The Black Sheep

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

"A lot of people in this community discount Joel and his church," says Steve Poos-Benson, minister of the liberal Columbine United Church, an amalgamation of Presbyterians, Methodists and United Church of Christ members. "They are viewed as so far liberal that people think they're on the fringe of Christendom."

Poos-Benson says he was "flabbergasted" when he learned Miller wasn't invited to participate with other clergy who were reaching out to the community after the shootings. "We are sharply separated in this community, and anyone who says we're not is blind."

Long before Columbine emerged on the national radar, relations between evangelicals and non-evangelicals were polite at best. "It's terrible. There are two Christianities in southwest Jefferson County," says Don Marxhausen, pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church. Marxhausen has gained prominence since the shootings; after he performed the funeral service for Dylan Klebold, he spent a few days as a sort of spiritual spokesman for the family. He also has been outspoken about the evangelicals' approach to dealing with the tragedy. "There are the uncivil conservatives and the mainline Catholics and Protestants. As a Lutheran, I can walk into a Catholic church and give the priest a hug, and we can talk about our differences. But I can't do that with an evangelical. We don't see it as we're right and they're wrong, but they're individualistic and we're for community."

In his nine years in the Columbine area, Marxhausen has tried to work with evangelicals on various community projects. Six years ago, the Jefferson County parks and recreation district, the sheriff's office, the district attorney's office, community members and several area churches started a program for middle-school kids called the Neutral Zone. In the program, approximately 250 kids spend two Saturday nights a month at a local YMCA, where they play games, watch videos and dance. Different churches take turns chaperoning the students, but the purpose of the program is to give kids a safe place to go on weekend nights, not to proselytize, says Marxhausen. "We tried to invite evangelicals to participate," he says, "but they wouldn't help unless they could make the kids fair game for their churches."

Marxhausen, who chairs the Denver Area Interfaith Clergy Conference, says tension between conservative evangelicals and mainline Protestants and Catholics exists everywhere--it's just been more evident in southwest Jefferson County lately. But Michael Carrier, pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in southeast Denver and head of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado--a group of 400 clergy and laypeople representing different religions--says there's a lot more cooperation among different churches elsewhere in the Denver metro area. And evangelicals are part of the alliance, which formed a year ago to work on political issues. Last fall the members drafted a code of civility, asking incumbents and aspiring politicians to pledge not to use religion as a weapon in their campaigns.

On Sunday, June 6, St. Philip Lutheran Church held a dedication for its new sanctuary, and Marxhausen invited clergy from area Catholic and Protestant churches. He didn't bother inviting evangelicals. "They wouldn't have attended, and they would never invite us to one of their dedications," he says. "When you meet evangelical clergy, they'll say hello, but if you invite them to a meeting, they don't come. Some would never show up at a mainline meeting if you sent them a dozen invitations."

On the west side of Wadsworth Boulevard, a colossal peach-colored church looks more like a suburban high school than a house of worship. Gerald Nelson is the minister of the evangelical Southern Gables Church, and he has been meeting each week for the past three years with approximately eighteen local members of the clergy from various Christian denominations.

"I believe there is no such division in our community," Nelson says of the rift Miller and Marxhausen have described. "But there are distinctions. This is not a situation where you have two camps. The distinction isn't mainlines versus evangelicals; it's more subtle than that. If you put an issue like abortion on the table, some people would align one way, but if you put out Billy Graham, those same people might align another way."

Nelson understands how Miller might feel isolated around evangelicals, but he says that's to be expected. "When Roman Catholics discuss a mass in my presence, I feel left out. Different doesn't have to mean divisive," he stresses, adding that Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and evangelicals come together to pray at the weekly meetings.

Miller wasn't even aware that clergy in his area were meeting, and Marxhausen hasn't been invited to attend, either. In fact, Marxhausen says, he has invited Nelson to get together with him and other clergy fourteen times, but Nelson always claims he's too busy. "I told him, 'You're a leader in this community; you need to be there.' I personally sent him letters for two to three years in the early 1990s, in hopes that we could find a way for the two Christianities to come together," says an exasperated Marxhausen.

But Marxhausen received plenty of letters after he heard evangelical preachers speak at the April 25 Columbine memorial service and publicly commented that he "felt hit over the head with Jesus." For about five weeks after that, he averaged four letters a day from evangelical churchgoers angry with his remarks. "As mainlines, we suffer and walk into the valley with grieving people instead of standing on a mountain and talking down to them," Marxhausen says. "That's the difference between mainlines and evangelicals. Those are two credible ways of doing things, and we're not going to say they're wrong, but there should be a way of talking to each other about it."

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