeting. The room was filled with prisoners and ministers and lay people visiting from the outside. They were praying and laying on hands for blessings, even speaking in strange tongues. Barry felt something tug at him inside. He made up his mind to commit his life to Christ.
"You'll have to give up all your wicked ways," the minister warned him.
"I will," he shouted, and meant it.
Until he got out. He spent his first day of freedom with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other, cursing up a blue streak. Whatever voice he thought he'd heard at the fellowship meeting, it couldn't compete with the siren call of the streets.
For the next two years Barry made his living as a petty thief. He considered it staying out of trouble, because he didn't get caught. But soon stealing radios to pawn for ten bucks wasn't enough. He wanted serious money. He wanted to dress like his heroes, the thugs and the pimps and the drug dealers. And the only way he saw to do that was with a gun.
He kept his fear at bay by smoking joints dipped in embalming fluid...and with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, the baddest gun on the street at the time--cops didn't even have them yet. And he started sporting the gangster look: a wide-brimmed fedora, a long coat with big pockets for easy access to his gun, and a pair of shiny black shoes.
But Barry's new lifestyle was making him crazy. Even those who initially benefited from his crime sprees, using his money for their drugs and booze, began distancing themselves from him. Barry was crazy enough to get himself or someone else killed, and they didn't want to be in the line of fire when the cops or a rival came looking for him.
He couldn't get together with Galen's mother without the two of them fighting. Her family tried to keep him from seeing the boy, and Galen's grandfather even pulled a gun. "I just want to see my baby," Barry would yell. But the little boy had been told his daddy was a bad man, and he'd scream and run if he saw Barry.
Even his mother wouldn't let Barry sleep in her house. He was still her son, so she'd feed him a meal when he dropped by, but then he was back on the streets. And when she moved in with her daughter, Barry had to stay on the porch while his meal was handed out to him. His own sister was afraid of him--and what disaster he might bring down on the rest of his family. High on embalming fluid, afraid and homeless, some evenings Barry would stand in the dark and look through the windows, crying like he had when he was a kid too afraid to face his father.
In these years, Barry went in and out of jail for a variety of petty offenses, but nothing heavy enough to get him sent to prison. Each time he was locked behind bars he found Jesus, only to lose him again once he was set free. One night he was sleeping on a park bench when he had a dream that he was kneeling in a grave. Below him were thousands of watches. He was desperate to know what time it was, but the watch faces were cracked and all the hands frozen. Finally he found a watch with its crystal intact, but he still couldn't see what time it was. He could only hear it ticking.
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.
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.
In 1988 the congregation bought the old parsonage next door and converted it into office space for the Community Outreach Center, whose projects were funded by grants from a variety of sources, including the United Way, state and federal programs, and the Metro Denver Black Church Initiative.
Several years later Robert Woolfolk was serving on the initiative's board when the Denver-based Piton Foundation decided to fund a survey of black churches. The goal was to "assess the nature and scale of community outreach programming offered by black churches and explore interest in future church collaborations for outreach," according to Grant Jones, who supervised the project for Piton. The survey identified 164 local "black" churches--churches in which both the majority of members and the senior ministers were African-Americans. Eighty of these churches participated in the survey.
The vast majority of the churches were located in northeast Denver. Although they ranged in size from ten-member storefronts to 2,700-person congregations, half reported 150 members or fewer. Nearly half had an annual operating budget of $50,000 or less; just a quarter had a budget that exceeded $100,000. Many relied heavily on volunteers for all aspects of church operations: 29 percent had no paid clergy; 46 percent had no paid staff. The congregants were predominantly adult female, mostly low- and middle-income.
"The picture of church-sponsored community outreach that emerges," the survey concluded, "is one of substantial effort, aspiration and potential but limited capacity and scale. Although most churches report sponsoring at least one type of community outreach program, about half of the programs are offered on an intermittent or as-needed basis.
"While senior ministers want the church to be an effective vehicle for social change, they readily acknowledge that current programming does not meet the needs of the African-American community."
The survey suggested that Denver's black churches would be more effective at providing community services if they established better relationships with corporations and foundations that could provide funding. But that, Jones points out, is much easier said than done.
In the past, secular corporations and foundations have been reluctant to give grants to churches out of a concern that the money might be used to recruit members rather than provide services. At the same time, the fiercely independent black churches have been leery of accepting money from mostly white-run corporations and foundations for fear that they will try to influence church decisions.
As wary as they are of white interference, black churches have also been slow to work together. Some of the reluctance is historical, as real--if not as violent--as the Catholic/ Protestant split in Northern Ireland. But some can also be attributed to ego, jealousy and pettiness.
The importance of the black church to the black community was detailed by Andrew Billingsley, a Spelman College sociologist who served as consultant on the project. "Historically, black churches have been the preeminent institution in the black community for strengthening and stabilizing black families," he noted. "Since their inception in the eighteenth century, black churches have performed vital spiritual, cultural, social, economic, educational, health, social welfare, community development, economic development and leadership development functions.
"In addition to forming black educational facilities at the pre-school, elementary, high school and college levels, black religious institutions have been instrumental in creating life insurance companies, banks, other businesses, credit unions, hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, orphanages and housing for the elderly and low-income families and in providing food, clothing and shelter to the needy. Most beneficiaries of such efforts are community residents who are not church members."
Adds Jones, "Black churches remain behind in distressed inner cities when everyone else who can has fled to the suburbs. When everyone else has closed their doors, the black churches and the liquor stores are the only ones that remain open...often serving the same customers."
The leadership of the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties came out of the black churches: Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson. But in the decades since, the largest, most powerful black churches have grown complacent. "The potential is still there," Jones says. "They are truly sleeping giants."
The giants started waking up this March when the Center for Democratic Renewal, formerly known as the Anti-Klan Network, called a press conference to announce that it had statistics indicating that arson against black churches across the country was on the rise. The CDR called the burnings "an organized conspiracy of white supremacists" and hinted that right-wing conservatives had fanned the flames with their rhetoric.
Stories about the church burnings started appearing in newspapers and on TV stations across the country. Visiting a new church built on the site of a burned-out church in South Carolina, President Bill Clinton promised the full support of federal law enforcement agencies and blue-ribbon panels to look into the situation.
In Denver, Rocky Mountain News publisher Larry Strutton stood in front of the 130-year-old Zion Baptist Church and announced a fundraising drive to rebuild burned churches, contributing a $10,000 check to start the process; the newspaper began running a full-page advertisement showing a burning church and the inscription "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."
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.
Barry learned that the hard way. When he got out of prison, his mother bought him a blue hat. He'd always liked blue, and he didn't know it was the color Crips wore to identify themselves. But when he walked through Five Points one day to visit his aunt, four kids began following him, cursing and gesturing. When he went inside his aunt's house, they were still there. Barry's aunt had to explain that the boys were probably Bloods, who wore red, and he was wearing blue in an area they claimed as their turf.
"I better leave," he said. "They might have gone to get a gun." And sure enough, when he was a block from her house, he looked back and saw the boys turning the corner, hurrying to lie in wait for him.
The lesson hit closer to home when he got a call from eleven-year-old Galen's teacher. He'd threatened her, said he was going to put a bomb in her car. Did Barry know that Galen was wearing his pants low with a red scarf hanging out of the pocket?
No, Barry said, he didn't, but now he was going to beat the boy's butt as soon as he caught him. At that, he saw his son bolt out of the house. It was the dead of winter, but Galen had taken off without a coat or shoes.
A belt in his hand, Barry tracked his son down to a friend's house. The other boy's father came to the door. He saw the belt in Barry's hand and nodded. "You got to do that. I just got done whuppin' mine for tryin' to get into this gang thing," he said.
Galen was ordered up from the basement. He was shivering from cold or fear or both. As they started walking back to the house, the boy still without any shoes, Barry started feeling sorry for him. He knew how hard it had been for him to stay out of trouble; if anything, it was harder these days. The gangs were recruiting kids right out of elementary school, promising them things their parents couldn't provide but drug money could--like the latest $100 basketball shoes and sports jackets.
Barry decided to have a man-to-man talk with his son instead of whipping him. He explained what it had been like in prison, what it was like for young gang members when they arrived. "They keep their pants pulled up tight," he said. He wanted something better for his son.
Galen tried to explain how his gang was set up to protect the neighborhood from other gangs. If you were weak, the others would take everything, including your life. Barry said he understood, but that didn't give kids the right to create their own little "governments of violence."
When payday rolled around, Barry took Galen shopping and spent $250 on two pairs of sneakers. He got a white pair. Galen wanted a black pair with red marks on them.
Although they were married, Barry and Galen's mother weren't getting along any better. His wife's mother thought Barry was too hard on Galen and suggested that the boy come live with her for a while. Wanting to keep the peace with the woman he loved, Barry agreed.
One day when he went to visit Galen, he spotted the boy running down an alley. He discovered that Galen was acting as a lookout for his uncles, who were breaking into a neighbor's garage.
He told his wife, but she refused to believe him. The argument got heated. Suddenly, she picked up the phone and dialed 911. Barry couldn't believe it--she was reporting him for domestic violence, and he hadn't touched her. The police arrested him anyway.
Over the next four years his wife reported Barry fifteen times, almost always after an argument about Galen's growing involvement with gangs. Each time the charges were dismissed when Barry's wife refused to show up for court. And as soon as he got out of jail, Barry and his wife would get back together.
Then came the day in 1992 when Barry found a loaded gun in his stepdaughter's diaper bag. The baby's father was a Blood. A few days later Galen came by the house, accompanied by a gang leader known as "Scrappy," and asked for the gun.
Barry gave it to Galen. But that wasn't enough for Scrappy. "You owe me $100," he said. Galen backed Scrappy up.
Barry felt a chill run up his spine--not from the gang leader's threat, but from the fact that his own flesh and blood was choosing sides against him. The two boys left, but Barry knew it wasn't over. He went out and bought a gun.
The boys soon showed up again, one evening when Barry was leaving the house with his wife. "I want my $100," Scrappy said. Galen stood silently behind him.
"Here's your $100," Barry responded, pulling his weapon. He fired a shot into the air, which froze the boys long enough for him to take off running. Then there was the sound of shots being fired. He would never know if Galen was trying to hit him or just putting on a show for his homie.
The police didn't buy Barry's story, and they arrested him for felony menacing. But after listening to Barry's version of events, then-chief deputy district attorney Craig Silverman dropped the menacing charge in exchange for Barry pleading guilty to being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. Silverman seemed to understand what was going on with the gangs and that Barry was just trying to save his kid. Barry was given two years of the lightest probation possible; he didn't even have to report in.
The next year was 1993, the so-called Summer of Violence. But except for some white people getting shot, it was just the same cycle of drive-by shootings, retaliation, and then retaliation for the retaliation in the black neighborhoods.
One hot afternoon, seventeen-year-old Galen was standing with some other Bloods when a man dressed in black, with black bandannas pulled up to hide his face, walked up and started shooting. One of the bullets caught Galen in the side and lodged up against his spine.
Barry was at work when the call came from his wife. By the time he got to Galen's room at Denver General, a police officer was questioning his son about the shooting. Some guy wanted him to sell drugs, Galen said, and shot him when he refused. Barry knew it was bullshit.
Also in the room was Galen's probation officer from an earlier robbery conviction. "Think this will do him any good?" the man asked Barry while they waited for the detective to finish his interview.
Barry thought about it. He wanted to believe that surviving a shooting would make Galen think hard about his life, but he knew it was hard to escape from a gang. "Well, he's either going to use it to build up his rep," Barry finally said, "or it will scare him straight. I don't know. It's up to him."
Galen stayed in gangs but managed to stay out of serious trouble with the law--until two years later, when he stopped by his parents' new house in Park Hill. It was in Crips territory, but Galen was fearless. When gang members saw him and his red bandanna, they began firing guns in the air.
Galen walked back to the trunk of his car, pulled out two 9mm semi-automatics, and emptied both guns into his rivals' house--eighteen shots in all. Amazingly, no one was hurt, but Galen was arrested and convicted for felony menacing.
As with his father, it was the best thing that could have happened to Galen. He was sent to a new facility that offered gang members one last chance to straighten out their lives, and he wound up on a Missouri college campus, taking classes toward his high school diploma.
Barry, too, was back in school. In the fall of 1994 he'd started studying at the Community College of Denver and working as a mentor for other young African-American students. That's when he heard that there might be an opening at a Five Points church, which had received a grant to hire someone to work with at-risk youth. The job entailed driving a van to pick up kids from local schools and take them to the church and work with them there. Was he interested?
Barry jumped at the chance. The way he saw it, this was an opportunity to give something to kids that he hadn't been able to give his own son. He could be a role model and counselor, someone who understood where they were coming from and had felt their pain.
Barry met with the pastor of the church, Reverend Robert Woolfolk. He liked him immediately; Woolfolk was obviously committed to the community, not just preaching on Sundays, and he clearly cared about the people who worked for him. "I'll be here for you," Barry promised.
There was something familiar about Woolfolk's face. Barry was still trying to figure it out while the pastor took him on a tour of Agape's facilities. They started with the buildings in back of the sanctuary, buildings once used as dormitories for another group of people seeking refuge. "Here's where we tutor the kids," he said. "Here's where we cook hot meals on Saturday for the poor."
Then Woolfolk opened a door and stepped through it. "And here," he said, "is the sanctuary. Do you have a church home?"
"No," Barry stammered. "No, I've been waiting for the Lord to show me where he wants me to go." As he followed Woolfolk into the sanctuary, he was overcome by a feeling of peace. He looked at the beautiful windows and the wooden beams reaching to the shadowed ceiling. Then he looked at Woolfolk, now up at the pulpit, and realized why he'd seemed so familiar. This was the dream he'd had in prison. He looked back and saw the empty pews.
He knew this was where he was supposed to be, saving children and helping the pastor fill those seats. He knew at last that he was home.
Barry told Woolfolk about his dream, although the pastor never did say what credence he might have put in it. But Eddie Mae, Robert's wife, took to calling Barry "The Dreamer."
Now his dream was to help kids, and he took his job far beyond its stated description. He started bringing kids whose parents either wouldn't or couldn't come to Sunday services. Often they were the children of single mothers who either had to work Sundays or were so exhausted they gratefully accepted a few hours' respite, knowing their children were safe. At first some in the congregation were a little taken aback by the unruly additions, but when they saw the changes in the kids, they began volunteering to sit with them.
As Barry became a familiar figure in the schools, teachers and principals began asking him to help with some of their harder cases. He'd talk to these kids, sharing his life experiences with them, and they came to trust him. Even some parents still involved with drugs or gangs turned to Barry to save their children from similar fates.
Barry was demanding--no gang slang or dress, no cursing, no disrespect. In exchange, he gave them unconditional love and acceptance. Soon the younger kids were begging him to take them to church.
It was harder with the older kids; the words of Jesus could be a tough sell on the streets. Love your enemy? Turn the other cheek? That was sissy stuff. But Barry kept talking.
Some things still got to him. When there was an opening for a youth minister, Woolfolk passed him over, and again when there was a slot for an outreach supervisor for the elderly. The kids ran him ragged physically, and their suffering drained him emotionally.
It bothered him that there weren't more men his age at church. They were the ones who'd been there, the ones who could talk to the gangs in their own language. But most of his past associates were either dead, addicted or in prison. Sometimes Barry had to do a double-take when he saw the face of a long-gone friend on some child who came into church.
Sometimes Barry just couldn't take it anymore and would retreat to his mother's basement for days or even weeks. Woolfolk would always welcome him back, counseling him to take care of himself. It wouldn't do the kids any good if Barry burned out. He couldn't shoulder all the problems of the world, or even the neighborhood. He had to accept that he couldn't change everything--at least not all at once--and go on. Shi-kataganai.
Two weeks ago Barry was supervising the kids while they waited for their parents to pick them up from summer camp. Only three were left when he heard a commotion across the street and down the block.
A group of boys who looked about twelve or so were gathered around a man lying motionless on the sidewalk. They were kicking him. Another man, apparently the fallen man's friend, stood helpless nearby. Then apparently he said something, because one of the boys swung a shovel he was holding and dropped the second man to his knees.
"Go into the church and tell the pastor to call the police," Barry told the kids. He was scared, but he crossed the street. He walked up as the boy with the shovel began digging at the back of the first man's neck.
Seeing Barry, all but two boys--the one with the shovel and a larger boy--ran off. The men, who were high on something, picked themselves up, thanked Barry and staggered away.
The larger boy took a step toward Barry, raising his fists, ready to fight. "This is Crips, cuz," he said, issuing a challenge.
"Don't hit him, he's a minister," Barry heard the kid with the shovel say.
"Fuck a minister," the larger boy said, taking another step toward Barry. "This is Crips, cuz!"
Barry turned toward the boy with the shovel and realized he'd seen him just the day before. He and the pastor had been standing in the playground between the outreach center and the church when the boy had come running toward them from across the street. Close behind was a police cruiser, which jumped the curb. A moment later the boy was on the ground, a cop on his back.
The officer had looked up at Barry and the pastor, as well as the several kids on the playground. He let the kid up, handcuffed him and put him in the car. Barry let the cop know what he thought of his tactics. He hadn't even sounded the squad car's siren when it jumped a curb near a playground. An innocent child could have been hurt. And it had looked like the cop was ready to rough up his prisoner.
Now here was that kid, a day later, telling his homie not to attack him. He walked over to the boy with the shovel. "Am I your enemy?" he asked.
"No." The kid dropped his eyes and looked at the ground.
Barry turned to the other boy, who still had his fists up. "Am I your enemy?"
"No." His fists came down slowly.
Barry seized the moment. "I love you guys," he said. "We got a church down here. Come on down, and I'll help you get back to school or maybe get a job...Now take that shovel and put it up. The police are coming, and you need to get out of here."
The boys nodded, then took off.
Barry was proud of how he'd handled the situation. Maybe I got through to them, he thought.
Twenty minutes later he was standing outside the church with Woolfolk. He was getting ready to take the parents of the little girl who'd been murdered and thrown in a dumpster to a drug rehabilitation center.
Suddenly a car came screeching around the corner, running the stop sign and slamming into a parked car. Three kids piled out of the car. One was the kid who'd had the shovel. He looked a lot like Galen at that age.
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
The congregation at Agape Christian Church launched into the old spiritual with their usual gusto. Woolfolk smiled as he sang along. It was a good crowd today.
While filling the pews wasn't his chief mission, one of the frustrations of the job was that whenever the church got someone on his feet, that would be the last Woolfolk would see of him. People wanted out of Five Points, not in, and that was no way to rebuild a neighborhood.
Close to half the congregation today was children--thanks to Barry, who was in the front row belting out the song while keeping an eye on his charges. It was still a tug-of-war with Barry, but Woolfolk had a feeling he was going to make it. Maybe someday he'd even be a pastor.
But right now, Barry was scowling at two small brothers wrestling over a toy. They looked up, saw him and stopped. That brought a smile to Barry's face as he joined back in the song.
"Amazing Grace" was his favorite. Sometimes it seemed like it had been written with him in mind. As a reminder to him, like the prison number he carries and the shiny black shoes from his gangster days that he always wears, that sometimes you can be blind with your eyes wide open.
He had a lot to be thankful for. The church had received another grant to continue his position. Galen was doing well in Missouri, although he'd have a lot of proving to do when he came back home before his father was ready to believe gangs were a part of his past. And Barry was even getting along with his mother. For the longest time, she'd simply refused to believe that the change in him was real. But she had just given him his own key to her house, and that was a very big deal indeed.
Barry smiled. They were just getting to his favorite stanza in the song.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
"Amen," Barry thought. "Amen.