The Black Sheep

Unitarian minister Joel Miller finds out it's hard to lead the wrong kind of church in southwest Jefferson County

"The common belief in our society today is that there are many ways to get to God," Oudemolen tells an audience held captive by the intensity in his eyes. He lets the book drop to the ground. A brief pause follows, and the first cracklings of applause begin. "There's the Buddhist way, the Jewish way and the New Age way. People say exclusion makes them feel uncomfortable, but it inhibits our ability to witness. The only way to get to God is through Jesus, and the evangelicals are the only ones left who understand this.

"Brothers and sisters," he says, in an appeal that takes on a Southern accent. "God. Has. Passion. For. You."

With his fingers pointing to the audience, Oudemolen concludes his sermon by challenging his congregation to ignore the feel-good talk of accepting all religions and to focus on the one and only way: Jesus Christ.

Later that week, in his spacious office in the administrative wing of Foothills Bible Church, where a secretary offers to refill his coffee mug, Oudemolen leans back in his swivel chair and ponders the relationships between different clergy in his neighborhood. "It is clear to me that we've fallen into two camps. Until the Columbine shootings, there was a kind of acceptance of the way things are. There was no strong, warm, energetic connection between clergy, but there was also no anger and hostility," says Oudemolen, who has been the pastor at Foothills Bible for more than fourteen years. "Columbine is the first community-wide episode that called for a church response, and it brought out the differences that were below the surface."

Those differences, Oudemolen says, rest in the churches' varying methodologies, and the Unitarian Universalist methodology is one he just can't understand. "When I think about how they value doubt and accept all religions, I just don't understand how that can be a rock in the storm of life. Where is the truth in their system? Where do you put an anchor?" he asks. "They would say there are many ways, while we say there is one way, one absolute truth. Their system is philosophically flawed. Saying there is no absolute truth is making an absolute statement, and that seems circular to me."

Miller is one of those people who think there are "many ways to the top of the mountain," and for that reason, his little church has become an island, drifting farther and farther away from a mainland of evangelicals. New Unitarian Universalist churches typically receive a nice reception from other churches, be they Baptist, Catholic or fundamentalist, Miller says. But no one in Colorado rushed to lay a welcome mat before his door. "The Lutherans have been very good neighbors, as have the Latter-day Saints across the street," Miller concedes. The quilt hanging on the wall above his couch was a gift from the Mormons.

Shortly after Miller arrived in Colorado, he was invited by a liberal pastor to attend a meeting of about thirty area clergy who met regularly. A woman from Focus on the Family was there, and she was outraged over a Columbine High School assembly featuring a speaker who addressed students about the challenges of growing up gay or lesbian. "The tone of the meeting immediately changed, and a few of the ministers shot me a disapproving glance while she was talking," says Miller, whose church is open to gay, lesbian and bisexual members. "When I introduced myself to the other clergy members, two of them turned their backs on me and wouldn't even shake my hand."

After that meeting, attendance dwindled to about seven clergy--mostly liberal Lutherans. The gatherings eventually ended. "I later learned that conservative evangelicals consider Unitarian Universalists beyond the pale. I've had people come to my church services to see what they're like because they've heard evangelical ministers say we are evil people," Miller says. "People have even classified us as a cult, which is ironic, considering one of our main principles is that people should think for themselves."

When the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church featured a Denver gay and lesbian choir one Sunday, Miller posted fliers in front of his church and throughout the community, advertising the guests. All of the signs were torn down. That's when he realized that he and his congregation were just too different to be accepted, and so he went his way and they went theirs, each operating in their own vacuums.

"I think our church represents something that conservative people of any faith don't want to acknowledge, and that's doubt. A faith that hasn't been doubted is a fragile faith indeed. Doubt is a healthy part of faith," he says. "In a lot of conservative religions, everyone is supposed to put their faith in Jesus, and doubt doesn't play a role. But in our religion, everyone doubts. As far as I can tell, people of a conservative faith fear doubt, and I think that's why the conservative evangelicals dislike us so."

The Columbine High School shootings only amplified the differences between the evangelical and non-evangelical churches; instead of uniting for their community, mainline pastors say, the conservative evangelicals have segregated themselves. Miller attended a meeting of area clergy the Friday after the shootings during which they talked about how to support the school district with a memorial service, how to deal with the media and how to handle the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. "The clergy were all very friendly, but one evangelical minister asked if anyone would be threatened if they had their own memorial," Miller says. "What makes me sad is that it meant they didn't want to work with someone like myself."

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