Raising Holy Hell

Love thy neighbor, the Bible says. But that's not easy in Golden these days.

Ida Mae Brueske has lived in her small, north Golden home since 1962. An affable 76-year-old grandmother who raised five boys in this house with her late husband, Brueske thought she'd spend the rest of her days on the quiet street of well-kept lawns and backyard barbecues that, appropriately enough, is named Iowa Drive.

"I intended to live in this house until they drug me out by the heels," she says.

But today she's thinking of moving. The reason is just on the other side of her backyard fence: a gabled, shiny-white addition now being put up by the Hillside Community Church. The addition towers over the one-story red-brick church that's been part of the neighborhood for over thirty years--and a good neighbor for most of those years.

The addition is either 35 or 42 feet tall, depending on who's measuring. It's a charming, Southern-style architectural design or a massive eyesore made of cheap vinyl siding, depending on who's looking. The City of Golden either went out of its way to help a struggling young congregation or failed miserably to enforce its own zoning code, depending on which side of a lawsuit you happen to be on. And from the pews of the church, members see a charismatic pastor working diligently to lead his flock to God, while across the street, neighbors see a charlatan who is fleecing his congregation in order to pay for a born-again barn-raising that has robbed the neighborhood of its peace and quiet.

"They came in with the attitude, 'We're taking over this neighborhood, and you people just don't matter,'" says Brueske.

Now Hillside and nearby residents are in the midst of a holy war, with the backyard fences that surround the church property marking the front lines. The Hillside congregation and much of north Golden are rife with tales of bulldozer engines being gunned intentionally late at night to rile neighbors, vindictive residents smearing dog poop on a preacher's car and pickets marching in front of the church with placards. And while neighbors say they're losing sleep over the construction, Hillside's pastor says their opposition puts them at risk of losing their souls.

Pastor Thomas K. Murphy, known to his followers as T.K., is a former Wheat Ridge High School basketball star who got his start in the ministry as a youth pastor at Denver's giant Riverside Baptist Church. Eager to start his own church, the lanky, blond Murphy founded Hillside in 1994 in Lakewood. Two years later, the congregation had outgrown that home and started looking for another.

The Ford Street Baptist Church had been calling people to worship at the small building on North Ford Street in Golden since the early Sixties. The congregation was always fairly small, and the church had its ups and downs. By summer 1996, Ford Street's Sunday services were drawing only about 25 people, and Southern Baptist officials became alarmed--especially since the church owed the Southern Baptist convention $23,000.

One member of the church offered to personally pay off the $23,000 debt, but the Southern Baptist convention had another idea.

Reverend Floyd Littlepage, then the pastor of Ford Street, says he was approached by Southern Baptist officials who told him that Hillside, a fast-growing congregation in south Jefferson County, was looking for a building. They suggested the two churches could merge, with T.K. Murphy's young congregation energizing the older one.

"I thought maybe this group could be good for us," says Littlepage, who wanted to stay with the new church and minister to the senior members. "We started out thinking we could merge and put the two congregations together. That's why we agreed to sit down and talk."

When the church went into debt, the convention gained title to the building. "That turned out to be our downfall," says Littlepage, "because it gave them the legal right to take over our building."

A Southern Baptist official says the church just wanted to make both congregations happy. "We facilitated in trying to use the building in a multi-congregational aspect," says Kenny Moore of the Denver Baptist Association. "Ford Street had talked about merging or disbanding."

Moore now calls the situation a "poster-boy case for miscommunication," but says he doesn't want to comment further on a deal that has created ill will between the two pastors and their followers.

"There's a lot of anger on the part of our members," says Littlepage. "A lot of them feel like T.K. was a thief. It was supposed to be a merger, but it turned out to be a hostile takeover. We asked to be part of their congregation and were told there was no place for us."

One Hillside member blames a generation gap for the hostilities, since many Ford Street members were elderly, while most of Hillside's congregation is in its twenties and thirties, and many members have young children. "I believe [the Ford Street members] wanted to have services at a different time," says Doug Faude, who lives near the church he attends. "There may have been some generational conflict."

Littlepage acknowledges that several members of his congregation were troubled by Hillside's lack of a traditional baptismal font and its emphasis on contemporary music. "There's a lot of symbolism in a church," says the former pastor. "There's no pulpit in that congregation. The pulpit should be in the center, and a baptismal pool should be in the back. When you do away with the symbolism, you lose a lot of subconscious teaching."

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